How Learning from Home Research Highlights the Need for Flexibility and Choice

Richard Healy and Dara Ryder – AHEAD: Association for Higher Education Access and Disability

This contribution will present some key findings from AHEAD’s Learning from Home 2021 research report which explores the pandemic learning experiences of more than 700 further and higher education students with disabilities.
The report is a follow-up to a similar 2020 report, with a one-year-on look at how experiences had changed. The findings highlight the huge diversity of both positive and negative experiences of pandemic learning and explore student’s priorities for inclusion for post-Covid.

Through the collection of qualitative and quantitative data, AHEAD looked at how students coped with learning from home, and examined their experiences of engaging with learning remotely. In particular it looked at their engagement with teaching and support staff, how they navigated the digital learning landscape, and their perceptions of the accessibility of the learning from home experience. Also explored were their preferences of learning modes and their priorities for the future. Ultimately, the research gives voice to the immensely diverse community of students with disabilities and gives us opportunity to consider it as we plan for the future.

The findings echo a fundamental truth which is borne out by the neuroscience and learning sciences underpinning the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework – “Learning is as unique to individuals as their fingerprints or DNA”, (Hall et al., 2012). More than ever, we need to take the learning from this research and other Covid-19 learning research across the sector which highlights this diversity of experiences and desires, and channel it to build a better system with more accessibility, flexibility and choice built into its design. In this way, we can ask students to bend a little less to fit the system, and start ensuring the system can bend a little more to fit our students instead.

From a teaching and learning perspective in particular, the Learning from Home findings highlight the importance of providing recorded and captioned lectures as key measure for inclusion, and the vital importance of offering a choice of assessment pathways for learners to fairly demonstrate their ability. Importantly, the qualitative data highlights the immense potential positive impact on health and wellbeing that these measures would promote for certain students with disabilities.