December 16, 2021

How online learning can support a more inclusive approach to higher education

The challenges presented by the pandemic have prompted a sector-wide re-think of higher-education provision in a radically changed world. It’s also sparked fresh discussions on how universities and other institutions can use what they’ve learned over the past eighteen months to deliver more assertively on access and participation and to accelerate recovery.


The lockdown-driven shift to online educational provision created a massive disruption to learning programmes for all age groups and demographics, taking lessons off campus and – initially, at least – leaving students more vulnerable and less likely to receive the support they needed.


An OECD study examining the impact of COVID-19 on student equity and inclusion found that, globally, those from low-income families, from immigrant and ethnic minority backgrounds or with special education needs, among others, faced additional barriers as a result of being deprived of physical learning opportunities, as well as in-person social and emotional support.


Many experts were concerned that, after years of work, their diversity equity and inclusion (DE&I) programmes would falter. However, the forced move to online provision not only offered students and educators a temporary lockdown lifeline but also gave fresh credence to an alternative approach to learning in a digital-first world, one that could meet the needs of diverse groups worldwide.


Fresh opportunities to prioritise DE&I

We already know that higher education can be a powerful way to create a more diverse workforce. But we also know that existing programmes can be inaccessible for those who may already face barriers – social, physical, geographical, and economic – that are exacerbated by traditional in-person learning provision.


How can online learning resources be designed to attract and support a more diverse student population that will, in turn, lead to greater diversity in the workplace?


Online learning can offer greater flexibility over how and where students learn, helping them to juggle studies with careers, caring responsibilities, and other personal commitments. Short ‘taster’ courses allow those without relevant background to explore subjects before committing to a full-time degree – and may even accrue credits towards further qualifications. Importantly, online degrees can cost less than on-campus programmes, providing additional flexibility for those who most need it.


Setting priorities for an inclusive learning framework

When considering the framework around online learning programmes, as well as the course content itself, it’s important to consider accessibility for learners with varied abilities or who may come from a different cultural context. Some useful questions for consideration:

  • Does the programme have a clear and concise syllabus and does its format and pace accommodate students with diverse needs?
  • Are varied and robust feedback and assessment options available for students upon completion of assignments or discussions?
  • Does the course employ a variety of content delivery methods – video (with multiple language options, closed captioning or audio descriptions), photos, readings, and discussion groups, for example?
  • Are online resources logically arranged and easily accessible from the learning platform?
  • What early interventions are available, should students find themselves falling behind or dropping out?


Creating safer spaces for interaction – virtually

Although campus-based courses attract students looking for a rounded university experience, others may find it daunting – especially those who feel marginalised, underrepresented, or overwhelmed in large groups and unfamiliar settings.


Research by the University of Cambridge, for example, showed that women are two-and-a-half times less likely than their male counterparts to ask questions in seminars. It’s easy to see how similar biases could restrict responses from people with different cultural or ethnic backgrounds, divergent thinkers, and those with disabilities.


In fact, for students with disabilities, inclusion can be even more challenging. Studies have shown that these students are less likely to participate in on-campus clubs and activities and are more likely to drop out of university.


Moving away from the campus-only model and making resources and tuition support available in different ways offers a curated space for diverse learners to freely and safely communicate and collaborate. By default, this highly flexible and inclusive approach also makes it easier for international students to enrol in UK universities – a correction that’s desperately needed following the fluctuation in international applicants as a result of Covid-19 and changes to tuition fees for EU students following Brexit.


Planning for inclusion

One of the key benefits of the remote learning model is the ability to pace and personalise learning to suit the individual students’ needs, tailored to their strengths:

  • Asynchronous learning— Enabling flexible access to learning resources, where possible, makes it easier for some students to successfully schedule their studies around health, work, or family commitments. The self-guided approach must be underpinned with a robust framework of support but is likely to benefit the most diverse range of students.
  • The technology gap— While many young students are digital natives, others continue to experience physical, developmental, or financial barriers to accessing the technology that is often essential for completing many programmes of study. The access gap is usually far narrower for mobile users, which makes mobile devices important for promoting diversity and accessibility in remote classrooms.
  • Accessibility options— Alternative options should always be considered for students with accessibility issues. Transcripts and closed captioning are invaluable for hearing-impaired students, while slideshows that feature carefully considered text and colour combinations make lessons easier for students with dyslexia. Videos that allow students to pause and review are more accessible than livestreams.


The move to online learning doesn’t mean that students should lose their real-life connection with their university. It’s still important for educators to form meaningful relationships with students from the start of their educational journey – more so, if anything, than when students attend campus-based courses. By helping students feel included and valued – like they genuinely belong – from the outset, course leaders will build a sense of community that transcends physical space.


Recognising and using resources that represent the voices and experiences of those from different heritages and backgrounds and experiences will broaden a group’s outlook, at the same time making more people feel more comfortable and more included. Collaborative learning activities are key: establishing online discussion groups that encourage people to explore themes, challenge ideas and spark constructive dialogue within a structured model enables students to take on new roles and interact with their peers in a safe and supportive way.


It can be a difficult path to navigate; EdTech offers a platform for universities to engage with their students in more personalised ways while retaining the high level of interaction necessary to support individuals from all walks of life.


Targeting DE&I across the HE sector

Universities in the UK have already been assigned a role in the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, via the development of access and participation plans (APP) created in collaboration with communities and employers to diversify graduate intakes and create programmes that deliver the skills they need.


This provision needs to be fortified in the wake of Covid-19. In its 2021 annual review, the Office for Students (OfS) stated that the pandemic has resulted in disadvantaged students falling ‘further behind’; the independent regulator for higher education in England has recently appointed a new Director for Fair Access and Participation to ‘think innovatively’ about accelerating social mobility.


Against this backdrop, education providers now have an opportunity to create a new framework that will make education more accessible and more inclusive, at the same time improving learning outcomes for all by creating dynamic career pathways for students from more diverse backgrounds.



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