Neurodivergence and online learning through the pandemic: Recommendations from the Support Services perspective (Post 3 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)
This is the third in a series of three blog posts that places the spotlight on the experiences of neurodivergent students from moving University teaching online in 2020 and 2021. This post explores the role of learning support staff in supporting neurodivergent students to overcome the difficulties they experienced with engaging with universities, assessments and course materials.
Blog post series
All content originated from an event organised by Association for Learning Technology (ALT) East England. See part 1 for further details.
The role of learning support staff
The Equality Act (2010) requires higher education providers to provide support for neurodivergent students to help them to overcome any disadvantages they may otherwise experience in conventional learning environments. There is not a standard approach to support for neurodivergent students within HE (Dobson, 2019). However, many universities have responded with inclusive learning policies, reasonable adjustment recommendations, and the provision of one-to-one additional learning support (Kendall, 2016).
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly altered the way that students engage with universities and course materials (Marinoni, van’t Land and Jensen, 2020). As explored in the second post in this series, these changes have the potential to affect neurodivergent students differently to neurotypical students. As a result, learning support practitioners have had to adapt their practice and develop additional skills. The following sections explore some of the ways in which universities and learning support staff have adapted their practice to support neurodivergent students during the pandemic.
Managing home study environments
By forcing campuses to close for significant periods of time, the pandemic forced many students to consider how they could adapt their living spaces for study. Whilst some students have been able to do this without significant difficulty, many students have limited space and distractions at home that can make maintaining concentration difficult (Meeter et al., 2020). As indicated in the second post in this series, although these difficulties have affected the student population generally, neurodivergent students may be more likely than others to experience problems because of difficult study environments.
Learning support staff have supported students in developing strategies to create home environments conducive to study. Practical examples include adapting kitchen tables into desks and using laptop trays to create mobile workspaces that can be moved around the house as needed. It has often been necessary to have a dialogue with the student to determine the exact nature of their difficulties with concentration and ascertain the resources available to improve the situation.
Engaging with online learning
At our event, two students, one with Asperger’s, dyspraxia and being assessed for dyslexia and the other with ADHD and depression expressed difficulty with maintaining their motivation. Students with access to a Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) funded specialist tutor support can receive support with attention (Disability Rights UK, 2022) and those students who are not in receipt of DSA can seek academic support directly from their university if requested. Such support may involve encouraging the student to reconnect with their original motivations for enrolling on their course or developing strategies to manage procrastination. However, a delay in the clarification of DSA students being able to receive online support during the pandemic without direct authorisation from the Student Loans Company, was only clarified by the government in July 2021 (Disabled Students’ Allowance Team, 2021). Additionally, Disabled Students UK (2020) reported that potentially inadequate IT equipment can mean some disabled students may be able to fully access their online learning materials. For example, dyslexic students are often provided with screen reading software (e.g., Read & Write or ClaroRead) as part of their DSA package, which enables them to use software to read online documents. However, while they are waiting for their DSA arrangements, which can take up to fourteen weeks (AbilityNet, 2022), universities often provide access to the software on campus.
The National Association of Disability Practitioners (NADP; 2020) reports that neurodiverse students find the multi-tasking involved in online teaching challenging. Therefore, Wilson et al. (2020) advised to, for example, switch off the cameras and microphones, give warning when switching to other functions and read aloud any questions from the chat. However, Disabled Students UK (2020) state that universities did not provide support around making online sessions accessible to disabled students.
Managing deadlines and assessments
The pandemic resulted in significant changes to the ways in which many types of assessments were conducted. One of the most significant adjustments was that many timed exams were replaced with open-book assessments that could be completed at home within an extended period (Wilson et al., 2020). Support staff were often discouraged from meeting with students during exam periods. Instead, support offered for these assessments was often geared towards the preparation of accessible resources that can be referred to during the exam period and the development of strategies to make the best use of the time.
Many universities also revised their deadline extension policies to enable students to apply to submit work late (Wilson et al., 2020). Although this has been essential in ensuring that students who have been most significantly affected by the pandemic are able to complete assignments, some students experienced this as an additional administrative burden (Coughlan and Lister, 2018). Often, however, support staff can advise students of how to apply for extensions and will work with them to develop a realistic plan for completing work on time.
The pandemic has resulted in both opportunities and obstacles for the accessibility of higher education in the UK. As the country emerges from the pandemic, universities should identify which of these have resulted in more accessible education and continue to offer this provision, although being mindful of the difficulties remote learning has presented and remaining attentive to the needs of neurodivergent students. Meanwhile, support staff should be encouraged to continue to develop their repertoire of support strategies to meet the needs of the changing higher education landscape.
The three blog posts provide an overview of the student and staff experience of the pandemic from the perspective of neurodivergence. Some key conclusions and recommendations are made from this work.
- Students should make institutions aware of their neurodivergence using recognised channels
- Institutions should ensure that all relevant staff are aware of students who have declared specific needs
- Students may have complex needs based on their neurodivergence and staff need to be aware of the best ways to support them.
- Institutions need to anticipate that students may not have declared needs but manage sensible adaptations which benefit the whole student cohort.
Thank you to the students who took part in the event, the organisers, and the speakers.
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