Neurodivergence and online learning through the pandemic: What is neurodiversity? (Post 1 of 3)
Authors: Neil Dixon (Learning Technologist, Anglia Ruskin University), Jennie Dettmer (Acting Senior PAD Tutor, University of Bedfordshire), Rob Howe (Head of Learning Technology, University of Northampton), Ben Turpin (Disability and Dyslexia Adviser, Anglia Ruskin University), Uwe Matthias Richter (Associate Professor, Anglia Ruskin University)
The sudden move to online learning during 2020 and 2021 had a profound and personal impact on neurodivergent students. This is the first in a series of three blog posts aiming to highlight the experience of neurodivergent students during this period, and how support in Higher Education could be improved. All content originates from an event organised by Association for Learning Technology (ALT) East England. In this post we explain details of the event, give a brief definition of neurodiversity, and describe how students at the event experienced interacting with others online.
Blog post series
Part 1 – What is neurodiversity?
Part 2 – Neurodivergent students studying in the home environment
Part 3 – Recommendations from the Support Services perspective
About the event
On 10 June 2021 ALT East England ran an event called ‘Exploring the experience of online learning and teaching for neurodivergent students’. The event started with a 30-minute discussion (facilitated by Rob Howe) with five neurodivergent students from different universities. Following this, Ben Turpin and Sandra Cross (both representing Support Services at Anglia Ruskin University) gave a 15-minute presentation about support staff advising neurodivergent students on overcoming the difficulties they experienced with engaging with universities, assessments and course materials.
While the discussions with students focused on their general experience during the pandemic, we wanted to know how their (specific) neurodivergence impacted or changed their learning during this period. The five students had multiple conditions, all with unique combinations. Three students identified as ADHD, one combined with anxiety and predisposition to depression, another with Asperger’s and a third with dyslexia. From the two students with Asperger’s, one identified with Asperger’s, dyspraxia and being assessed for dyslexia. A further student had dyslexia, panic disorder and anxiety.
What is neurodiversity?
The term neurodiversity was originally attributed to refer to autism and was coined in the late 1990s by Judy Singer (Singer, 1999). Singer believed that autism should be viewed more positively within the ethos of the social model of disability, where many of the barriers for autistic people are caused by society itself (Hughes, 2016). The term neurodiversity focuses on the differences in neurocognitive functioning where neurodivergent individuals have variations from neurotypical individuals (Hughes, 2016). Neurodivergence is now used more frequently to refer to a range of conditions including Autistic Spectrum Disorder (including Asperger’s), dyspraxia, dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyscalculia and Tourette syndrome (Resnick, 2021). These differences should be accepted and celebrated.
There is an increasing number of neurodivergent students entering higher education in the UK (Clouder et al., 2020). Under the 2010 Equalities Act, neurodivergent students should expect equal access to their learning (Gedye, 2020). Additionally, in support of the neurodiversity movement, neurodivergent individuals should be included in how best to be supported at higher education institutions, as they are the experts in their own conditions (Lewin & Akhtar, 2021).
A particular neurodivergence often shares features of others as depicted in the diagram below and neurodivergent people are placed on a spectrum. Therefore, the profile of an individual is unique to this person.
Student experience of interacting with others online
Responsiveness of tutors
Students often found that tutors were more responsive to questions and queries online. Especially the use of synchronous environments such as MS Teams made it easier to contact tutors in real-time and talk to them. The additional means to communicate and reach tutors beyond email was highlighted as a benefit of moving to online learning.
Working with peers online
For some students, the move to learning online changed the way they were engaging with peers. The student with Asperger’s found it easier to engage with small groups of students in virtual breakout rooms while often working in isolation in large face-to-face lectures and group work. It was the first time in their studies that this student was able to interact with other students. To enable this interaction, it was important for this student that participants in a breakout room switch on their cameras to put a face to a name. This enabled them to connect and get to know each other. However, the debate about switching cameras on and off is contentious (Bali & Caines, 2020; Bali, 2021; Caines, 2020; Cheetham & Thomson, 2020; Shering, 2020). One student with dyslexia and ADHD noted that the sharing of cameras should still be optional. However, it was also acknowledged that it was essential for those who relied on lip-reading. The use of cameras tended to be more successful where students were already comfortable working together.
Students did appreciate that the choice of cameras may also be down to personal situations. In some cases, students may not be comfortable sharing their home environment. In other cases, there may be a technical reason (such as poor WiFi) that prevents the camera from being on. One student with Asperger’s, dyspraxia and being assessed for dyslexia, noted that it was very distracting if video feeds were not stable – and this impacted the value of the whole session.
However, the online environment required students to adopt and sometimes develop new learning and coping strategies for processing and retaining information through online learning and interaction. One student with Asperger’s and ADHD, for example, found their retention of information was different when learning online, and found it more difficult to explain and feedback what they knew.
This post described the ALT East England event, defined neurodiversity, and discussed how students experienced interacting with others online during the pandemic. In conclusion, neurodivergence is highly complex and individual. Many different challenges were reported when communicating with peers and tutors, including preferences for using cameras and perspectives on group working. The second blog post expands on these experiences by discussing both assessment adjustments and working in the home environment.
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