Moving to Online learning

Academic Life

Articles for students and families transitioning into higher education.

Moving to Online learning

  • AsIAm
  • 10/05/2021
  • 11 minutes read

Moving to Online learning

One of the ways that going to University or College is changing is that a greater portion of your course might be moved online, or where you might have the option to take a blended course that you might get the choice and flexibility of sometimes studying at University and other times studying at home if that best suits their access needs. Some students have embraced the transition to a more blended style of learning, highlighting the benefits of online learning in terms of accommodating their disability or difference, in having the opportunity to learn in the way they want, and that this would open up opportunities for other people to access University where they might otherwise face barriers to doing so. This might include, but is by no means limited to, people who work full-time, single parents and people who might have caring responsibilities, for even for some people who wish to learn in a familiar, comforting environment. 

In the long-term, online learning is being considered as a way of making third-level education more accessible to a wider range of students and to break down barriers to accessing education. The opportunity to learn on a laptop, smartphone or tablet would also appeal to many people who might not otherwise have the opportunity or the means to go to University, or who might otherwise would have had to move to a different city or country away from their home to study at the same course.      

What are the advantages and disadvantages of online learning?

Like with any way of learning, moving to a style of learning where some if not all of your lectures, coursework and assessments comes with advantages and disadvantages, and they will be different for each student. 

Advantages of Online Learning

  • One of the main advantages of online learning that might be helpful to autistic students is that it provides the opportunity for students to learn at their own pace and on their own schedule. 
  • Some students appreciate the ability to pause or replay lectures or tutorials, and to go over what they missed or to get a clearer understanding of the topic discussed at the lecture. 
  • Other people liked the idea of having the slides or lecture notes being shared with the class in advance, where beforehand they might face barriers or challenges to having these notes requested in a timely manner. This is so that they could follow the lecture and take in what the professor has to say without worrying about having to take notes, and the fear of missing out on something important. 
  • Other people, who might face barriers to accessing buildings where lectures and tutorials take place that might be inaccessible to somebody with physical, mobility or sensory impairments or differences. They might find having to enter buildings, or going to lecture halls and classrooms or having to interact with classmates takes a great deal of physical or mental energy and that repeating this over a long time could affect their physical and mental wellbeing.  They might appreciate learning in an environment that accommodates their disability or their access needs without the added stress of having to deal with inaccessible buildings, crowded and stimulating lecture theatres where there might be all sorts of sensory stimuli (bright lights, sudden noises) happening around them. 
  • Some students, particularly autistic students, might favour learning in an environment where they can learn and also be close to their family, friends and support structure. This can give people who might otherwise have to make the transition of moving to another city or country a stressful or overwhelming experience, or who might have to commute long distances to attend University or College, the opportunity to pursue their academic studies in an environment they find safe and predictable. 

Disadvantages of Online Learning

However there are drawbacks to online learning that you might need also to consider. These might include:

  • Some students believe that the best way they learn is through physically going to lectures and tutorials, and that moving to online learning would affect how they perform in their course 
  • There are some supports that you might be accustomed to when physically going to college that might not be available to you in an online learning environment. The absence of these supports means that you might end up missing information you need, and may cause difficulties with your studies in the long run. It is the University’s or College’s obligation to accommodate your support needs, or to find different ways of getting the supports you need. It is always a good idea to contact your Access Officer or Disability Support Officer if you have difficulties accessing academic supports or reasonable accommodations, and they will work with you to ensure that you get support for your access needs.
  • Another issue that some students might experience is that it can be more difficult to cover more complex topics in an online learning environment, where there might be opportunities to approach your lecturer to gain a greater insight into the material being covered.
  • Another thing that some people might perceive as a negative is that going to online lectures can be mark a massive change in routine from the structure of going to College, going to classes, and seeing friends, which can be helpful in terms of staying organised and keeping pace with your studies.This change can be a really profound change that this can compound feelings of isolation and anxiety.
  • Another way that online learning might pose barriers is that it can reinforce the “digital divide”. This might happen for students who might need more time to learn the skills necessary to log in and participate in class, submit coursework and contact teachers and classmates. This might also happen for students who live in areas which might have issues with accessing or connecting to high-speed broadband needed to study at University, or who might have issues gaining access to a computer or laptop. This can be particularly prevalent if students are studying in more rural areas, as opposed to people living in or close to towns and cities, and this can have a real impact on their overall learning experience.   

Accessible learning materials and Reasonable Accommodations

Whilst you’re learning online, you will still be able to access online academic databases and learning portals through the Library website or other means, and this can help provide you with access to the learning materials you need in class. However, learning in your home does not necessarily mean that you’re just using online materials or databases – you also need to have learning materials you can access and that is accessible to your support needs. This may be having access to a printer to print out hard copies of documents used for your course, having access to the University or College library at particular times, having recordings or podcasts of your lectures, transcripts or summaries of the material covered in your courses, access to lecturer’s notes or getting library books delivered to your home or receiving permission to visit the library at designated times to get the books you need. There are many other options you can explore to make your learning experience as accessible as possible whilst you’re studying at home. 

If you feel that your materials are not accessible to you in any way, you can contact your Disability Support Service, your lecturer or Year Head about how they can make the course materials more accessible to you. It is the University’s responsibility to make sure that your course materials are accessible to you, and lecturers or Year Heads will work with you to resolve any accessibility issues you might encounter in getting the right type of learning materials for your studies. 

Creating a routine

One way you can help to create a manageable experience of online learning is to create a routine that you can do when you’re at home. Having a routine helps you to be more in control of what is happening at University or College, and it will also give you greater predictability and control around what you do for the day. Try to make sure that your University routine also gives time and space towards activities that give you a break from the study environment, such as meal times, times to exercise, relax, rest or to pursue your special interests. You can find visual timetables, like smartphone apps, your Outlook or Google Calendar as useful ways of staying organised and sticking to a schedule. It might also be useful to incorporate elements of your old routine, as this can help make the transition to a new routine easier.

There are a number of strategies you can use to help you construct a routine that works for you:

  • Have a think about what strategies or mechanisms that previously worked for you that you can use to help you navigate this new way of studying.
  • Ask a friend or family member to look over your timetable and to suggest what works for you and what doesn’t.
  • You can use apps that can help you to remind you of what step you need to do, or what strategies you can use to deal with unfamiliar situations.
  • Your routine might need to change when your circumstances change, and that this is a perfectly good time to make adjustments to your routine when these changes happen.
  • There are apps and schedulers which you can use to assist you to manage your time effectively, and take notes, and compile a to-do list of the things you need to do for the day. These include Google Calendar, Outlook, Evernote and OneNote, or you might prefer to keep a planner and diary with you so you can write down reminders.
  • It might also be helpful to try to focus on one task, one project or one essay at a time, if you feel that this works best for you, and divide your time equally to each project, particularly if you’re receiving more than one piece of work at a time. You can always contact your Academic Writing or Disability Support Service or Year Head if you find balancing your work difficult – they might have strategies or supports that can help to manage your work more effectively.

Take time and space out of your day to decompress and relax

This can be useful for maintaining your mental health at any time, but can be particularly so if you’re finding the demands expected of you overwhelming and if you feel that you can’t cope with the added anxiety or stress. This might include calming activities like pursuing your special interest or doing any activity, physical or otherwise, that can calm you in stressful situations This can also include stimming which can also be a helpful way of relieving stress.  These can be particularly helpful to manage feelings of anxiety or stress during difficult or uncertain times, and you can do all these things from home, safe in the knowledge that no one will judge you. Restful activities like meditation, mindfulness, yoga, breathing or exercising, are really helpful ways of managing stress, and there are apps like Calm, Headspace, BetterHelp, books, podcasts and services like MyMind that can help you to manage your mental health. If you are using a timetable it is useful to put in slots for this. If you particularly like reading around your course, particularly if it revolves around a special interest, you might find this helpful, but if not, taking time out to pursue your special interests can be a relaxing experience.

Changes to exams and assessments

If everyone at your University or college is studying from home, your University or college may decide to make changes to assignments or assessments. This might include cancelling some exams if they don’t count towards your overall grade, or moving to online assessments if they do. It can be reassuring to have exams or assignments cancelled, but it is also worthwhile to try and keep up with reading and study as much as you can, as it can be helpful information to have as you progress through your course.

If you have exams happening over the course of the semester, this will usually take the format of an online assessment. Before you begin your exam, make sure you know all the rules before going in and stick to them. Whilst some Reasonable Accommodations, like access to a room or a scribe might not be available, you might be entitled to other accommodations like extra time that can help you to complete an exam. Contact your Disability Support Advisor about this and make sure that you have all the exam supports arranged before entering the exam.

Some Universities or Colleges might decide to replace closed book exams with open book exams that may be offered over a 24 or 48 hour period. However, you will not be expected to write for the full 24 or 48 hours, and your examiner will provide instructions in advance that will tell you how much time you should be spending writing each question.  

Engage with support

Your University will find ways to make the supports you use like your Academic Writing Tutor, Disability Support Advisor or Technology available to you when you are not on campus. Whilst this might mean that you need to find new ways to engage with these supports, or that you might need to use different kinds of supports, they will still be available to you. You can contact your Disability Support Advisor to find ways of making these reconstituted supports work for you. 

Try to stay in touch with your friends and family

Whilst moving your College course online, or having parts of your course done online, is a way of keeping everyone physically distanced and away from direct, face-to-face contact, you’re still allowed to stay in touch with your friends and family, and particularly so if you enjoy their company. Social interaction that you enjoy can help you to relax, feel better and study effectively. However, if you find social interaction tiring or stressful, be assured that you don’t have to worry about interacting with people if you don’t feel like it.

If you like to stay in touch with friends and family, you can incorporate this into your routine and you can use platforms like Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts or Facetime to do so. You can also use platforms like WhatsApp or Facebook Groups to engage with your wider class. The best groups will show that you’re not the only person experiencing these difficulties, and some students might have good ideas about study or can explain topics that you might be having trouble with. It can also be a good way for students to work through problems together. Your University might also decide to set up a formal group through a platform like Microsoft Teams, Slack or Blackboard for this very purpose, you can choose to get involved with this if you feel that that platform works better for your needs.

Some groups can be helpful, in finding out how your classmates are managing, how they’re studying and any tips they’re willing to share that can help you with your studies. Be mindful that these platforms can also run the risk of becoming stressful, even toxic, environments if some people don’t like each other or who argue with each other frequently, which can cause great anxiety. You can engage with these groups as much or as little as you want to.

Try to limit looking at your social media news feeds if you’re feeling anxious or sensitive about what’s happening. Social media platforms are incentivized to push what’s trending -often upsetting news or news that tends to incite a negative reaction, which can make us feel worse about our lives, and can lead to greater feelings of fear, stress, anxiety and hopelessness. Because we as humans are more likely to pay attention to bad news, which can be continuous, this can lead to the habit of “doomscrolling” our social media feeds.

Doomscrolling is where we find ourselves spending long periods of time taking in the seemingly unrelenting stream of negative news, and this can have an adverse impact on your physical and mental health. Whilst it’s important to keep informed and social media can provide great platforms to stay connected, remain civically engaged and to push for change, you don’t have to do so at the expense of your mental health, particularly if you’re feeling stressed, anxious or afraid about the state of the world right now. Sticking to reputable news sources can be helpful in terms of reducing anxiety, as well as finding ways to hide these apps from your phone. There are also apps and software available, like Apple’s Screentime, that can help you to set limits on how long you spend on social media, and you can turn off push notifications on your phone or go on a social media break if you find things a bit overwhelming.     

What can I do if I experience any issues with online learning?

If you are experiencing any issues with your academic studies, you can still use the same support structures you use when you were physically on campus to resolve these issues. Whilst many University and college campuses are closed, with many staff working from home, they are still there for you and you can always reach out to them over phone, email or video call if you need additional support.

If you’re unhappy with your supports, or if you need additional supports like extensions or mental health breaks, and you wish to have them resolved, contact your Disability Support Advisor as soon as possible. They will advise you and work with you to make sure that you get the supports you need.

Some Universities or Colleges are regularly emailing students to let them know what is happening. These emails can contain useful information around what is happening, and what supports are available, so it might be important to keep checking these emails over the semester.



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