Blog post

Another type of borderlessness: Online learning gives access to students with disabilities

Today, online learning is essential for higher education institutions to thrive. Yasuhiro Kotera, Academic Lead in Psychotherapy at the University of Derby Online Learning, looks at how it can improve outcomes for students with disabilities.

By Yasuhiro Kotera - 30 April 2019

Online learning has become a primary focus in higher education, attracting an increasing number of students. Previously, the majority of literature about online learning focused on its economic advantages, such as less need for transportation or facilities. In our new study, we focused on the inclusivity of online learning, which makes it an appealing route into higher education for students with disabilities.

At the University of Derby Online Learning, for example, the rate of students with disabilities is three times higher than both the national and University rates – at 40% compared to around 12-13%.

Having a degree makes significant financial and psychological differences in the lives of students with disabilities, and as such can be more meaningful to them than to students without. Among students with disabilities, degree holders make 50% more lifetime income, and feel more secure about their job than non-degree holders.

Online learning and inclusivity

The inclusive nature of online learning is well known, but an appraisal of the first-hand experiences of students with disabilities was a missing perspective. In our study, we analysed interview data from 10 students across a range of disciplines with various types of disabilities, such as ADHD, dyslexia, social anxiety and Irlen syndrome, to explore why they decided to study online with us, and how they felt about their online learning experience.

Three key themes emerged: 1) having control over their studies was an advantage of online learning for students with disabilities, 2) the personal touch helps within online learning, and 3) they experienced certain challenges with the social element of online learning.

Having control over their studies

Students with disabilities reported that having control over their studies was a notable advantage of online learning. They can organise their study time around their professional and family commitments, due to the flexibility and self-paced nature of online learning. There are no geographical restrictions with the internet, and they can study whenever they want, at any pace they want, and on various devices.

Of particular importance to students with disabilities was the ability to study while managing other duties in their lives. Because they need to deal every day with difficulties associated with their disabilities – which are often out of their control – having a sense of control over their studies may be especially important for their wellness. The accessibility and flexibility of online learning allows them to study while managing their symptoms and other life commitments. They also reported more willingness to learn new technologies to help them gain a sense of control.

The personal touch

Students with disabilities noted that a sense of a personal touch would help manage their emotions in learning, including anxiety, frustration and motivation, which can be a considerable barrier to their academic success. Watching a video made by their tutor, for example, can make them feel more of the tutor presence, which can in turn play an important role in their learning experience.

Key emotions or emotive words reported were anxiety, depression, anger, frustration, stress, insecurity, isolation, psychological distance and lack of motivation. In order to manage these emotions, authentic materials – materials created by their tutor, such as videos and audios – and multimodal contents – not just texts but also audios, videos and live sessions – were suggested by students with disabilities.

Challenges with the social element of online learning

While the students we interviewed were satisfied overall with their online learning experience, they did identify some areas for improvement. These can be summarised as difficulty with interactions with others, including collaboration and informal conversations, which can be easier in a face-to-face setting.

One key advantage of online learning for students with disabilities was less social pressure. Being able to access the learning materials remotely and not needing to be at a certain location enables them to avoid the social pressure that could be present in a face-to-face setting.

Socialisation needs to be fostered more to support their learning experience. We are currently exploring students with disabilities’ socialisation and loneliness in online learning.

What’s next?

Greater inclusion has been receiving increased attention as a goal for online learning. This study provides unique contributions for educators, educational researchers, and for the students themselves.

During our research, we were fascinated by how many students with disabilities were willing to participate in this study. Due to the generalisability – matching our sample demography with the general demography of this population – we needed to carefully select samples, but we have received a lot of positive feedback and thank-you emails from students with disabilities for our research.

This can also have great implications for social mobility, which is one of the challenges in the UK today. About half of people in the UK feel that it is hard to move to a different socioeconomic level from their parents. The University of Derby has already been active in addressing this challenge, through initiatives like the Partners for Progress project, and online learning is a crucial component in this too, as implied by our participants.

We hope that our findings will help inform the needs of students with disabilities online and develop strategies to meet those needs. Our research contributes towards the development of inclusive practice in online learning, progressing towards another kind of ‘borderlessness’ in education, by understanding the experiences of students with disabilities.

Our full paper is published in Distance Education, one of the leading journals in this area. It can also be found on UDORA.

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About the author

Yasu Kotera smiling, sitting at a table in front of tea cups and a jug of water.

Yasuhiro Kotera
Former Academic Lead in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Psychology

Dr Kotera's teaching primarily focused on mental health and research modules including supervision at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.