ECAR Study of the Technology Needs of Students with Disabilities, 2020

Online Access to Materials and Resources

The most prominent theme we identified concerned the students’ need to have online access to course materials and resources. The responses illustrated a desire to have increased access to class/lecture notes and slides; assignments, tests, and quizzes; and recorded or streaming lectures. Students expressed the importance of having course materials organized for ease of navigation and use in the online learning environment, as well as having instructors adopt or increase their use of the institution’s LMS.

Class Notes and Slides

"Put all of the notes online."

The materials that students with disabilities most commonly requested to be online were class/lecture notes and presentation slides; these account for over half of their responses. Many students specifically asked that class slides from PowerPoint presentations and instructor notes of what was covered in class be posted online. When students offered reasons for wanting materials shared online, their responses were frequently related to a desire to study this content outside the classroom. As one student told us:

Some professors do a better job than others of putting lecture notes online. More professors could have information from class more easily accessible for students who would like to review the information outside of class.

Many of the respondents also noted how important it was for them to have notes and slides ahead of time so they could prepare for class, follow along during class, and supplement those materials with their own ideas. ("I can use them to write notes and add to the lecture notes on the paper.") Some of their answers also suggest that students are concerned about falling behind with their note-taking. For example, a third-year health sciences major said that if more instructors would share their materials online, then "we are able to have their notes and not miss important things if you can't keep up with note pace."

Other students discussed their need for having online access to these resources ahead of time in terms of their disability and/or the accommodation they received from their office of student disability:

Ensure digital copies of slides are always available before class, to allow for reading during class (eyesight disability). It's stated as a requirement from [disability services],1  but for some instructors, it can be almost impossible to get such access.

As a student with a learning disability, I do not retain information from lectures; I go home and teach myself. I appreciate instructors who post all class content online, and I especially appreciate it ahead of time. That way I can go to class prepared, and I have access to these resources when I am studying at home.

These examples demonstrate that having class notes and presentation slides is critical to students' engagement with their coursework and overall learning. For example, students with sensory disabilities, such as the student who mentioned eyesight, might not be able to see the slides projected in the classroom. Having slides and/or notes beforehand allows students to print them, enlarge them if necessary, and bring them to class and use as a guide. When instructors provide these digitized materials, students can also access them via their own devices during class and view them in a size and format they know works best for them. Those with language processing disorders might also need more time to study the class material.2  Many students experience steep barriers to full participation if they are not given access to these online materials both before and after in-person meetings.

Assignments, Tests, and Quizzes

"They should use technology to allow people to take more tests online."

Students also frequently said having more assignments, tests, and quizzes online would improve their academic success (e.g., "Put quizzes and exams online," "all tests online"). Many said they want to take assessments online so that they can control their testing environment. For example, one student told us, "Giving all exams and quizzes online would be the biggest help, as it would allow me to work in a quiet place with no distractions." Another respondent stated that online testing allows them "to be sure I have a well-suited environment for my session."

"Giving all exams and quizzes online would be the biggest help, as it would allow me to work in a quiet place with no distractions."

Those who wanted more online submission of assignments noted that this format helps them save on printing costs and trips to the classroom. Offering an option to turn in assignments online can be especially helpful to students who have conditions that impact their ability to be physically present in class. One student explained that "turning in homework online would be ideal, considering walking is exhausting [and] my physical disabilities keep me home a lot." Submitting work online might also help students who have learning disabilities that affect their attention and organizational skills.3  As one student wrote, "Online homework submission drastically helps with me actually getting completed assignments in, which has been a struggle since elementary school."

Offering all students—not just students with disabilities—multiple options for submitting work allows them to choose the format that is most appropriate for their needs. As outlined in the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), providing learners with multiple means of action and expression acknowledges the different ways that individuals "can navigate a learning environment" and share what they know.4  Providing more opportunities for students to test online using their own devices can also ease some of the resource burden that disability service offices experience when providing alternative testing sites and proctors for students who need them.

Recorded Lectures

"Record and post lectures online so we can go back over what was taught."

Many of the respondents in our study told us that they'd like their instructors to record their lectures (e.g., "record lectures," "upload lectures," "post the lectures online"), and they said that having access to review them later would boost their learning. For example: "Provide recordings of classes through an online portal to disabled students with attendance, sensory disability, and/or comprehension issues related to their disabilities."

Some respondents also referenced the use of specific lecture-capture and recording platforms (e.g., Panopto, Echo360), which suggests that they know these platforms could be used in class. The most common reason given for wanting lectures online was the need to review material that could have been missed during class. One student said that having lecture recordings would be especially helpful for picking up information she might miss in her note-taking when the "instructors go too fast and move on to the next topic." Another suggested, "Most of my instructors are already amplified through a microphone. Why not record it? It really helps if the instructor talks too fast to understand the lecture." Such a format gives learners the chance to start, stop, and review content at their own pace and on their own time. As one student pointed out, hearing a lecture more than once via a recording "aids my comprehension and studying."

Other respondents discussed how important lecture capture is for sick days and that such a resource "can be a life-saver if an illness causes an extended absence." Lecture capture can make courses more accessible to students who have a variety of conditions, such as a chronic illness, limited mobility, or disorders that are so severe that physically being in class hinders their learning.5  Several students also wanted to watch class via live streaming. An engineering student reflected on why this would be important to him: "I would like to watch the lectures [in] real time and be able to ask questions [in] real time, but also have the recording to go back to if needed."

The LMS and the User Experience

"Actually use Canvas."

In their open responses, students frequently talked about the importance of the LMS,6  and two prominent patterns emerged: students want their instructors to adopt or increase the use of the LMS, and they want their LMS course sites to be user friendly. Many of the responses suggest that some instructors do not use the LMS at all. ("Use Blackboard more often. Some professors love it, but a lot refuse to use it.") And for some students, this can be frustrating. For example:

Properly utilize Canvas, or just use it at all. I've only had about 50% of my instructors use it, and the rest don't want to learn how to use it.

I won't even take classes with the professors who don't use Canvas. It's far too inconvenient and roundabout to not use the program that was designed for a classroom setting. We made these programs to make education easier and more effective; I would rather take a class that uses it.

A few students stated that using the LMS should be required for instructors. Others also said that using one LMS platform consistently would enhance their academic success, as managing different platforms could be challenging or even expensive:

Either all use Blackboard or all don't. Professors are increasingly using other sources like Google Classroom to manage their class rather than Blackboard. Everyone needs to jump ship or stay onboard. I hate using different sites to complete tasks.

Most of my classes use Blackboard, but most semesters I have one or two classes that use another website or organization that often requires you to pay for a subscription out of pocket.

The most common suggestion from students to instructors, however, was to ensure that their LMS course site is organized and easy to navigate. Students discussed the need for course sites that are intuitively structured, clearly labeled, and updated. Their comments suggest some have had experiences wherein materials were difficult to locate, with assignments "scattered everywhere." A first-year business major told us, "Some files are incredibly hard to find because teachers put them under different places," and another added that finding what they need can "sometimes be confusing." Several respondents suggested that having a consistent organizational layout for LMS courses would be a helpful time-saver. One student said that finding the syllabus or assignments can be time-consuming "because there is no uniformity in using the learning platform among instructors at my institution."

Respondents also said that having LMS sites updated regularly, with live links and current dates for assignments, would help their learning: "Keep modules organized, listing weekly class info with dates. Verify [that] links and documents are accessible to students in every semester; some links direct to [an] error webpage." This comment is a reminder of the importance of formatting documents and other web materials following Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 so that all students, regardless of the kinds of assistive or accessible technology they might or might not need, can access the course content.

EDUCAUSE research on faculty and information technology has consistently found that "the most common faculty uses of the LMS are all operational, course management functions…that require little or no interaction between the instructor and the student."7  A portion of the responses in this study demonstrate that some students want their instructors to leverage more of the advanced features of their institution's LMS, including the online gradebook, to enhance their academic experience. As one student told us, "I don't feel like instructors use programs like Blackboard to their fullest extent." A social sciences major at a public institution went further and recommended adopting specific tools within the LMS:

I would like them to use D2L with accuracy, consistency, and to its full capacity. Use the checklist function, label your readings by week, update grades, and communicate changes via announcements. (Ex: date your syllabus; if you change it, tell us!) Most teachers use the minimum, and it's messy and outdated with last-term deadlines and mistakes that should have been caught before the term started.

Our findings in the larger theme of "access to course materials and resources online" underscore the importance of the LMS for students with disabilities. These platforms are integral for sharing course information and helping students manage content, assignments, due dates, and grades. Their responses tell us they see the LMS as the logical default place to share materials in an organized and easy-to-navigate format. Students know the LMS is a resource available to both students and teachers, so it makes sense that they think it should be used to its fullest extent to improve accessibility. The most effective way, then, for instructors to help fill the "access tank" is to share class notes, slides, assignments, tests, and recorded lectures with students via their college's or university's LMS. It is a critically important tool for making courses accessible, not only to students with disabilities but for all students (figure 1).

hopper schematic illustrating LMS functions for students

Figure 1. LMS functions allow increased access for students.

However, campus-wide adoption of the LMS does not help students if the tools and content within that system are not accessible to begin with. To lower some of the barriers that all learners might experience, institutions should provide LMS applications that check for common accessibility issues and that allow students to download files in different formats on the basis of their learning needs.8  IT units should also test the LMS for accessibility and provide alternatives to fill in any access gaps. And training faculty on the principles of UDL can encourage them to set their content free to increase access for all learners.9 


  1. For the purpose of this report, we have replaced references to the specific names of different campus disability offices with the term "disability services" to de-identify student responses.

  2. Christy Oslund, Supporting College and University Students with Invisible Disabilities: A Guide for Faculty and Staff Working with Students with Autism, AD/HD, Language Processing Disorders, Anxiety, and Mental Illness (London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2014).

  3. Ibid., Chap. 4, "Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder (AD/HD)."

  4. CAST, "The UDL Guidelines."

  5. Oslund, Supporting College and University Students with Invisible Disabilities.

  6. Students in our sample specified a variety of LMS platforms, such as Blackboard, Canvas, Sakai, D2L/Brightspace, and Moodle.

  7. Jeffrey Pomerantz and D. Christopher Brooks, ECAR Study of Faculty and Information Technology, 2017, research report (Louisville, CO: ECAR, October 2017).

  8. Mark Lieberman, "Technology Can Address Digital Accessibility—to an Extent," Inside Higher Ed (May 2, 2018); Wyatt Myskow, "ASU Course Documents on Canvas Are Now More Accessible for All Students," The State Press (February 25, 2020).

  9. Thomas Tobin, "Taking IT Way beyond Accessibility: 5 + 4 = 1 Approach," EDUCAUSE Review (August 12, 2019).