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Climate advisory - Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success

June 3, 2021
#CA-2021-03

by Virginia Palencia, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success

VIRTUAL LEARNING AND DIGITAL ACCESSIBILITY

This advisory is based on data collected in May 2021, from a representative sample of VCU students who previously requested ADA accommodations from SAEO, responding to a survey regarding accessibility and remote instruction: a total of 146 students responded. Since Spring 2020, the majority of respondents have attended either virtual synchronous (43.27%) or virtual asynchronous (34.62%) classes.

46% of respondents identified as female; 18.92% identified as male, 8.11% genderqueer/gender non-conforming, 8.11% gender nonbinary, with the remainder (5.4%) identifying as other categories. The majority of respondents were White (61.39%), followed by Hispanic/Latinx (9.90%), Black/African American (6.93%), and Asian students (5.94%).

Most respondents were either seniors (24.75%) or graduate students (24.75%), followed by juniors (20.79%), freshmen (14.85%), and sophomores (13.86%).

I. Campus Accessibility

In regard to overall campus accessibility, most students found advising to be very accessible (53.9%) or somewhat accessible (25.5%). Although most did not find the Writing Center applicable (53.9%), those students who used the service found it somewhat accessible (19.6%), and very accessible (12.8%). Students who used the library also found it very accessible (33.3%) or somewhat accessible (31.4%). 

Most students did not find University Counseling Services applicable, but of those who did, they found it somewhat accessible (16.0%) or very accessible (11.0%). Many students (49.0%) did not find Career Services applicable; of those who used this resource, most found it very accessible (24.0%), or somewhat accessible (14.0%).

Recreational sports was one area where accessibility may be an area of concern. Although most did not find this category applicable (52.9%), the next highest response was that recreational sports was somewhat inaccessible (15.7%) and 8.8% found this was not accessible at all. 

In terms of the Campus Learning Center, 9.8% of students reported not being aware of this resource. Of those who used the resource, 10.8% found it somewhat accessible, and 7.8% reported it was somewhat inaccessible. For the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, 7.9% of students were unaware of this resource. 8.9% found it somewhat accessible, 6.9% found it very accessible, and 5.9% found it somewhat inaccessible.

II. Resources

In regard to resources, the majority of respondents felt working with a SAEO was very helpful (59.1%) or somewhat helpful (27.8%). However, after controlling for those who did not need other resources, the majority of respondents reported they were unaware of the following services: learning specialist meetings, alternative format material support, assistive technology support services, and interpretive services. This may suggest a need for clarification or communication of what services are available to students.

III. Online Instruction

In regard to online instruction, the majority of respondents (79.4%) did not report difficulties working out accommodations with their instructors in a virtual learning environment. Of those who did report difficulties, professors not honoring extra time was cited frequently, as well as having to remind professors throughout the semester about accommodations was another frequent response.

In regard to audio and visual accommodations in a virtual course, 33.3% of students reported difficulty. Several students reported professors having difficulty with getting close-captioning to work, and many cited the online format as negatively impacting their focus and communicating with their peers and professors. 

IV. Engagement

In regard to engagement, 58.4% respondents found that the virtual format made collaborating and communicating with peers more difficult.  52.5% of students found engagement more difficult with professors in terms of office hours, asking questions, and participation. Attitudes towards class materials were split: 38.6% found engagement easier, 34.7% found it more difficult, and 26.7% felt no difference in engagement in this area. Again, students were divided when engaging with learning management systems. The majority (42.2%) felt no impact, 32.4% found it easier, and 25.5% cited more difficulty with engagement. 

V. Benefits of Virtual Learning

When asked if there were benefits to taking online courses rather than in-person experiences, 65.7% of students found virtual learning beneficial. Of those respondents, many cited the ability to record and replay lectures as very beneficial.

  • "Although my accommodations include recording lectures, I really appreciate the teachers that record live lectures and post them for students to rewatch. I do like this better than just an audio recording."
  • "Usually, if I am able to go back and look at the lectures a second time, I do much better on tests and other assignments because I am able to take my time to understand a concept without feeling like I’m holding the entire class back."

Flexibility was another benefit frequently mentioned.

  • "It has absolutely revolutionized the way I do classes! I have so much more energy. I can attend so many more meetings/clubs/classes, and all of my professors have made materials very accessible. I never realized how much more accessible my classes could be until we went online."
  • "I have found it to be less taxing and more flexible, to which I am very thankful for."

Students also cited that the virtual format is beneficial for those with physical issues such as mobility, visual impairments, or chronic pain.

  • "As I live with chronic illnesses, it has been a relief to not have to commute and walk on hard days, as well as I have had to miss less days of class than I would if I were attending in person."
  • "It is way more accessible when I struggle with mobility/symptoms. My attendance is way better."
  • "As the online courses are completely on my computer, It is much easier for me to see the teacher's notes than on a physical board in a classroom."

Finally, students  cited that virtual learning was beneficial for organization.

  • "Having all assignments organized for me and easily accessible is much easier to complete than if I have to organize it myself."
  • "It has made it very easy to identify what needs to be done because everything is consolidated online, instead of both getting worksheets and having online assignments."

VI. Additional Supports

When asked what additional supports would be helpful in a virtual environment, students offered insight into various issues and needs across campus. Recurrent themes included: consistency with platforms, captioning, and honoring accommodations.

Consistency

  • "Establish an approach for professors to use Canvas that is consistent from professor to professor including how assignments are posted, changes are disseminated, the location of additional resources, and course outlines are fully updated to be consistent with the current course structure and environment. In addition, ensure professors fully vet any third party software programs to ensure their ease of use on multiple operating systems."
  • "Have all professors use the same online format (google classroom or canvas etc) because having a lot is REALLY confusing and frustrating.

Captioning

  • "A program to caption audio automatically across all platforms"
  • "If there were some way to institute live captioning technology, like on broadcast television, that would be immensely helpful, even if it were not wholly accurate."

Accommodations

  • "Create a better way for students to be able to access their accommodations in group work settings."
  • "Not allowing professors to have such broad-sweeping power to deny accommodations, especially ones which the student has explicitly expressed they use/need the most often. It is extremely upsetting and I have felt massive stigma due to the invisible nature of my disabilities."
  • "I have experienced numerous situations with professors not honoring accommodations due to the virtual format change. I feel like I have minimal power even though I have accommodations and have continually been accused of "failing to meet technical standards" due to my need for additional absences and pressured to disclose my disability so I am not perceived as a bad student."

VII. Important Considerations

  • Accessibility: Overall, students found the following services to be accessible: advising, Writing Center, library, Career Services, and the University Counseling Center. Students indicated a lack of awareness about the Campus Learning Center, and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. Students reported lack of accessibility for recreational sports.
  • Resources: In regard to resources, the majority of respondents felt working with a SAEO was very helpful (59.1%) or somewhat helpful (27.8%).
  • Online Instruction: The majority of respondents did not report difficulty with accommodations with their professors; of those who did, professors not honoring extended time, as well as having to remind professors throughout the semester about accommodations.Most students did not report difficult with audio-visual accommodations. Of those students who did, issues with close-captioning, subtitles and delays were frequently cited.
  • Engagement: The majority of students expressed difficulty with engagement with their peers and professors in a virtual environment.

VIII. Summary Recommendations

Accessibility

  • Increase awareness of the Campus Learning Center and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and their services, and evaluate their accessibility.
  • Evaluate recreational facilities and sports in terms of accessibility.

Resources

  • Increase awareness of learning specialist meetings, alternative format material support, assistive technology support services, and interpretive services. 

Supports

  • Consider establishing consistency with online platforms and formats
  • Consider establishing a consistent platform for captioning
  • Consider establishing consistent procedures for recording lectures and notes
  • Consider establishing a consistent approach for posting assignments, and disseminating change

Accomodations

  • Consistent method to utilize accommodations in group settings
  • Clarification of communicating accommodations with professors and procedures for noncompliance.

About Climatext. VCU’s Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success (IES) administers Climatext as part of the university’s proactive monitoring and response plan to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Climatext assesses student sentiment resulting from their information exposure and experiences related to COVID-19. Sentiment scores range from negative-to neutral (-1.00 to 0.00) and from neutral-to-positive (0.00 to +1.00). Climatext produces a real-time data summary for the general student population as well as student subpopulations. Data are collected and coded using proprietary software conceptualized and developed by Sam Yerkes, Jim Yucha, and Aashir Nasim. Results are used to inform the university’s strategic communications efforts and support services that address student needs.