Characteristics of Online Education that May Serve as Challenges and Benefits for Students of Varying Disability Groups

Concurrent Session 5

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

In a study involving 1,665 students at Rutgers University, we investigate the challenges and benefits associated with taking online college courses. Participant data will be broken out by disability type (Mental, Learning, Physical, etc.) and compared. Strategies to overcome the identified barriers will also be discussed.


Derek Malenczak, MS, CPRP received his Masters Degree in Psychiatric Rehabilitation from UMDNJ in 2008, and joined the Department of Psychiatric Rehabilitation & Counseling Professions at Rutgers University as a faculty member in 2012. After spending the previous 13 years working in community mental health agencies providing recovery-oriented services to adults with mental illness, Derek successfully transitioned to academia, spending his first three years there as a Cognitive Specialist doing grant-based research in cognitive remediation for college students with psychiatric conditions. Currently Derek is a full-time lecturer, enrolled in the PhD program in his Department, and has a wide variety of research interests, including innovative online pedagogical strategies, support services for college students with psychiatric conditions, and post-secondary peer mentorship practices for this same population.

Extended Abstract

The goal of this presentation is to educate faculty, instructional design staff, and higher education administrators about students’ perceptions of online learning and how it relates to disability. We will bring to light many of the barriers associated with learning online, show how those barriers are different or the same among the general student body and various disability subgroups, and teach people strategies for minimizing the impact of these barriers, so as to provide a more inclusive online learning environment.

Students with disabilities represent a growing demographic on college campuses nationwide. Concurrently, the ubiquity of online learning has served as a powerful accessibility tool for students with a number of different disability types to obtain postsecondary education. Online education may also possess certain benefits for this population over traditional classroom learning. Students with disabilities may choose to enroll in online courses over traditional in-class courses for a myriad of reasons, as well as enjoy distinct benefits from this type of pedagogy. In addition, different disability subgroups may also experience unique challenges with online learning as compared to both other subgroups, as well as the population of students who do not have a disability.

To determine what supports are needed to help facilitate the success of students with disabilities in online education, the specific challenges and benefits of online learning for these populations need to be identified. To this end, survey research was conducted to assess, from the students’ perspective, the most important reasons for enrolling in an online course, the benefits of online learning, and the challenges of taking an online course. Similarities and differences reported by students by disability subgroup (mental/emotional, physical, learning, intellectual) can then be compared to one another, as well as to the group of participants who do not have disabilities.

Students enrolled in online courses during the Spring 2015 semester were recruited via electronic communication. Students who were enrolled in at least one online, for-credit course that semester were eligible for the study. The principal investigator sent an email to the potential participants that contained a brief explanation of the study, an invitation to participate, and a link to the informed consent and research survey. The link redirected participants to REDCap, a secure web application used by research institutions for the purpose of securely administering surveys and safeguarding confidential participant data.

We collected surveys from 1,665 college students taking online courses at Rutgers University during the Spring 2015 semester. The survey was designed specifically for this study and contained 20 multiple-choice questions. The survey asked questions related to demographics, the presence of a disability, services to treat the disability, impact the disability has had on passing traditional in-person courses and online courses, and registration with campus disability services. We also asked about the student’s field of study, year in school, prior experience with online learning, and current learning management system (LMS). The remaining questions addressed the student’s main reason(s) for choosing to enroll in an online course, the benefits the student has experienced from being in an online course, and the challenges the student has experienced from taking an online course.  

This workshop will feature an in-depth exploration of the results of this survey in a way that we hope will be helpful for its attendees as they consider students in their own online courses. First, we will present data for the entire sample based on survey results, and then we will break down the major differences between the different disability subgroups as well as theorize/speculate on these differences based on previous literature.

Overall, the results highlight many similarities across the entire student body regarding why they choose to take online courses, namely convenience and flexibility of fit within their schedules. Reported benefits of taking an online course for the most part also centered around flexibility, but participants additionally noted they found they had more time to prepare responses and study in online courses. Challenges experienced when learning online were the most heterogeneous among respondents, with a multitude of barriers frequently endorsed, though to varying degrees depending on a students’ disability type. These barriers include lack of in-person contact with the professor, difficulty with time management, and a lack of social interaction amongst peers, among others.

When presenting on the challenges of learning online, not only will different disability subgroups be compared to one another, as well as to the cohort of students without a disability, we will also provide suggestions for minimizing these barriers, so as to ensure online learning in attendees’ courses is as accessible as possible, in a continuing effort to better support learners with disabilities in online environments.