For too long, we have been teaching and assessing with the average student in mind, without considering students with disabilities and students from less-resourced environments.
As higher education practitioners, we find ourselves catapulted into this Covid-19 online space with our diverse range of students with varying abilities. Also, part of this diversity, and lying on the continuum of abilities, are students with disabilities. The reality of these students, and the support needed, has always run parallel to the support that all students need to study successfully.
Coping in the new online environment
Understandably, there is much concern around how students and staff will cope in the online environment, given the South African reality where people have varying technological abilities and resources. Given the global experience, we will also need to grapple with our own realities. For too long we have been teaching and assessing with the average student in mind, without considering, among others, students with disabilities and students from less-resourced environments. The average student is the one viewed according to average abilities and functionalities, has average to good eyesight and hearing, a range of movement that is unaided, comes from a fairly well-resourced environment and processes information very quickly.
Forced to consider varying abilities
Students are usually assessed in specific ways during a specific period, such as two or three hours answering memorised questions. Given the current online reality, we are now forced to consider and to work with students with varying abilities who do not fit into the average mould described above. More importantly, we must think of all students and the type of teaching, learning and assessment that would work best for all students.
The use of assistive technology has always been part of the support needed for many students with disabilities, but its availability was mixed. Assistive technologies were often needed because study material was not designed to accommodate all students. For example, if all reading material were in a format that would make it easy to enlarge fonts from the start, or to make it readable for screen readers or be captioned, then there would be no need to format a text. Now we are forced to think deeper about our online material: is the material uploaded and sent to the student in an accessible format? Is the student able to engage with the material, given data and bandwidth realities? How will the student be able to respond in the online space? These questions are relevant to all students.
The Higher Education Act
Our Constitution and the Higher Education Act 101 of 1997 note the importance of addressing inequalities and diversity in education and call for flexibility and redress in transforming our society. Discrimination against people based on class, race, gender and disability is outlawed. In 2018, the Department of Higher Education and Training released a strategic framework for disability in the tertiary sector to specifically address disability inclusion as part of diversity.
Beyond the average student
As a sector, we are constantly challenged by how best to be inclusive. However, we easily fall into the default mode of teaching, learning and assessment practices for the average student. In a sense, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to relook our curriculum and its design and outcomes and to focus on what needs to be learned and the various ways in which to do this. We are again reminded that our students have diverse home contexts with “no-to-low-to-high tech” availability to give their feedback and engage with reading material.
Large portions of our disabled student population are already reliant on assistive technologies to access teaching, learning and assessment material. Going forward, it will be worthwhile to consider Universal Design (UD) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL), as well as blended learning and massive open online courses (moocs), as ways to engage a diverse group of students.
Being truly inclusive means we acknowledge that we cannot treat all students in the same way when there is so much diversity. Presenting material in various ways, such as a text of your talk and a recording of your presentation, already caters to many students as some might be stronger in reading and others better at listening. This benefits students with specific disabilities too, such as those with reading or writing disorders. Providing students with alternative ways to present their knowledge also allows for a student’s particular strengths to emerge, as one might prefer to send an audio/voice note as a response, while another might send a text or Word document.
Education policymakers have acknowledged the need for flexible curricula given our diverse student populations and the need for equity redress. Improving technologies in education has also been encouraged. More needs to be done regarding assistive technologies and designing accessible courses from the start for our students who have varying abilities and resources.
Author: Dr Marcia Lyner-Cleophas is an educational psychologist and heads the Disability Unit in the Centre for Student Counselling and Development at Stellenbosch University.