On April 23, I visited the Open University campus to attend an event to share lessons about how the university can support students who have disabilities. The event, which took place within a group called the ‘e-learning community’ had two parts to it: one part was about sharing of research findings, and the other part was about the sharing of practice.
This blog aims to summarise (albeit briefly) the four presentations that were made during the day. It’s intended for a couple of audiences: colleagues within the university, students who might be taking the H810 accessible online learning (OU website) module that I tutor, and anyone else who is remotely interested.
Like many of these blogs, these event summaries are written (pretty roughly) from notes that I made during the sessions. (This is a disclaimer to say that there might be mistakes and I’m likely to have missed some bits).
Academic attainment among students with disabilities in distance education
Professor John Richardson, from the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology gave the first presentation of the day. John does quantitative research (amongst a whole load of other things), and he began by staying that there is an increase in knowledge about our understanding of the attainment of students who have disabilities, but the knowledge is fragmented. John made a really important point, which was that it is patent nonsense to consider all disabled students as a single group; everyone is different, and academic performance (or attainment) is influenced by a rich combination of variables. These include age, gender, socio-economic status, prior qualifications (and a whole bunch of others too).
When we look at qualitative data, it’s important to define what we’re talking about. One of the terms that John clearly defined was the phrase ‘a good degree’. This, I understand, was considered to be a first or an upper second class honours degree. John also mentioned something that is unique about the OU; that it awards degree classifications by applying an algorithm that uses scores from all the modules that contribute towards a particular degree (whereas in other institutions, the classification comes from decisions made by an examination board).
We were given some interesting stats. In 2009 there were 196,405 registered students, of which 6.8% of students declared a disability. The most commonly disclosed disability was pain and fatigue, followed by dyslexia. Out of all disabled students, 55% of students declared a multiple disability.
In 2012 the situation was a little different. In 2012 there were 175,000 registered students, of which 12% (21,000) students declared (or disclosed) a disability. John said that perhaps this increase might be an artifact of statistics, but it remains a fact. He also made the point (raised by Martyn Cooper, a later speaker on the day) that this number of students represents the size of an average European university. From these statements I personally concluded that supporting students with disabilities was an activity that the university needs to (quite obviously) take very seriously.
If I’ve got this right John’s research drew upon a 2009 data set from the OU. There were some interesting findings. When controlling for other effects (such as socio-economic class, prior qualification and so on), students who had declared pain and fatigue and autistic spectrum disorders exhibited greater levels of gaining good degrees that non-disabled students. Conversely, students who had disclosed dyslexia, specific learning disabilities or multiple disabilities gained a lower percentage of good degrees when compared with non-disabled students.
I’ve made a note of a couple of interesting conclusions. To improve completion rates, it is a good idea to somehow think about how we can more readily support students who have disclosed mental health difficulties and mobility impairments. To improve degree levels, we need to put our focus on students who have disclosed dyslexia and specific learning disabilities. One take away thought relates to the university’s reliance on text (which is a subject that crops up in a later presentation).
Quantitative research can only tell us so much; it can tell us that an artifact exists, but we need to use other approaches to figure out the finer detail. Qualitative research, however, can provide detail, but the challenge with qualitative approaches lies with the extent to which findings and observations can be generalised. My understanding was that we need both to clearly create a rich picture of how the university supports students with disabilities.
Specific learning differences, module development and success
The second presentation was a double act by Sarah Heiser (a colleague from the London region), and Jane Swindells, who works in the disability advisor service. Jane introduced the session by saying that it was less about research and more about sharing a practitioner perspective. I always like these kind of sessions since I find it easy to connect with the materials and I can often pick up some useful tips that you can use within your own teaching.
An important point is that dyslexia has a number of aspects and is an umbrella term for a broader set of conditions. It can impact on different cognitive processes, such as the use of working memory, speed of information processing, time management, co-ordination and automaticity of operations. It can also affect how information is received and decoded.
On-line or electronic materials offer dyslexic learners a wealth of advantages; materials can be accessed through assistive technologies, and users can personalise how content is received or consumed. An important point that I would add is that the effectiveness of digital resources depends on the user being aware of the possibilities that it gives. Developing a comprehensive awareness of the strategies of use (to help with teaching and learning) is something that takes time and effort.
Sarah spoke about a project where she has been drawing out practice experience from associate lecturers through what I understand to be a series of on-line sessions (I hope I’ve understood this correctly). Important themes to include challenges that accompany accuracy, text completion, following instructions, time, and the importance of offering reassurance.
I’ve made a note of the term ‘overlearning’. When I had to take exams I would repeat and repeat the things I had to learn, until I was sick of them. (This is a strategy that I continue to use to this day!)
One point that I found especially interesting relates to the use of OU live recordings. If a tutor records a session, a student who may have dyslexia can go over them time and time again, choosing to pick up sections of learning at a time and a pace that suits them. This depends on two points: the first is the availability of the resource (tutors making recordings), and students being aware that they exist and know how they can access them.
Towards the end of the session, Sarah mentioned a tool called Language Open Resources on-line, or LORO for short. LORO allows tutors to share (and discover) different teaching resources. I was impressed with LORO, in the sense that you can enter a module code and find resources that tutors might (potentially) be able to use within their tutorial sessions.
SeGA guidance: document accessibility/accessible methods and other symbolic languages
The third presentation of the day was from Martyn Cooper, from the Institute of Educational Technology. Martyn works as a Senior Research fellow, and he has been involved with a university project called SeGA, known as Securing Greater Accessibility. A part of the project has been to write guidance documents that can help module teams and module accessibility specialists. An important point is that each module should have a designed person who is responsible for helping to address accessibility issues within its production. (But, it should also be argued that all members of a module team should be involved too).
The documents are intended to provide up to date guidance (or, distilled expertise) to promote consistency across learning resources. The challenge with writing such guidance is that when we look at some accessibility issues, the detail can get pretty complicated pretty quickly.
The guidance covers a number of important subjects, such as how to make Word documents, PDFs, and pages that are delivered through the virtual learning environment as accessible as possible. Echoing the previous talk, Martyn made the point that electronic documents have inherent advantages for people who have disabilities – the digital content can be manipulated and rendered in different ways.
Important points to bear in mind include the effective use of ALT texts (texts that describe images), the use of scalable images (for people who have visual impairments), effective design of tables, use of web links, headings and fonts. An important point was made that it’s important to do ‘semantic tagging’, i.e. design a document using tags that describe its structure (so it becomes navigable), and deal with its graphical presentation separately.
I noted down an interesting point about Microsoft Word. Martyn said that it is (generally speaking) a very accessible format, partly due to its ubiquity and the way that it can be used with assistive technologies, such as screen readers.
Martyn also addressed the issue about how to deal with accessibility of mathematics and other symbolic notations. A notation system or language can help ideas to be comprehended and manipulated. An important point was that in some disciplines, mastery of a notation system can represent an important learning objective. During Martyn’s talk, I remembered a lecture that I attended a few months back (blog) about a notation scheme to describe juggling. I also remember that a good notation can facilitate the discovery of new ideas (and the efficient representation of existing ones).
One of the challenges is how to take a notation scheme, which might have inherently visual and spatial properties and convert it into a linear format that conveys similar concepts to users of assistive technologies, such as screen readers. Martyn mentioned a number of mark-up languages that can be used to represent familiar notations: MathML and ChemML (Wikipedia) are two good examples. The current challenge is these notations are not supported in a consistent way across different internet browsers. Music can be represented using something called music braille (but it is also a fact that only a relatively small percentage of visually impaired people use braille languages), or MIDI code.
A personal reflection is that there is no silver bullet when it comes to accessibility. Notation is a difficult issue to grapple with, and it relies on users making effective use of assistive technologies. It’s also important to be mindful that AT, in itself, can be a barrier all of its own. Before one can master a notation, one may well have to master a set of tools.
The question and answer session at the end of Martyn’s talk was also interesting. An important point was raised that it’s important to embed accessibility into the module production process. We shouldn’t ‘retrofit’ accessibility – we should be thinking about it from the outset.
Supporting visually impaired students in studying mathematics
The final presentation of the day was by my colleague Hilary Holmes, who is a maths staff tutor. A comment that I’ve made (in my notebook) at the start of Hilary’s presentation is that the accessibility of maths is a challenging problem. Students who are considering studying mathematics are told (or should be told) from the outset that maths is an inherently visual subject (which is advice that, I understand, is available in the accessibility guide for some modules).
Key issues include how to describe the notation (which can be inherently two dimensional), how to describe graphs and diagrams, how to present maths on web pages, and how to offer effective and useful guidance to staff and tutors.
First level modules make good use of printed books. Printed books, of course, present fundamental accessibility challenges, so one solution to the notation (and book accessibility) issue is to use something called a DAISY book, which is a navigable audio book. DAISY books can be created with either synthesised voices, or recorded human voices. The university has the ability to record (in some cases) DAISY books through a special recording facility, which used to be a part of disabled student services. One of the problems of ‘speaking’ mathematical notation is that ambiguities can quickly become apparent, but human readers are more able to interpret expressions and add pauses and use different tones to help convey different meanings.
Another approach is to use some software called AMIS (AMIS project home), which is an abbreviation for Adaptive Multimedia Information System. AMIS appears to be DAISY reader software, but it also displays text.
Diagrams present their own unique challenges. Solutions might be to describe a diagram, or to create tactile diagrams, but tactile diagrams are limited in terms of what they can express. Hilary subjected us all to a phenomenally complicated audio description which was utterly baffling, and then showed us a complex 3D plot of a series of equations and challenged us with the question, ‘how do you go about describing this?’ I’ve made a note of the following question in my note book: ‘what do you have to do to get at the learning?’
Another approach to tackle the challenge of diagrams is to use something called sonic diagrams. A tool called MathTrax (MathTrax website) allows users to enter in mathematical expressions and have them converted into a sound. The pitch and character of a note change in accordance with values that are plotted on a graph. Two important points are: firstly, in some instances, users might need to draw upon the skills of non-medical helpers, and secondly (as mentioned earlier), these tools can take time to master and use.
A final point that I’ve noted down is the importance of offering tutors support. In some situations, tutors might be unsure what is meant by the phrase ‘reasonable adjustment’, and what they might be able to do in terms of helping to prepare resources for students (perhaps with help from the wider university). Different students, of course, will always have very different needs, and it is these differences that we need to be mindful of.
It was really interesting to hear that Hilary has been involved with something called a ‘programme accessibility guide’. This is a guide about the accessibility of a series of modules, not just a single module. This addresses the problem of students starting one module and then discovering that there are some fundamental accessibility challenges on later modules. This is certainly something that would be useful in ICT and computing modules, but an immediate challenge lies with how best to keep such a guide up to date.
It was a useful event, especially in terms of being exposed to a range of rather different perspectives and issues (not to mention research approaches). The presentations went into sufficient detail that really started to highlight the fundamental difficulties that learners can come up against. I think, for me, the overriding theme was about how best to accommodate differences. A related thought is that if we offer different types of resources (for all students), there might well be a necessity to share and explain how different types of electronic resources and documents can be used in different ways (and in different situations).
The Languages Open Resources Online website was recently mentioned in a regional development conference I attended a month or two back. Sarah’s session got me thinking: I wondered whether it could be possible to create something similar for the Maths Computing and Technology faculty, or perhaps, specifically for computing and ICT modules (which is my discipline). Sharing happens within modules, but it’s all pretty informal – but there might be something said for raising the visibility of the work that individual tutors do. One random through is that it could be called: TOMORO, with the first three letters being an abbreviation for: Technology Or Mathematics. There are certainly many discussions to be had.