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Student Case Studies: Online Learning

Look at these scenarios illustrating how a student’s needs can be impacted by their university experience.


Hazel is a mature student who has just returned to higher education to study for secondary school teaching qualification (PGCE) after working for ten years in industry. This case study explores her experience of flipped learning.

Read Hazel’s case study

Hazel was diagnosed with dyslexia via a work-place assessment five years before returning to education. She was able to access coloured paper and use of overlays to help alleviate some of her reading difficulties and used text to speech software to enable her to access written resources through audio.

Hazel’s course has recently moved to a flipped learning model, meaning that her reading and research tasks are done independently, with most of the face to face teaching being via in-person tutorials. Some of the learning is via live lectures that are also recorded online so they can be viewed at any time. These are accompanied by reading lists and instructions on key themes to explore in this reading phase. There is a lot of preparation required for each tutorial.

Hazel no longer has access to her text to speech software as this was a workplace adjustment made for her, so she now has to rely on reading texts, which she finds challenging within the timescales available for this. Hazel doesn’t find the virtual learning environment very easy to navigate and also finds the way that the information is set out confusing, not least because different lecturers organise their pages in different ways. She therefore chooses to read those resources that she finds easiest to find online and where she can, prioritises those that her lecturers may have highlighted as core reading.

Hazel does not have good organisational skills so it has taken Hazel some time to realise that watching the recorded lectures early in the study week helps her with the other preparatory work. However, despite working on this she still finds herself having to watch recorded lectures several times as she can get overwhelmed by the amount of information being presented (though Hazel reflects this is no worse than when face to face and at least she can pause at key points to take notes and think about what has been said). She finds that she misses the opportunity to ask clarification questions in online lectures that she might have been able to do in a face to face lecture. Though this opportunity is made available, Hazel is often so befuddled by the end of the lecture that she has not collated her thoughts in time to access the tutor via the chat room online.

It has been noted that Hazel is fairly quiet in the course tutorials and when asked for her thoughts has seemed a little under-prepared. Her tutor approaches her and outlines the benefits of flipped learning and emphasises the importance of students fully engaging within the content before lectures. Hazel outlines her difficulties in accessing the amount of reading required prior to the lectures and the challenges she is having with finding things on the virtual learning environment and with the lectures and note-taking. Hazel feels that the situation will improve once her new text to speech software is in place but this will only partially address the situation. She also feels the pace of discussion both online and in the face to face tutorials is too fast and that she and other students have had insufficient instruction in how to use the VLE. Hazel’s tutor thanks her for her honesty and says that they feel the feedback will help them to re-design some of the online elements of their course, particularly in ensuring they make more time available for discussions. They say that they will speak to colleagues about the virtual learning environment to see if they can agree on a standard way of setting out information and asks Hazel if she would be happy to say what would work best for her. As a final point, her tutor tells Hazel to contact them if they have any clarification questions that arise out of future online content.

Pause for thought

  • How does Hazel feel before her discussion with her tutor?
  • What do you think are the main issues for Hazel in accessing flipped learning?
  • Are these as a result of Hazel’s needs, the learning environment, or both?
  • Would other students also benefit from the differences her tutor says that they will introduce? If so, how might this be?


Peter has had a hearing impairment since the age of ten. He uses hearing aids to boost his residual hearing and relies as well on a mix of lip reading and watching facial expressions to help him follow what is being said. This case study explores his experience of online learning.

Read Peter’s case study

Without hearing aids, Peter hears sound but cannot make full sense of it. His hearing aids amplify the sounds he cannot hear, but background noise can cause difficulties with this. During a previous course, Peter was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Peter became so overwhelmed with his studies that he arranged with his course leader to take time out of university. He returned the following year to retake his third year and completed his degree with a good grade. As a result of this and having had some additional learning support and assistive technology in place to help him, Peter decided to continue his studies on a masters course.

Peter’s course was supposed to be based on monthly face to face study weekends but due to an unforeseen external situation, is now delivered as a mix of online lectures and some additional online content in between. Peter initially welcomed this flexibility as he has social anxiety in addition to his hearing impairment and he finds learning in quiet environments beneficial. However, as the end of his first term is nearing, Peter reflects that is facing some challenges with the online elements which he feels do not meet his needs and present him with some access issues.  

One of Peter’s challenges is following conversations and making notes at the same time and this is particularly challenging for him in live online lectures where he has to choose between making notes and listening, resulting in Peter having to return to lecture recordings afterwards to ensure he hasn’t missed any learning. Online group discussions are an additional issue for Peter and he has found himself increasingly disengaging from or missing these sessions as he finds himself constantly missing people’s comments and losing the flow of the discussions.

Peter finds the online learning environment overwhelming particularly when trying to follow the flow of conversation and take notes. Peter likes the chat function online as this enables him to contribute more fully to discussions. However, constant comments in the chat and use of lots of features such as voting tools, white boards and break out rooms can overwhelm Peter who is already concentrating hard on following content. Peter can become anxious as he is not confident in using these tools and he finds himself disengaging from online learning as a result.

Peter is glad that much of the online content is pre-recorded and closed captions have been added, but he still needs to do additional work to access his learning and where this means he starts to fall behind and produce work that he is not happy with as a result. Peter is also more isolated in the online environment than he would be when attending university. This situation begins to have a major impact on Peter’s mood and anxiety and he begins to question whether doing another course in higher education has been a good idea.

Pause for thought

  • How does Peter feel about his course?
  • What do you think are the main issues for Peter in accessing the online elements of his course?
  • Are these as a result of Peter’s needs or the environment? Or both?
  • What could Peter’s tutor do to address the concerns Peter has?
  • How might these changes help other students?

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