Open in New Window

Who are our learners?


In this chapter, we’ll explore concepts around diversity as well as how we can critically examine the the needs of our learners and any barriers that may exist in their success, regardless of ability.

Learning Outcomes

  • Reflect on your own learners and the inherent diversity among them
  • Consider legal obligations we have as educators
  • Identify specific opportunities and barriers that may be present for your learners in technology-enabled and online learning environments

Why is this important?

Before we jump into the details of ‘how to’ support learners using technology from an access and inclusion perspective, it’s important that we understand who our learners are and how we can support their learning. This means having a look at opportunities and considerations that can be made to ensure equity in the classroom.

Guiding Questions

As you’re reading through these materials, please consider the following questions, and take notes to ensure you understand their answers as you go.

  • How much do you know about your learners’ abilities?
  • What do you do now to ensure that all learners benefit from materials, teaching strategies, etc.
  • Consider the range of human ability and identity and consider how the technologies you currently use may impact others who may have different abilities or identities than you?

Key Readings

Cooper, M. (2006). Making online learning accessible to disabled students: an institutional case study. Association for Learning Technology Journal, 14(1), 103-115. 

Noddings, N. (2005). Identifying and responding to needs in education. Cambridge Journal of education35(2), 147-159.

Seale, J. (2006). Disability, technology and e-learning: challenging conceptions. ALT-J14(1), 1-8.


Before we jump in, it’s important to think about the terms that we use when considering access and inclusion and the use of technology Terms such as ‘Disability’ and ‘Accessibility’ evoke very different meanings, yet both are still used in a variety of contexts. There are many organisations shifting away from the use of ‘Disability’ as a part of their name because it evokes a sense that there is an ability, and certain people lack that ability. This leads to the historical narrative of ‘fixing’ something that is broken or ‘less than’ as opposed to acknowledging and celebrating human variation and ensuring that all can access what everyone else can.

In this book and key readings, there are some terms that may seem old or ‘legacy’, so as you’re reading be mindful of this phrasing and how it may be applied in your own work or learning context. Note that while this author tries to avoid using the term in every day speech and writing, ‘Disability’ continues to be used in this book when discussing relevant areas of research, governmental documentation and other sources, as it continues to be used in the names of models and other areas still use this term.

Dispelling Myths about our Students

Before we can look at the needs of our students, we should consider some ongoing myths about them. One such myth is that if teachers match instruction to learners preferred model of learning (e.g., visual, audio, kinesthetic) that learning will be improved. While no one disagrees with the fact that we have preferences for how we learn, the categorization of students as well as the assertion that learning can be improved is not supported by evidence. For more on this, check out the video in the chapter, How do we Facilitate Learning with Technology?

Researchers have for at least 10 years discounted learning styles as an appropriate method to deliver instruction, simply because there is no empirical evidence that it supports it (Newton, 2015; Reinder & Willingham, 2010). Kirschner (2017) goes further to explain that there is a clear difference between a learners personal preference for how they study, and evidence from research on teaching and learning about what works to enhance learning. Equating the two may be damaging to the student. Further, Newton & Miah (2017) found that 32% of teachers would continue to use the notion of learning styles in their teaching, even after they were presented with the lack of evidence supporting them.

Another similar idea is that of Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983), which suggests that all people have different capabilities in areas including linguistic, visuospatial, linguistic-verbal, kinesthetic, interpersonal etc. While this is an interesting point to consider, as opposed to a general intelligence that is quantifiable (like IQ), some researchers are concerned that the concept is equated to learning styles , with Gardner (1993) himself outlining they are not the same thing, nor should they be used in the same way.

With these considerations in mind, let’s move on…

What we can agree on is that everyone is different in some way, and that it may be problematic to ‘put people in boxes’, when it comes to differences in their knowledge, skills and abilities as it relates to supporting their learning.

Not making Assumptions

Adapted from Inclusive Teaching, a class produced at UBC (Vancouver Canada) in partnership with Queen’s University Kingston Ontario licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

One incredibly important aspect of understanding the needs of our students is not to assume anything about who they are. To help you think more about your students’ experiences, watch the following video created by Stanford’s student-run First-Generation and/or Low-Income Partnership (FLIP). The program called “What I Wish My Professor Knew” was created to help Stanford faculty understand how their classroom practices and statements could contribute to First-Generation and/or Low-Income students feeling alienated or welcomed at Stanford.

What I wish my Professor Knew (via Youtube)

What do you think your students would say?

In Australia, we use the term First in Family to describe students who are the first in their family to attend university. These students may require more support as they may not be acclimatised the culture of university, having not had family members pass through this system. Additionally, for indigenous students their experiences may be more challenging, as our mainstream education systems may not embed indigenous world views, ways or learning or connection to community and country as a part of their approach.

Diversity in Education

A nature of being a student, teacher, administrator or anyone involved in process or goal of education is that all learners are different. Historically, diversity has been viewed through many different lenses, some considered mildly to incredibly problematic by today’s standards. NSW Dept of Education refers to Diversity and inclusion with the following statement

“Inclusive education means that all students can access and fully participate in learning, alongside their similar-aged peers, supported by reasonable adjustments and teaching strategies tailored to meet their individual needs.”

Retrieved from NSW Dept. of Education, Learning from Home.

Diversity in education, exactly like diversity outside the classroom, stems from what makes us all unique from our family histories, cultural identity, gender identity, socioeconomic histories, languages spoken, physical ability, cognitive ability, genetic makeup, and even our thoughts, and political leanings. Some diversity is innate, some is socialised and culturally constructed, but regardless of the source, it does lead to different levels of privilege that shape our thoughts and actions.

When it comes to technology, how we access, use and leverage hardware, software and other tools is as unique as we are, however simply put, sometimes technologies are not built with this assumption in mind, which is what this book is all about. While this book cannot cover the range of diversity and how technology may impact its use, readers are encouraged to explore further on issues both raised and not raised throughout this and subsequent chapters.

Student Diversity Overview (via YouTube)

When considering the needs of our learners, there are many approaches we can take, and when it comes to technology in education, the first aspect of diversity we need to examine is that of diversity in ability.

Models of Disability

Historically, there have been 2 models of disability – the Medical and Social model. As outlined in the diagrams below, both present disability from alternating viewpoints, with one from the viewpoint of the disabled and the other from an external (and seemingly cold) party. When we examine these models through a lens of technology (whether for learning or otherwise) parallels can be drawn by the simple fact that some technologies are not designed for everyone, while others are. As educators, when we work with technologies in the classroom or online, being aware of this fact can help us to make appropriate choices in the selection and adoption of technologies to support our teaching.

Image courtesy of Inclusion London
Image courtesy of Inclusion London

Types of Disabilities

Crow (2008) outlines 4 types of disabilities that we need to be aware of, related to differences in ability including Visual, Hearing, Motor and Cognitive abilities. It is important however to understand that often we have intersecting levels of ability that exist on a spectrum, and that categorising our students into one ‘box’ may not fully represent their life experience, so as you’re researching and considering the needs of your learners, also be aware that older sources discussing ‘disability’ may take a stance that is perhaps outdated.

Beyond these categorised and often ‘seen’ disabilities, there are also hidden disabilities – that is disabilities that are not overtly identifiable to others. As Wolf (2001) found over 20 years ago, students learning disabilities, ADHD, and other cognitive or psychiatric differences faced challenges including overlapping diagnoses, social challenges and other factors that affected their learning, noting importantly that some challenges to learning were both intrinsic to the learner and extrinsic, related to institutional limitations in the support provided to these learners. Nevertheless, students with so-called ‘hidden disabilities’ increased in their self-reporting of these disabilities over time.

Documented and undocumented Disabilities

In many contexts, those with different abilities usually need to self-identify in order to access support services and accomodations (changes to their experience that can support their learning). While the stigma around self-reporting has definitely reduced in recent years, in some learning cultures and contexts this stigma is very much alive, leading many students who actually need support to not access it. When designing learning experiences for students, its important to understand this, and to design proactively so that even those who are not comfortable self-reporting still benefit from how we can support them.

Speed of processing new information

Another consideration is the existence of a culture around learning that everyone must progress at the same speed, and everyone must progress in the same way. This culture around education, reinforced through standardised testing and other mechanisms may not be the most helpful. For students with learning disabilities, mental health challenges, or simply other responsibilities that take up headspace, these individuals simply may not be able to focus attention and process information as fast as others. We all work and learn at different speeds, so we need to take this into account, that everyone will get to where they need to be, they might just get there at a different pace, and they may even get there in ways that their instructors never anticipated.

What does the Law say?

In many countries, there is legislation in place to ensure that diversity and different abilities should not serve as barriers to access or learning. In the united states, the American’s with Disabilities Act (1990) outlines specifically how ability should not form the grounds of any discrimination, going so far as to outline that anything produced by any government body in the country must be accessible.

In Australia, we have the Disability Disctrimination Act of 1992 and borne from that, the Disability Standards for Education (2005) that provides actionable guidance on definitions, adjustments and other mechanisms to support learners. Check out the NCCD’s page on the standards for more.

Student Needs

In educational settings, we continually discuss our students’ needs. From designing lessons catered to a specific age group or demographic, to embedding adjustments or differentiation techniques, the ways in which we engage in this work is important, and becomes all the more nuanced when we start to think about the breadth and depth of technologies we use to engage in the learning process.

Below is presented just a few ways in which we can consider the diversity amongst our learners.

  • Cultural and Linguistic Differences
  • Age Differences
  • SOGIESC (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression, and Sex Characteristics)
  • Neurodiversity
  • Acquired Brain Injury
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders
  • Different Abilities
  • Differences in Hearing and Vision
  • Differences in Mobility
  • Differences in Learning
  • Other Differences
  • Chronic Medical Conditions
  • Mental Health Issues
  • Historical and Traumatic Experiences

When it comes to disability, Roberts et al., (2011) found that students with disabilities perceived their different abilities to have a negative impact on learning in an online environment, but found that the institution they were studying with did a good job of accomodating their needs to support their learning. This links into the common practice in education of providing supports, either in the form of human resources or augmentations or additions to the use of learning technologies to support the students. These changes and addition of supports is usually called an ‘accomodation’. This approach could be considered reative, that is – responding to the needs of the learners after their needs and barriers affecting them have been identified, as opposed to considering their needs and any potential barriers beforehand.

When we look at the technologies we use, from video-chat software, to content presentation platforms and Learning Management Systems (LMS’s), each presents their own set of opportunities and considerations that need to be addressed. As educators however, it’s important that we engage actively in this space, designing learning experiences that promote inclusion and ensure access in an active, not reactive manner.

Barriers to Online Learning

Historically, online learning has presented some more barriers to success, regardless of student ability. As Muilenburg and Berge (2005) point out, these barriers include technical barriers, administration, motivation, academic skills and administrative functions involved in learning using technology. As the ubiquity of connected technologies increases, the ways in which all learners can affect everyone differently, regardless of ability.

As Khalid and Pederson (2016) describe in their literature review of digital exclusion, barriers can come in the following categories:

  • Social Exclusion, meaning low SES, avoidance of technology, lack of motivation, or physical / psychological differences.
  • Digital Exclusion, meaning lack of available hardware or access to the internet.
  • Accessibility, meaning differences in rural / urban learners, digital and information literacies.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, every learner is now an online learner and every teacher, and online teacher. The ways in which we used to discuss barriers was primary through the lens of different abilities, however it is


Baticulon et al. (2021) found that out of 3670, only 41% of medical students surveyed in the Phillipines thought of themselves as physically and mentally able to adapt to their online studies. Reasons included a lack of ability to adjust to a new learning modality, lack of clarity of instructions from teachers, lack of physical space to effectively engage in online learning, time required for home responsibilities and others. While this is just one study, it presents an interesting dynamic in terms of how we can effectively reach and teach online learners during international health crises and beyond, and we’re still learning the effects of the sudden transition to online learning for many learners and educators worldwide.

Access and Ability

Burgstahler (2015) suggests that the very nature of online learnings presents barriers to students who have different abilities, down to how content is presented, how students are expected to engage and how students are assessed. When we consider what DOES work for technology-enabled and online learning, such as the use of video and animations to support learning of complex processes, and the use of audio narration to support the same (see Mayer’s Theory of Multimedia Learning), sometimes these ‘best practices’ may be in direct conflict with ensuring barriers are reduced.

In this area, examples to barriers may include, but are definitely not limited to:

  • Video without captions present barriers for D/deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals
  • Pictures and diagrams present barriers for Blind and people with different visual abilities (e.g., colourblindness)
  • Poorly organised content and menus may present barriers for attentional differences
  • Dominant-culture language materials may present barriers for learners with English as an additional Language / Dialect.

Further, we always need to be mindful of how our learners abilities affect basic tenets of their learning experience. In a study by Fuller et al. (2004), the researchers gathered interesting insights into how learner’s abilities affected their choice of university, how they were able to access information, their experience interacting with instructors and classmates, as well as how they expressed themselves, and shared about themselves. While it may be quite clear how we can support students with clear differences in abilities, there is so much variation on our learners’ experiences that a ‘one size fits all’ approach may not be always appropriate.

Unterfrauner, E., & Weiermair-Märki (2008) conducted a survey of teachers, students, technical support and educational developers to explore the barriers that may exist for technology accessibility work in technology-enabled and online learning environments. What they found was barriers could be broken down into 5 different categories.

  • Technical – technology simply couldn’t accomodate the needs of learners, in terms of creation and interoperability of systems
  • Financial – there was limited or no budget to support learners with different abilities.
  • Pedagogical – there was a lack of training or professional learning for instructional staff to design instruction in more accessible ways.
  • Attitudinal – when staff underestimate or misunderstand what was required to support learners
  • Institutional – acknowledging the limitations of large organisations to tackle the problem

Implementing Accessibility

McAndrew, Farrow and Cooper (2012) explored the practices in supporting students with different abilities at multiple universities and suggested a framework for professionally addressing their needs focusing on 3 areas:

  • positioning the university as a positive provider to disabled students;
  • developing processes, systems and services to give personal help;
  • and planning online materials which include alternatives.

This approach to leadership in accessibility can help us as teachers to situate and understand how access issues are supported in our own workplaces and learning contexts. If communication around accessibility and the allocation of human and technical resources are at a different level than they could be, then we can start to think about the best way to support our students, and how to improve our practices.

Being Proactive vs. Reactive

As Seale (2006) mentions, there are differing levels of responsibility we all have as educators to design instruction, learning materials and teaching approaches to ensure everyone can benefit from them. In the next chapters of this book, we’ll start to have a look at ways we can shift away from the use of accomodations, to an approach that is more proactive to ensure that more learners (and ideally all learners) can have the same opportunity for success and the same learning experience as others.

As we consider the interventions we can make as teachers, learning designers or leaders in an educational setting, it’s important that we make note of any proactive changes we can make to learning experiences, technologies used, and even ways information is presented so that more learners can benefit from them. As Cooper (2006) mentions, “Good design for disabled people is good design for all.” (p.104)

Are barriers to learning with technology the result of the student, or the design of technologies, learning materials, activities and assessments they are engaging with?

(This is a rhetorical question)

Key Take-Aways

  • All people, and therefore all learners are different, and there are many pedagogical frameworks to support this diversity in learners
  • There are usually legal and organisational requirements to ensure equity of access as well as inclusion in educational settings
  • The barriers present for online learners, are not always tied to their ability, but we should be mindful that how we support students of all abilities is the goal.

Revisit Guiding Questions

Now that you’ve read through this chapter, consider how you teach and learn now, and how you may have taught and learnt in the past. Awareness of how our colleagues and students are different, and how they are similar can be a good starting point to considering how we can empower all learners and celebrate their diversity.

Conclusion / Next Steps

Now that we have a foundation for who our learners are and some of the common concepts and ideas that may lead to inequitable learning experiences, in the next chapter we’ll look at how we can empower learners with technology, including specific strategies and mechanisms to do so.


Baticulon, R. E., Sy, J. J., Alberto, N. R. I., Baron, M. B. C., Mabulay, R. E. C., Rizada, L. G. T., … & Reyes, J. C. B. (2021). Barriers to online learning in the time of COVID-19: A national survey of medical students in the Philippines. Medical science educator31(2), 615-626.

Burgstahler, S. (2015). Opening doors or slamming them shut? Online learning practices and students with disabilities. Social Inclusion3(6), 69-79.

Crow, K. (2008). Four types of disabilities: Their impact on online learning. TechTrends, 52(1), 51-55.

Kolb., D. (1981). Learning Styles and Disciplinary Differences.

Fuller, M., Healey, M., Bradley, A., & Hall, T. (2004). Barriers to learning: a systematic study of the experience of disabled students in one university. Studies in Higher Education, 29(3), 303-318.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The theory of Multiple Intelligences.

Gardner, H. (1995). Reflections on multiple intelligences: Myths and messages. Phi Delta Kappan77, 200-200.

Khalid, M. S., & Pedersen, M. J. L. (2016). Digital exclusion in higher education contexts: A systematic literature review. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences228, 614-621.

McAndrew, P., Farrow, R., & Cooper, M. (2012). Adapting online learning resources for all: planning for professionalism in accessibility. Research in Learning Technology20(4), 345-361.

Newton, P. M. (2015). The learning styles myth is thriving in higher education. Frontiers in psychology6, 1908.

Newton, P. M., & Miah, M. (2017). Evidence-based higher education–is the learning styles ‘myth’ important?. Frontiers in psychology8, 444.

Kirschner, P. A. (2017). Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers & Education106, 166-171.

Muilenburg, L. Y., & Berge, Z. L. (2005). Student barriers to online learning: A factor analytic study. Distance education26(1), 29-48

Riener, C., & Willingham, D. (2010). The myth of learning styles. Change: The magazine of higher learning42(5), 32-35.

Roberts, J. B., Crittenden, L. A., & Crittenden, J. C. (2011). Students with disabilities and online learning: A cross-institutional study of perceived satisfaction with accessibility compliance and services. The Internet and Higher Education14(4), 242-250.

Unterfrauner, E., & Weiermair-Märki, C. (2008). E-Accessibility in Higher Education Institutions. Paper presented at the World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications, Vienna, Austria.

Wolf, L. E. (2001). College students with ADHD and other hidden disabilities: Outcomes and interventions. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences931(1), 385-395.

Did this chapter help you learn?

100% of 2 voters found this helpful.

Last Modified on June 14th, 2022 at 1:13 pm by Stoo Sepp | BookSS Theme, 2021.

All original content in this book is licenced under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License unless otherwise noted.

Embedded videos, credited images / media are not inclusive of this license, so please check with the original creators if you wish to use them.