Digital teaching – Has it been inclusive in the time of coronavirus? Have universities been failing disabled students for too long, or have they finally begun to ramp up their accessibility efforts?

In this blog, we’re going to explore how universities can transition to long-term digital teaching as smoothly as possible, all the while guaranteeing inclusivity and accessibility for all.

Few sectors have had to respond so rapidly to the global COVID-19 pandemic as the education sector – In particular, universities and higher education institutions. But, as University of Cambridge made clear this week by cancelling face-to-face lectures until the summer of 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic is a situation that is very much still ongoing.

After many universities scrambled in the first few weeks of lockdown to transition to online-only teaching and services, they will now have to plan long-term for a future of digital teaching and learning.

Despite the fact that these institutions pride themselves on being centres of innovation, most universities haven’t adapted their teaching styles since their very foundation. After all, why would they have? Up until this point, universities (and their students) seem to have got along just fine by piling into traditional lecture halls and holding the occasional, discussion-based seminar. Haven’t they?

Ariel photo of a lecture hall with students in

The truth about accessibility at universities

Except, that isn’t exactly true. In fact, many disabled students have long felt let down by universities’ accessibility offerings. For example, although the number of disabled students entering higher education has been steadily increasing, with 13% of students now in higher education facing one or more disabilities, this number is still below the proportion of working-age adults with a disability. What’s more, when Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) were cut a few years back in order to provide more money to universities to invest in accessibility, many disabled students didn’t feel that this translated into an improved experience.

And although lots of universities began to record and upload lectures in recent years, it is reportedly a sporadic offering. In fact, it is often seen more as a favour to unwell or hungover students who can’t make it to their 9ams rather than a sustained commitment to accessibility.

And now, universities and disabled students have come up against another (pandemic-sized) challenge. Gone are the lecture halls, enter the Zoom calls – meaning universities have to shift to digital methods of teaching and learning, all the while guaranteeing accessibility. In fact, under the UK Equality Act 2010, all universities and higher education institutions have a duty to make reasonable adjustments so that students with disabilities can fully access their services.

What is interesting is that universities now have a unique opportunity. They finally have the chance to put accessibility at the very heart of this new style of education. So, how are they doing so far? And what do they need to do to ensure inclusivity and accessibility for all students?

Students throwing their mortar boards in the air

Digital teaching in the time of coronavirus

According to a recent Guardian article, disabled students have had a mixed experience so far when it comes to the shift to digital teaching. 

One Oxford student, who is visually-impaired, has found that their remote lectures have hugely improved their own learning and participation – and wondered with frustration as to why this wasn’t happening before.

However, many students with disabilities have voiced their struggle. It could be to do with the disruption to normal teaching, feeling more excluded than ever or lacking support – both pastorally and in terms of accessibility.

Inclusivity – The practical bit

So, from lectures to learning material to class video conferencing, what practical services should universities be adopting?

  • Live Captions: Remote, professional live captions service can be integrated with virtually all the platforms used for teaching, such as Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams. Live captioners can accurately produce captions in real-time from a remote location. This is essential for increasing participation from those who are deaf and hard of hearing, aren’t native English speakers or have difficulties following fast-paced verbal communication. It’s also a great way to emphasise key teaching points and boost comprehension in general.
  • Closed Captions: For pre-recorded video content, such as non-live lectures or presentations, Closed Captions services can deliver the same accessibility benefits – plus they can be turned on and off as needed. It is also a brilliant way for students to be able to rewatch things without noise or volume being an issue – whether they live in a busy household or have to nurse a sleeping baby.
  • Transcription: Providing a full transcription of lectures, seminars and meetings means that students can recap and refer to key points afterwards at their own pace. This is beneficial not only for deaf and hard of hearing students, but for anyone who finds it tricky to keep up with fast-paced dialogue. What’s more, it can be crucial for those students who cannot participate in real-time, due to illness or other duties, such as caring for a dependent or family member.
  • Audio Description: When you share video or presentation content, it can be difficult for those who are blind and visually impaired to fully participate in a discussion. Audio Description services take the visual details and makes them accessible, and can be integrated into digital teaching in a range of ways.
Woman engaging in digital teaching in empty room

Article written by Sofia Lewis, VoiceBox contributor

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Sofia Ellen Lewis
Sofia Ellen Lewis

Since graduating from University of Bristol in 2018 with a First in Italian and Spanish BA, Sofia has gone on to become a skilled translator, content writer and digital marketer. Sofia has a passion for storytelling and has also recently dipped her toe into journalism. A self-proclaimed language nerd, she is always looking for suggestions on which language to learn next.