I recently attended the 2012 Inclusive Learning in Further and Higher Education conference (NIACE website), held at the Open University on 16 February 2012. The conference had the subtitle, 'innovations in research, practice and learner engagement'. I had a number of reasons to attend. The first (and perhaps the most pertinent) is that I tutor on an Open University module, H810 accessible online learning (Open University website), which is all about creating on-line learning experiences that are as accessible as possible.
The second reason is that a conference such as this one would provide both interesting and useful food for thought for my main role as a Lecturer/Staff Tutor. Events such as these create a space and an opportunity to explicitly consider equality, inclusion and surrounding issues. The final reason relates to personal interest, having worked on an EU funded e-inclusion project called EU4All a couple of years ago (there is an animation which illustrates some of the broad principles behind EU4ALL; the different shapes represent different materials which are chosen to meet the needs of individual learners).
The aim of this blog post is to present a broad summary of the event and to present a personal reflection of the key messages and points that I took away from it. I begin with a summary of what I took from the keynote speeches, followed by a description of the two workshops that I attended, concluding with a set of reflections. I do hope that this might be useful to both some of my fellow delegates and for others who may discover it.
The conference was sponsored by three organisations, LSIS, the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, The Open University and NIACE, The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. The conference was kicked off by an address by Will Swann, director of Students at the Open University, before leading onto two keynote presentations. Will spoke about the principles of the Open University, the changes within the higher education sector and emphasised the point that university support for students with disabilities is not going to change. He then made reference to a recent government green paper, entitled Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability (pdf), before summarising the themes of the day, namely, learner voices, curriculum teaching and authority and policy.
Provision for Disabled Learners in an Age of Uncertainty
Peter Lavender, NIACE Senior Research Fellow, began by stating that the provision for learners with disabilities is an area that is neither generously research nor funded, and stated that he was more concerned about provision that is made in further education than that of higher. Peter immediately referenced the 1996 Tomlinson report entitled, 'Inclusive Learning, report of the FEFC learning difficulties and disabilities committee'. The abstract of this report states that the report 'is the result of a three‐year enquiry into the educational needs of and provision for adults with disabilities and/or learning difficulties in England'.
Peter emphasised two points, namely that the quality of learning opportunities is poorer for learners with disabilities, and the rate of participation is lower. It was then later said that the impact of lower participation can lead to societal effects.
During Peter's talk, I also made a note of the phrase that parents, carers and learners were often unaware of the opportunities that were open to them. Peter also made a reference to some research by the Learning and Skills Council entitled Valuing People (NIACE website). We were also directed to further work, entitled Through Inclusion to Excellence (PDF, LSC website), where the findings from this report, the development of a national strategy (p. 1 of document), was emphasised.
Finally, a well known book, The Spirit Level, by Wilkinson and Pickett (Wikipedia) was mentioned, along with the comment that economic and social equality has the potential to benefit all.
Inclusive Learning in FE and HE: Real Progress or Impossible Dream?
The second keynote was by Lesley Dee, formerly Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. A number of points from Lesley's presentation jumped out at me. Firstly, there was explicit reference to the social model of disability. Secondly, there was a reference to the importance of the learner voice, the role of self-advocacy and the point that disability is a part of the identity of a learner. Lesley also spoke about the concept of inclusive pedagogy, and the question of what is 'special' about special education, and the fact that different types of teaching actions can be placed on a continuum. (I understood this metaphor in terms of teachers making decisions based on personalised teaching and learning for the individual, and shared teaching and learning for everyone).
Another point that Lesley made (that jumped out at me) was that good teaching for a student with disabilities means good teaching for all learners. This led to me thinking of a connection with the use of digital learning materials and an important point mentioned in H810 accessible online learning; the application of both participative and universal design methods.
Workshop: What is reasonable adjustment?
The first workshop I attended, facilitated by Julie Young from the Open University, explored the concept of reasonable adjustment. Julie shared with us a way that this term could be unpacked and applied. Universities have a legal obligation to ensure that learners can participate in higher education by making adjustments to how teaching is performed or learning materials are delivered. The fundamental challenge lies with the ambiguity of language, i.e. what is meant by 'reasonable?'
To understand what is reasonable, one should consider whether a student is likely to be at a substantial disadvantage, whether it is fundamentally possible to provide an adjustment, whether an adjustment can be provided through something called the disabled students allowance, and finally, are there sufficient finances available to make an adjustment?
Julie helped us to explore the notion through a series of case studies or scenarios. It immediately became apparent that the provision of an adjustment can be facilitated through a series of negotiations; information about both the learner and the learning objectives (or the module) were necessary to make effective and appropriate decisions. It was also apparent that different people within the organisation are in a position to do different things: those writing module materials have different responsibilities than people who may deliver the materials to a student (an associate lecturer, for example). It struck me that negotiation is necessary between different parts of an organisation to ensure that the needs of learners are met effectively.
A related issue that Julie exposed is the subject of organisational responsibility. The bigger the institution is, the more difficult it is to determine who might be ultimately responsible for adjustments. The principle that was uncovered is a simple one: if someone is in a position to make a decision (with regards to the provision of alternative resources, for example), then that someone is responsible.
All in all, a very thought provoking workshop.
Securing Greater Accessibility (SeGA)
Although individuals play an essential role when it comes to facilitating and providing inclusive education, individuals, of course work within the context of organisations. The second workshop, entitled Securing Greater Accessibility (SeGA), facilitated by Martyn Cooper and Anne Jelfs described an Open University project that is intended to further embed accessibility within the fabric of its organisation and to widen the awareness of the need to always consider the diversity of students.
SeGA was acknowledged as being ambitious. Its aims are to ensure pedagogic quality and meeting the needs of students, increasing student satisfaction, enhancing organisational knowledge, managing costs and identifying where responsibility should sit within the institution.
Accessibility, it was argued, exists at different levels. It needs to be considered with respects to pedagogy (teaching and learning) as well as at a technical or media level. Technical might mean the application of tools such as a virtual learning environment. When we consider media, we need to consider the different modalities (i.e. visual and auditory) to ensure that learners can gain access to any teaching points that are made. A key point that was emphasised was that the university has a responsibility to be anticipatory; a point that was also addressed in the earlier workshop.
The SeGA presentation drew our attention to a number of standards and guidelines which has the potential to be useful to the university. From a technical perspective, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) (W3C website) was considered to be very significant. We were also directed to a British Standard BS8878:2010 (BSI), and section 3 of the QAA code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education: disabled students (QAA website) (QAA is the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education).
During the presentation, questions were invited from the participants. Two key challenges became apparent. The first was how to best address the issue of teaching mathematics with people who have visual impairments. It quickly became apparent that there are several ways to address the difficult issue of mathematical notation. This discussion reminded me of a presentation by Alistair Edwards at the 2011 Psychology of Programming Interest Group workshop (PPIG website). During this earlier event, Alistair shared with the audience some of the research that he has carried out into this area.
The second challenge that was exposed was with a subject such as chemistry, which also has its own notation system. One comment was that there is a long history of producing physical models of chemical structures, but when one starts to move towards the discipline of biology, the practicality of adopting such an approach rapidly diminishes due to the immediate complexity of the structures that learners have to contend with.
The SeGA workshop was all about embedding accessibility within an institution and establishing a programme of work to enhance and further understand inclusion. Whilst SeGA is simply a project, it is envisaged that it is a project that both informs, embeds practice and facilitates continued implementation.
Any summary of a panel discussion is fraught with difficulty; one cannot easily (or practically) describe fluid discussion whilst at the same time giving equal treatment of all the issues that were raised. What I will try to do is make a quick note of the points that jumped out to me whilst I was listening. Other listeners would, of course, have their own perspectives.
Lesley Dee emphasised the importance of sharing information (expertise and practice) between different sectors. Peter Lavender echoed some of the points that he made during his earlier keynote. These included the need for a public strategy, the need to drive up participation, the necessity to increase quality, the importance of working together, and addressing (or blending) of issues from both the further and higher education sectors.
Liz Marr mentioned the importance of universal design (Wikipedia) and the OECD publication, The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice (OECD website). Deborah Cooper asked up to reflect on the importance of a learner voice, particularly in relation to self-advocacy (Wikipedia) and the importance of placing the learner at centre of planning and curriculum decisions. (These comments reminded me of the concept of 'user centred design' in human computer interaction, which is a parallel with user centred pedagogy and the question of how to best personalise learning experiences, technologically driven or otherwise, for the benefit of all learners).
John Stewart offered some very complementary comments who said that if the learner experience is poor, it affects both health and confidence. John also emphasised that it was important to ensure that any support services that are offered are adequate, appropriate and of sufficient quality.
Reflections and summary
After the panel session had finished, I made the following note in my notebook. 'Inclusion is as much about making space (where learning can take place) as it is about developing and providing opportunity (to access institutions and to gain support)'. Squinting through my poor handwriting, I also see the words, 'it is about creating a facilitative culture within a classroom that can be transferred outside'; this echoes Peter's point that inclusion isn't just an issue that is about individuals, it is also a matter of importance to society as a whole.
All the presentations that were presented during this conference had a firm campaigning voice and it was one that was good to hear. I was reminded me of the two presentations that I attended as a part of Disability History Month (blog post) back in December 2011. Whilst the campaigning voice was certainly one that was stronger, I did feel that it might have potentially been slightly stronger: voices of those who are involved with the provision of inclusive education need to be heard alongside the voices of the learner..
A number of years ago I attended a conference called Education for All conference (blog post). The conference keynote was one of the presentations that stuck in my mind. It was primarily about practice, about how inclusive education can work not only for the teacher, but has the potential to benefit every student in a class, irrespective of additional requirements. I remember this example where the students were helping each other to interact within the classroom. By doing so, it not only helped students to develop an increased awareness of the subject matter (by applying the technique of 'teach this to other students'), but also had a role in developing the communication skills and confidence of all those concerned.
During the conference I also thought of the possibilities that technology could provide learners, and the way in which peers could (potentially) generate their own materials for each other, based on the original materials that are presented within a module. Creating and sharing different types of materials (whether it be audio or video), has the potential to benefit all. Through the application of technology, some students who may not be able to attend class all of the time (for whatever reason), may be able to make effective participative contributions. The challenge, as was mentioned by one of the keynote, lies with both developing and sharing effective pedagogic practice.
Whilst I did feel that there was more scope to explore and discuss what inclusive learning might mean 'in practice', there were other very pertinent issues that were exposed. One of them that stuck in my mind was the tensions between policy, qualifications, measurement and practice. There is the risk that rules and regulations can potentially restrict, whereas they should ideally guide and facilitate.
Another reflection relates to the necessity to understand the institutional perspective and acknowledge the role that organisational structures (and the individuals who play key roles within them) can play a role in supporting learners. This theme of the conference (which connected strongly to the topics of policy and legislation) reminded me of the later sections of the Open University H810 module, which emphasises the point that responses to accessibility exist at different levels: individual, community and institutional.
My final reflection is a personal one. I have to confess that my 'home discipline' is that of computer science. Whilst I remain (primarily) a computer scientist and I also retain a strong interest in how to create technology that is accessible to all. It's really interesting to attend events such as this one since they sometimes extend the boundaries of the subjects of which I am familiar. I'll take away a slightly deeper understanding of the broader issues that surround inclusion and accessibility, and I leave with a feeling that it is an imperative to continue to campaign for increased levels of inclusion and participation in education.