Opinion: Lessons in accessibility from a year of online learning

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Kat Chodaczek/The Occidental

If you asked me what Zoom was this time last year, I would have had no idea what you were talking about. When President Harry J. Elam Jr. announced that classes would continue online, I considered taking a semester off. Ultimately, I decided online classes are better than no classes at all.

I care a lot about the accessibility of online learning. In early 2018 I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I have a hard time retaining information and keeping focus. I don’t think I’ve ever retained information from a lecture-based class. Every student is different in the way they comprehend material. The pandemic should make this even more clear — every student learns differently and their needs should be addressed. When classes transition back to in-person, it would be a perfect time to make adjustments and create a more accessible learning space for all students.

There are four main learning styles: visual, auditory, reading and kinesthetic. Too often, educators focus on accommodating different learning styles only in younger grades. In elementary school, I remember having many different types of learning activities. I understand that younger students have much more energy and can’t sit still for long periods, but I don’t think catering towards different styles of learning should stop after elementary school.

Zoom classes have only heightened my continuous struggle to pay attention. In cases where my professors have been tech-savvy, classes have been engaging. There are definitely more discussion-based lessons, which is beneficial for me, since I comprehend material better when I’m actively involved in the learning process. Many professors utilize breakout rooms for group discussions. For a learner who benefits from a variety of teaching methods, a chance to talk about ideas is a good way to flesh them out.

I think the experience of online learning has definitely emphasized the lack of inclusion for students with different learning styles. Some professors have opted to turn all classes into lectures, making it harder for visual and kinesthetic learners to retain information. Though we are stuck with Zoom classes for the time being, I think it’s important to use this as a learning experience about accessibility in the classroom. Not every student can sit at the computer and absorb information from a lecture. I’m tired of professors and teachers thinking that talking at students for an hour does us any good. Now that we’re on our computers, it’s harder to concentrate when professors can’t see what we’re looking at on our screens. We’re wasting our time and resources on teaching styles that cater to a small percentage of students.

Just like not every student can sit through a lecture, not every student thrives in discussion-based environments. It’s unwise to assume everyone is able to speak comfortably with a randomly-generated group of their peers. I don’t mind being put in random groups, and even a dry breakout room is just an excuse for me to talk more. Participation in class is usually seen as a good thing, but even those who are most comfortable talking in class can get anxious about breakout rooms. It can be nerve-wracking and I have definitely felt pressure to seem smart in class discussions. Especially now that I’m in college, where I feel that everyone speaks so eloquently, I overthink everything I contribute. Saying the wrong thing can be embarrassing in person, but now with Zoom, the reactions of your classmates are hard to ignore when you’re all in gallery view.

I go back and forth between hating Zoom and understanding that it’s the best option we have right now. My outlook on online learning has definitely changed from when we began in March. Positives and negatives can exist at the same time. We’re trying our best to make the most of the situation, but online learning has only heightened the importance of teaching in different ways. In the future, I’d like to see a mix of lecture and discussion-based lessons. Even PowerPoints can be made engaging. Incorporating activities that cater to different learning styles doesn’t have to be complicated. I’m not asking educators to rethink their entire teaching philosophy — I would just like all learning styles to be acknowledged and catered to.