"For many students with disabilities studying online made the experience of higher education more fulfilling and less difficult..."
A report from Curtin University and the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) has found access to technology and flexible teaching methods, along with how disclosure of student's disability is managed, can help students with disabilities to gain higher education qualifications.
Dr Mike Kent from Curtin's Department of Internet Studies and lead researcher, said students with disabilities were under-represented in tertiary education with 6.4 per cent of Open Universities Australia (OUA) students having a disability.
"We surveyed 356 Open Universities Australia students and classified them into eight categories of impairment -- mental illness, medical impairment, mobility impairment, hearing impairment, learning disability, vision impairment, acquired brain impairment, and intellectual disability," Dr Kent said.
"44.9 per cent of survey respondents reported a mental illness (an unexpectedly high incidence), 39.2 per cent of survey respondents cited medical impairments and 25.3 per cent of survey respondents had mobility impairments.
"We asked the students to examine their experiences of studying online and found an overwhelming majority of them recommended eLearning as an effective way of participating in higher education.
"For many students with disabilities studying online made the experience of higher education more fulfilling and less difficult. For others, completing coursework online was the only way they could access higher education."
The research highlighted the need for flexibility from teaching staff in regard to teaching methods and assessment design.
"Teaching staff have to understand that not all students will be able to participate on the same level, in all occasions," Dr Kent said.
"This acceptance of disabilities needs to be promoted widely among teaching and professional staff and accessibility guidelines need to be developed according to the needs of students, based upon their real-life experiences.
"Universities and other higher education institutions should not treat disabilities as an individual problem for students to solve, instead they must use tools, teaching methods and design standards that make content accessible to all."
NCSEHE Director, Professor Sue Trinidad, said the findings supported future planning of online programs to gain a higher education qualification.
"Dr Kent's research identifies an opportunity for Australian universities to promote themselves as accessible for online study to students with disabilities to potentially increase the participation of this under-represented cohort," Professor Trinidad said.
The report, titled Access and Barriers to Online Education for People with Disabilities, is available from www.ncsehe.edu.au.
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