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Pros and Cons: Online Learning

Online learning can have a number of benefits over face to face environments. These include:

  • The ability for student to study at times and at a pace that suits them (when asynchronous rather than live). This might be particularly useful for students with caring responsibilities or those who need to arrange learning around work.
  • Online learning doesn’t require attendance at a physical location, meaning less time and resources being spent on travel. This also overcomes some access concerns that some students may have.
  • Some learners don’t like the idea of face to face interaction and prefer to learn in a different way.
  • Lecturers are better able to present content in multiple ways including audio, text, film/video than when in face to face environments. These multiple means of accessing learning benefit most learners.

There are some additional specific benefits to students with disabilities:

The flexibility of online environments can be particularly useful for students whose study productivity may fluctuate when impacted by their disability or medical condition. Online environments, particularly those that facilitate asynchronous learning can allow students to choose when to access learning so that they can work around issues such as low mood and motivation or impaired energy levels which in a face to face environment may mean them having to miss lectures. They also benefit students who may have slower input speeds than their peers.

Online learning means that students do not need to travel to a set location, with all that this can entail for some students, such as those with mobility impairments (wheelchair users), visual impairments or weakened immune systems. For some students the physical and mental impacts of attending physical locations can impact on their study productivity afterwards.

There is some evidence that well designed online learning reduces the need for students to disclose disabilities and long-term medical conditions by providing a more inclusive learning environment. A visually impaired student may not need to sit in a certain place within the environment for example. Or a student with anxiety may feel more willing to share thoughts and ideas in online chat environments than face to face ones.

Well-designed online learning can ensure that everyone has equal access to the same resources and materials. This may not be the case in face to face situations where a student may not be able to see or hear a presentation or take part in a group discussion in the same way as a non-disabled peer. This is particularly important for visually impaired students who can face major barriers to accessing analogue resources. 

More flexible access to additional tutor support (including specialist support tutors) via email, phone and online face to face forums such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams.  Again, this does not require physical access.

Burgstahler (2015) found that students with Autism (AS) may:

  1. Find online interaction easier in virtual environments than in person and their anxiety about stigma etc can be reduced in these environments
  2. Benefit from a consistent format (if this applies)
  3. Have increased control over their own environment and as a result can make adaptations to reduce any sensory overload, they may encounter
  4. Have improved routines – there are less likely to be external factors affecting their participation
  5. Be able to avoid crowds, transport and other issues that may be a challenge for them in face to face settings.

Some of these observations might equally apply to many other students as well.

Pause for thought


  • Are there some key competencies or learning outcomes that you feel might be compromised by moving some or all content online?
  • What are the challenges for you in delivering accessible online learning? What additional support might you seek in this area?

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