Leave no learner behind: how to build inclusivity into your online delivery

The importance of considering cognitive (and other) diversities in online teaching

Almost a year after the country first shut down in response to the pandemic, we are again navigating a period of isolation and remote working to protect ourselves and others. When lockdown was enforced the first time around, many education and further education providers worked hard to quickly implement a short-term remote teaching solution, employing software and tools that would allow them to teach without physically being present in the classroom. It was difficult to tell whether this would become part of a new way of life, or whether things would be back to normal by the end of the year – as everyone, including the prime minister, had hoped.

With the future still so uncertain, remote education is likely to blend further with in-person education and become a staple part of life for both teachers and pupils. However, prior to the events of the last year, remote teaching was never included as part of teacher training, and teachers are currently very much learning as they go along. Pupils are also still figuring out what works best for them when plugging into education from home.

So now that the tools and infrastructure for delivering education are in place, it’s time to consider the ways in which the best learning experience can be delivered; one that’s appreciative and inclusive of the different ways people think and learn. Online learning won’t suit everyone and it’s important to think about removing any barriers to learning. This is key to creating a remote system that caters to the full range of learning diversities – both cognitive and otherwise – so every learner has the opportunity to reach their potential during this challenging time.

Visual design considerations

When thinking about how to deliver an experience that’s accessible and inclusive, how much have you considered things like the typeface you’re using on your online platforms and in your online materials? Selecting the right typeface is essential for ensuring inclusivity of neurodivergent learners. Most neurodiverse individuals prefer typeface styles that look similar to handwriting, but on digital platforms, these types of fonts often pose a problem because certain letter combinations can bleed into one another; for example, ‘rn’ and ‘m’.

As such, there is a delicate balance to strike between a natural looking font and one that has a clear differentiation between letters. Fonts that work well include Courier New, FS Me and Consolas. Similarly, ensure that learners are able to adjust the font size on their learning platforms so that they can tweak based on the sizes that work best for them.

Secondly, using icons within text is very helpful for all learners. The benefits of using icons can include having visual differentiation between sections, allowing for memory support through visual connection and giving those who read more slowly the chance to see the most relevant sections.

Finally, a simple visual hierarchy has a significant impact on comprehension. The goal here is for students to be able to identify the top three pieces of information through position, shape and colour. Without this, some learners may miss vital pieces of information needed for comprehension of the whole.

Framing of learning

When setting out a new unit or series of lessons, it’s important to give learners the information needed to maximise the learning that follows. Helping learners understand what’s expected of them, how they will go about learning and be assessed is important for reducing confusion – particularly in neurodivergent individuals.

Framing of learning can be achieved by setting out expectations at the beginning of each module with objectives. This can be a statement, beginning with a measurable verb, of what the learner will be able to do by the end of the module. For example, “In this module, you will learn how to do three things: construct clear learning objectives, outline the benefits of greater inclusivity and apply these to your own online delivery”.

Similarly, if the learner is likely to know something already that your content builds on, it’s good practice to acknowledge this. For example, “you may already understand that inclusivity is key in all aspects of teaching. In this module, you’ll learn some practical ways in which you can implement inclusivity in your online delivery”. These statements and ‘frames’ for learning will help to clarify the relationship between pieces of information and aid overall comprehension.

Finally, recapping at the end of a module or lesson to explain what has been learned and where this new knowledge can be applied will be highly beneficial to learners with neurodiverse needs. Providing a callback to the introduction to close and giving clear instructions to the learner on what they can do next with this new knowledge can lead to better comprehension and more effective learning overall.

Video and body language

On top of these planning and design considerations, it’s worth thinking about non-verbal cues and the impact of removing these through remote teaching. We are all aware of the limiting nature of written communication for expressing emotion, which is why video functions are particularly important when teaching remotely. Having a video function means that non-verbal body language cues are still communicated even when remote. Smiling and nodding can encourage and help with learning and comprehension, as well as serving as a way of expressing praise for the things the learner has achieved. There is also something to be said for regularly seeing and communicating with a familiar, supportive face. This will be a particularly difficult period for some learners and having some sense of normality like seeing a teacher or a mentor every day can be helpful for wellbeing.

“Our data has recently shed light on the extent of neurodiversity, with 1 in 3 apprentice learners classified as being neurodivergent in a way that requires support”

The disruption that learners are facing at the moment is significant, and with online delivery here to stay for the foreseeable, thinking about inclusivity and removing any new barriers to learning should be a priority. Our data has recently shed light on the extent of neurodiversity, with 1 in 3 apprentice learners classified as being neurodivergent in a way that requires support. Many of these individuals will struggle with different aspects of learning, which educational professionals will need to consider as the disruption continues. But with just a few simple changes, online delivery can be substantially improved.

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