The impact of online learning on uni students with intellectual disabilities

A Caring Futures Institute research project is investigating the effects of online learning on university students with intellectual disability during COVID-19.

Disability and community inclusion researcher, Dr Fiona Rillotta, is engaging with students from Flinders University’s Up the Hill Project to understand the experiences of people with intellectual disability learning remotely.

Up The Hill graduate Matthew Turnbull is playing a key role in the research project by providing feedback on key messaging and helping frame interview questions for the research participants to ensure accessibility.

The project, funded by the Caring Futures Institute’s COVID-19 grant scheme, will also investigate how online learning due to COVID-19 has impacted mentoring relationships and processes.

The Up the Hill Project, supported by the Flinders College of Nursing and Health Science, encourages the participation of adults with a range of disabilities, including intellectual disability, in life at Flinders University.

It is one of only two programs of its kind in Australia.

The students choose university subjects to attend and are supported by peer mentors who enable Up the Hill Project students to participate in university life and enjoy educational opportunities.

The peer mentors are Flinders students studying disability and community inclusion at Flinders, who benefit from the opportunity by building practical experience in working with people with disabilities.

Dr Rillotta has been working with people with disabilities of various ages in a range of settings for almost 20 years.

She says Up the Hill students usually engage in face-to-face learning on-campus while being exposed to some online learning.

Dr Fiona Rillotta, left, Up the Hill graduate Matthew Turnbull, and Professor Joanne Arciuli, Caring Futures Institute research lead and Dean (Research) at Flinders University’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the students to swiftly adapt to learning entirely online.

“We suspect that some of the Up the Hill students and their peer mentors found it challenging at first and needed further support. Some might even have considered the possibility of withdrawing, but we found that most students continued on to have a successful semester,” Dr Rillotta says.

“Students were learning new skills and they were being positive and more creative.”

Recruitment for research participants is under way, with Up the Hill students, their families and mentors invited to share their experiences.

Dr Rillotta says the research is important because “we need a comprehensive understanding of the experiences and processes so that we can ensure it’s a positive experience for all”.

“We have little exiting evidence and literature to inform these processes. The research has an applied focus, with results informing future practices of the Up the Hill Project and other similar programs,” she says.

“With online support, we will also be able to explore opportunities to expand access to the Up The Hill Project for people living in remote and rural areas, and provide further opportunities for more people with intellectual disability to access university.

“We want to show the community that people with intellectual disabilities are capable and demonstrate the positive contributions they make.”

For further information about the research please contact Fiona Rillotta at: For further details about participating in the Up the Hill Project please email

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Inclusion and Disability Our Research