What COVID revealed about online accessibility

We often think about the ‘online’ environment as inherently accessible; it connects us over great distances, wide audiences, and through diverse languages. However, its ability to combat the ‘tyranny of distance’ and seeming ubiquity of modern society often blinds us to real barriers .

These barriers were illuminated in the rapid shift to remote learning in 2020 which necessitated vast upskilling in digital technologies by students and educators who are still learning how to optimise them for learning.

woman with computer slouched on sofa

Universities have been built with the necessary tools for equitable learning including internet, computers, dedicated study spaces, printed resources including books, braille, and learning cues that are audible, visible, and tangible.  However, the shift from the traditional face-to-face classroom to emergency remote learning in the virtual classroom highlighted challenges and opportunities to delivering and maintaining equitable learning.

We quickly learned some of the common barriers we needed to support students with when learning remotely included:

  • Limited alternative access options
  • Limited access to personal computers or ones with the required specifications
  • Limited access to reliable internet
  • Lack of lecture/video recordings with Closed Captions or Transcription
  • Lack of body language and participatory discussion
  • Lack of interactivity and demonstration with observation and feedback
  • Lack of focus in abundant learning material
  • Differing levels of digital literacy

This period has taught us that what works well in the face-to-face environment works very differently in online spaces, and with the increase in Online and Blended study options remote learning is here to stay. Students require and desire the flexibility, diversified learning, ease of access, and levels of engagement they have experienced on campus. Going forward we need to move away from seeking to simulate face-to-face delivery with programs like Zoom,  and continue to adapt how we engage students in the online space. By utilising the wide range of tools and frameworks available, we can maximise the potential for the kind of learning students want and need. Critically, we need to understand these tools and how learners experience them so we can best provide equitable support and access.

The Nossal Institute for Global Health Education and Learning team identified areas for improvement in the accessibility and equity of the online learning environment and are working to address these barriers in the subjects they co-ordinate.

More Information

Andi Halfpapp