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How Online Education Helps Marginalized University Students

A group of articles recently emerged in the press on a topic that seems surprising to many. These stories explore how significant numbers of college and graduate students don’t want to return to classrooms again as if it were 2019. Instead, they prefer to continue with online education as they did during the pandemic.

This especially appears to be a sentiment shared widely among marginalized students. That group includes students from factions traditionally underrepresented in higher education, along with the one-fifth of American college students who live with disabilities. That 20 percent amounted to about 3.24 million students in 2022.

As early as mid-2021, coverage of this issue started appearing on mainstream media and TV network outlets not known for their early reporting of online education trends. CNBC provides a good example of this coverage with its story “As College Students Head Back to Class, Some Say Benefits of Online Learning Should Not Be Forgotten,” which ran on July 29, 2021.

Below we review some of the best recent reports about how marginalized students benefit from online instruction.

A sociology professor at Denison University northeast of Columbus, Dr. Karen Powell Sears wondered why one of her students told her after the university’s lockdown ended that being back on campus in some ways was harder.

Dr. Sears wanted to know if other students felt the same way, so she asked them. The resulting interviews with her students surprised her because they revealed that in-person learning presented challenges that made learning not easier, but more difficult for certain students.

This astute op-ed, published in Inside Higher Ed, summarizes five of the most frequently mentioned themes that Dr. Sears heard during those interviews with her students about how online learning helped them the most. Here are a few that stand out.

Remote Classes Increase Accommodations

At the top of Dr. Sears’ list is the observation that remote classes better accommodate students with disabilities. She points out that student needs for accommodations—like more accessible visual and auditory learning materials and longer time to complete exams—often exceed the capabilities of universities to provide them in person.

But she also emphasizes that many students won’t ask for those accommodations in person because they believe that the stigma resulting from those requests outweighs any benefits. That’s because the effects of stigmatization would reduce their ability to fit in—others might view them as “abnormal” or “different.” In fact, in 2022, almost two-thirds of college students eligible for accommodations (63 percent) did not request them. That means they can’t take advantage of forms of support to which they’re entitled under federal laws and administrative regulations.

Dr. Sears also offers an insightful observation that many students with undocumented disabilities find it easier to accommodate their own disabilities through online instruction away from campus. Moreover, she points out that only through the use of online classrooms could some students meet certain needs created by their disabilities for the first time.

For example, Zoom has a function that transcribes meeting audio in real time, allowing participants to simultaneously read and listen to the soundtrack of a meeting discussion. Students with hearing issues could use this function with their virtual classrooms online, but this capability would not normally be available to them within a physical classroom on campus.

Virtual Learning Enhances Educational Equity and Equality Among Students

Dr. Sears points out that “back corners” don’t exist in remote classes. Every student has an equal opportunity to participate on Zoom’s “Hollywood Squares” grid. That means introverted students no longer face the kinds of disadvantages they encounter during in-person classes.

She also argues that online classrooms diminish the advantages some students enjoy from their soft skills, and force students to focus on their academic competencies instead:

…students who leaned into their soft skills to advance in an in-person classroom were forced to focus on their academic competencies in an online setting. Many students who are good at building relationships with professors and commanding course discussions without relying on substantive interrogation of the material were challenged in structured activities that required them to provide tangible work products in group or individual assignments.

Dr. Sears then shares another perceptive observation. Many professors grade based on class participation. But unless they’ve hired a stenographer, professors who teach in-person classes must evaluate that participation from memory. Zoom classes produce chat logs and transcripts that provide records of that participation, which professors can then use to assign fairer and more accurate grades.

Online Classes Feel More Inclusive

Her nonwhite and international students told Dr. Sears that their classes at Dennison felt less alienating as online versions because significant differences were less pronounced. For example, ESL (English as a second language) students said they could participate more during remote class sessions because they had real-time access to language support resources unavailable in person.

As a private and overwhelmingly white institution with 85 percent white students, 81 percent white faculty, and 92 percent white staff, it’s easy to see how those students could feel alienated. That’s because polling suggests that Dennison may have a significant problem with discrimination. For example, here are the percentages of students in a 2018 survey currently appearing on the university’s official website who said they felt discrimination:

Asian 57
Black 53
Hispanic 33
White 21

She also speculates that students in online classrooms may have felt fewer social barriers that might inhibit them in person from attempting to engage in interactions with those from different backgrounds: “Many of the nonverbal gestures that may inhibit people from different backgrounds from getting to know one another, such as a prolonged curious stare or an expression of unease, are removed in the virtual classroom,” says Dr. Sears.

Educational Access for Students with Disabilities

Two of the best studies of disabled students’ adaption to online education were led by Dr. Joseph Madaus and Dr. Nicholas Gelbar of the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education.

This article from the university’s magazine UConn Today discusses some of their discoveries, and why both non-disabled as well as disabled individuals need to know about them. In light of these findings, the piece also explores why many students with disabilities hope that they’ll be able to continue with online education post-pandemic.

The two surveys conducted in 2020 and 2021 reported that colleges and universities sufficiently addressed disabled students’ needs for accommodations during the pandemic. However, they appear to have done somewhat better during the earlier 2020 study.

In that survey, about 71 percent of the respondents reported receiving at least five in-person accommodations before switching to remote learning. Almost 79 percent received extended time limits during examinations, and two-thirds received testing environments that reduced or eliminated distractions. Other common in-person accommodations included recorded lectures or classes (39 percent), support from a notetaker or copies of classroom notes (37 percent), and access to assistive technologies (26 percent).

But one particularly remarkable finding is that remote learning obviated students’ needs for many of those accommodations. For example, after switching to online learning, 58 percent of the respondents reported needing different accommodations, and 47 percent reported that they didn’t need some of their accommodations at all. The researchers point out that video of a lesson would eliminate students’ needs for several in-person accommodations all at once, including an audio recording, preferential seating, and possibly a notetaker.

Another of these studies’ key insights is that improving accessibility doesn’t only benefit disabled students, but benefits all students. For example, recorded lectures that also offer features like closed captioning, pause-capable forward/rewind access, and transcripts will help students learn more effectively even if they don’t have disabilities.

These advantages are unavailable from live in-person lectures, but in 2022 are now routinely provided along with most recorded lectures within online virtual classrooms. Dr. Gelbar explains to the magazine that “in the online format, we can make things more accessible to students, and the more that we do that proactively, it’s not only benefiting students with disabilities but all students.”

Dr. Madaus also explains that the addition of recorded lectures with features like these supports the equity and inclusion principles advocated by the Universal Design for Learning model. Introduced in 1984 by the Boston-based Center for Applied Special Technology, the UDL Guidelines teach that university faculty should always implement pedagogical approaches that enable different learning methods, so long as they never compromise educational quality.

The UConn team’s first paper, “Experiences of Students with Disabilities During the COVID-19 Interruption of In-Person Instruction,” was published by the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability. Written by an expanded team of seven researchers, their second paper, “What Happened Next? The Experiences of Postsecondary Students With Disabilities as Colleges and Universities Reconvened During the Pandemic” appeared in the May 2022 issue of Frontiers in Psychology.

Reducing Racism and Ableism in the Classroom

This article provides one of the best summaries of why many minority students would prefer to stay remote, such as the 60 percent of Hispanic students and 68 percent of Black students cited by CNBC who feel positive about virtual education. EdTech Magazine Editor J.P. Pressley points out some ways that college life can be extraordinarily challenging for racially diverse students, especially if they’re studying at predominantly white universities exposed to systemic bias and microaggressions.

The piece quotes Dr. Raechele Pope, one of the nation’s leading experts on equity, diversity, and inclusion in higher education, as well as the chief diversity officer at the State University of New York’s Buffalo campus:

Being online decreased time on campus, where many students of color experience racism either via microaggressions or more overt forms of hostility or racism, either in the classroom or on the campus itself. There is significant data, both anecdotal and from empirical studies, suggesting that being away from those experiences may have positive mental health effects.

Dr. Pope also observes that students of color often have work and family responsibilities they need to prioritize, and the flexibility of online courses enables them to more easily balance their schoolwork with those obligations. This is one of the factors driving the exploding demand for online education from community colleges, as we reported in a recent feature article here on OnlineEducation entitled “Overwhelming Online Course Demand Reshapes Community Colleges in California.” In fact, in the California Community Colleges system, during 2020, the percentage of nonwhite students reached 77 percent, with Hispanic students amounting to almost half the total enrollment and Asian, Filipino, and Pacific Islander students totaling about 15 percent.

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.