Is online and digital learning really as accessible and inclusive as we’d like to think?

Adrian J. Wallbank, Lecturer in Educational Development, Oxford Centre for Academic Enhancement and Development, Oxford Brookes University

There can be no doubt that the acceleration of online and digital learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought many benefits in terms of flexibility, timetabling and even sustainability, but is it really as accessible and inclusive as we like to think? Many institutions certainly seem to think so. The University of Surrey’s Education Strategy (2018-2022), for instance, aims to increase the ‘accessibility’ of learning materials through recordings and digital provision – an aim which ‘helps to provide a more inclusive learning environment…which is responsive to diverse learning preferences’ (p.2). Similarly, the University of Leeds sees digital education as key to pedagogic ‘transformation’ and as playing ‘a leading role in the strategic aim of growing our provision of accessible, inclusive and inspirational digital education opportunities for all’ (p. 5). Such statements are typical, and are often encapsulated, reinforced and perpetuated through the labelling of online platforms, Apps or software as ‘assistive’, ‘enabled’ or ‘enhanced’. However, the assumption that online or digital learning fosters accessibility and inclusion is not as unproblematic as it is made out, especially as it pertains to individuals with neurodiverse conditions such as dyslexia.
One of the main issues individuals with dyslexia struggle with is cognitive overload as a result of impaired and limited working memory. Working memory is a little like a computer’s RAM – have too many applications or browsers open and either the computer or the bandwidth (or both), will fail.  Additionally, however, as recent research has revealed, such individuals have strengths in holistic thinking, joining the dots, and have brains optimised for search and exploration rather than detail (Taylor and Vestergaard, 2022) Consequently, whilst these individuals may be quick, holistic thinkers, the trade-off is that they are easily distracted and cognitively overwhelmed. This is where online and digital learning can become problematic. Simply put, online platforms and digital technologies can be too slow, too unreliable, present too many distractions, and place barriers upon the ability of the working memory (which is often impaired) to engage in instantaneous, holistic, ‘big picture’ thinking. Problems often occur in relation to multitasking or when there are simultaneous cognitive demands that slow the brain’s ability to make connections. Typical triggers can be hopping from one login to another – often on different devices (e.g. Mentimeter), unnecessary prompts to create accounts, moving transcripts in recordings, (sometimes with incorrect or misleading notation), switching of individuals in meetings without being able to see the class as a whole (e.g. Zoom / Teams classes or recordings), the movement of the video sections at the bottom of the recording (Panopto), having multiple tabs open or having to switch between tabs as part of a session (unless you have multiple screens, once one tab is open, the others disappear, so a holistic, ‘big picture view is lost), update, email or social media notifications, chat occurring simultaneously with other inputs, multiple navigation tools, and in particular, the inability to instantaneously see the ‘big picture’ and make connections in mind mapping or collaborative online tools (e.g. Padlet, Miro Board) or panes that move around as others contribute. Often, the dyslexic individual is frustrated and overwhelmed by trying to make sense of these cognitive burdens whilst simultaneously trying to make or understand connections between the disparate elements when such connections may not even exist – a version of what has been termed the ‘paradox of dyslexia’ (Shaywitz, 1996). Recent research has suggested that up to 94% of students have moderate or considerable difficulty with online learning (Peper et al, 2021) – imagine what it must be like for students with the so-called ‘disability’ that is dyslexia.

We are repeatedly told that online / digital technologies render the learning experience ‘enhanced’, ‘assisted’, ‘enabled’, ‘accessible’ and thus ‘inclusive’. It certainly can be, but teaching staff, I would argue, need to scaffold and manage online learning far more explicitly and carefully than in traditional face-to-face scenarios if we are to incorporate such technologies in a way that is inclusive. We are encouraged to believe that good teaching is good teaching, irrespective of the platform, and that learning is effective when it is active, collaborative, dialogic, and dependent upon fostering an effective ‘teaching presence’ (e.g. Anderson et al, 2001, Laurillard, 2002 Pearson 2016). This is certainly true, but little attention has been paid to the need to reduce or manage the additional cognitive burdens encountered by students with SpLDS when utilising learning technologies or online platforms.  Arguably, this is not just important as it constitutes a ‘reasonable adjustment’ under the Equality Act (2010), but part and parcel of making teaching inclusive and as a ‘route to excellence’ (Layer)). Whilst progress has certainly been made, weeding out or at least managing / scaffolding  the ‘clunkiness’ of online platforms and digital learning technologies (or making such technologies more intuitive) is crucial if the deployment of such technologies is to be truly inclusive and accessible. 

Adrian Wallbank is Lecturer in Educational Development at the Oxford Centre for Academic Enhancement and Development, Oxford Brookes University, where he leads the General Teaching Associates course, teaches across the EXPLORE staff development programme, leads on assessment for the core IDEAS Inclusive Curriculum Development model, and convenes the Brookes International HE Reading Group. 

Adrian has research and teaching interests in academic writing, dyslexia and inclusion, neurodiversity, transition pedagogies, Universal Design for Learning, one-to-one pedagogies, and the philosophy of Higher Education. As a successful academic with dyslexia, Adrian is passionate about inclusion and works tirelessly to help enable both students and staff to achieve their full academic and professional potential. Adrian is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and is currently working on two new books relating to academic writing, assessment and inclusion, and Foundation Year pedagogies. 

Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D.R. & Archer, W. (2001), ‘Assessing Teaching Presence in a Computer Conferencing Context’. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, (5)2. Available from:  from
Laurillard, D., (2002), Rethinking University Teaching. A Conversational Framework for the Effective use of Learning Technologies. London: Routledge.
Layer, G. Department for Education, (2017), Inclusive Teaching and Learning in Higher Education as a route to Excellence. Available from: GOV.UK.
Pearson. (2016), Teaching Presence White Paper. Available from:
Peper, Erik, Wilson, Vietta, Martin, Marc, Rosegard, Erik and Harvey, Richard. (2021). ‘Avoid Zoom Fatigue, Be Present and Learn’. NeuroRegulation, 8, pp.47-56.
Shaywitz, Sally, E., (1996) ‘Dyslexia’, Scientific American, 275:5. Available at:
Taylor, Helen, and Vestergaard, Martin David, (2022) ‘Developmental Dyslexia: Disorder or Specialisation in Exploration?’, Frontiers in Psychology, 13, pp.1-19.
University of Leeds, (2021), ‘Digital Education Service Strategy’. Available from:
University of Surrey, (2018), ‘Education Strategy 2018-2022’. Available from: 

1 thought on “Is online and digital learning really as accessible and inclusive as we’d like to think?

  1. Dear Adrian,

    Should you be looking for a case study regarding your blog – Is online and digital learning really as accessible and inclusive as we’d like to think? – you could do worse than look at us!

    Community Governance Cert HE, FdA and BA Hons courses, offered primarily via online learning; to part-time, mature, parish and town clerks, with home/ elder/ childcare responsibilities, scattered across Wales and England. Most interaction is via Zoom/TEAMS, email, mobile, VLE (Blackboard); backed up with once each semester face-to-face residential schools. These courses are the only ones tailored to the needs of UK parish sector staff (and councillors).

    Our students are highly committed, not least because they are either paid for by their employer (council) or self-fund; in our particular case I would therefore challenge the assertion that up to 94% of our “students have moderate or considerable difficulty with online learning (Peper et al, 2021) – imagine what it must be like for students with the so-called ‘disability’ that is dyslexia.” In fact we do have and support some students with dyslexia, or who are on a spectrum of conditions (e.g. Autism)

    Our courses are a partnership between the Society of Local Council Clerks, and De Montfort University (Leicester)


    James (Derounian) PhD National Teaching Fellow

    Dr James Derounian National Teaching Fellow Direct: 0781 351 6883 Web: 🌲 Consider the environment. Do you really need to print this email? The Society of Local Council Clerks is a company limited by guarantee and registered in England and Wales with company registration number 10566132. Registered office: Suite 2.01, Collar Factory, 112 St Augustine Street, Taunton, Somerset, TA1 1QN.


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