COVID-19 has compelled a rapid shift from the traditional face-to-face classroom to technologically advanced and evolving online learning. Faculty, staff and students all face a steep learning curve as they develop virtual classrooms, practise novel technologies, and assign, evaluate and submit online homework.
While this transition might have seen many students and instructors collaborate for better learning, there is still an excluded section ie students with disabilities.
“My friends make fun of me because I write slowly,” said Iqbal, a computer science student at a university in Lahore with special learning needs. There are many others like him whose special needs are seen as a ‘punishment from God’.
While for some students with disabilities, a digital classroom can reduce movement, transport and access to barriers often found in the physical world, for others, the online learning experience presents new challenges that can only be countered through cooperation between the student, instructor and university.
An inclusive learning environment is an essential milestone towards implementing the SDGs, which emphasise reducing inequality through social, economic and political inclusion of all. In the context of students with disabilities, here are some ways in which we can emulate universities across the US helping their students though a difficult period. The recommendations work for all but are especially needed for those with special needs.
E-learning is especially tough for those with disabilities.
Every higher education institute in Pakistan should ensure there is a focal person to help students who encounter barriers related to their disability during an online course. This would help prevent or lessen depression, anxiety and panic during online classes.
Some studies say that online learning tends to reduce the attention span of students. Students with disabilities find it even more challenging to stay focused. Based on individual needs, one could work for a planned length of time and take short breaks, perhaps setting a timer for the purpose.
It is common to find students struggling with organisation. Students with disabilities sometimes lack the skills to organise their work, manage workspaces and may have difficulty in following a robust schedule. Such students may take help from planners so that they can keep up with assignment deadlines. Their schedules should include daily time for class preparation, homework and studying.
For all students, staring at the computer screen can result in fatigue, blurred vision, headache and muscle strain. This is often compounded in students with disabilities. These ills can be avoided if students take regular breaks allowing their body, mind and eyes to decompress. Software converting text to speech can transform a document into an audio lesson, eliminating the need for students to read every word. Also, several computer applications are available that adjust the colour temperature of the screen to help reduce eye strain. Students with disabilities should communicate their concerns to their instructors well before starting the course and contact their institute’s IT centres to see if they can obtain the required software for more comfortable online learning.
For those students who find it hard to spell or write correctly, programmes such as Microsoft Word and Grammarly can be used. There are plenty of other advanced writing programmes that auto-check spellings and grammar and have other writing tools. One can also use voice-to-text software. Universities in Pakistan should ensure that all students have access to such software.
If ‘note taking’ is a problem and previously students with special needs have been relying on assistance of some sort, they now can record their online lectures or take the recording from their instructors. Additionally, one should still be able to request copies of PowerPoint presentations from professors to supplement note taking.
On the other hand, universities in Pakistan should develop SOPs for their faculty, and conduct training and workshops on facilitating students with special needs. Course instructors should be encouraged to communicate frequently with students with special needs, and take their feedback. Students must know at the start of any online course how often the instructor will be sending information to them and teachers’ average response time when contacted by a student.
Students with special learning needs usually have different interaction levels with technology compared to their classmates. Therefore, there is a need to develop special courses for them, enabling them to learn about virtual classrooms, distance learning and the latest technologies. In Pakistan, faculty, staff, university administration and society must understand that disability is not a problem but rather a circumstance. We must assist our vulnerable citizens, struggling with their specific needs, to enter the mainstream.
The writer is a Fulbright PhD candidate at Texas A&M University.
Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2020