Study on inclusion of students with disabilities at the UOC presented at ECER 2021

The initial results of the study on the inclusion of students with disabilities at the UOC were presented through two interlinked contributions at the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER 2021), which took place between 6 and 9 September 2021.

The study is part of José Israel Reyes’ doctoral thesis project, supervised by Dr Julio Meneses: “The inclusion of students with disabilities in online higher education: a qualitative analysis of the influence of socialization, the learning environment and students’ personal context on their academic success”. The project analyses how students, as the main parties involved, perceive the influence of their interpersonal relationships inside and outside the University, and the academic support they receive when adapting to the UOC’s educational model and in their learning. The research also analyses the views of the academic staff. It explores the main measures they take to meet the needs of students with disabilities, in order to offer improvements to the support that these students receive at the UOC from a broader perspective.

Working with Sílvia Mata, from the UOC’s Help Services, we interviewed 24 students with various physical, sensory, mental and learning disabilities, with six students in each category. The fieldwork involved interviewing students enrolled in bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes at different UOC faculties during the 2020/2021 academic year. We also used their level of academic experience to divide them into three groups: first- and second-year students, students who had passed at least half their credits, and students taking their final courses.

Why do students with disabilities decide to study online? And why do they decide to do so at the UOC?

In the first paper presented at ECER 2021, we analysed these students’ expectations in relation to their decision to study online, and at our university in particular, as well as the reasons that led them to choose their programmes. Our results show that the majority of students with disabilities decide to study online because this format means they can combine other responsibilities with their studies, but above all, because it enables them to deal with the physical and psychological effects that their situation involves. Studying online obviously means they do not have to cope with the physical and social barriers commonly encountered at traditional universities. It also means that in most cases they do not have to disclose their situation, which significantly reduces the levels of stigma and discrimination they often perceive.

As for the choice of the UOC, these students were attracted by its model, and especially by educational and academic aspects, such as continuous assessment, the learning methods and the use of technology as an innovative element, in particular. Another important factor was the limited restrictions on the number of credits they had to enrol in per semester, given that, in most cases, these students study at a slower pace than their peers due to the difficulties arising from their disabilities. Finally, with regard to the reasons for choosing the programmes they enrolled in, these students’ decisions were motivated by their own personal or professional interests, and as such neither their disabilities nor the opinion of third parties played a significant role.

According to the students, the type and severity of their disability influenced their decision to study online or at a traditional university. For example, studying online is a good alternative for students with a physical or sensory disability, because it means they do not have to travel, and it allows them to deal with their mobility problems without any significant effects on their studies. Likewise, students with mental health problems, and especially those with emotional dysregulation disorders, prefer to study online to avoid the social barriers that come with attending classes in person. For students with learning difficulties and ADHD, studying online poses some challenges with reading and written expression due to the effects of both dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, although most of them are aware that they benefit a great deal from the asynchronous format, as it allows them to work at their own pace.

Many students who are more severely affected by their disabilities believe that their only option for continuing with their university studies is to do so online. Some of them also consider that online learning makes it easier to avoid negative thoughts related to their physical or mental condition. Meanwhile, students suffering from mild effects attribute their decision to study online above all to the need to combine their studies with their personal and work responsibilities.

What effects did the COVID-19 lockdown have on the academic performance of students with disabilities studying at the UOC?

The second paper looked at the experiences of students with disabilities during lockdown, with a particular focus on its impact on their academic performance during that specific time. The results show a positive balance in terms of the time available to study, the flexibility provided by the University and the increase in both the academic support provided by their teachers and in their collaboration with their peers.

However, our research showed a significant difference in the experience of students with learning difficulties during lockdown. For these students, the lockdown period led to a number of difficulties that negatively affected their academic performance, especially due to the impact on their executive functions and cognitive abilities arising from the changes to their study environments and routines. Students with learning difficulties and ADHD had to overcome problems including lack of concentration, a decline in organisational skills, anxiety, stress and frustration, and some of them even noticed a reduction in their attention span and memory.

As a result, most of the students affected by these problems used coping techniques aimed at overcoming the obstacles they faced during the lockdown. The techniques applied included establishing new routines and using computer applications to maintain their concentration during their academic activities. According to the students, the measures adopted by teaching staff members and tutors in terms of making deadlines more flexible and reducing the workload of courses were also crucial for successfully overcoming the problems.

What lessons can we learn from the results of this study?

This research puts into perspective different points of interest that require further work in order to improve care and support for students with disabilities in online higher education. First, our results lead us to conclude that in both educational and psycho-emotional terms, support is fundamental for enabling students with any kind of disability to achieve better academic results. Second, further study of the opportunities offered by flexibility in online education in terms of time, learning methods and assessment and pace of work would be useful. Furthermore, although significant efforts have been made to improve accessibility, this line of work must be continued to ensure that all students can access both learning resources and administrative procedures more easily.

Online universities must take the expectations and aspirations of students with disabilities into account when designing their curriculum and student care policies. This means reviewing key elements such as accessibility, collaboration, support and the encouragement of communication among the entire university community so that all processes are designed to facilitate access, participation and success for all students.

Finally, we would like to express our gratitude to all those involved in this project for their participation and collaboration, and especially to the students who agreed to share their experiences in the interviews. Without finding out about their personal experiences and expectations in relation to online education, it would be hard to understand the challenges we face in making the UOC a truly inclusive institution that ensures the success of all students, regardless of their personal situation.

## Further reading

This article was originally published on eLearn Center’s Blog on October 20, 2021. Also available in Spanish and in Catalan.
José Israel Reyes
José Israel Reyes
Investigador doctoral

Investigador predoctoral del programa d’Educació i TIC de la UOC.

Julio Meneses
Julio Meneses
Professor agregat

Professor de metodologia de la investigació, director de Learning Analytics de l’eLearn Center i investigador de l’Internet Interdisciplinary Institute de la Universitat Oberta de Catalunya.