Higher Education: Digital equity and autism

A view of Griffith University building which is new and about seven storeys high.Beware the diagnosis – it leads to stereotypes and misplaced assumptions. This was one of the findings from a research project at Griffith University. A common assumption is that people with autism find it difficult or stressful in social situations. For example, university discussion groups and making presentations. An assumption that follows is online learning would be their preferred learning method. Turns out this is not the case. Indeed, they had difficulty with online content for three key reasons. And these are also experienced by neurotypical students:

    1. Students had problems identifying which parts of the online content were most important
    2. They needed clarification of content by instructors to aid their online learning
    3. Students found it helpful when the instructor communicated links between content across the weeks or modules. 

So, the diagnosis is not the person. The research paper includes a literature review and a survey of students who identified as having autism. The paper has much useful information regarding the design of teaching and learning. The major point is that what’s good for students with autism is good for everyone. 

The title of the study is, “Online learning for university students on the autism spectrum: A systematic review and questionnaire study”. It was published in the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology – special issue: Digital Equity. It’s open access.

Abstract: Online course delivery is increasingly being used by universities to deliver accessible and flexible learning environments. As this mode of delivery grows it is important to consider the equity of the learning experience for all students. As online delivery may reduce challenges and stressors present in face-to-face delivery, it could be suggested that it may promote student learning for specific student groups, including those with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. However, little is known about the experience of learning online for students on the autism spectrum. This article presents findings from two studies: a systematic review of the literature and a survey of students on the autism spectrum studying online. From the systematic literature review, only four previous studies were identified reporting on this topic. Findings from two studies identified that the online environment provided both facilitators of and barriers to the learning experience for students on the autism spectrum. Although the online environment provided flexibility for learning, how design factors are employed in online delivery may unintentionally create barriers to the learning experience for students on the spectrum. An outcome from this study has been the creation of a suite of resources to assist with course design and delivery. Implications for practice or policy:

•  Consider the impact of course design on students with diverse learning profiles.
•  Not all students disclose their diagnosis, so ensure methods of accessing support are clear.
•  Work proactively to ensure that interactions with instructors and are responsive and flexible to facilitate the online learning of all students.