Skip to content
 

Blog post

Online learning in a pandemic era: Visually impaired students’ perspectives on accessibility

Samuel Amponsah, Senior lecturer , University of Ghana

The Covid-19 pandemic presented an opportunity to accelerate the integration of digital technologies for teaching and learning as a means of expanding access to education. Through technology integration, over 1.6 billion students whose schools were closed during the global lockdown in 2020 were able to return to school (Lennox et al., 2021). However, accessibility is multidimensional and higher education institutions (HEIs) fulfil this only if they provide physical, intellectual and social access to their students (Goodley, 2013; Shaheen, 2022).

Shaheen (2022) construes access in technology-mediated environments as the provision of policies and the adoption of flexible pedagogical approaches. The sustenance of teaching and learning amid the pandemic shows HEIs provided some level of access to students. However, apart from a study by Amponsah (2021) on the experiences of visually impaired online learners (VIOLs) in Ghana, the literature has been silent on this cohort of students. Most related studies have delved into their experiences of learning in regular school settings. This blog presents preliminary findings on VIOLs from a Ghanaian and Egyptian HEI.

VIOLs’ perspectives on accessibility in online learning

The ongoing netnographic study used Zoom and WhatsApp as social media tools to conduct in-depth interviews with seven VIOLs from Ghana and five from Egypt (n=12). Preliminary findings from field data indicate that the HEIs have prioritised physical accessibility by stocking their ICT centres with adequate technological gadgets and assistive devices for the VIOLs. While those from Egypt could borrow some of the gadgets for a period, those from Ghana did not enjoy the same privilege. This could have compelling ramifications for the Ghanaian VIOLs during the lockdown as the digital divide in the country was further exposed.

The findings further revealed that the institutions took some steps to accommodate VIOLs into their existing teaching and learning policies when they were transitioning online. However, many of the VIOLs denied any knowledge of online policies, while others tagged the policies as transitional and not tailored for online learning. Moreover, the VIOLs from both institutions described the decision to shift learning online as lopsided because their institutions neither engaged nor informed them. Some of the participants, however, agreed that the exigencies created by the pandemic left no room for their institutions to inform them of the decision, while a few felt the pandemic was a global issue so they had to comply with the online shift.

‘The VIOLs from both higher education institutions described the decision to shift learning online as lopsided because their institutions neither engaged nor informed them.’

Lastly, students from both institutions shared that some of their lecturers were flexible in their teaching and used discussions and detailed explanations of videos or graphics to aid learning. However, the students also experienced some lecturers who used purely didactic approaches throughout their sessions which denied the VIOLs meaningful learning. Additionally, the VIOLs complained that while some lecturers refused to share recorded lecture sessions with them, others also denied them the right to record. The findings further revealed that some lecturers shared materials that were incompatible with the VIOLs’ digital gadgets. In this case, they had provided access to content but denied the students usability. Moreover, all the VIOLs expressed dislike for online collaborative activities. They attributed this to the negative attitude of some sighted peers towards them during such activities.

Overall, the VIOLs expressed appreciation for being able to continue with their learning during the lockdown. They were grateful for the support they obtained from individuals and their institutions, but they could not wait to return to face-to-face teaching and learning due to the accessibility challenges they were confronted with.

Looking into the future

Evidence from the preliminary findings shows that in as much as the studied institutions had prioritised physical accessibility, there is a need to improve on social and intellectual accessibility. There is a dire need to shift from transitional policies, which are characterised by making additions on how to accommodate special needs students in existing policies for conventional environments, to agile, futuristic ones tailored for online teaching and learning. In conclusion, lecturers need continuous professional development to keep them up to date with pedagogical approaches that adequately accommodate all students.

References

Amponsah, S. (2021). Echoing the voices of SWVIs under Covid-19 inspired online learning. Education and Information Technologies, 26(6), 6607–6627. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10639-021-10479-2

Goodley, D., Lawthom, R., Liddiard, K., & Runswick-Cole, K. (2019). Provocations for critical disability studies. Disability & Society, 34(6), 972–997. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2019.1566889  

Lennox, J., Reuge, N., & Benavides, F. (2021). UNICEF’s lessons learned from the education response to the COVID-19 crisis and reflections on the implications for education policy. International Journal of Educational Development, 85.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijedudev.2021.102429

Shaheen, N. L. (2022). Accessibility4Equity: Cripping technology-mediated compulsory education through sociotechnical praxis. British Journal of Educational Technology, 53(1), 77–92. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.13153

Acknowledgement

This blog emerged out of an ongoing study facilitated by the BECHS-AFRICA fellowship at the American University in Cairo, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.