TEACHING AT PITT: Lessons from the pandemic: Creating accessible learning experiences 


Since the rapid and massive shift to online learning in March 2020, online instruction has frequently (and sometimes unfairly) been criticized as a less effective method of teaching and learning. This is partially due to the confusion between courses carefully planned and implemented online and those that were rapidly transitioned to remote to maintain instructional continuity. The change to remote instruction and the effects of teaching and learning in a pandemic also created challenges that were unique to the last two years. 

Despite its bad reputation, there is ample evidence that remote and online instruction has consistently benefited some students, including people working while attending school, parents and caregivers, and some disabled people. A 2021 study conducted at North Carolina State University found that non-traditional students who took online courses were more likely to receive an ABC grade compared to non-traditional students in face-to-face courses. Some working students have also reported finding the quality of interactions better in online courses compared to face-to-face. The transition to online learning has also shown some students with disabilities that accommodations that they had been previously denied were possible and could improve their learning experiences.     

Traditional students also have reported more willingness to take online courses post-pandemic. According to a recent survey of approximately 1,500 students and 1,200 faculty and administrators across 856 U.S. institutions, 73 percent of students and 53 percent of faculty administrators reported wanting to take or teach at least some of their courses online post-pandemic. Even students who prefer face-to-face learning found some aspects of online instruction, like the ability to access online lecture recordings, helpful.   

Although online teaching and learning have often been described as inferior to face-to-face, no one method of delivery is equally effective for all instructors and students. Generalizations about online learning can invalidate the experiences of instructors and students who, for a variety of reasons, may need or prefer to teach and learn online.

Assumptions about the effectiveness of various teaching methods can also prevent important conversations about how to improve teaching and what lessons can be learned from one method of delivery and applied to the other. Even for those of us who prefer face-to-face instruction, examining the aspects of remote and online instruction that improved learning experiences for most students can help us carry those strategies into future online and face-to-face courses.  

One of the most consistent themes in student feedback collected during the pandemic was that students appreciated the accessibility of online course materials. We spoke with Angie Bedford-Jack, digital accessibility coordinator in the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, to discuss how remote instruction affected accessibility. One change Bedford-Jack observed has been an overall increase in faculty knowledge about digital accessibility.

Digital accessibility best practices that were uncommon, such as the use of automated speech recognition (ASR) captions during Zoom meetings, are now used more often. She also identified several trends that have been improving learning experience accessibility: 

  • Increased purposefulness. We have become more intentional and strategic about curricular and pedagogical choices. 

  • Increased empathy. The unique challenges we have faced during the pandemic have made us more aware of what others may be experiencing.  

  • Increased flexibility. We are giving students more options for engaging in and expressing their learning.  

Many faculty have already incorporated these strategies into their teaching. Below, we have listed tips (with less time-consuming tips at the top) for broadening or adding to these practices in your face-to-face or online classes.  


  • Conduct diagnostic assessments like pre-term surveys and solicit feedback from students regularly. Use this data to make small modifications to tailor learning experiences to students’ needs or interests.  

  • Be transparent with students. Explain the relevance of learning tasks and the rationale behind changes you might make to the course.  

  • Communicate your expectations clearly. Invite student questions about assignments. Clarify further by providing exemplars or giving students opportunities to practice self or peer assessment using the same performance criteria you use for grading.  

  • Check assessments and course materials for alignment with course learning objectives. Make revisions as needed. 

Empathy and flexibility 

  • Display supplemental resources prominently in your course shell or on your syllabus so that students who need additional support or resources know where to find them. 

  • Consider dropping the lowest grade of one assignment type or giving students a set number of grace periods that would allow them to submit work 24 to 48 hours late without penalty. This builds flexibility and sets parameters around flexibility into your grading and may reduce requests for extensions. 

  • Give students choices about how to participate. For instance, in class, you might use a combination of face-to-face whole class and small group discussions and Top Hat audience response questions. During office hours, you could give students the option of sending email, messaging via Canvas inbox, or calling on Zoom or Teams.  

  • Vary the way that you deliver course content and how you ask students to express their learning so that students with different learning preferences have opportunities to learn in ways that work well for them. The principles of Universal Design for Learning can help you strategize how to do this.   

  • Continue to expand your digital accessibility knowledge and practice. While digital accessibility practices are crucial for students with disabilities, they also benefit all students. For example, captioning lecture recordings allows deaf or hard of hearing students to access that content, but also helps non-native English speakers and students who use the keyword search feature in Panopto to refresh their memory and study for exams.  

Implementing these strategies may not be feasible while prioritizing transitioning back to face-to-face instruction, but hopefully, this provides inspiration for the next time you consider course revision.  If you need support or resources or would like to learn more about any of the strategies listed in this article, the University Center for Teaching and Learning is here to help.

Lindsay Onufer is a program manager and teaching consultant and Lex Drozd is an instructional designer in the University Center for Teaching and Learning.