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Horizons in STEM education conference 2019

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 5 Sep 2019, 11:49

I’ve been to a couple of the HEA Horizons in STEM conferences. The last one that I went to was in Newcastle, which I found it to be an interesting event; it enabled lecturers and students to talk to one another about their experiences of teaching and learning. 

The event in 2019 was held at Kingston University, London between 3 and 5 July. I was looking forward to this event; I worked at Kingston for 6 months just over ten years ago on a contract to help develop some educational technology systems.

What follows is a rough blog sketch of points that I took away from the event. I’ve edited these notes together from the notes that I made in my analogue laptop (my work note book, and pen). Just as with many of these blogs, I’m sharing the post on the off chance that it might be randomly useful for someone (and so my line manager, and anyone else who knows me, can see what I’m doing with my time).

Just to put everything in one place, the hashtag for the conference is #UKSTEMconf19, where you can see pictures and opinions from delegates.

Opening and keynote

The conference was opened by Trish Reid and the opening keynote was by Nona McDuff, director of student achievement who spoke about: Closing the BME attainment gap through an institutional approach. 

Nona asked as an important question: why are the outcomes of some student groups so different? A part of her talk looked at the student journey. There are a number of arguments: BME students start university with different tariff points (points gained from various entry qualifications, such as A levels). There is evidence that suggests that the higher the entrance tariff points, the higher the degree classification. Looking at what is expected at what is expected and what is attained, it appears there’s a clear gap between BME students and white students.

Since there are many factors involved, an institutional wide approach was developed. I noted down the words that “equity considerations [are] being embedded within all functions of the institution and treated as an ongoing process of quality enhancement”. A part of this embedding has been raise awareness of diversity issues amongst course teams. Importantly, closing the attainment gap was considered as a university level key performance indicator at board level.

A publication that was referenced was “Inclusive curriculum framework” by McDuff and Hughes (2010), and I also noted down the words: “pedagogy, curricula and assessment that is meaningful and accurate”. This includes the importance of considering the broad concept of the teaching, its content, delivery methods, assessment, how to approach feedforward and feedback. 

There’s an obvious point in all this: considering diversity means using good practices for all students, since whatever is done or created appeals to a wider audience

A final note I made during Nona’s presentation was to another reference, a paper entitled: “Closing the attainment gap for students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds through institutional change” (Kingston University research repository), McDuff et al. (2018), published in Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning  (Open University).

Equality, diversity and inclusion session 1

The first session I attended was by Rebecca Barnes from the University of Sheffield, who spoke about developing a “Sense of belonging in science undergraduates”. Her talk was based on a model that had been developed from research carried out for an MA in education dissertation. 

Sense of belonging can be linked to self-efficacy, goals, relationships with others. 150 students were surveyed, focus groups were run, and there was something called a ‘free working activity’. Rebecca looked at BAME students, interactions with staff and other students, and asked the question: “what do students’ value during their induction?” I noted down points about opportunities to meet with staff informally and opportunities to gain more detail about what academic work they will be doing.

Next was a presentation entitled: “Exploring differential attainment by assessment type in mathematics, chemistry and life sciences” by James Denholm-Price from Kingston. James presented a quantitative study that asked an important question: do students do differently when they take exams in comparison to other assessment approaches. I noted down the phrase “we didn’t find much”, but the following sentences in James’ abstract is interesting: “The sample data show statistically-significant differences in the attainment of certain groups of students in some assessment modalities, but not all”.

My colleague, Anne-Marie Gallen presented the next talk: “How to develop and embed a discipline-specific accessibility expertise in your teaching”. Disciplines are different, sometimes those subjects introduce barriers, i.e. mathematics has some very specific barriers for students with visual impairments. Anne-Marie was included with a mathematics and statistics accessibility working group which comprised of different members: academics, support staff, disabled student services. Anne-Marie also mentioned module accessibility guides and production of resources, policies, goals and even a video.

The final talk of this first session was also by another OU colleague. Chris Hutton and Julie Robson spoke about “breaking barriers, building community: improving student engagement with preparation for studying online science by distance learning”. They addressed a familiar topic: how to use forums to engage students to help them to prepare for first year modules. Chris and Julie introduced something called a S112 preparation site (S112 being an in interdisciplinary science module called Science: concepts and practice). A key idea was to encourage students to participate in a social activity before the start of the module. 

Equality, diversity and inclusion session 2

The first presentation during this session turned out to be a workshop entitled: “Exploring ‘belonging’ at university from the student perspective: what it is and how can we facilitate it?” facilitated by Daniela Dimitrova and colleagues from Kingston. We were presented with some questions: is a sense of belonging important? Also, is a sense of belonging important to all students? This led to a discussion that it can be thought of in terms of social group, module, societies, institution, discipline or subject, and that notion of personal identity could change over time.

The next presentation had a title that presented a question that was central to an ongoing study: personal tutoring – is there one size that fits all? These questions were explored by Baljit Thatti and Nicholas Freestone, both from Kingston University who had designed a questionnaire study.

The Open University presenters in this session were Diane Butler and Cath Brown who spoke about “students as partners in scholarship in STEM open and distance learning”. Diane is an associate dean, and Cath is the president of the OU student’s association (the equivalent of the students' union). The benefits of including students are cited as being: engagement, commitment, ownership, opportunities for collaboration with staff, and contributing to an opportunity to make things better for future students. The benefits for the university includes: increased understanding of the student experience and access to authentic feedback, and the possibility of increased levels of student satisfaction and retention. There are, of course, some challenges; it’s hard to work with students at a distance.

Technology Enhanced Learning/Computer Science

Neil Gordon, from the University of Hull, began with a presentation about “Flexible approaches to teaching programming”. I seem keep bumping into Neil quite regularly; the last time I saw him was at a Computer Science education conference at the start of the year, and another time was at one of these HEA events. 

Neil made some interesting and important points: CS student numbers are increasing, but there is a poor pass rate in GCSE Computing. In Neil’s words, this represents a ‘leaky pipeline’. There are other concerns too, which are concerned with the relatively low employability rates of computer science graduates. One way to approach this is to look at the teaching of the subject. Neil introduced a CS teacher training case study that used something called Crumble https://redfernelectronics.co.uk/crumble/  (Redfern Electronics website), a programmable controller that could be used to simple robots and buggies.

A session wouldn’t be complete without an OU delegate. This session had two. The first presenter was Anton Dil, from the School of Computing who spoke about “Layered online feedback on code quality”. Anton is the module chair for M250 Object-Oriented Java Programming (OU website). Anton wants to improve the feedback that is given to students, since he mentioned that there is something that is particularly difficult about programming. Regular practice is considered to be important. How could we support tutors to test code that has been written by students? Two automated tools have been created which assesses different dimensions of code (or software) quality: whether code can compile, whether it meets the task requirement, whether it is efficient, and is presented in a way that can be read by fellow programmers (has good style). 

The second OU presenter was myself, where I spoke about “teaching interaction design teamwork at a distance”, where I drew on my experience of co-facilitating an event that is known as a Design Hackathon for TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience. If you’re interested, there’s a blog tag called Hackathon that might (or might not) be of interest. 

Equality, diversity and inclusion session 3

This third session took place at the start of the second day of the conference. First to present was Cristina De Mattels from the University of Nottingham, who gave a presentation entitled: “Come on into our research labs: promoting interactions of early-year undergraduates wit researchers to gain insights into the research community of practice”. Underpinning this was the idea of attempting to help undergrads to get more of an insight into what scientists actually do. One way to do this is to try to facilitate some interaction between undergrad students and researchers. I noted down that there was a programme of extra-curricular activities such as an invitation into the research labs, the making of films, and an activity called ‘sharing my bench space’.

Next was a presentation entitled: “how does a vocational qualification (BTEC) prepare students for a degree in biomedical sciences?” by Liz Hurrell and colleagues from the University of Central Lancashire. They reported that there were an increasing number of students taking BTEC courses. The consequences of this could mean a higher drop-out rate and a lower degree classifications (particularly at research intensive universities) for some students. We were told that widening participation students are more likely to take BTEC than A levels but the more applied nature of the courses can have benefits. During degree programs the point was made that some BTEC students may struggle with exams and revision in comparison to A level students, and some may have a sense of accompanying stigma if students have to attend additional classes for maths and chemistry.

I found Liz’s presentation especially interesting, since I used to be a BTEC student. I really enjoyed the course that I studied, and I felt that it equipped me well for the practical computer lab sessions that I had on my undergraduate degree. Although there was an excellent maths teacher during my BTEC, I struggled as an undergraduate. In some respects, the remedial maths classes that I attended felt as if they were an afterthought. There wasn’t much teaching. Instead, we sat in a room and worked through yellow worksheets (which I think I have kept hold of).

The next session was a workshop: what does an inclusive timetable look like in STEM? It was facilitated by Nigel Page and colleagues from Kingston. To be honest, when I saw the title of this session, I was looking for the door for the simple reason that I really don’t like planning my module timetables (and many of them are online). After five minutes into the introduction, I realised that there was no immediate escape without embarrassment for everyone. 

The facilitators looked at a number of different factors, such as commuting patterns and differences in demographics between students studying different subjects. An interesting point was that BME students have to travel further to Kingston than other groups. One of the reasons for this might be the demographics of Kingston and the surrounding areas.

It was also interesting to note that they university had a policy where student’s couldn’t arrive in class after it had started. If classes start early in the morning, and last an hour, all these individual factors have a potential to create barriers for learning. The point was made that there’s a link between timetables, pedagogy and course design. Sometimes barriers might not be obvious. Unexpectedly, this session became one of the highlights of the conference. 

Professional practice session

The penultimate presentation was by Sonia Kumari and colleagues, who spoke about ‘Pedagogy through civic engagement: three case studies from geography’. Their case studies were about the intersections between academic study, practical experience and community involvement. Students went out into the community and carried out an investigative journalism project.

The final presentation had a very long title: how could teaching observation schemes adapt to meet students’ demands of what high quality teaching is expected to be in the STEM subjects? Penny Burden and Nigel Page’s presentation was about the context of the national students’ survey and the teaching excellent framework. We were given two activities: to define high quality learning, and what it might look like, and what does a good teaching observation scheme look like?

I made a note of top 3 points that you might want to look for: checking of learning, tutors and lecturers doing different things (running activities), and delivering materials that meet the needs and culture of student groups. A further point that I noted down was: look at the whole picture, beyond the four walls of the classroom; students may appreciate guest speakers who bring the outside to the classroom. 

Closing keynote

The closing keynote was by Samantha Pugh who spoke of Re-imagining Assessment in Higher Education. Samantha spoke a 12 month project about connecting assessments between programme learning outcomes (PLOs). I was curious about this concept, since I’m more used to the world of module learning outcomes. There was a link to graduate attributes and skills, such as critical thinking skills, able to work critically with knowledge, and effective communication.

We were presented with an example from Chemical Engineering. A phrase that I noted down was: “we need to demonstrate that learning outcomes have been meet at each levels, along with programme level outcomes, but how do we do this?’ We were all asked a question: “what assessments could be used to allow students to demonstrate achievement of programme learning outcomes for your subject?”

We were directed to something called a ‘research-teaching nexus’ by Healey and a report that had been written by Samantha and published by the Leeds Institute called Teaching Excellence: A compendium of assessment techniques in higher education: from students’ perspectives (PDF).

I made a note of some conclusions: assessment is an integral part of programme design; clear programme learning outcomes help with aligning assessment to study, formative assessment should inform teaching and help student success in summative learning, and students need opportunities to revisit learning.

Reflections

Nearly two months passed between attending this conference and writing these reflections. Since the event, my work has become muddied with interviewing, quite a bit of study, and taking on a new role in the university. 

I remember that a few things struck me: the extent to which diversity was featured and discussed throughout this whole conference, the number of university colleagues that I met there, and the clear opportunity of sharing (and discussing) practice with colleagues – which is, of course, one of the great benefits and advantages of this type of event.

Also remember being impressed by Kingston and the work that they’re doing. There was a time when Kingston used to be my ‘local’ university. Rather than choosing to study there (which I could have easily have done), I went to another university in another city. 

Unexpectedly, the session that I found most interesting was also a session about a subject that I find the most boring: timetabling. I took away the point that, when it comes to education and equality, geography really does matter and that it is really important to make the effort to get to know who your students are. You can’t fully understand diversity without taking some important steps towards understanding.

Addendum

When I was sorting out my papers a couple of weeks after writing this blog, I noticed a handout that I had forgotten about. It had the title "Taxonomy of 'high quality' teaching: the students' perspective". I'm not quite sure where I got the handout from, but I think might have been Burden and Page's session. Rather than recycling the handout and risk forgetting about it, I thought it would be both worthwhile and useful to summarise it here.

The taxonomy was split into three sections: attitude, methods and scaffolding. The elements of each are summarised below:

  • Attitude: respect; ability of relate to the student experience; high responsiveness; building a rapport; enthusiasm; engagement.
  • Methods: engage students from the beginning of lectures; design of reinforcement activities; connection of past, current and future knowledge; detailed explanations during lectures; PowerPoint slides as a guide, not script; workshops to support lectures.
  • Scaffolding: updated technologies; mandatory recording of lectures (voice); exams after every semester which counts for 25%; breakdown of workload for both parties; involvement of outside resources to supplement learning.

From my own perspective, the entries under attitude and methods are really familiar (and are important to remember).

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1st Open and Inclusive Special Interest Group meeting

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 19 Feb 2019, 17:41

I was invited to give a talk at the first Open and Inclusive Special Interest Group meeting (OpenTEL blog) which took place on 11 February 2019.

The Open and Inclusive SIG is made up of two groups: OpenTEL and SeGA, an abbreviation for Securing Greater Accessibility (on a module). The event was open to member of these groups, and anyone who is broadly interested in the subjects of accessibility and inclusion. Importantly, an invitation was also extended to faculty Accessibility co-ordinators.

The group meeting had three parts: a presentation that introduced the idea of ‘universal design for learning’, a presentation by yours truly, and a group discussion that reflected on some of the issues that were raised by the two presentations. What follows is a brief summary of those three sections. I’m presenting a summary here for anyone who might find it of interest, and also to enable me to look back on what happened during the year. 

Universal design for learning

The first presenter was Allison Posey from CAST who began with her talk universal design for learning.

Allison highlighted that some of the disciplines that contribute to universal design are: architecture, neuroscience and technology. Accessibility was presented in terms of: certain adjustments are necessary for some people, but these can be good for all. An example of this is the use of closed captions, i.e. they are necessary for people who have hearing impairments, but they can be used in other situations (such as when a partner is trying to watch television, and the other one is trying to get some sleep). The link to neuroscience was presented in a simple but important way, i.e.: our capacities or our brains are not fixed; they have capacities to build new connections.

Allison presented a number of helpful analogies. One analogy was the idea of making something to eat for a dinner party; not everyone would like to eat (or would be able to eat) what you might choose to make. One solution might be to give everyone a set of ingredients to allow them to create their own dish, or to provide a buffet, to give everyone choice. 

I noted down three broad principles of universal design for learning: (1) provide multiple means of engagement, (2) provide multiple means of representation, and (3) provide multiple means of action and expression (and I understand that expression relates to how students can share their understanding of concepts). A final point is that the burden of access should be placed within the environment, rather than on the learner.

As I’m reading these back to myself, I’m also reminded of the WCAG guidelines (W3C) which use the terms: perceivable and operable.

Reflections on accessibility

My talk had the title ‘reflections on accessibility’. Here’s an excerpt from the abstract that I wrote for the session: “This presentation aims to unpack the term ‘accessibility’ and what it means in The Open University context, moving from a high level (discussions about the aims and objectives of a module) towards low level technical standards that are important to facilitate the use and consumption of module materials. …  Important themes, such as legislation, the models of disability and the challenges that accompany disclosure will also be discussed.” I also said that it would end with a set of personal reflections about accessibility and disability.

Opening questions

I began by asking a couple of questions. The first question was: what is accessibility? Some of the answers were: it is about providing equality of access for people with different impairments and ‘leveling a playing field’. My second question was: why it is important? There are good moral, legal, and economic reasons. An important point was: if we don’t make modules accessible, the university could be legally challenged.

In the next bit of the talk, I presented a ‘straw man’ module that contained some deliberate accessibility challenges: it contained a number of different assessments which made use of technology, made use of different types of materials, and contained activities that required students to participate in fieldwork. An important point was: learning outcomes are important, since these are useful tools that we can use to understand what we need to assess.

Practical considerations

Next up was a slide that asked (and tried to give answers to) a set of practical considerations. The first question was: who is responsible for accessibility? The answer is: everyone, but there is a principle that goes: ‘if you’re in a position to make a reasonable adjustment for a student, then you should go ahead and do this’. 

The next question was: how can we make our content accessible? Here I made reference to learning materials (which linked back to the previous presentation), the environment in which the material is delivered, and touched on technical standards and guidelines. I was trying to convey the message that: even if some material might be technically accessible doesn’t necessarily mean that it is practically or pedagogically accessible.

The third question relates to disclosure: how do students tell the university? If a student tells any member of the university they have a disability they are, in fact, disclosing their disability to the university.

My final question was: how do tutors know what to do? My point here is that there are lots of different types of impairments, and every student is different. To help tutors, every student has what is known as a DAR (disability and accessibility) profile which offers some top-level information that might be useful for a tutor. A tutor then can ask their line manager for further advice and guidance.

Personal reflections

During the final part of the session, I shared something about my own experiences of having an impairment (a speech impairment; a stammer) which has (at times) been disabling. I shared a story about how I became an interaction design tutor, which was a module that contained some really useful materials about the importance of designing accessible interfaces. The experience on this module helped me to join a research project at the university that was all about trying to create an accessible virtual learning environment. Off the beck of this experience, I began to tutor on a module that was about how to develop (and support) accessible online learning.

All these experiences helped transformed my own sense of identity. The social model of disability, which featured in the two modules that I mentioned, helped me to shift my perspective. It helped me to see my impairment for what it was, and accept that I had ‘an invisible disability’. This helped me understand that disclosure is a personal negotiation, and with disclosure comes power. 

Just as Allison had mentioned that universal design for learning was a subject that drew on multiple disciplines, I concluded by talking about a subject called disability studies. Disability studies is also interdisciplinary, and has connections to different civil rights movements. It’s a subject that I find increasingly fascinating, especially since it sometimes exposes me to ideas and debates that can be very different to subjects that are found in my home discipline of Computer Science.

Discussion session

At the end of the meeting, we were asked the following questions: (1) what are the main take-away messages from the talks? (2) what do you think we already do well in the OU? (3) what changes could we make, at a practice level, that would enable us to do better?, and (4) what support would we need to make these changes?

At our table we discussed recent challenge regarding the provision of alternative formats. I’ve heard that there has been a significant demand for alternative formats. Being a student myself (I’m currently studying EE812 Educational Leadership), I know that there has been delays in getting printed materials to some students.

I also noted down that there was a discussion about mental health, and not fully appreciating what the implications are for tutors. I think this is a fair point, and there is a need for more training and guidance in this area, but a thought is that the needs for every student is likely to be different.

During the discussions I remember that someone referred to the importance of legislation. This reminded me of an earlier discussion with Kate Lister, who facilitated the event, who drew my attention to new legislation that universities must follow to ensure the accessibility of learning environments (PDF, policy briefing). 

Reflections

I was really surprised at how well the two presentations complemented each other despite there being no more planning than the sharing of abstracts. Also, a lot of themes were covered in a relatively short amount of time.

In some respects, this was one of the most personal presentations I have made on this subject. I tried to connect the academic with the personal. I was initially slightly worried about it would work, or might be received.

One of the most significant points that I wanted to make was about disclosure, and now some students might have to work to interrogate the concept, negotiate their own understanding of it, and navigate their way through it. There are links here with Allison’s talk where there was a suggestion that disability (or impairment) is a state that can change. This is also my experience too.

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STUC conference: SOAS University of London

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 18 Feb 2019, 13:37

Looking back to when I was a teenager, had I sat down and thought really hard about all of the different challenges that I would face as an undergraduate student, I might not have decided to go to university.

The reason for this is that I had a severe stammer; I had a real difficulty saying my own name, or ordering anything at a restaurant or shop. These simple facts have profound implications: communication is a human necessity, and its importance during education cannot be understated.

Some of those challenges I would face at university were obvious: making presentations so I could complete assessments and participating in group work. There were less obvious challenges, such as meeting new people and participating in clubs and societies. If truth be told, there were these days that I just wanted to hide away from the world, but for whatever reason, I didn’t. I just got on with it. I got on with it, since there were no other choices.

On 19 January 2019 I attended a conference at SOAS in London by a charity called STUC, an abbreviation of ‘Stammerers through university consultancy’. STUC has a tagline, which reads: ‘supporting university students and staff who stammer’. 

STUC was formed by Claire Norman, a languages graduate. As a student Claire was struck by the lack of constructive advice that her university gave her when she was required to complete a French oral examination. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but the advice was something like ‘slow down’, or ‘breathe’ (bits of advice that others have, indeed, been given me over the years). Her idea was to create an organisation that could offer help and guidance to universities with a view to (ultimately) helping their students.

The conference was the first of its kind, and was sponsored by Professor Deborah Johnston, PVC of Teaching and Learning at SOAS. It featured a series of half hour talks, and then was followed by a panel discussion. What follows is a short summary of each of the talks, followed by a quick summary of some of the points during the panel discussion, and then a set of closing thoughts and reflections.

Presentations

After a short presentation by Rachel Everard (BSA website), who is the service director of the British Stammering Association, it was onto Iain Wilkie. Iain is a former partner of the consultancy E&Y. He spoke about ‘thriving at work with a stammer’, and made an interesting point about leadership. Leadership not only involves leading, it also means addressing and discussing potential, actual or perceived weaknesses. This requires us to have courageous conversations with others, with a view to connecting and informing. Implicit in these points was the importance of understanding (and embracing) the social model of disability.

Abed Ahamed (BSA website) is a secondary school teacher, and is a PWS (person who stammers). Abed shared some phrases that resonated with me, such as ‘speak to thrive rather than survive’ and ‘talk and connect with others’. What struck me was Abed’s determination to become a teacher. I remember him saying teaching was a ‘second option’ for some of his peers, whereas for Abed, it was a primary motivator and objective. A personal reflection is that when I was his age, I had completely ruled out teaching as a career choice (only to embrace it years later when I became appointed as a part time tutor for The Open University).

Next up was Lindsey Pike from the University of Bristol. Lindsey spoke about the importance of staff networks (Bristol University) within a university that can offer support for different groups of staff. I was interested to hear that there was also a network for staff who stammer at Bristol. For a brief period of time (before other commitments needed to take precedence) I was a member of an OU network called EnablingStaff@OU (OU equality and diversity resources page). A further personal reflection was that the power of the network (of course) comes from its members, and the personal contacts that each member has. A further thought is a wider set of networks can also be gained by joining a trade union, which can help with institutional and national issues regarding accessibility and disability.

Grant Meredith gave the first talk after the lunch break. I’ve met grant a couple of times: one at a BSA conference (where he talked about being a dean at the university where he worked), and briefly during a trip to Melbourne. Since we last met, Grant has been carrying out his doctoral research that is exploring the experiences of Australian students who stutter. One of the points I noted down included the idea of ‘concessional bargaining’, which is where students might trade off potential grades against speech avoidance activities.

After Grant was Claire Tupling, Senior Lecturer in Postgraduate Studies at the University of Derby. Claire's presentation complemented Grant’s very well. Through her university, Claire gained a small amount of funding to carry out research into the experiences of university staff who stammer. Claire’s research fits into a subject that can be called Disability Studies ‘which sits between social sciences and the humanities’, and addresses themes such as how disability can be socially constructed. I noted down the phrase: “the academic workplace is frequently a key site in the construction of individuals’ disablement”. Some of the themes that I noted down from Claire’s talk included people becoming ‘accidental academics’ and there being ‘additional labour’ that accompanies (and may counter) the potentially disabling effects of stammering. 

The final talk was by Deborah Johnson who spoke about ‘stammering and inclusion in the rapidly changing context of universities’. Deborah referred to research by Boyle, Blood and Blood (2009) about the ‘Effects of perceived causality on perceptions of persons who stutter’, the challenges that accompany group-based assessment and the importance of inclusive learning and teaching. Another point to bear in mind is that, in some cases, potential pedagogic innovations may negatively affect people who stammer.

Panel discussion

The panel discussants included Claire Norman, myself, Beulah Samuel-Ogbu (SOAS Disabled students and carers’ officer), Mandy Taylor (trustee of the BSA) and Rory Sheridan (former UoA student, and visual artist).

Claire had prepared some questions for us to discuss, just in case there were silences from the audience: “(1) would any panellists like to share a university-related experiences? (2) what should students or staff do if the university’s Disability Support is not providing sufficient help? (3) why aren’t university Mental Health Support and Disability Support teams collaborating more? (4) In what ways can the Equality Act 2010 assist students and staff who stammer? (5) What would you advise if a student didn’t want to choose a preferred module because the assessment methods were heavily emphasised on speech?” Even though we all had questions, we need not have worried; there was a lot to talk about.

Some points that I noted down were: the importance of removing ‘fluency’ from assessment criteria (instead, this might be replaced by ‘effectiveness of communication’), that stammering can affect non assessed work (since students and tutors might have discussions to help with essays), and that inclusion relates to organisational culture, and thinking about inclusion for PWS can have a positive effect on all students.

Reflections

In some respects this was the first ‘academic’ conference that I’ve been to that has focussed on a single disability (I’ve put the term ‘academic’ in quotes, since although talks were given, papers were not presented, but everything that was said was linked to the academic context).

I sensed that although we had talked about many different issues and felt there was still a lot to talk about, and a lot of practice experience to share between the different groups of people who attended (parents, speech and language therapists, university staff and students). There’s a lot that can be said about assessment and how to help students become settled. Interestingly, the theme of mental health emerged a number of times (the link here is that people who stammer can sometimes be affected by mental health issues).

Attending this conference made me reflect on the good points and the challenging points of my own university experiences. Some suggestions and actions were thoughtful and appropriate: some reasonable adjustments were made without question or debate, and were very welcome. Other actions were thoughtless and inappropriate: one tutor suggested that his church might be able to offer ‘a cure’.

A personal opinion is that there may well be value in connecting up with other disability groups or organisations; I feel that more influence can be gained if different groups work together. This said, it’s important to find a way to ensure that the educators are educated and myths are dispelled. Organisations such as STUC can play an important role with both of these tasks.

For further information, do feel free to check out the STUC Twitter stream. Also, if anyone is interested, the following hashtags were used in the event: #silenceoncampus and #getSTUCin.

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TM111 module briefing: April 2018

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 25 May 2018, 10:03

On 7 April, I attended the module briefing for a new module: TM111 Introduction to Computing and Information Technology 1. I arrived a little late but got there just in time to catch Richard Walker’s talk about the importance of accessibility, missing Elaine Thomas’s introduction.

Accessibility 

From the notes I picked up after the event, Richard’s talk mentioned quite a few things. TM111 has an accessibility statement, and the module provides a range of alternative formats. There are some issues that tutors need to be aware of. One challenge that some students might have is when they come to use a package called Audacity (Audacity Team website) which is an audio recording and manipulation tool. In some cases, students might need help to use the software, and students who may have speaking difficulties can use computer generated speech.

The programming environment, OU Build, can present some challenges for students who have visual impairments. Students with low vision will need sighted assistance to drive the software. Hearing impaired students might find some of the activities a challenge, but the module team have provided alternative versions.

Block 1: The digital world

Elaine Thomas who is the TM111 module chair introduced the first block. I haven’t got too many notes from this part of the day, so I’ll summarise some of the slides. An important slide has the title: what will students be doing in block 1? The answer is: reading the module guide, reading block 1 materials, finding this way around the module website, using Open Studio, using Audacity and using Google sites. 

Block 2: Creating Solutions

This bit of TM112 was introduced by Sarah Mattingly and Richard Walker. The vision behind this block is to help students to figure out if they enjoy programming. A part of this is to help them to understand that it is a creative process, and also understand key programming concepts and problem solving strategies (which can also be transferrable between different domains and subjects). I made the note that an important aim of block 2 was to help students to appreciate algorithms. A personal view is that programming is fun! However, like anything worthwhile, it takes time and practice to master. 

The key bits from the briefing PowerPoint included an introduction to OU Build (which is a bit like Scratch), an introduction to parts 2-5 (which are all about problem solving), and part 6 which is all about algorithms.

Block 2 is also interesting since it contains a number of forum activities. Tutors were provided a set of guidance notes. A key sentence reads: ‘your role is to encourage and support engagement with this activity … please suggest to students that they comment and ask questions of other students as well as post their own ideas’.

A final note is that the block doesn’t include a comparison with other languages, introduces unnecessary terms, or place significant emphasis on more nuanced (but important) issues such as efficiency or ‘good’ style. 

Marking exercise

Christine Gardner introduced us all to a very interesting marking exercise. We were given a TM111 TMA question, given a short excerpt from the tutor notes, and an excerpt from a student’s submission. Our job was to look at everything and figure out what score we would give the student’s answer, what comments we would write on the student’s script, and what we would write on the student’s PT3 summary (with respect to that particular question).

It interesting that different tutors gave slightly different marks for slightly different reasons, but there wasn’t anything to worry about; these were all within the bounds of acceptability. What really mattered, of course, was the learning that had taken place.

I made a note of a couple of suggestions that might help with the marking: it was important to acknowledge what our student had done well. It was also useful to point our student to the relevant module sections which explain the concepts that were being assessed in the TMA question. With respect to TM111, I think someone referred to something called the ‘laminated’ sheet.

Block 3: Connecting people, places and things

The final block was introduced by Karen Kear. This block introduces students to a wider set of issues that relate to computing and information technology. There are six parts: network technologies, the internet, wireless communications, the internet of things, online communications and the networked society.

From a personal perspective, the last two sections looked to be especially interesting: the part about online communications and the section about the networked society. The network society part features some really interesting topics: the connection between the government, the state and society, identity and biometrics, and networked health. The final section in block 3 has the title: placeless power and powerless places. This section includes interviews that explore the connection between technology use and individual power. I also made a note of something called ‘social presence theory’, which also is connected to power relationships and technology.

Acknowledgements

I have to confess that I have very little to do with TM111. I did help to support the delivery of the first presentation, by interviewing and supporting tutors, but I have now handed over that responsibility to a colleague (I am now more involved in TM112, this module that immediately follows TM111). I would like to mention the names of all the authors of the module materials: Elaine Thomas (chair), Chris Bissell, David Chapman, Ingi Helgason, Alan Jones, Karen Kear, Soraya Kouadrai, Sarah Mattingly, Nicky Moss, Mike Richards, Rita Tingle and Richard Walker. I’m sure I’ve missed some names! (Not to mention all the production and editorial staff).

And finally…

As a slight aside, when I was doing a bit of research for this blog, I found another blog, which was called: a sackofcrazy (a nice title!) The blog has the subtitle: adventures in Open University Computing and IT. If you’ve accidentally found my blog and you’re an OU student, I do recommend that you have a look at Mark’s blog. A few days later, another blog was mentioned in a newsletter. This has the title: Open University, and insider’s perspective.

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Ten years of tutoring H810 accessible online learning

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 16 Feb 2018, 10:12

A couple of days ago I completed the last few pieces of work for a module called H810 accessible online learning. It used to be an important piece of a MA programme in online and distance education (MAODE for short) that was run from a part of the OU called the Institute of Educational Technology. These last few bits of work, which involved agreeing scores on a few EMA modules, represented the end of ten years of work. This ending represents, to some degree, a bit of a milestone.

I applied to tutor on H810 whilst I was working on an accessibility research project; the aim of the project was to explore how to create VLE systems that were more usability for people who have disabilities. I came to work on that project after having tutored a module in interaction design and having had a job developing a learning management system. H810 seemed like a perfect fit.

I remember the interview; it took place in the OU offices in Camden, which probably meant a trip from Sussex, where I was living at the time. I can’t remember what I was asked but I remembered talking about what is meant by the term ‘reasonable adjustments’ and saying something about how I supported my students. I must have said the right things, since I was given a job.

Tutors

I was one of four tutors who were appointed to the first presentation of the module. There was myself, Clive, Simon and Michelle. The numbers of students on the module changed throughout its presentation. Towards the end of the module, there were only two tutors, myself and Clive, but we were sometimes asked to take on larger groups. Simon, a tutor who I understand had a hand in the original design and development of the module returned during its final presentation. 

Structure of the module

H810 was an interesting module, since it consists of two main aspects: a practical aspect and a big theoretical aspect. When I started, I have confess that the theory bit (which I’ll come onto in a few minutes) was entirely new to me. Being more of technologist, my strengths lie in the more technical aspects; I understood some of the issues that accompanied the design of accessible web pages. I was able to apply this understandings to appreciate how someone working in higher education might begin to create accessible materials.

A really important aspect of the module was its emphasis on personal reflection; students were encouraged to continually write about their own background and relate things that they learnt on the module to their own experiences. 

The module had two TMAs (tutor marked assignments), and one large six thousand word EMA (end of module assessment). The first assignment was more of an introduction; it asked students to write about their own context and think about some of the issues and challenges that exist within it, whilst connecting to concepts that were introduced within the module such as the importance of the student voice and national legislation. It offered tutors an opportunity to steer students towards important reading.

The second TMA had different focus; it was a lot more practical: it asked students to create and evaluate an accessible learning resource. The resources itself could be about anything. What really mattered was that students gained the experience of building something and working with different tools. Through the module materials students were able to learn about and consult different resources and guidelines; students creating PowerPoints consulted documents that were produced by an organisation called TechDis; students creating web pages or blogs were able to consult W3C WCAG guidelines.

The process of building something helped students to think about how their learning designs could be used by different groups of students. They considered, for example, whether learners could easily adjust the font sizes of text and change the background. This implicitly reflected another important issue that was exposed within the module: the importance of accessibility training and how this might be provided through the institution in which they studied.

Activities

One of the interesting elements of the module was that it make extensive use of discussion forums. The module was split into three sections, or blocks. There was an introductory section, a section that related to the use of assistive technology and a block about wider issues and debates (which I’ll come onto later).

Each section was divided into a number of weeks, and weeks contained topics. Each topic has two bits: a set of pages that students needed to read and links to accompanying resources, and a topic discussion forum. The topic pages contained a series of activities. These activities could either be completed by the student themselves, or be completed by participating in an online discussion through the topic discussion forum. One of my activities as a tutor was to ‘seed’ the discussions, ready for the students for when they arrive at that point in the module. Another thing that I did as a tutor was encourage students to subscribe to each of the forums.

The aims of all these forums were simple: it was to share practices and experiences between students. One of the good things about H810 is that it sometimes attracted students from different countries. This meant that is was possible to compare and contrast practices and experiences.

In my experience, there were some students who were enthusiastic users of the discussion forums, and there were some who barely touched them. By way of an incentive, students were awarded 10% of the overall module score for online participation.

Set book, theory and the EMA

As well as the module materials, a set text accompanied the module:  E-Learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research and Practice by Jane Seale, who is now a professor at the OU.

During the life of the module, Jane’s book changed; her second edition was very different to the first edition. I personally found the first edition a difficult read and I sensed that this was a view that was shared by some students. Despite its difficulty, it had a lot to say: it encouraged students to think about accessibility from three different perspectives; an individual perspective, an institutional perspective and a community perspective. These perspectives were connected to three different frameworks (or ‘theoretical lenses’, as I came to view them) that can be applied (through critical reflection) to help understand how accessibility is provided within the student’s own institution. 

Through the application of these ‘lenses’ students could also begin to see what changes and potential enhancements could be made. Accessibility doesn’t just begin and end by considering the technical dimension; it is a sociotechnical issue: technology can help, but people need to know what technology can be chosen and applied.

The first edition of Seale’s book introduced institutional change theory, activity theory and something called ‘communities of practice’. Coming from more of a technical tradition (as opposed to sociotechnical, or even educational position), I found all these pretty confusing. Initially, I didn’t know what to make of all these tools. A personal challenge was that the end of module assessment was all about using these tools to understand and make sense of their own institutional context.

I soon began to see how students creatively unpicked their situations and environments using the different frameworks. By thinking about concepts such as communities of practice, for instance, students could understand the extent to which people in their own institutions talk about accessibility and share experiences. This helped students to ask themselves questions, such as: how do teachers learn about accessibility, and how do disabled students begin to gain access to assistive technologies and accompanying training.

Reflections

One thing that surprised me at the start of the module is that it didn’t (initially) have any recommended or scheduled tutorials; my line manager didn’t offering me a clear or a direct steer about this. By the second or third presentation, I had made a unilateral decision that tutorials were probably needed. I introduced three tutorials: one for each TMA and another one for the EMA. By the time the university moved towards sharing of tutorials through the group tuition policy, the tutors were already working collaboratively with each other to delivery online tutorials.

Thinking back to my experience of tutoring on H810, one of the biggest things that surprised me was its approach to marking: students had access to exactly the same marking guidelines that were available to the tutors; everything was totally transparent. 

This was very different to the marking approach that I had ‘grown up with’ whilst tutoring on a computing and IT module; tutors were given extensive instruction and guidance about how to mark each individual question section, and were even provided with sample answers. H810 was different: it was entirely up to us, and this surprised me. In some respects, as tutors we were given a lot more scope and freedom to teach, but the downside was that it took a bit of time to uncover the best way to present feedback to students.

Fast forward around seven years, and things had changed: the first edition of the module set text had been replaced with a second edition. A big difference between the first edition and the second edition of Seale’s book is that the second edition no longer contained the chapters that introduced the three different frameworks that were fundamental to the EMA. This created a problem for the module team: they could either rewrite the module, use another reference, or create some other form of resource to fill the gap. They chose the latter approach: they worked with the publisher to create a special edition of the set text; the second edition with three extra chapters from the first edition. 

From what I understand, the introduction of the second edition gave way to a module refresh. By and large, the shelf life of an OU module is around 6 years; H810 had ten presentations. As well having to make way for a new set text, sections of the module materials had to be updated; there were external changes that affected the presentation of the module, such as the availability of an organisation called TechDis, which offered accessibility support to the university sector and the emergence of new accessibility standards and equality legislation. The refresh also represented an opportunity to draw on new research and publications; I was very surprised to learn that a conference paper that I had written had been explicitly used within the module materials. There is an important point here, which is that modules should be connected to and use research. 

The end of module assessment was, in many ways, the hardest part of the module for both students and for tutors. As an EMA marker, I have always been aware of how much time and effort went into each piece of writing, and I was continually impressed by the level of writing that was submitted. In the run up to the EMA, my own guidance to students had changed and developed. I emphasised the importance of demonstrating reading beyond the boundaries of the module (which is something that is required from a postgraduate module), and spoke about the importance of tone; although some people fundamentally disagree, I recommended that it was okay for students to write in the first person, as long as students adopted a relatively formal approach. 

Towards the end of tutoring on H810 I started to tutor on a Computing and IT project module that had the module code TM470. In some respects, working on H810 was the perfect training for the world of TM470 where students are required to write substantial end of project reports that were even longer than the EMAs that students were required to submit in H810. There was another difference: TM470 also had a transparent marking guide like H810. 

Final words: summing up

I know this can be said about all OU modules, but I felt that being a tutor on H810 was a very worthwhile thing to do. I write this because I have seen students come through the process of writing the EMA with a set of practical recommendations that could make a real difference to the experience of students with disabilities in their own institution. It was especially interesting to read about the ways that the frameworks are used to uncover accessibility practice within the OU.

A couple of words to summarise the experience: challenging, interesting and hard work. There’s also a touch of sadness that it has all finished. I’ll miss H810 and I’ll also miss its tutors. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that some of the topics that it exposes finds its ways into a replacement module, whatever that might be.

If you’re interested, bits of H810 can be found in the following Open Learn course: Accessibility of eLearning.

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HEA 2017 Annual conference: Generation TEF

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 14 Aug 2017, 10:56

A couple of weeks after attending the European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN) conference, I attended a UK Higher Education Academy conference that took place in Manchester between 4 July and 6 July 2017. In some respects, it was good to attend both events so close together, since ideas from the first conference were still at the forefront of my mind when I attended the second.

What follows is a conference of report of the HEA event. Like all of these conference reports, they represent my own personal views of the event; different delegates, of course, would have very different experiences. I should add that I attended two of the days: one that concentrated on STEM education, and the other that was more general.

The second day of the conference was opened by HEA chief executive Stephanie Marshall. Stephanie noted that this was the first annual conference for three years. She also hinted at the scale of the HEA, reporting that there were now ninety thousand fellows. A key point was that ‘teaching excellence is a global ambition’ and that discussions about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has been dominating recent debates within higher education. The notion of the fellowship was an attribute that can change university cultures to foreground the importance of teaching. Other issues that I noted were the importance of student engagement, student satisfaction, student retention and the idea of creating a ‘connected curriculum’.

Keynote: How digital engagement enhances the student experience

The opening keynote was by Eric Stoller. Eric has built a consultancy about using technology and social media to create digital engagement, with a particular emphasis on higher education.

I’ve noted that Eric said that there are social media skeptics and that social media is a subject that can be polarising. There was the suggestion that social media is all about learning, and the learning doesn’t stop when students leave the classroom. A point I noted was ‘life-long learning should be at the heart of the experience’; this is especially interesting since the life-long learning agenda within my own institution has been fundamentally impoverished due to government increases of tuition fees. It is now harder to study for an entirely different qualification, or to study a module or two with the intention of developing skills that are important in the workplace.

We were presented with a series of questions. One of them was: can social media be used for critical thinking? Perhaps it can. Information literacy is an important and necessary skill when we are faced with working out what news is fake, and what news isn’t. Other questions were: how do we use social media to build communities? Also, how do we connect to others when there’s one of ‘you’ and lots of ‘them’? In answer to ‘how’ you ‘do’ engagement through social media, I remembered that one of my colleagues, Andrew Smith gave a talk entitled ‘how our classroom has escaped’ at The Open University about how to use some social media tools (specifically Twitter) to reach out to computer networking students.

Another broad question was about digital literacy and capability. This immediately relates to another question: is there a benchmark for digital capabilities? A challenge about this perspective is one that Eric mentioned, which is: different people use social media in different ways. Another question was: how about addressing the subject of social media in staff appraisals?

A theme that appears regularly is that of employability. Perhaps lecturers should be ‘role modelling’ to students about how to use social media, since these can and do have implications for employability. Social media can be used to engage students as they become acclimatised to working within a particular institution, helping them through their first few weeks of study.

As Eric was speaking, I had my own thoughts: one way to see social media is a beginning point for further engagement with students; it can be used to expose issues and debates; it should, of course, be a beginning point and not be an end in itself. There are other issues: what are the motivations and incentives for the use of social media amongst different communities?

Day 2: Morning Sessions

The first session of the day was by Anna Hunter from the University of Central Lancashire. Anna’s talk was entitled: ‘What does teaching excellence look like? Exploring the concept of the ideal teacher through visual metaphor’. I was interested in attending this session since I have an interest in associate lecturer continuing professional development, and Anna was going to be talking about her work on a PGCE in HE module (which is a subject that has been on my mind recently). Some of the activities echoed my own experience as a PGCE student; activities to explore views and opinions about teaching and thinking about the notion of academic identity. I noted down a question that was about team teaching, but I didn’t note down the response; the issue of how to facilitate and develop team teaching practice remains both an interest and a question. 

Kath Botham from Manchester Metropolitan University gave a presentation that was also in the form of question: Is an institutional CPD scheme aligned to the UK PSF and HEA Fellowship an effective tool to influence teaching practice? Kath’s research was a mixed method approach that aimed to assess the impact of the various fellowship awards. Some practitioners wanted the ‘HEA badge’ to be seen and recognised as someone involved in teaching and learning’. It is viewed as something to validate practice. Also, gaining accreditation is something that can help lecturers and teachers overcome ‘imposter syndrome’. The question remains: does accreditation change practice? Accreditation can help people to engage with reflection, it can represent an important aspect of CPD and can stimulate personal skills and study development.

Day 2: Afternoon Sessions

After attending a series of short five minute ‘ignite’ sessions, I couldn’t help but attend: ‘Removing the elephant from the room: How to use observation to transform teaching’ by Matt O'Leary and Mark O'Hara who were both from Birmingham City University. This presentation directly linked to the theme of the conference and to a university funded project that is all about online and face to face tutorial observations. We were treated to a literature review, and introduced to a six stages of an observation cycle: (1) observe self-reflection, (2) a pre-observation meeting, (3) observation, (4) post-observation reflection, (5) post-observation dialog, and (6) observee and observed post-observation reflective write up. I also noted down that there was an observer training and development sessions. Another note (which I assume is about the feedback) was: ‘we chose a blank page approach; we don’t want to forms corrupting what we see’, which reflects observation reports that I have personally received. The closing points were important; they spoke about the importance of management buy-in, that there is anxiety in the process, and there needs to be time to have conversations. 

Rebecca Bushell from the University of South Wales asked: Can innovative teaching techniques effectively improve engagement, retention, progression and performance? Rebecca’s innovative technique was to ask her students to create businesses that are funded using micro-capital (student groups were given fifty pounds each). The points were that this was immersive problem based learning that allowed students to share experience. It also allowed to reflect on their experience, and it created learning situations for students on other modules; accounting students were asked to audit their accounts. For me, the take away point was: simulations can expose real challenges that can immediately relate to the development of employability skills. 

Day 3: Opening Keynote

The final day of the conference was opened by Giskin Day from Imperial College London. Giskin taught a Medical humanities course which was all about Putting medicine in a social and cultural context. It is a course that explores the connections between the arts and science, with an emphasis on creativity.

An interesting point that I noted was that much of science is about minimising risk and beating uncertainty. With this context in mind, how can we encourage students to tolerate and manage ambiguity? This, of course, is an important skill in higher education; it is something that is explicitly explored within the humanities, where students are encouraged to be ‘creatively critical and critically creative’.

Another point is that there is a change in student expectation: students are no longer willing to be ‘talked at’, which is something that was echoed within my recent blog summary from the recent EDEN conference that I attended. A question remains: how do we engage students in new ways? One approach is to consider ‘playful learning’ (the notion of games and gaming was, again, something that featured within EDEN). Games, Giskin argued, enable students to develop empathy; they allow students to enter into a safe imaginative space where failure is an option and a possibility.

We were introduced to a speed dating card exchange game that had a medical theme. As a part of her teaching, we were told about a field trip to the V&A museum that was connected to skin, sculpture and dermatology. Students had to find exhibits within the museum and had to decide whether the sculpture needed a medical diagnosis, developing student’s communication, sketching and observation skills. Other games involved role playing where students played the roles of doctor and consultants. There was talk of escape rooms and creative puzzle solving.

Giskin offered some tips about creating effective games: consider the audience, make sure that things are tested, and think about a balance of playfulness and usefulness whilst also asking questions about what would motivate the student players. Also, when planning a ‘game’, always consider a ‘plan B’, since things might change in the real world; a game-based field trip to a museum might become unstuck if a museum suddenly loans an artefact to another institution.

In some respects, Giskin’s presentation was in two parts: the first part was about games; the second part was about her research about the rhetoric of gratitude in healthcare (Imperial College). Her point was simple: grateful people want to express gratitude; it is a part of closure, and an acknowledgement of that expression. The language used with both patients, and with challenging students is very important. I noted down the importance of moving from a rhetoric of coercion to a rhetoric of collaboration.

During the question and answer session, I think Giskin referred to something called the Playful learning Special Interest group (Association for Learning Technology). I found this interesting, since the introduction to design module, U101 Design Thinking uses both the idea of play, and explores design through the development of a game. 

I enjoyed Giskin’s reference to different types of learning approaches; her references to field trips and role play echoes various teaching approaches that I have tried to adopt. During a moment of inspiration I once spontaneously ran a field trip to a university corridor to encourage a set of design students to look at a set of recycling bins! Hearing about other practitioners such as Giskin developing a systematic and more comprehensive approach to designing field trips offers real inspiration and insight into how to develop interesting and entertaining learning events. I remain wondering how to embed these different approaches into a distance learning context.

Towards the end of Giskin’s session, we were each given different postcards, and we were asked to write down the response to a simple question: ‘what teaching and learning tip were you grateful to receive?’ Our challenge was to find the same card as another delegate and swap tips. When I found another delegate that had the same card as mine, a card that had some drawings of some craft tools, I made a point of offering a grateful thank you, which was, I believe, graciously received.

Day 3 : Morning Sessions

During the morning, I moved between different sessions to catch various presentations. The first talk of the morning was by Nagamani Bora, University of Nottingham, who spoke about ‘Curriculum Design - Opportunities and Challenges’. There were references to employability, interdisciplinary and the notion of the spiral curriculum (which was recently mentioned during my PGCE in HE studies). Other points included the importance of involving students in curriculum design and introducing them to international and global perspectives. An interesting point was made about the question of programme level assessments.

Siobhan Devlin who was from the University of Sunderland spoke about ‘Engaging learners with authentic assessment scenarios in computing’. Interestingly, Siobhan spoke about the ‘demodularised curriculum’; bigger chunks of curriculum were considered to be the order of the day. A key point was that authentic assessment needs to reflect real world practices. Siobhan also referenced some of her earlier research that asked the question: what does inspiring teaching look like? Some key attributes I noted were: enthusiasm, passion, adaptability, empathy, friendliness and enjoyment. I also noted down a reference to Keller’s ARCS model of motivation (e-learning industry).

Day 3 : Afternoon Sessions

Christine Gausden, University of Greenwich, continued to touch on the authentic in her talk ‘Embedding Employability within the Curriculum’. Christine is a senior lecturer in the built environment and said that although students might have technical knowledge, they may lack the opportunity to apply that knowledge. To overcome this, practitioners were asked to talk to students, and students were asked to study real live construction project, which links to the earlier point of authenticity. 

After Christine’s talk, I switched sessions to listen to Dawn Theresa Nicholson and Kathryn Botham from the Manchester Metropolitan University talk about ‘Embedding Reasonable Adjustments in the Curriculum (ERAC): A Faculty-wide approach to inclusive teaching’, which relates to my own experience of tutoring on an Open University module called Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students (Open University website). The idea was to embed accessibility in the curriculum (MMU) to such an extent so that personal learning plans could be phased out completely. A solution was to look at what adjustments were being applied, provide a set of standard adjustment and to offer staff training. An important principle was to make sure that all learning materials were available online in advance of a session. 

Carol Calvert, a staff tutor colleague from The Open University talked about ‘Success against the odds’. A key driver the research was the principle of student retention; it was hoped that the project would suggest actions to help students to complete their studies. The key research question was: ‘what can students who we think may not succeed, who have been able to succeed, able to tell us?’ Factors that might suggest challenges include: previous study success, socio-economic status, and level of prior educational attainment. Students offered some pointers: (1) that it was important to start early, (2) that it is important to share and to get network (and to tell other people that you are studying), (3) use a study planner.

To conclude, students that do succeed have a can do attitude. The important question is: how can we foster this from a distance? There were some accompanying actions: the module team could take time to introduce the module and gives students some useful study tips. Another action is to ask students whether they wanted to start study early and then try to make this happen. When asked, it turned out that half of the students on Carol’s module said that they might want to do this.

The final presentation I attended was given by my colleague, David Morse. David talked about ‘Truly virtual teams: twelve years on’. It isn’t a surprise to hear that students don’t like team working, but David made the point that group working is an important element of the QAA computing subject benchmark statement. Twelve years earlier, things were different: students didn’t have broadband, but online collaboration is more about people than it is about the details that surround particular technologies. A question is: what must students do? They must set rules, roles and responsibilities. They must also identify knowledge and skills, make regular contributions to online discussions, give and receive criticism, and apply good netiquette. A tutor needs to be a facilitator and not a manager. A tutor also needs to know when to step forward and when to step back. In response to this, David presented an interesting helical model of team working (which reminded me of a spiral model that had been mentioned earlier during the conference). 

Reflections

I like HEA conferences; they’re always well run, they are interesting and relevant, and represent a great opportunity for networking. In comparison to other HEA events that I had attended this one had a slightly different feel. I think this difference is due to two reasons; the first is the sheer scale of the event. Secondly, due to the fact that it was very interdisciplinary. Whilst I always enjoy meeting people who work in other subjects, I did feel that the sheer scale of the conference made it a more difficult event to navigate and choose the sessions that looked to be the most relevant. These things said, I did feel that the keynotes were well chosen and well presented. The second keynote stood out as being particularly thought provoking, which is exactly what keynote sessions should be.

During the workshop, I also facilitated a session about module design with my colleague, Ann Walshe. We offered a space where delegates could be creative and design their ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ module. The resulting designs were fun and playful, and make significant use of different technologies that had been mentioned during the first keynote. 

I’m going to conclude with a more personal reflection. This conference took place in the grounds of the university that was once known as UMIST, which was where I studied as a doctoral student. Wandering around the campus brought back many memories; I remembered how challenging it was. I was trying to conduct research into what was a very specific aspect of computing: theoretical models of how programmers go about understanding software code. I remembered how difficult it was having a part time job whilst at the same time as being a full time student. I also remembered how alone I felt, and this underlined the importance of community, which was also a topic that had arisen during the various sessions.

It not only struck me that community was really important for researchers, but it is also really important as a way to facilitate excellent teaching too; teachers and lecturers need to talk to other teachers and lecturers. In some ways, this was, ultimately, what the conference was all about.

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Digital accessibility in higher and further education conference, April 2016

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 5 May 2016, 12:06

I’ve been to a couple of events at the British Computer Society (BCS) before. This one was especially interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are over ten thousand students with disabilities studying at the Open University, and it’s important to know what is going on in the field. Secondly, accessibility in higher education is central to a module that I tutor (H810 accessible on-line learning). Another reason, of course, was to catch up with colleagues in other institutions who work in the digital accessibility sector.

This blog post is intended for internal (and external) colleagues, and students who are studying this area. What follows is a quick summary of all the talks I attended. I also hope this summary might be useful for anyone who was at the conference.

Introductions and opening talks

The conference had the subheading: ‘meeting the needs of the increasing number of students with disabilities’. Lord Addington, spokesman for Special Educational Needs (SEN) at the House of Lords, introduced the event. He spoke about the political context, highlighting the importance of employers. A really important point was: ‘please make sure everyone knows what you can do, to make someone’s life slightly easier; let them know you have practical solutions when you talk to people outside this room’.

Accessibility for students with disabilities

The first speaker was Majid Kahn, who spoke about his experience as an undergraduate student who has a visual impairment. An early point that directly resonated with my own knowledge was the difficulties that can surround acquiring assistive technology through the UK Disability Support Allowance (DSA). Due to delays that are inherent in the process, Majid had to obtain a ‘loan’ computer from the RNIB, which arrived one month after the start of a course.

Majid said (according to my notes) that some software not was accessible through a screen reader. An accompanying challenge was accessing text books (and some books that published in PDF format are not accessible). A practical solution was to directly email the author, who could send a Word version (which would then be accessible). Since many documents and resources are accessed through institutional learning environments, Majid commented that ‘Moodle seems to be inaccessible at the moment’. This was a point that I found interesting, since I know the OU has been putting a work into trying to make Moodle accessible. Perhaps there might be differences between how Moodle is set up and used by different institutions.

Another key point was that the training available at university (in terms of how to use systems, products and assistive technologies) is not adequate. This was connected with the view that although things are heading in the right direction, there is a long way to go, and there is a lack of awareness. Awareness is connected to the importance of communication, and the acceptance that every student is different. In some situations, students may be reluctant to ask for help and advice, and some lecturers might be unwilling to offer additional support. To help to facilitate understanding it was considered important to share information; to help university staff to become more aware of the needs of students. 

An industry perspective on what to teach and how

David Sloan is an ‘accessible user experience engineer’. I know David through his publication on the notion of holistic web accessibility (Word doc, University of Bath). David’s job is to provide advice on how to develop and support digital accessibility, which is something that is often thought of ‘very late in the day’, or is considered as an afterthought.  Put another way: ‘organisations pay us to give bad news’. Rather than reporting on what doesn’t work, organisations and universities shouldn’t really focus on ‘evaluating and repairing’, but should instead focus on ‘improving practices and processes from the beginning’.

Some key problems include the lack of web development skills, understanding that not everyone uses a mouse for access, the use of colour, and media accessibility, i.e. offering alternative (useful) descriptions for graphics.

A fundamental problem can relate to the organisational perspective; accessibility not being connected to good experience design, or accessibility being ‘hived off’ into another part of interaction design. The key point is that accessibility needs to be built into development processes, and this relates to the idea of an ‘accessibility design maturity continuum’ http://uxfor.us/mature-it (Paciello group); accessibility shouldn’t be added as an afterthought.

There are a number of challenges for educators: the importance of integrating accessibility into the curriculum, that digital literacy and accessibility communication should be embedded into all subjects (and not just information technology or computing sciences), and that it should be integrated into learning activities, experiences and assessment. It is also important to include accessibility as a core professional skill.  David went on to suggest that there might be increased professionalization of accessibility, and mentioned something called TeachAccess.org (TeachAccess website).

As David was talking, I had a thought which relates to the complexities that are inherent in accessibility. Whilst it is possible to create accessible resources and accessible software, every learner is different in terms of their personal needs and their learning strategies. Learners need to develop expertise and mastery over their tools. This is, of course, something that takes time.

Accessible STEM: Anticipating and resolving barriers

Emma Cliffe works in the accessibility resource centre in the University of Bath. Emma helps to provide accessible solutions for maths, computing, and subjects that present a lot of diagrams.

When it comes to maths, a really important point is that students are expected to produce assignments that their lecturers can read; students invariably need to show their working to demonstrate their understanding of mathematical concepts. One of the issues is that some digital formats (such as PDFs, for example) are ‘lossy’, which means that they lose some of their important semantic information when PDF documents are created.

Lecturers need to provide materials in a format that retains the ‘semantic structure’ (or meaning) of the maths that they aim to teach. Emma mentioned a range of tools and formats: structured Word documents, structured HTML documents, MathML, or Tex plus something called MathJax, Markdown, or ePub3. 

As a brief aside, Tex is a typesetting language which is used with Latex, which mathematicians often use to write technical papers. I’ve used Latex in anger only once, and found it very difficult! I hadn’t heard of something called MathJax before.

 A key question is: how do you author mathematics? The answer is: it is a skill that needs to be learnt (and, of course, takes time to master). This area is one that is rapidly changing, and is difficult for disabled support allowance (DSA) assessors to keep up.

Emma moved onto looking at a subject that that cropped up in my undergraduate studies: finite state automata, which are usually represented through diagrams (using circles and arrows). A finite stage machine is an abstract machine that moves between different states of operation. The thing is, it’s pretty difficult to describe them. To emphasise this point, we were shown different types of descriptions, some more descriptive and wordy than others.

Reflecting on David’s session, I noted that we need to help students to find a choice of tools that work for them. We also need to embed accessibility into procurement processes, and figure out how to integrate accessibility in our teaching (since non accessible students can also benefit from any adjustments that we make). Collaboration is, of course, important too.

Accessibility and MOOCs

EA Draffan from the University of Southampton spoke of a range of different issues that related to accessibility. One point (and I don’t know whether this is true) is that the majority of learners are either middle aged, or elderly.

EA made the really important point that all technologies can be assistive. Some important questions to ask those working in the academic context are: why are we using certain types of multimedia? What are its barriers for use? Do all learners need it? Is personalisation possible?

Rather than presenting research findings, the main point of EA’s presentation seemed to be: MOOC designers and developers need to be mindful about the importance of accessibility. EA went onto talk about different types of accessibility checkers. (There is, of course, the accompanying issue that it can be sometimes difficult to understand and interpret the results from these checkers).

On the subject of MOOCs, I have a couple of research questions (one of which was touched on by EA). The first one is: what do MOOCs about accessibility actually teach? And, secondly, are MOOCs themselves accessible? What are the practical barriers that learners face, and what do they do to get around them?

Parallel session: accessible and adaptable materials and content

The afternoon parallel session consisted of three presentations. The first talk was about ‘how to make PDF documents accessible in virtual environments’, and was given by colleagues from AbilityNet (AbilityNet website). The advice was simple, familiar and effective: create documents using accessible tools, know your audience, don’t use long paragraphs, use headings, use bullet points to break up text, avoid graphics of text, don’t use colours to provide information, and use alternative text for images. Importantly: always consider the semantic structure of a document.

Next up, was an accessibility consultant called Ted Page, who said there were differences between technical accessibility and content accessibility. I think this means that event though something might be accessible through assistive technology, the corresponding content, if read out by a screen reader, might not make any sense at all. PDFs are, apparently, a reasonable solution, but I was interested to hear that MathML is coming to PDF documents (which should add more semantic structure to documents). This echoes Emma’s point that this is a fast moving area.

The third presentation from this session was by Joanna Hunt, from Blackboard. Joanna spoke about a new on-line real-time conferencing system that may replace Elluminate (which is the basis of OU Live, the OU’s real-time tutorial system), which relies on a Java plug-in. This additional bit of Java software can sometimes be a barrier for users. This connects to a wider point that usability and accessibility are intrinsically connected. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a feel for how the new Blackboard system may work (and its accessibility) since it is still under development.

Closing Keynote: Employment prospects of STEM graduates with Disabilities

Peter Looms, from the Technical University of Demark addressed a range of wider issues. Not only is accessibility important in terms of learning resources and classroom activities, but equal access to social activities (of course) is also important. This point is related to the social model of disability. There should be a movement away from solving problems, to removing barriers.

Other points related to the costs of exclusion: there are societal and economic impacts. Assistive technology and digital tools can often be expensive. There are also benefits to inclusion. Peter mentioned Kyle Schwanke, a Microsoft Xbox engineer who has ASD, and touched on the importance of diversity and recruitment. (More information about Kyle Schwanke can be found in a Microsoft People article). The point is that diversity should be viewed as an asset, not a burden. 

Discussion and reflections

During each of the two parallel sessions, each group was asked to consider what might be four points (or steps) to digital accessibility.

Here is a list of the combined points: the importance of consultation (with students), professionalise good teaching practice, improve access to information, put skills before disability (and use the social model of disability), consider using game technology for educating tutors, the importance of doing things the right way, the importance of standards, the importance of involving users, training tutors, and working together.

The final discussions centred upon whether the BCS could embed more accessibility into its core mission, and the extent to which the Teaching Excellent Framework (Times Higher article) may influence practice.

My main concluding thought is that there was one aspect to the conference that wasn’t a surprise, and another aspect that was a surprise. In some respects, all of the subjects and issues that were discussed were quite familiar to me: I am aware of the challenges that surround mathematics, and that we should not be ‘retrofitting’ accessibility to digital materials (but should, instead, think about accessibility from the outset). The surprise was the feeling that there is still a long way to go when it came to educating people about the importance of accessibility.

There are (at least) two reasons why it is important. Firstly, making something accessible, makes things easier for everyone. Secondly, we a moral and a legal responsibility to do something about it. 

For those who are interested, resources from the conference have been made available on the BCS website.

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Don’t close our regional centres

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 24 Sep 2015, 19:45

The Open University has twelve regional centres that are located throughout the United Kingdom.  After the closure of a regional office in East Grinstead, which served the South East of England, the university embarked on a review of its regional centres.  On Tuesday 15 September 2015, the university announced that a locations analysis project, as it is called, was to recommend the closure of seven out of the nine centres in England.

This blog post is, essentially, my own personal response to the recommendation.  One thing that I will say is that I do work in a regional centre: in the London office.  I should also say that I’m not a manager (in the sense of what happens in a regional office), but my perspective is informed by having seen a lot of the great work that happens in London.

The university review states that the closures are primarily motivated by a noble desire to enhance the student experience and the closures are not related to money.  As someone who is on the ground, I find it very difficult to see how students experience will not be affected.

What follows is a set of views about what the regional centres actually do.  These points are, of course, my own opinions.  What I could also do is write loads more about the concept of student support teams (SSTs), activities that relate to associate lecturer alignment with SSTs (and these also directly relate to the closure of regional centres), but I’m keen to keep this all pretty simple: I don’t want to slip into baffling OU jargon.

So, here goes.  Here are my points and observations.

The London office is a busy place

I’ve heard it said that the regional centres are underutilised. From the London perspective, this is just not true.  There is always stuff going on, and the vice chancellor would see it if he took the time to come down and have a chat with some of his staff who work there.

Granted, some of the desks for the faculty people are sometimes lightly used, and this is because they’re either travelling to and from Milton Keynes (the OU’s head office), or have got their head down at home writing module materials at home.  

But, if you look a little bit closer, they are there and they do come in, especially to work with their academic assistants in associate lecturer services to sort out a whole range of different issues, such as associate lecturer recruitment, interviews, appraisals, timetables, tutor-student allocation actions, emergency and illness cover for tutors…  There’s a whole long list of these things.

There are three floors in London.  On the ground floor: there are a bunch of meeting rooms.  These are often occupied by central academics from Milton Keynes who run meetings and projects.  On the day of the locations analysis announcement, there was actually a music conference that was running in the next room.  Plus, the rooms are heavily used as tutorial rooms.  The meeting rooms (on all levels) are so heavily used, you are encouraged to book very early.  Sometimes, there just isn’t the space.

On the first floor, we have the advisors and learner support people for the student support team.  You have people sorting out examination arrangements.  You have people sorting out disability issues.  You have people sorting out examinations for people who are held in secure units or prisons.  You have people offering careers advice.  You also have a number of faculty staff.

On the second floor, there are the associate lecturer support staff: these are the really important people (who should be celebrated and cherished) who actually do the job of putting students in groups.  There are also people who book venues and sort out timetables.  There are people who help to organise interviews (as mentioned earlier) and reassure students and tutors.  

Associate lecturer (AL) services are a really important aspect to the university for the simple reason that associate lecturers are fundamental to the university’s success.  The AL services people also play a valuable role in helping to support associate lecturer development activities, but that is something that I’ll come onto later.

There are two other things worth mentioning: there are two projects that are hosted in the London region: a literary magazine, and a music research project.  These seem to be forgotten about.

In essence, the Camden office is buzzing.  It always has been.  It serves the most populous part of the United Kingdom.  To consider its complete closure (which is what has been announced) is, in my view, madness.

Supporting disabled students

The Open University has a social mission: its slogan is that it is open to people, places, and ideas.  If it loses a substantial link with place, it will lose its link with people too.  One really important dimension is the importance of supporting disabled students.  Supporting disabled students is, of course, a legislative imperative.

Here’s an interesting fact.  The university has nineteen thousand students who have declared a disability, and this number is increasing (SeGA project).  A disability can mean anything from a temporary condition or illness (where a student can become temporarily disabled), a chronic condition (such as diabetes), a physical impairment or mental health issues.

And here’s an example.  On a number of occasions students have visited me at the London regional centre to have a chat (and I’m sure they drop in to chat to advisors and learner support people too!) In these instances, I’m able to offer reassurance and think about which tutor might be best able to support the needs of an individual student.  I would then be able to facilitate the development of a tutor-student relationship.

Would I be able to do that if a student couldn’t visit me?  No.  Does the suggested changes help to enhance the student experience?  No.  Would I be able to head over to the specialist disability advisor who works in the region for some advice about how to approach a particular student?  Again, the answer is no.   Would everything become a whole lot more difficult if I had to do everything by phone: yes.  Plus, some students might not wish to use the phone, or have a disability that prevents them from using the phone effectively.  This isn’t just an argument that I’ve just slotted in here: I used to be one of those people.

There are lots of different issues that link to the issue of students with disabilities, such as the importance of associate lecturer staff development and the accessibility of rooms.  Another really important role that the region performs is planning home exams for students who have disabilities.  The staff in the region work hard to match local invigilators with local students.  Regional staff also need to consider personalities: sometimes a student may be more comfortable with a known invigilator than a stranger.  Knowing this depends on local knowledge: knowing the students, knowing the invigilators, and knowing where everyone lives.

There is something else that the London office does: disability assessments.  If a student applies for the disabled student’s allowance, they will be invited to be a part of a disability assessment.  This is where a professional assessor helps a student to choose a set of assistive technologies and tools that can best suit the study needs.  If the London office closes, this facility will also have to close.  This will, without a doubt, affect students.  I’ll again emphasise a really important point: there is a legislative imperative that the university needs to adhere to.

A final thought on this section is that the project teams has been asked for a document called an equality analysis.  This is a document that is to describe what the university will do to mitigate against the impact that the changes will have to students who have disabilities.  Key points will be: how can associate lecturers run special sessions (more of this point later), and how can the university best guarantee the accessibility of rooms where venues can be hundreds of miles away from centres?   I’ve also heard it said that any closure of a regional centre will affect more women than it will men, due to the number of women who work in these centres. 

Offender learners and students in secure units

I’ll go back university to the mission: people, places and ideas.  A really important aspect of the university’s provision is the ability (in some situations) to offer distance education to people who are located in secure units or prisons.  The distinction between the two are important: secure units might be psychiatric hospitals, for instance.

I hold the liberal (and human) view that education is a right and we should strive to offer it to all.  From what I understand from colleagues within the university, the regions do a huge amount of work to help education in different kinds of institutions happen.  A point is that secure units, whatever they may be, have to be located somewhere.  Also, the relationships between an institution, their education officers and the university have been built up over a considerable period of time.  Plus, when people move on, new relationships need to be built, and the best way to do this, and to understand the challenges is to have opportunities to visit institutions and meet staff.  HMP Swaleside in Kent is a very long way from Milton Keynes or Nottingham.

I’ll make the point again: local knowledge about tutors, institutions, education officers and individual students are important.  This is knowledge that has been built up over considerable time.  Destroying it by dismantling the regional structure is a profound risk to the good work that the university does. 

I’m not directly involved with tutoring students who are held in secure units, but a really important aspect of my job is connecting people together.  One thing I do is keep a rough list of tutors who might be prepared to work with students who are located in different types of institutions.  Although I haven’t had many opportunities of tutoring these students, this is something that I would certainly do.  I would do it because it’s important.  Plus, I feel supported by the regional structure, and by colleagues who know the ins and outs of different institutions.

I’ve hinted at the issue of exams here again, so let’s tackle this issue head on (bearing in mind that I only know a little of what happens in this part of the region).

Exams

Exams has been mentioned earlier.  It is something that is so important, that it deserves its own heading.  In the university, you cannot meddle with exams, and for a very good reason: if you do, you mess around with academic integrity.  As mentioned earlier, the regions play a fundamental role in getting exams sorted out.

Will someone drive all the way from Manchester to check out an exam centre in Cornwall?  Will there be someone who will travel from Milton Keynes to Hastings to make sure that an exam centre is accessible and is appropriate according to academic guidelines?  How will the university go about organising and recruiting invigilators?  Will the university outsource invigilation to some other organisation?  (I admit to not knowing how this exam stuff happens: it just happens, and it seems to happen very well)  My point is the devil is in the detail, and the university has said that the detail was out of scope.

Here’s an interesting example of how the London regional centre (and presumably other regional centres) are used.  At a number of different points of the year the London region hosts exams (again, expect that other regional centres do this too).  Why? I guess there a couple of reasons: but two reasons are to cater for people who have additional requirements (disabilities), or people who have been unable to take an exam in another location, perhaps due to licence restrictions, having been released from a prison.  A regional centre is a really good place to run these exams, since there is support, it’s a controlled environment, and the university can be confident that the examinations are well run.  As every academic (and administrator) worth their salt knows: you don’t mess with exams.

Here’s something else that I’ve learnt.  I’ve heard that following the closure of the South East Region in East Grinstead, the London region has had to take control over a huge amount of exams for a part of the country that I’ve mentioned has a pretty big population.  In terms of administration, this has been a big challenge, but the staff have done the best job they can.

As suggested earlier, the regions also organise and run home exams, where students have to be matched with invigilators.  In fact, when we’re talking about invigilators, we’re not talking about, say, sixty or so.  We’re talking about six hundred invigilation contracts, and to set up each contract requires an experienced administrator to complete a whole bunch of different forms. Also, these really important exam arrangements are managed by a very small group of people in every region.  I’ve heard it say that you need to go through at least two administration cycles (or, two years), to get a handle on what needs to be done.

The point to this section is that the regions play a fundamental role in the management of exams for all students.  These also include students who have disabilities, students who have been in institutions, vulnerable adults, and students who have had to contend with illness.

Associate lecturer recruitment, induction and appraisal

I’ve already mentioned that associate lecturers are really important to the university’s success. There are a couple of elephants in the room, and one of these are: in a world where everything is virtual, how do you go about interviewing associate lecturers?  

I do quite a lot of interviewing, and nothing beats seeing the whites of their eyes: if an AL comes across as being friendly, personable and knowledgeable, then there’s a good chance that they’ll be the same with our students.  Plus, how do we check their degree certificates and passports?  Due to government worries about immigration, we’ve got to scrutinise AL documents really carefully – and I can’t emphasise how important this is.

I’ve heard it said that perhaps the post office or solicitors could authenticate documents on our behalf, but I think that is a nonsense solution.  Our associate lecturer services people see a lot of degree certificates and can spot a fake a mile off.  Do we expect some operative in a post office to see fakes?  I don’t think so.

My point is: we need physical space to interview people, and we need people to check documents.  If someone is considered to be appointable, will they have to send off their documents to one of the two remaining regions?  Will there be a new role where someone has the job of eyeballing passports and degree certificates all day?  I would personally feel very uncomfortable sending my passports and certificates in the post.  Invariably the worst will happen: things will get lost.  In fact, I have personally not accepted a consultancy contract for the simple reason that I didn’t want to be separated from my passport, and I expect many tutors will feel the same.

Another point is the importance of induction of new associate lecturers.  It takes time to get up to speed and nothing beats a face to face chat. The last induction sessions I have personally run have taken place in the London centre, and I’m sure they take place across the country. Inductions are also an opportunity for a staff tutor (their line manager) to get to know their associate lecturer: it’s an opportunity to create the important ‘social glue’ that makes everything work.  It’s our opportunity to learn more about their skills, motivations and experiences, and when we do this, we’re able to help more.  An induction session cannot take place over the phone or on-line.  If you did this, personal line management relationships would be significantly impoverished.

A final point in this section is about appraisals, or CDSAs.  Now, it is true that most of my appraisals take place over the phone, but I understand it that tutors can also request to have a face to face appraisal.  In fact, if an associate lecturer has a disability, there is no reason why this can’t be requested as a reasonable adjustment.  I remember that two of the most useful appraisals I have conducted have been face to face.  It’s easy to say, ‘we can all go virtual’, but if this happens, we will lose those important moments of human connection which makes doing the job so important.  A corollary of this is that many of us choose to teach or tutor precisely because there is such a human aspect to our role.

Associate lecturer development

One of my roles is to help on a committee that run these associate lecturer development events.  These are great opportunities to get tutors together in the same place to share war stories and teaching practice.  It’s also a great opportunity to reconnect with our tutors, for tutors to reconnect with each other, and to share updates about the university.

To date, all the associate lecturer development conferences that I have been to have been connected to individual regions, and this remains to this day.  If the regional structures go (as invariably they will), I fear for the continuing level of staff development that we can offer our tutors.  I learnt to teach through the AL development conferences; I learnt how to run face to face tutorials, and how to provide effective correspondence tuition.  I have also learnt through stories that other tutors have shared with me.  Face to face associate lecturer development is of fundamental importance.

Like so many of these comments, my point here is simple: removing all but two English regional centres runs the risk of significantly impoverishing the training and development opportunities that we offer our essential associate lecturers.  In turn, this will invariably have an effect on the quality of teaching that is offered by our tutors.

I can anticipate a counter argument along the lines of: ‘we have no plans to stop AL development’, but this answer just isn’t good enough.  There has been no comment about any alternatives about how to arrange or plan for an alternative.  A decision that is not based on any consideration of implementation issues is a decision that is foolish.

Implementation of the group tuition policy (GTP)

The group tuition policy is a plan to enable students to have access to a wider range of learning events.  These might be on-line events or off-line events.  I’m one of the fans of the policy.  In fact, in the London region we’ve been running a version of it for some of the high population computing modules. 

Planning for the GTP is especially important, since staff tutors (along with module teams) need to figure out a programme of events that will be delivered throughout the presentation of a module.  Some tutors might have specialisms in aspects of a module; the GTP allows tutors to play to their strengths, which can (in theory) help with student learning and student experience.

There is one thing that we need to do to plan effectively: and that is to have discussions; to learn about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and our personal timetables and abilities.  In the current world, we can all have meetings in the regional centre, but I would have no idea what would happen in the new world.  Again, a huge amount of detail is lacking, and this isn’t good enough.

Tutorial venue booking and management

I don’t know as much about this subject as some of the others (since it’s not my role), but I’m willing to take a punt on the importance of place when it comes to booking tutorial venues.  Plus, I’ve also heard the VC talking about the face to face tutorial provision is going to remain important, which is something that I’m very relieved about.

I’m going to go on a slight diversion: I’m a great believer in face to face tutorials for a number of different reasons.  I’ve heard people saying that the attendance can be quite low for some sessions, and I’ve witnessed this first hand.  Some tutorials can have very few students, but others (if they are planned properly), can have very good numbers.  Even before the planning of something called the Group Tuition Policy, the London region have been running tuition events that have attracted good amounts of students (of course, each region is different: in terms of geography, London is very different to, say, Wales or Scotland). 

Here’s a point that I would like to make (and I’m making it to pre-empt any potential management decision to say ‘we can do everything on line’).  Face to face tutorials are important for all students, whether they come along or not.  When a tutor delivers a tutorial, they have to know their stuff.  Also, those students who attend tutorials are likely to be highly motivated, which means that they are likely to ask difficult questions.  Face to face is important because it forces tutors to be at the top of their game.

So, on to the point of the venues.  Successful events are created through successful relationships.  In London, we know the chap who runs the London School of Economics Centre. He’s a really nice guy, and will do whatever we can to help, and he is really responsive to all the requests that come his way.  Can we build same relationships between the venue manager and those mysterious ‘venue booking people’ who may end up working in Milton Keynes, Manchester or Nottingham?  I can’t answer this question.  Plus, it will fundamentally hinder our ability to respond to one off requests to cater for people who have additional requirements.  As mentioned above, this isn’t just a nice to have: it’s a legislative imperative.

As suggested earlier, the devil is in the detail, and we haven’t see any detail.

Special tutorial sessions

Sometimes, students need a bit of extra help.  What tutors can do sometimes is have a chat with a student over the phone, offering something that is known as a ‘special session’.  Sometimes, this just isn’t enough, especially if a student is suffering from anxiety or has a disability, for instance.  In London, tutors can contact their staff tutor and asked to book a meeting room to hold a one to one tutorial session.  The London centre is, of course, a safe space for both students and tutors alike: there are always staff milling around, and the area may well be familiar to both students and tutors alike.

Will we be able to have the same kind of flexibility to support students if the regional centres close?  I suggest not.  It could be the case that we might be able to rent temporary office space somewhere to run special sessions, but can we guarantee that they are safe, or guarantee that they are accessible?  This necessitates a whole new set of administrative procedures, protocols and processes: venues would be need to be scrutinised, and venues may well change – and it may not be possible to guarantee both privacy and security in office space that is rented by the hour.

I’ll come back to my earlier point: the devil is in the detail.  All I can see is problems and issues. 

Degree ceremonies

Twice a year I help out at the London graduation ceremony, which takes place at the Barbican centre.  These are always great events, and it’s a pleasure to be there.  London regional staff always play an essential and important role in these events. Before the day, staff accept registrations and answer questions that are asked by students.  On the day, regional staff man the registration desks and work closely with qualifications and ceremonies team to make sure that everything run smoothly.

If the regions were to close, there would be an obvious knock on effect: colleagues at Milton Keynes would have to take up a lot of the slack.  They would have to find people to man the registration desks, find graduate presenters, and hall ushers, and have extra people who help to make the day what it is.  

The point here is simple: a lot of work would have to be moved and transferred, and there is no indication about how this would be done.  There has only been a nebulous statement that everything has to be done within a year. 

Outreach and widening participation

During a faculty committee meeting, I spoke up and said: ‘we are a national university, we’re not just a university that is based in Milton Keynes’ (which, of course, connects back to the ‘places’ bit of the university mission).  My point is that reducing our national coverage would also reduce our reach.

Widening Participation is something that I have to confess that I don’t know too much about, but it is something I personally believe is really important.  I don’t come from a well off background, and I’m thankful of the opportunities that have come my way.

I have a colleague in the London regional centre who runs these events for students who are interested in study.  She recruits experienced tutors to go and have a chat to potential students about what it means to become an Open University student.  She has press ganged me into participating into these events too!  I have even ended up tutoring one of the students that I have spoken to.

The regions are brilliant bases for co-ordinating outreach activities into the local community.  A point that I would like to raise on this issue is that we could be using our regional centres a whole lot better when it comes to this subject.  In the last four years I’ve been subjected to perpetual change in my role.  I also feel that outreach activities (which should be a much more important aspect in the OU’s current work activities) are not valued as much as they could be.  I would personally like to do more of this kind of work, and to do this, my first port of call would, of course, be my colleagues in the regional centre.

With fear of sounding like a broken record: dismantling the regional structure in its entirety would damage our collective ability to do outreach work that is fundamental to the university’s mission.

Walk-in enquiries and regional reputation

I mentioned earlier that the London regional centre is busy.  It’s not just busy with staff, it’s also busy with students too.  There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t see a student in the reception area, using a telephone to speak with someone in Milton Keynes.  Sometimes, regional colleagues come down stairs to chat with students, to offer them impromptu advice.  

This is something that I’ve done too: I’ve spoken about various computing modules, and I’ve taken them to the regional library to show them the module materials.  (I understand that other regions have a library too).   A counter argument is, of course: ‘oh, but there are not very many people who come in to the offices’.  This is a fair point, but a response to that is: ‘should we really aspire to go with the lowest common denominator?’

Regional centres are advertisements in their own right: they mark the presence of the institution, but these are locations that also have functions that can’t be relocated with lots of extensive thought and planning.  They have taken decades to put together, and we won’t know for certain about the impact of their loss until they are gone.

Institutional risk

London is now the home of the remnants of the East Grinstead office.  I’ve heard it said that there have been very few people who have transferred from one office to the other.  One colleague has told me that over half of the academic staff have left, and ninety percent of the administrative support staff have gone.  Decades of experience has, quite literally, walked out of the door, and it’s impossible to put a price on the loss of this expertise.

As yet, we are not yet fully aware of the impacts on the student experience that this closure has had because of the timing of the recommendations.  It is also arguable that it could take a couple of years of the true impacts of the closure to be felt. 

From my own perspective, I know that my regional colleagues are under extreme pressure due to the constant changes they have had to work through.  If people are put under pressure, mistakes will inevitably happen, and everyone will make sure that everything is put right to the best of our abilities to ensure that students are not affected.

Here’s another personal reflection: I’m a pretty young guy.  I can deal with stuff.  I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for stress, but I’m beginning to suffer from change fatigue.  I’m beginning to get tired and have started to think ‘what have I got to do now?’ and ‘when will thing settle down to a steady state?’  The issue of change fatigue was something that was mentioned by another colleague.  I’m feeling the strain, and I’m getting tired.  But what keeps me going is the knowledge that I’m doing a good and important job. 

I’m really worried that people are going to break; that people are going to get sick, and that people will be confused by complex IT systems.  Plus, all the timescales to make all the changes are extraordinarily extreme. 

I’m no management consultant, but from my position ‘in the trenches’, I’m shaking my head partly out of desperation, but also out of fear for the forthcoming administrative apocalypse if the current recommendations are ever implemented.

Here’s my most important reflection, and one that is directly related to the student experience: I can see that this proposed reconfiguration is going to push people to their limits; people will leave; there will be endless mistakes; there will be confusion, and the net effect is that the students will be substantially affected. 

Some fundamental concerns

I’ve read somewhere that the locations analysis project has seen no alternative visions for the regions.  I do know that there has been a period of formal consultation about the project, but I’ll like to give a personal opinion about this.

For me, the locations analysis has been just one of very many initiatives that have been thrown my way.  By and large, I’m doing what I can to keep up.  I’ll put it like this: I have been too busy with day to day admin and issues to have a moment to consider how things are run differently, and perhaps other people have the same views.

Have I been invited to a workshop to consider the different ways in which the university might imagine a regional structure that would serve the university in, say 2020?  No.  Would I go if there was one?  Yes.

There is one main concern that I’ve mentioned before that I do find astonishing.  It is this: how can a recommendation be suggested without any thought about how it could be achieved?

In conclusion

Although all of these thoughts, opinions and comments relate to my own experience of a staff tutor in the London region, there may well be lots in common with many of the other regions: Oxford, Cambridge, Gateshead, Bristol, Birmingham and Leeds.  (Not to mention also Nottingham and Manchester regions, which would be irrevocably changed if these proposals do go ahead).

Here’s an important concluding message: I personally challenge senior management to come up with some more sensible thinking.  I also urge management to dispense with the current plan.  In my opinion, the current proposals are an uncomfortable combination of folly and vandalism.  Plus, they don't seem to take into account many of the essential functions that take place in the regional centres.

We’re not just talking about what is good for the university, we’re talking about bigger issues: we’re talking about reducing the extent to which we collectively fight and work for social justice.  The current recommendation suggests that we’re talking about reducing the mission of the university, which has always been about open to people, places and ideas.  Let’s not have an idea that attacks places in such an outrageous way.  This idea, of course, will directly affect people. And the people I’m talking about are, of course, our students.

Acknowledgements: many thanks to two colleagues who took the time to quickly proof read this blog post during what is the busiest and most intense time of the year – I really appreciate it!  Also, any remaining grammatical mistakes, operational misunderstandings or tryping mistakes are entirely my own.

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Disability Conference, 13-14 May 2015 – day 2

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 5 Jun 2018, 11:56

This is the second in a series of two blog posts about the 2015 Open University Disability conference. 

Keynote: the disability delusion

The first keynote of the day was by Tom McAlpine OBE who is a chair of a charity called Moodswings (charity website). Tom’s talk began by taking us into the history of the current disability legislation, highlighting that there has been (and continues to be) a stark difference between attention given to physical and mental health disabilities. 

He presented the audience with an interesting yet important question which was: ‘who is disabled?’  This question was linked to two philosophies which are connected with the social model of disability; the view that ‘either everyone is disabled, or nobody is disabled’.  Another interesting point was about the link between welfare and disability, and extent to which ‘austerity’ is affecting the lives of people who have disabilities: ‘it’s going to be worse than everyone imagined’.  The point was made that there should be a ‘proper use of resources’.  Individuals, it was argued, should only take as little from the state as they need. 

During Tom’s talk, I made the following note: ‘if we’re going to be fair, we shouldn’t pretend that everyone is disabled’.   I don’t think this is what he said word for word, but instead, it might be more of my impression of the point that he was trying to get across.  It is a view that I, fundamentally, take issue with.  It is a view that equates disability with the consumption of resources, and I think that the whole subject is a whole lot more complex.  You can have a disability (or an impairment of some kind), and get on with living your day to day life, and may have no recourse to need additional resources.  All you might need to get by is a bit of respect and understanding from others who are around you.

Tom’s talk was pretty provocative, and led to quite a bit of debate amongst colleagues who I spoke to.  This, I felt, was a sign that the keynote had done its job (irrespective of whether or not I personally agreed with some of the views that were expressed).

Workshop: Student mental health – whose responsibility?

The first workshop I signed up for on the second day was also by Tom.  Tom opened by stating that mental health issues may manifest themselves during study, due to change of circumstances or due to things that happen during life. He also mentioned that it is important to consider the difference between pre-existing mental health issues, and that sometimes the pressures of studying may make some students (who may be predisposed to illness) unwell.

Another point I remember was the importance of appropriate boundary setting.  This is linked to the point that there are limits to what the university can do: it can only provide help and guidance regarding study and academic issues.

During the talk I made the note: ‘wellness is a continuum’.  This was a theme that was highlighted during the London region diversity day that was specifically about mental health issues.  This part of Tom’s workshop offered a reminder that everyone can move between and onto different parts of a mental health continuum.

During the workshop, Tom also offered some controversial opinions about certain illnesses and also the roles of some tutors.  It was clear that he had particularly strong opinions, and my own opinions (which were also pretty strong) were somewhat different.  Education can be difficult whilst at the same time being transformative.  My own view is that a positive relationship between a student and a tutor is important (if not essential) to facilitate the exploring of different perspectives and views that can lead to a transformation.  I doubt very much that Tom would disagree with this view.  Our difference of opinion relates to judgement as to whether a tutor is doing something wrong if a student feels compelled to contact a tutor for support for unexpected issues.  My role is then to support that tutor, and to do my best to work with other colleagues to communicate boundaries.

In some respects Tom’s session was more of a chat than a workshop.  It was different to what I had expected, but is no better for it; there were many colleagues who were very free to express their opinions about a range of different issues.

During the session, we were reminded of a useful resources, a OU published booklet that is entitled: Studying and staying mentally healthy (OU website).  I heard that this resource is going to be made available to all students, not just students who may have disclosed a mental health issues.

Workshop: Universal design for learning – built in accessibility

The final workshop of the conference was facilitated by Heather Mole, who I managed to have a good chat with during the conference.  Heather is currently working on a really interesting PhD, which she might have mentioned during her workshop.  She has been looking into the privilege of sign-language interpreters, since they cross the boundaries of two different cultures: the Deaf culture, and our hearing culture.  This made me reflect about the connections between disability studies, other subjects, and other civil rights areas.

Heather began by playing an excerpt from a short film by Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor called An Examined Life  (YouTube)  As the film played, I made notes of the terms ‘normalising standards of our movements’, ‘disability as a political issue’ and ‘talking of language’.

I then remember some discussions about the different models of disability: the social model and the medical model.  Heather also mentioned the work of Tom Shakespeare, who is both an activist and a scholar.  Another philosophical model that was mentioned was the interactional model, which is an acknowledgement that an actual impairment is important.  I understand this model to be a combination of the social and medical models.  As Heather was speaking, I realised that I needed to do some reading!

I made an interesting note that accessibility can be thought of in two different ways.  There’s the accommodation approach, where there might be the need for an alternative way of doing things.  This could be thought of a ‘consumable’ approach.  For instance, a module team or a teacher might make a resource that was specific to an individual learner.  Another approach is universal design, which can be considered, broadly, as more ‘sustainable’: accessibility is considered from the outset and is considered at the design level.

We were told that a chap called Ron Mace created what is known as seven principles that guide ‘universal’ architectural design.  These principles are: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, tolerance for error, low physical effort, size and space for approach and use, perceptual information (i.e. alarms that offer information through different modalities: they emit a sound and flash at the same time).  

These principles can be applied to an educational context; educators can consider both the universal accessibility of their learning resources, and the systems, products or devices which allow the learning resources to be consumed (we might think of ‘products’ in terms of a series of web pages, an ebook, or a physical paper based book).

During this final workshop, we were directed to a couple of websites.  One of them was called the Centre for applied special technology group (CAST website).  Another organisation that was mentioned was the National Centre on Universal Design for Learning (UDL website).

Final keynote: an accidental comedian

I’ll give a cheeky admission at this point: it was yours truly who gave the final keynote.  The keynote had two parts: a story, and then a performance.  My point was simple: we can achieve more than we ever thought possible if we offer other people encouragement.  In some respects, this is exactly what so many people within the university try to do: academic staff, support staff, and associate lecturers; we do our best to offer encouragement and support for those who are studying.

Final thoughts

One thing that always strikes me about these conferences is the range of different subjects, workshops and speakers.  This year there were keynotes that delivered different perspectives, and workshops that presented a broad range of topics.  I personally found the workshop about the ‘tech’ particularly interesting (I think because I’m a ‘tech’ sort of guy), and I also found the talk on autism interesting, if only to remind me that there is a wealth of advice and resources that I can draw upon. 

There was an implicit theme and an implicit concern that seemed to run throughout the conference: the sense that things have become more difficult for people who have disabilities, and things are going to continue to become even more challenging.  The underlying story that catalysed the expression of these concerns was, of course, the recent change in government.  Resources, it was argued, are limited, and it’s important to ensure that they are used as effectively and efficiently as possible.

After the conference, I asked myself a quick question, which was: ‘what else could there have been?’, or ‘what would I find really interesting?’  Over the last couple of years, I’ve been increasingly aware of an emerging academic subject called disability studies.  Whilst the objective of the conference has strong and really useful practical focus, I can’t help but feel that a more academic perspective might add something to aspects of the conference.  Disability studies connect to different civil rights movements, the role of the media, analysis of barriers, and how the situation for people with disabilities is different across the globe. 

One thing that was really great, and has always been great, is the presentation of personal perspectives: the student voice is, of course, really important.

Finally, PowerPoint and other resources from the conference (conference materials) are available to internal university people, but if you’re reading this from outside the university, if there’s anything that is of particular interest, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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Disability Conference, 13-14 May 2015 – day 1

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Jan 2019, 09:38

Every year, the university runs an internal conference for staff who are directly involved with supporting students who have disabilities.  This is a series of two posts which aims to share my ‘take’ on the 2015 conference.

I think this must have been either the third or the fourth time I’ve been to this event.  In some respects my involvement (and attendance) is slightly accidental since the conference isn’t technically open to academic staff.  Instead, it’s open for those who help or advise students, or help academic module teams to make sure their modules are as accessible as they could be.

I’m very grateful that the conference organisers have allowed me to attend.  In doing so, I can not only share some of the conference themes to the tutors in the London region that I help to support, but also some of my students who study H810 accessible on-line learning (OU module summary).

Opening Keynotes

There were two opening keynotes: one by David Knight, and another by Tony O’Shea-Poon.  Unfortunately I missed David’s presentation, since I fell asleep on the train from London and ended up in Coventry.  I did, however, catch the end of Tony’s presentation.  One of the things that I took away from Tony’s presentation was that there are on-going changes to rules due to government policy.  Those that are affected by disablement can be the hardest hit by change.

Workshop: Improving accessibility for all

The first conference event I went to was facilitated by Adam Hyland, Atif Choudhury and Tim Blunt.  They all help to run an organisation called Diversity and Ability (website), or DNA for short.  DNA is a social enterprise created by and led by disabled and dyslexic learners for the sole purpose of providing support, strategies and assistance.

During the workshop we discussed how different apps could be useful and how students could gain an awareness of different study strategies.   We were directed to a resources page on the DNA website which presents a summary of different types of assistive technologies.   Students can uncover different ways of doing their research, composing text and answers, carrying out proof reading and taking notes during class. 

It isn’t all about technology – it is also getting people involved, and helping learners to make the best use of technology that is available to them.   It’s also about empowerment and building self-esteem.   It’s also important to connecting different aspects (or issues) together, such as the choice and use of assistive technologies and the development of study skills.  I made a note of an elephant in the room’: there are inherent anxieties that accompany working alone.

A significant part of the workshop was dedicated to looking at different tools such as Evernote and Zotero (which was recently highlighted by JISC, an organisation that supports universities).  Another tool mentioned was Calibre, which I think I might have mentioned in an earlier post that was about using the Kindle for studying.  There was also something called Orato,  an application that allows users to select a portion of text, which is then read out loud by your computer.

Different tools can be used to do different things.  Students are, of course, regularly asked to write assignments and compose essays.  To help with this there are a number of composition tools, such as iThoughts (toketaWare website) and XMind, which are tablet and Mac based.

Another important task, is proofreading.  One tool that could help with this is a product called Grammerly which can be built into Chrome or Firefox browsers.   You might also could also use Google Docs (since iOS devices have text to speech functionality), and CereProc Voices to listen to what you have written.  Apparently you can download two high quality voices: one male, another one female.

Writing and editing is all very well, but is there anything to help with the making of notes in class?  Apparently, there is.  We heard about Sonocent Audio Notetaker, which allows you to visualise different sections of a recording and add annotations sections, so you know where to find stuff.  (I can’t help but think that this might be a really useful research tool for social scientists).  Another tool is called Audionote (Luminant software).

You’ve made notes during your class and have completed all your assignments.  An inevitable part of study is, of course, the exam.  There are, apparently, tools that can help.  The presenters the workshop mentioned a number of flash card tools, such as Studyblue, Quizlet and Anki.  The one they talked most about was Quizlet, since apparently this has a text to speech feature.  Interestingly, some educators have been known to create StudyBlue decks.  As these products were described, I thought to myself, ‘why didn’t I think of creating these tools?’

Revision takes time, which means that time management is important.  To help with this Google calendar was recommended.  It was interesting to hear that Google Calendar could, apparently, be synchronised with Outlook calendars, but this isn’t anything that I have ever tried. 

Students also need to organise their files and records.  We were told of a tool called Alfred (Alfredapp website), a productivity tool for Macs.  Other tools that were mentioned included cloud storage tools, such as Google Drive, Drop Box and One Drive.

The remainder of the session was about the referencing tool Zotero. We looked at how to download a reference template (there is one for the OU Harvard format), and apply it to web links, books for which we had the ISBN number for, books that we found on Amazon, and papers from jstor.org, a ‘a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources’.

There was a lot to take in during this session.  I had heard of some of the tools and products before, but not all of them.  One really useful aspect of the session was to learn how Zotero could be used, and also to be talked through the different sets of tools that students could use.  A really important ‘take away’ point was that assistive technology, in whatever form it takes, is always changing.  There is also great value in the ‘free’ or low cost products that exist.  I began to realise that assessors (those people who offer advice for students with disabilities) have a tough job in terms of keeping up with what might be the best tools for learners.

Keynote: Autism and Asperger’s in Higher Education

The second keynote of the conference was given by Lyndsey Draper from the National Autistic Society.  Lynsdey kicked off by giving us an interesting and surprising statistic – that over the last 10 years, disclosure of autism increased by 100%.  Another interesting fact was that autism is the only disability in the UK that has its own specific legislation.

After briefly describing what autism and Asperger’s syndrome is, Lyndsey spoke about some different theories about it.  From what I remember, I understand that there is now a consensus that there is a genetic component. 

We were also given some interesting statistics: it affects 2.8 million families and 1.1% of the population.  The diagnosis of women is apparently increasing, but a diagnosis can also be masked by other conditions, such as the eating disorder anorexia, for example.  (I remember reading some research by Simon Baron-Cohen a couple of years ago about a potential link between anorexia and autism; the systematising and food obsession represents a behaviour trait that has parallels with some behaviours that can be observed in autism).

A further interesting point was that how differences can manifest themselves may depend very much on the environment.   Lyndsey made the point that the term Asperger’s syndrome was being replaced in favour of Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, for short.

As Lyndey was talking, I remembered a phrase from a session that I went to the previous year.  It was: ‘if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met only one person with autism’; the point being that everyone is very different.

So, what might the challenges be when it comes to higher education? Students may struggle with social communication, or, specifically, understanding the unwritten rules of communication.  Smalltalk, it was said, can be considered to be illogical or complicated.  Students also might find it difficult to understand the perspectives of others.

These things said, people who have ASD are known to have some key strengths: attention to detail, a methodical approach, good memory for factual information, problem solving skills, numerical skills, and are reliable and resourceful.  As well as having a different way of thinking to others, another strength can be deep specialist knowledge and skills.

From the academic perspective, we need to acknowledge the significance of the social perspective.  There is also an obvious necessity to provide clear unambiguous feedback (which should, of course, be offered to all students too!)  In terms of adjustment, an important activity could be to try to facilitate contact between students and staff, interpret academic speaking and writing, using of checklist and offer clarifications as to what is required.

Workshop: Supporting students with autism in higher education

In addition to the keynote, Lyndsey also facilitated a workshop (which I had signed up to go to).  Like her keynote presentation, it was also filled with really interesting facts.  Apparently, students who have a diagnosis of autism are less likely to drop out than other students, i.e. 6.9% versus 10%.

In terms of the disabled student’s allowance (which is funding from the government to help students to study), students who have ASD may not benefit from the use of technology than other groups of students with disabilities.   Instead, students with ASD benefit from mentors and study support.

In the workshop, we were again given a little bit of history.  We were told about Kanner or ‘classic’ Autism, and Asperger’s syndrome, and the differences between them.  We were then asked about our perceptions and understandings.   A key phrase I noted in my notebook was: ‘everyone is completely different’, and that what is ‘good practice for autism is good practice for everyone’.

In terms of training: clarify roles, such as turn taking and eye contact.  We were offered a challenge: ‘can you imagine how much effort it would be to continually control eye contact all day?’  There is also the challenge of metaphor and idiom.

Other issues that can emerge include anxiety, depression, perfectionism, single focus or attention on something.  Some students might need prompts on how best to manage their own time. 

It was time for an activity.  We were asked a question: what difficulties might students have and what strategies might be used to overcome them? On our table we chatted about getting students to talk to each other, the challenge of choosing a module, and the ambiguities of language.

A number of points were mentioned during a plenary discussion.  These were the importance of clear feedback and the need to be consistent and specific, the sharing of good practice, and how some students may need transition support between different institutions and levels of study. At the end of the session we were directed to the National Autistic Society website, should we need more information about anything.

Keynote: Education for a new me

Steve McNeice was once a triathlete.  He took us back to a day when everything in his life changed.  He was out on a swim when he realised that he wasn’t very well.  He told us that he had acquired a profoundly serious bacterial infection.  He went to hospital and fell into a coma.  He woke up seven weeks later, with both legs amputated above the knee.  Apparently 95% of double above knee amputees don’t walk.  Seventeen months later, Steve told us that he walked out of the hospital.

I won’t even try to do justice to Steve’s presentation and the effect that it had, both on myself and others who were in the room.  Here was someone who was talking about how his life had changed dramatically.  He went from being active and able bodied, to having to learn how to walk again.  Despite all this, and as he told us his story, he exuded positivity and good humour.

Apparently some people who use prostetic legs can use up to 300% more energy than able bodied people.  As he talked, he walked up and down at the front of the presentation room.  ‘I swim three times a week, and you see all kinds of people at the pool.’ Steve said.  ‘Some of them look and they think, ‘oh, what a shame’, and then I lap them’.

He told us about the seemingly innocuous challenges of going down stairs, navigating escalators and stepping over things.  All these activities that so many of us take for granted, Steve had to re-learn how to do them.  He shows us numerous video clips where he fell over, negotiating a hill.

‘While I was going through rehab, I was studying for a degree’, he told us.  He studied German.  A part of his illness meant that he became deaf in one ear, and partially lost hearing in another.  An adjustment was the request to sit on a certain side of a room.  One thing that he said he needed to work on was listening: so, he studied German.

‘I used the OU to learn about my condition.  I studied T307, designing for a sustainable future.  I designed some sockets for my prostetic limb’.  He told us that he took ownership of his lifelong condition by setting lots of educational goals.

Through these OU conferences, I’ve come to seen that having a disability can open doors to new experiences, rather than close them.  Steve told us that he has contributed to events at the house of commons and is a member of the all-party parliamentary limb loss group.

He told us that he is now studying Italian.  He also lectures at different universities to give something back to physiotherapists, the occupation that offered him so much help.  I also noted down the following words: ‘rehabilitation is an on-going process, and something could change at any point’.

Like so many of us at the talk, I was struck by his spirit of determination.  I also took away the thought that, perhaps, I ought to do slightly more to ‘give back’ to the profession that has tried to help me with my own condition or situation.   His talk also emphasised the transformative effect of education.  I couldn’t help but worry that the increase in higher fees this might potentially prevent or deter some students from studying modules and subject that may influence their lives for the better.

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Workshop: using technology for communication and to support learning

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 10 Apr 2015, 17:03

On 26 March, I went to two seminars: one about the history of computing, and another one about augmentative and alternative communication.  This is a quick blog summary about the latter event (which can be viewed through YouTube); it’s not a subject I know too much about (and I thought it might be of interest to anyone who might be taking the H810 Accessible on-line learning module which is a part of the MA degree in on-line and distance education).

This event also relates to an internal project called SeGA, which is short for Securing Greater Accessbility.  SeGA is a university initiative that aims to thoroughly embed accessibility practice within the Open University.

Assistive technology

The seminar (or workshop) was presented Marion Stanton from Candle AAC (website). As far as I understood things, Candle AAC a not for profit organisation that offers help and advice about communication technologies for people who have difficulty with movement and communication.  Her talk was focused on technology and approaches that could help people (primarily those who are aged 5 through 18) who have complex needs.  Also, her focus was on general technology rather than the capabilities of specific products.

One of her early presentation slides presented a range of different tools and technologies.  These ranged from low tech communication aids, eye gaze technology, alternative pointing devices (which could be used to replace a mouse), alternative keyboards, optical character recognition, voice recognition, idea mapping software, word prediction and software that can offer support to people who have dyslexia.

An important point that I noted is that everyone is different.  This reminded me of a phrase I heard at another Open University event, that ‘when you’ve met one person who has autism, you’ve met one person who has autism’.

A significant area of focus of the morning was the subject of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (Wikipedia), or AAC for short.  Augmentative means that a technology can be used as well as (or to supplement) speech, and alternative means that a technology can be used instead of speech.  AAC can also be sometimes used as an alternative to writing.

Marion exposed an interesting (and misplaced) assumption, which was, ‘if you give someone an alternative way of communicating, then surely there will be less incentive to use other forms of communication?’ Research suggests that this certainly isn’t the case.  In fact, we were told that it can actually help and can encourage other forms of communication.

During this section of the workshop, we were given what amounted to a brief history of AAC.  (In H810, there is also a section where students are told something about the history of assistive technologies).  We were told about really low tech approaches and shown photographs of incredibly bulky technology. 

Activity and links

We were all asked a seemingly simple question: what is communication?  After some debate in our workshop (sharing views that it was about connection and emotion), we were told that, essentially, there is an expressive side and there is a receptive side.

A related question is: what does someone actually need?  This was a question that connected to the earlier point that everyone is different.  This led us to being briefly introduced to Makaton (Makaton charity website), Signalong (Signalong website), and Paget Gormon (Paget Gorman Society).  It was also interesting to hear about the different levels of technology, i.e. there are low, medium and high technology aids.  High technology aids, we were told, were invariably computing devices or PC based.  An another dimension to high technology aids is that they might be potentially linked to environmental control systems, such as systems within a ‘smart house’, to assist with independent living.  One example might be an interface to open and close curtains, or to control and to set heating levels.

Another links I made a note of was Talking Mats, which has now become an app, Minspeak, Sensory Software, and Widgit.

Choosing the right technology

Given such a wide variety of tools and technologies a difficult question to address is: which one should we choose, or which one is the most appropriate?  Not only does the choice of tools matter, but also how tools are set up and configured for individual users.  A tool might be very suitable but configured inappropriately.  Uncovering the correct settings (and choosing the right tools) requires experienced and expert assessors not making assumptions.

The choice of technology is, of course very dependent upon individual circumstances, and different experts may well give different recommendations.  An important point was that it’s not possible to be an expert in everything.

During the session, we were told about AAC technologies, but also the importance of subject specific learning was also briefly addressed.  One company was mentioned, Splash Software which developed software to help with the learning of mathematics.  (The accessibility of mathematics is also a topic that is briefly covered in H810).  This implicitly points to the complexities inherent in making the important details of academic subjects accessible.  Technology isn’t going be solve everything.  Pedagogy and the selection of appropriate support are important too.

Time is also very important.  A task that might take someone an hour to complete might take another person, using an assistive technology, a whole day to complete.  Assistive technologies permit access and aim to ‘level the playing field’, but all students have to work according to the same module calendar.  This also relates to a point that I picked from colleagues who used to work in JISC TechDIS.  The point was that even if something is technically access, the usability constraints might cause something to become practically inaccessible.

Final thoughts

At the start of the workshop, tablet computers were mentioned.  A point was made that although they’re very useful, tablet computers (or ‘apps’) don’t solve everything: it very much depends on the needs of an individual.  Towards the end of the session, I made a note of another website:  Apps for AAC. 

I found the time to have a quick look at this site and I found it pretty astonishing since it describes a total of over two hundred and sixty different apps of different types.  This, in some way, highlights the challenge.  There are loads of choices, and making a choice (and being aware of what is out there), isn’t easy.  Although I have known of this as a subject (and research) area for quite some time, it is clearly one that is a lot bigger and more wide ranging than I had ever imagined.

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Accessibility training away-day

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This is quick blog post about an event that I went to in November 2014.  I know that this feels like a long way away, but I haven’t forgotten about this event: it was one that was pretty memorable (but more of that later).

The event was an away day for the Faculty of Arts; it was a training day, and the afternoon (which was the bit that I went to) had a very particular focus: accessibility and disability issues; specifically, what certain members of the university could practically do to help students.  Although some of the fine details are now a bit sketchy (due to the relentless passage of time), I did make some notes, so here’s a quick summary of the sessions that I (sort of) gate crashed.

Barriers and reasonable adjustments

The first afternoon session was by Heather Kelly and Laila Burton.  It began with some numbers: about 12% of students in the Open University have declared a disability (for the faculty of arts, this number is slightly higher, at 15%).  In terms of raw numbers, I think we’re looking at around ten thousand students.  To put things into perspective, other universities can have that same number of students across every faculty.

Every university is legally required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to educational materials to ensure that they can be consumed by students who have disabilities. 

The presenters asked us an important question: who is responsible for making these reasonable adjustments?  There were a number of answers: the module team, associate lecturers, the securing greater access team, and others too!  An important principle (from what I remember from another presentation) is that those people who are in a position to make an adjustment should just go ahead and do it.  This is a principle that relates to tutors, those who line manage tutors, and those support the delivery of a module, and members of a module team.

All this said, what actually does ‘reasonable adjustment’ actually mean and when we do we have to make one?  There are a number of things that need to be taken into consideration: is the student at a substantial disadvantage because of their disability? Is it practical and effective to provide an adjustment?  Is the adjustment something that could be provided as a part of the disabled student’s allowance?  If not, can an adjustment be provided that is reasonable in terms of costs and/or resources?

To understand the concept of reasonable adjustment further we were asked to discuss a number of scenarios in small groups.  Our group looked at two scenarios: the case of students using the library website, and the question of whether a different assignment question could be offered if a student objected on religious grounds.  By discussing these scenarios I learnt that the library can offer a service to help students with literature searches.  When it came to the assessment issue, an adjustment was not considered to be reasonable if it meant that a fundamental learning objective would not be assessed.

Towards the end of the session we were told about different sources of advice and support.  The university has a number of accessibility specialists (some of whom work within each faculty).  There is also the disability resources team, and a group called the accessibility referrals panel (ARP).  The ARP is a university body that comprises of a number of experts who can offer some advice on accessibility issues.  For instance, if anyone isn’t sure about whether an adjustment is appropriate, it can be referred to the panel, which can then form a judgement about the best course of action.

A final point was about the importance of recording decisions.  This is important during module production or module presentation, or put another way (in non-OU speak), when a module is being designed or written, or when it is being delivered to students.  Recording your decisions has two purposes.  Firstly, the university has a trail of what has been done should reasonable adjustment decisions ever be challenged.  Secondly, it allows experiences and cases to be shared with others.

Disability advisory service

After a short break, we had an option of choosing from a number of parallel sessions.  I went to the session that was facilitated by Julie Young, manager of the disability advisory service.  Julie spoke about the support for disabled students and the role of the service. We were told that the service can offer specialist advice for dyslexia, mental health issues, visual and hearing impairments.

During the session I made a note of the term ‘assessment’.  Assessment, in this context, isn’t an assignment that a student has to complete or any kind of exam.  Instead, an assessment is (as far as I understand it) is a discussion that enables a professionally trained assessor to understand the impact of one or more impairments on study.  Assessments can lead to recommendations of assistive technologies, and also the creation of a useful record (or disability ‘marker’) which can then offer information for tutors, helping them to understand what reasonable adjustments might be necessary.

Visit to the access bus

After another break, it was time to brave the elements and head outside to ‘the access bus’.  Despite this event being more than a few months ago, I have one overriding memory of this part of the day: it was bitterly cold.  A large van was parked in the hotel car park.  The van had been converted to what is, essentially, a mobile office that was is packed with different types of technology.  This mobile office can be used to carry out assessments: it is where students (and potential students) have opportunity to play with and learn about different types of assistive technologies.

During our short time on the bus we were shown different types of keyboards, different types of assistive software (such as screen readers and screen magnifiers), and some speech recognition software.  I have played with screen magnifiers and screen reader software before, and some other software called Read and Write that can be useful to some students who have dyslexia.  I was, however, quite fascinated by the speech recognition software and I was impressed by its performance.  (This said, it was demonstrated by a skilled operator, and had been pre-configured so that it could recognise a particular voice).  I left the session thinking, ‘I wonder whether I could ever use voice recognition software’.  I’ve never tried to.  I have deliberately avoided it.  But perhaps I ought to pluck up the courage to give it a go.

A personal tale

The final session of the day was by a member of the university who also does a bit of stand-up comedy on the London open mic circuit.  The comic started by confessing that he had a hidden disability: a speech impediment, a stammer.  He told a short story about how he started on the open-mic circuit, and he told us a little about who inspired him: a friend who is now eighty, and a professional comic who gave a performance at the Disabled Student Services conference three or four years ago.  This then led to a ten minute stand-up comedy routine that was about the day to day challenges of dealing with that particular hidden disability.  There is a huge risk with doing things like this: it could either go terribly, or it could go well; telling jokes in the workplace could get the presenter getting into all kinds of trouble.

My confession is that I was the comic. 

Had anyone told me four years ago I would be at that event, giving a talk to the arts faculty about my weird hobby, talking about my struggles with talking, I would have said they were delusional. 

The story and my performance connected to a point that I wanted to make: when given sufficient support and motivation by others we can surprise ourselves by doing things that we never thought we would be able to.  By considering issues relating to disability, the design of modules and what reasonable adjustments we might be able to make, we all collectively learning what needed to be done to make things easier for all learners. 

In some ways, the event was about what we could do, both individually and collectively, to help others to achieve.  In other respects, the away day was also about connecting to others, and getting a little bit of motivation too.  I was glad to be a part of it.

Final thoughts

There were a couple of key points that I took away from the day: a reminder about the principles of reasonable adjustment and a reminder about who to ask when you need help about something.  It was also a reminder about how seriously the university treats these issues.  It was also interesting to look around the access bus.  I remember from this session that the faculty staff that went along to this event had loads of questions about different bits of technology, what they did, and how they worked.

Another useful part of the day was, in essence, a reminder.  A reminder that if you don’t know how to tackle a particular problem, then there colleagues within the institution who might be able to offer some useful help and advice.

 

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New Technology Day - June 2014

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 8 Oct 2019, 17:42

This post is a quick summary of a New Technology Day event that took place at The Open University London regional centre on Saturday 14 June 2014.  I’ve written this post for a number of reasons: for my esteemed colleagues who came along to the day, so that I help to remember what happened on the day, so that I can share with my bosses what I’m getting up to on a day to day basis, and for anyone else who might be remotely interested.

One of the challenges that accompanies working in the area of technology, particularly information technology and computing, is that the pace of change is pretty relentless.  There are always new innovations, development and applications.  There are always new businesses doing new things, and using new techniques.  Keeping up with ‘the new stuff’ is a tough business.  If you spent all your time looking at what was ‘new’ out there, we simply wouldn’t get any work done – but we need to be understanding ‘the new’, so we can teach and relate to others who are using ‘all this new stuff’.

The idea for this day came from a really simple idea.  It was to ask colleagues the question, ‘have you heard of any new technology stuff recently?  If so, can you tell me about it?’  Rather than having a hard and fast ‘training’ agenda the idea was to create a space (perhaps a bit like an informal seminar) to allow us to have an opportunity to share views and chat, and to learn from each other.

Cloud computing

After a brief introduction, I kicked off with the first presentation, which was all about cloud computing.  A couple of weeks back, I went to a conference that was all about an open source ‘cloud operating system’ called OpenStack as a part of some work I was doing for a module team.  The key points from the presentation are described in a series of two blog posts (OU Blog)

Towards the end of the presentation, I mentioned a new term called Fog Computing.  This is where ‘the cloud’ is moved to the location where the data is consumed.  This is particularly useful in instances where fast access times are required.  It was interesting to hear that some companies might also be doing something similar.  One example might be companies that deliver pay-on-demand streaming video.  It obviously doesn’t make a lot of sense if the movies that you want to see are located on another continent; your viewing experience may well be compromised by unforeseen network problems and changes in traffic.

It was useful to present this since it helped to clarify some of my understandings, and I also hoped that others found it interesting too.  Whilst the concept of a ‘cloud’ isn’t new (I remember people talking about the magic of an X.25 cloud), the technologies that realise it are pretty new.   I also shared a new term that I had forgotten I had written on one of my slides: the concept of a devop – someone who is also a developer and an operator.

JuxtaLearn project

The second presentation was about the JuxtaLearn project, by Liz Hartnett, who was unable to attend.  Liz, however, still was able to make an impact on the event since she had gone the extra mile to make an MP3 recording of her entire presentation.  Her talk adopted the PechaKucha format.  This is where a presenter uses 20 slides which change every 20 seconds.  Since her slide deck was setup to change automatically, it worked really well.

We learnt about the concept of the threshold concept (which can be connected to the concept of computer programming) and saw how videos could be made with small project groups.  I (personally) connected this with activities that are performed on two different modules: TU100 My Digital Life, and T215 Communication and Information Technologies, which both ask students to make a presentation (or animation).

OU Live and pedagogy

The next talk of the day was by Mandy Honeyman, who also adopted the PechaKucha format.  Mandy talked about a perennial topic, which is the connection between OU Live and pedagogy.  I find this topic really interesting (for the main reason that I haven’t yet ‘nailed’ my OU Live practice within this format, but it’s something that I’m continuing to work on).  I can’t speak for other people, but it has taken me quite a bit of time to feel comfortable ‘teaching’ using OU Live, and I’m always interesting in learning further tips.

Mandy has taken the time and trouble to make a version of her presentation available on YouTube.  So, I’ve you’ve got the time (and you were not at the event), do give this a look.  (She prepared it using PowerPoint, and recorded it using her mobile phone).

The biggest tip that I’ve made a note of is the importance of ‘keeping yourself out of it’, or ‘taking yourself out of it [the OU Live session]’.  When confronted by silence it’s easy to feel compelled to fill it with our own chatter, especially in situations where students are choosing not to use the audio channel.

One really interesting point that came out during the discussion was how important it is to try to show how to use OU Live right at the start of their journey with the OU.  I don’t think this is done as it could be at the moment.  I feel that level 1 tutors are implicitly given the challenging task of getting students up to speed with OU Live, but they will already have a lot on their hands in terms of the academic side of things.  I can’t help think that we could be doing a bit better when it comes to helping students become familiar with what is increasingly become a really important part of OU teaching and learning.

It was also mentioned that application sharing can run quite slowly (especially if you do lots of scrolling) – and one related thought is that this might well impact on the teaching and learning of programming.

A final point that I’ll add is that OU Live can be used in a variety of different way.  One way is to use it to record a mini-lecture, which students can see during their own time.  After they’ve seen them, they can then attend a non-recorded discussion seminar.  I’ve also heard of it being used to facilitate ‘drop in sessions’ over a period of a couple of hours (which I’ve heard is an approach that can work really well).

Two personal reflections that connect to this session include: we always need good clear guidance from the module team about how they expect tutors to use OU Live, and secondly, we should always remember to give tutors permission to use the tool in the ways that make the best use of their skills and abilities, i.e. to say, ‘it’s okay to go ahead and try stuff; this is the only way you can develop your skills’.

The March of the MOOCs

Rodney Buckland, a self-confessed MOOCaholic, gave the final presentation of the morning.  The term MOOC is an abbreviation for Massive Open Online Course.  From the sound of it, Rodney has taken loads.  (Did he really say ‘forty’?  I think he probably did!)

He mentioned some of the most popular platforms.  These include: Coursera, Udacity and FutureLearn (which is a collaboration between the OU and other universities).  Rodney also mentioned a swathe of less well known MOOC platforms, such as NovoEd.   A really interesting link that Rodney mentioned was a site called MOOCList which is described as ‘an aggregator (directory) of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from different providers’. 

Rodney spoke about his experience of taking a module entitled, ‘Science of the solar system’.  He said that the lecturer had really pushed his students. ‘This was a real surprise to me; this was a real third level physics module’.

A really important point was that MOOCs represented an area that was moving phenomenally quickly.  After his talk had finished there was quite a lot of discussion about a wide range of issues, ranging from the completion rates (which were very low), to the people who studied MOOCs (a good number of them already had degrees), and to the extent to which they can complement university study.  It was certainly thought provoking stuff.

Assistive technology for the visually impaired: past, present and future

The first presentation after lunch was by my colleague Richard Walker.  Richard is a visually impaired tutor who has worked with visually impaired students.  He made the really important point that if an associate lecturer works for an average of about ten years, there is a very significant chance that a tutor will encounter a student who has a visual impairment.  Drawing on his previous presentation, there is an important point that it is fundamentally important to be aware of some of the challenges that visually impaired students can face.

Richard recently interviewed a student who has a visual impairment by email.  Being a persuasive chap, Richard asked me to help out: I read out the role of his student from an interview transcript.  The point (to me) was very clear: students can be faced with a whole range of different issues that we may not be aware of, and everything can take quite a lot longer.

Another part of Richard’s presentation (which connects the present and the future) was all mobile apps.  We were introduced to the colour recogniser app, and another app called EyeMusic (iTunes) which converts a scene to sound.   Another really interesting idea is the concept of the Finger Reader from the Fluid Interface group at MIT.

A really enjoyable part of Richard’s session was when he encouraged everyone to explore the accessibility sessions of their smartphones.  Whilst it was easy to turn the accessibility settings on (so your iPhone spoke to you), it proved to be a lot more difficult to turn the settings off.  For a few minutes, our meeting room was filled with a cacophony of robotic voices that proved to be difficult to silence.

Towards utopia or back to 1984

The penultimate session of the day was facilitated by Jonathan Jewell. Jonathan’s session had a more philosophical tone to it.  I’ve made a note of an opening question which was ‘how right or wrong were we when predicting the future?’

Jonathan referenced the works of Orwell, Thomas More (Wikipedia) and a vision of a dystopian future depicted in THX 1138, George Lucas’s first film.  Other subjects included economic geography (a term that I hadn’t heard before), and the question of whether Moore’s Law (that the number of transistors in a microprocessor doubles every two years) would continue.  On this subject, I have sometimes wondered about what the effect of software design may be if and when Moore’s law fails to continue to hold.

Other interesting points included the concept of the technological singularity and a connection to a recent news item (BBC) where a computer was claimed to have passed the Turing test.

A great phrase was infobesity – that we’re all overloaded with too much information.  This connects to a related phrase that I have heard of before, which is the ‘attention economy’.  Jonathan made a similar point that information is not to much a scare resource.  Instead, we’re limited in terms of what information we can attend to.

We were also given some interesting thoughts which point towards the future.  Everything seems to have become an app: computing is now undeniably mobile.  A final thought I’ve noted down is Jonathan’s quote from security expert, Bruce Schneider: ‘surveillance is the business model of the internet’.  This links to the theme of Big Data (Wikipedia).  Thought provoking stuff!

Limits of Computing

The final talk of the day was by Paul Piwek.  Paul works as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computing and Communications at The Open University.  Paul works on a number of module teams, and has played an important role in the development of a new module: M269 Algorithms, Data Structures and Computability.  It is a course that allows students to learn about some of the important fundamentals of computer science.

Paul’s brief was to talk about new technologies – and chose to explore this by considering the important question of ‘what are the limits of computability?’  This question is really important in computer science, since it connects to the related questions: ‘what exactly can we do with computers?’ and ‘what can they actually be used to calculate?’

Paul linked the title of his talk to the work of Alan Turing, specifically an important paper entitled, ‘on computable numbers’.  Paul then went onto talk about the differences between problems and algorithms, introduced the concept of the Turing Machine and spoke about a technique called proof by contradiction.

Some problems can take a long time to be solved.  When it comes to computing, speed is (obviously) really important.  An interesting question is: how might we go faster?  One thought is to look towards the subject of quantum computing (an area that I know nothing about; the page that I’ve linked to causes a bit of intellectual panic!)

Finally, Paul directed us to a Canadian company called DWave that is performing research into the area.

Reflections

After all the presentations had come to an end we all had a brief opportunity to chat.  Topics included location awareness and security, digital forensics, social media, the question of equality and access to the internet.  We could have chatted for a whole lot longer than we did.

It was a fun day, and I really would like to run another ‘new technology day’ at some point (I’ve just got to put my thinking hat on regarding the best dates and times).  I felt that there was a great mix of presentations and I personally really liked the mix of talks about technology and education.  It was a great opportunity to learn about new stuff.

By way of additional information, there is also going to be a London regional ‘research day’ for associate lecturers.  This event is going to take place during the day time on Tuesday 9 September 2014.  This event will be cross-faculty, cross-disciplinary event, so it’s likely that there might be a wide range of different events.  If you would like some more information about all this, don’t hesitate to get in touch, and I’ll point you towards my colleague Katy who is planning this event.

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Disabled student services conference 2014 – day 2

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Jan 2019, 09:39

Keynote: positive thinking

The first keynote of the day was by motivational speaker, David Hodgson.  The title of his session was, ‘the four key ways to happiness and success’ (which was a really very ambitious title, if you ask me!)  I’ve seen David talk before at a staff development day in London, where he encouraged us to reflect upon our Myers-Briggs personality profile.  Apparently, this was the focus of a later workshop that he ran later during the morning.

So, what are the four key ways?  Thankfully, I was sufficiently caffeinated to be able to take a note of them.  They are: (1) know yourself (and the great things that you’re capable of), (2) having self-belief, (3) have a plan (of some kind), and (4) have a growth attitude.   Of course, I’m paraphrasing, but, all in all, these are pretty good points to think about.

David also presented us with a quote from Abraham Maslow, who proposed his eponymous Hierarchy of Needs (Wikipedia).  The quote goes:  ‘If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.’  Maslow might have accompanied that quote with a wagging finger and the words, ‘you really need to sort yourself out’.  I had these words rattling around my head for next two days.

Workshop: Learning design for accessibility

The first workshop of the day was facilitated by Lisette Toetenel and Annie Bryan from the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology.  The focus of the event was a learning design tool that IET had created to help module teams consider different pedagogic approaches.  It has been embedded into the module design process, which means that module chairs have to signify that they’ve engaged with IET’s learning design framework.  Through my involvement with a new module, I had heard a little about it, but I didn’t know the detail.

Learning design was defined as, ‘the practice of planning, sequencing and managing learning activities’, usually using ICT tools to support both design and delivery.  An important point was that both accessibility and important areas such as employability skills need to be considered from the outset (or be ‘woven into’ a design) and certainly not ‘bolted on’ as an after-thought.

The learning design framework is embedded into a tool, which takes the form of a template that either module members or a module chair has to complete.  Its objective is to improve quality, sharing of good practice, speed up decision making process, and manage (and plan) student workload.  The tool has an accompanying Learning Design website  (but you might have to be a member of the university to view this).

During the workshop we were divided up into different tables and asked to read through a scenario.  Our table was given an ‘environmental sciences’ scenario.  We were asked three questions: ‘what exactly do students do [in the scenario], and how do (or might) they spend their time?’ and what accessibility problems they might be confronted with.

The point was clear: it’s important to consider potential barriers to learning as early and as soon as you can.

Keynote: SpLDs – The Elephant in the Counselling Room: recognising dyspraxia in adults

The final keynote of the conference was given by Maxine Roper (personal website).  Maxine describes herself as freelance journalist and writer, and a member of the dyspraxia foundation.

One of the main themes of her keynote was the relationship between dyspraxia and mental health.  Now, I’ll be the first to say that I don’t know very much about dyspraxia.  Here’s what I’ve found on the Dyspraxia Foundation website: ‘Dyspraxia, a form of developmental coordination disorder (DCD) is a common disorder affecting fine and/or gross motor coordination, in children and adults. … dyspraxia [can also refer] to those people who have additional problems planning, organising and carrying out movements in the right order in everyday situations.’

I was struck by how honest and personal Maxine’s talk was.  Dyspraxis is, of course, a hidden disability.  Maxine said that dyspraxics are good at hiding their difficulities and their differences, and spoke at length about the psychological impact.  An interesting statistic is that ‘a dyspraxic child is 4 times more likely to develop significant psychological problems by the age of 16’ (from the Dyspraxia Foundation).

Some of the effects can include seeing other people more capable, being ‘over givers’ with a view to maintaining friendships, but other people might go the other way and become unnecessarily aggressive (as a strategy to covering up ‘difference’).  Sometimes people may get reactive depression in response to the continual challenge of coping.

I found Maxine’s description of the psychological impact of having a hidden disability fascinating – it is a subject that I could very easily relate to because I also have a hidden disability (and one that I have also tried a long time to hide).  This made me ask myself an obvious question that might well have an obvious answer, which was ‘are these thoughts, and the psychological impact common across other types of hidden disabilities?’ 

So, what might the solutions be?  Maxine offered a number of answers: one solution could be to raise awareness.  This would mean awareness amongst students, and amongst student councillors and those who offer support and guidance.

I noted down another sentence that was really interesting and important, and this was the point about coping strategies.  People develop coping strategies to get by, but these coping strategies might not necessarily be the most appropriate or best approach to adopt.  In some cases it might necessary to unpick layers of accumulated strategies to move forward, and doing this has the potential to be really tough.

Maxine’s presentation contained a lot of points, and one of the key one for me (the elephant in the room), was that it’s important to always deal with the person as a whole, and that perhaps there might be (sometimes) other reasons why students might be struggling.

Workshop : Through new eyes – understanding the experience of blind and partially sighted learners

The final workshop of the conference was given by my colleague Richard Walker, who works as an associate lecturer for the Maths Computing and Technology Faculty.  Like Maxine’s keynote, Richard’s spoke from his own experience, and I found his story and descriptions compelling and insightful.

Richard told us that he had worked with a number of blind and partially sighted students over the years.  He challenged us with an interesting statistic: if we consider the number of people in the general population who have visual impairments, and if an associate lecturer tutors a subject for around ten or so years, this means there is a 90% chance that a tutor will encounter a student who has a visual impairment.  The message is clear: we need to be thinking about how to support our students, which also means how we need to support our associate lecturers too.

Richard has had a stroke which has affected his vision.  Overnight, he became a partially sighted tutor.  ‘This changed how I saw the world’, he said. 

One of his comments has clearly stuck in my mind.  Richard said that when he was in hospital he immediately wanted to get back to work.  Richard later started a blog to document and share his experiences, and I’ve also made a note of him saying that he ‘couldn’t wait to start my new career’, and ‘when I got home from hospital I wanted to download some software so I can continue to be an Open University tutor’.

Richard spoke about the human visual system, which was fascinating stuff, where he talked about the working of the eye and our peripheral vision.  He presented simulations of different visual impairments though a series of carefully drawn PowerPoint slides.    On the subject of PowerPoint, he also spoke briefly about how to make PowerPoint accessible.  His tips were: keep bullet points very short, choose background and foreground colours that have a good contrast, and ensure that you have figure descriptions.

I was struck by Richard’s can-do attitude (and I’m sure others were too).  He said, ‘the whole world looks a bit different, and I like learning new stuff, so I learnt it’.  An implication of becoming partially sighted was that this affected his ability it read.  It was a skill that had to be re-learnt or re-discovered, which sounds like a pretty significant feat.  ‘I just kept looking at the lines, and I’ve learnt to read again.  You just experiment [with how to move your eyes] and you see what works’.

When faced the change in his vision, he contacted his staff tutor for advice, and some accommodations were put in place.  Another point that stood out for me was the importance of trust; his line manager clearly trusted Richard’s judgement about what he could and could not do.

Sharing experience

Richard tutors on a module called M250 Object-oriented programming (OU website).  When student study M250 they write small programs using a software development environment.    Richard made the observation that some software development environments can be ‘hostile to assistive technology’, such as screen readers.

Richard is currently tutoring a student who has a visual impairment.  To learn more about the student’s experience, he interviewed the student by email – this led to creation of a ‘script’.  With help from a workshop delegate, Richard re-enacted his interview, where he asked about challenges, assistive technologies, study strategies and what could be done to improve things. We learnt about the use of Daisy talking books (Wikipedia), the fact that everything takes longer, about strategies for interactive with computers, and the design of ‘dead tree’ books that could be read using a scanner.  After the performance, we were set an activity to share views about what we learnt from the interview (if I remember correctly).

Towards the end of the workshop, Richard facilitated a short discussion about new forms of assistive technologies and ubiquitous computing, and how devices such as Google Glass might be useful; thought provoking stuff.

I enjoyed Richard’s session; it was delivered with an infectious enthusiasm and a personal perspective.  The final words that I’ve noted down in my notebook are: ‘it’s not because I’ve got a strength of character, it’s because I love my work … you just have got to get on with it’

Reflections

Like all the others, this year’s disabled student services conference was both useful and enjoyable.  These events represent an invaluable opportunity to learn new things, to network with colleagues, and to take time out from the day job to reflect on the challenges that learner’s face (and what we might be able to do to make things easier).

For me, there were a couple of highlights.  The first was Keith’s understated but utterly engaging keynote.  The second was Richard Walkers workshop: I had never seen Richard ‘in action’ before, and he did a great job of facilitation.  In terms of learning, I learnt a lot from Maxine’s talk, and it was really interesting to reflect upon the emotional and psychological impact that a hidden disability can have on someone.  I feel it’s an issue that is easily overlooked, and is something that I’ll continue to mull over.  In some respects, it has emphasised, to me, how demanding and important the role of learning support advisors role is to the university.

One question that I have asked myself is: ‘what else could be done within the conference?’  This, I think, is a pretty difficult question to ask, since everything was organised very well, and the whole event was very well attended.

One thought is about drama.  Richard’s session contained a hint of drama, where he used a fellow delegate to read a script of his email interview.  I’ve attended a number of excellent sessions in the East Grinstead region (which is now, sadly, going to be closed) that made use of ‘forum theatre’.  Perhaps this is an approach that could be used to allow us to expose issues and question our own understandings of the needs of our students.  Much food for thought.

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Disabled student services conference 2014 – day 1

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Jan 2019, 09:40

I recently attended the university’s disabled student services conference held between 13 and 14 May 2014.  I think this was the third time I’ve been to this event, and every time I go I always learn something new.

This is a quick blog summary of the sessions I attended.  I guess this summary serves a number of purposes.  Firstly, it’s a summary of some of the continuing professional development I’ve been getting up to this year.  Secondly, it might be of interest to any of my students who might be studying H810 accessible e-learning (OU website).  Thirdly, it might be useful to some of my colleagues, or for anyone who accidentally stumbles across this series of two posts.

The complexities of co-occurrence

The first session of the day was presented by my colleague Jonathan Jewell, who works as an associate lecturer for a least three different faculties.  My first thought was, ‘what is meant by co-occurrence?’ - it wasn’t a term I had heard before.  I quickly figured out that it means that a person can have a number of different conditions at the same time.  A big part of his session was about what this might mean in terms of understanding a profile that contains quite a lot of information.

During Jonathan’s session I remember a debate about the terms ‘student-centred’ and ‘person-centred’.  The point was that although a student might be studying a particular module, they are on a programme, and this can, of course relate to a broader set of personal objectives that they might hold.

Every student who discloses a disability may have their own disability profile. The aim of the profile is tell a tutor something about their students to help them to understand what adjustments (in terms of their tuition) they could make.

During Jonathan’s session we looked at a sample profile and thought about it in terms of its strengths and weaknesses.  Our group concluded that the profile we were given contained a lot of information.  A particular weakness was that it contained a lot of quite technical jargon that was quite hard to understand.  A later task was to devise a ‘tutor plan of action’ based on the profile.  A clear point that was mentioned was the importance of establishing early contact with students to ensure that they feel comfortable and supported.

Towards the end of the session, I remember a debate that student profiles can change; some disabilities are temporary.  I also understand that there are now clearer university guidelines about how profiles should be written; a profile written today might be different to how it was written a couple of years ago.

Keynote: REAL services to assist students who identify with Asperger syndrome (AS)

The first keynote of the day was by Nichola Martin who I understand works for the University of Cambridge.  The ‘REAL’ bit of her presentation title is an abbreviation for: reliable, empathic, anticipatory and logical – this idea is that we should be these attributes when we work with people who identify with having Asperger syndrome (AS).  Very early on during her presentation she made the key point that ‘if you’ve met one person with AS, you’ve only met one person with AS’. 

Nichola also exposed us to stereotypes from the media, which she asked us to question.  The use of language is fundamentally important too, i.e. the term ‘condition’ is better than ‘disorder’ which suggests that something is fundamentally wrong.  Another interesting point is that the characteristics of people can change over time, a point that neatly connects back to the previous session about the changing nature of student profiles.

A big part of Nichola’s presentation was to share some findings from a research project that studied the views of students.  Its aim was to develop a model of best practice for student with AS, improve access to diagnosis, raise awareness and develop networks.

One really important point is about the importance of clear language; always be clear in what you either say or write.  An important point that I have noted is that if we make accommodations for one group, this is likely to help all students.  Stating clear assumptions in a clear and respectful way is, of course, useful for everyone. 

Another point is that institutions can be difficult to negotiate, particularly during the early stage of study.  If things are chaotic at the beginning of university study, it might be difficult to get back onto an even keel.  Some challenges that students might face can include finding their way through new social environments.  I’ve noted down a quote which goes, ‘my main barriers have been social and I find large groups of people I don’t know intimidating – as a result, I rarely attend lectures and often feel alone’.

There were some really interesting points about disability and identity which deserve further reflection.  Some students choose not to disclose and don’t go anywhere near the disability services part of the university.  Students may not want ‘special services’, since this hints at the notion of ‘othering’, or the emphasis of difference.  If people don’t want to talk about their personal circumstances, that is entirely their right.

We were told that Asperger’s and autism are terms that are used interchangeably, and this is reflected in the most recent publication of the DSM (Wikipedia, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

There were a number of things that were new to me, such as The Autism Act 2009 (National Autistic Society), and The Autism Strategy 2010 (National Autistic Society), which has been recently updated.  Another interesting and useful link is a video interview produced by the National Autistic Society (YouTube).   It was also great to hear that Nichola also mentioned OU module SK124 understanding the autism spectrum (OU website). 

All in all, a thought provoking talk.

Workshop: Student Support Teams and Disabled Students Support

The next event I went to was a workshop where different members of the newly formed student support teams (SSTs) were brought together to discuss the challenges of supporting students who have disabilities.  Again, the subject of student profiles was also discussed.

My own perspective (regarding student support teams) is one that has been really positive.  Whenever I’ve come across an issue when I needed to help a student (or a tutor) with a particular problem, I’ve always been able to speak with a learning support advisor who have always been unstintingly helpful.  I personally feel that now there are more people who I can speak to regarding advice and guidance.

Keynote: The life of a mouth artist

The final keynote of the day was a really enjoyable and insightful talk by artist, Keith Jansz.  Keith began by telling us about his background.  After being involved in a car accident, in which he was significantly paralysed, he started to learn how to draw and paint after being given a book about mouth artists by his mother in law. 

Keith spoke how he learnt how to paint, describing the process that he went through.  Being someone who has a low opinion of my own abilities when it comes to using a pencil, I found his story fascinating.  I enjoyed Keith’s descriptions of light, colour, and the creative process. What struck me were the links between creativity, learning and self-expression; all dimensions that are inextricably intertwined. 

I thought his talk was a perfect keynote for this conference.   It was only afterwards that the implicit connections between Keith’s talk and the connections with university study became apparent. Learning, whatever form it may take, can be both life changing and life affirming.

During the conference, there was an accompanying exhibition of Keith’s work.  You can also view a number of his paintings on his website.

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Widening Participation through Curriculum Conference (day 2 of 2)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 24 Apr 2019, 17:29

The second day of the conference was to be slightly different to the first; there were fewer sessions, and there were a number of ‘talking circle’ workshop events to go to.  On the first day I arrived at the conference ridiculously early (I was used to the habit of travelling to Milton Keynes in time for meetings, and catching a scheduled bus to the campus).   On the second day, I was glad to discover that I wasn’t the first delegate to arrive.

Opening remarks

The second day was opened by Professor Musa Mihsein from the OU.  He presented an interesting story of how he became to work at the university as a PVC.  Musa talked about changes to funding, making the point that there has also been a change in the use of language.  There is more of a need to ‘maximise impact’.  The accompanying question is, of course, ‘how can we best evaluate projects and programs?’

A couple of points I noted down was that we haven’t got a full understanding of curriculum and its role within the institution, and that collaborations are important.  There is also a continual need to communicate in different ways to policy makers.

Keynote 4: Liberating the curriculum

The first keynote of the day was by Kelly Coate, Senior Lecturer in Higher Education, from Kings College, London.  Kelly’s talk was interesting since it spoke directly to the ‘curriculum’ part of conference title.  She has been researching about curriculum for the last 20 years and made the point that, ‘decisions about curriculum are decisions about what we can think’ (if I’ve taken that down correctly).

Here’s some of my notes: we’re accustomed to certain view of what ‘curriculum’.  The word derives from a Latin word that means to run/to proceed.  This makes a lot of sense: most participants make it to the finish line, there are often a couple of really high scorers and a couple who are, perhaps, left behind. 

If we dig around in history, the notion of curriculum used to be associated with the ‘liberal arts’.  This contains the disciplines of grammar, logic, rhetoric, music theory, astronomy, arithmetic, and geometry, with the word liberal being derived from libra, meaning ‘free’.

Kelly’s talk gave way an interesting twist.  Since she studies what people are studying, she was asked to comment on a story that Miley Cyrus was to be the subject of a university course.  If you’re interested, here’s a related news story: Back to twerk … Miley Cyrus to be studied on new university course (The Guardian).   Thinking about it for a moment, the subject of Miley can readily be used to facilitate discussions about femininity, power, exploitation, celebrity,sexuality…

A bit of theorising is always useful.  We could thing about curriculum in three different domains: knowing, acting and being. Importance of relating teaching to the now, which opens up the possibility of students considering suggesting their own curricula by performing research into how ‘the now’ relates to the broad subject area.

Another way of thinking about curriculum might be in terms of gravity and density.  Gravity is the extent to which a subject can be related to a particular context.  Density relates to how much theory there is (some subject can be incredibly theoretical).  I really like these metaphors: they’re a really good (and powerful) way to think about how a lecturer or teacher might be able to ‘ground’ a particular concept or idea.

We were briefly taken through a couple of ideas about learning and pedagogy.  The first one was the transmission model (which, I think, was described as being thoroughly discredited), where a lecturer or teacher stands in the front of the class and talks, and the students magically absorb everything. The second idea (which I really need to take some time out to look at) is actor-network theory (wikipedia).  Apparently it’s about thinking about systems and networks and how things are linked through objects and connections.  (This is all transcribed directly from my notes - I need to understand in a whole lot more than I do at the moment!)

I’ve also made a note about a researcher called Jan Nespor  who has applied actor-network theory to study physics and business studies classes.  The example was that lecturers can orchestrate totally different experiences, and these might be connected with the demands and needs of a particular discipline (if I’ve understood things correctly!)

I’ve made a note of some interesting points that were made by the delegates at the end of Kelly’s speech.  One point was that different subjects have different cultures of learning, i.e. some subjects might consider professional knowledge to be very important.  Musa mentioned the importance of problem-based learning, particularly in subjects such as engineering. 

Session 3: Innovation in design and pedagogy

There was only one presentation in the third session which was all about pedagogy.  This was entitled ‘Creating inclusive university curriculum: implementing universal design for learning in an enabling programme’, by Stuart Dinmore and Jennifer Stokes.  The presentation was all about how to make use of universal design principles within a module.  We were introduced to what UD is (that it emerges from developments in design and architecture), that it aims to create artefacts that are useful for everyone, regardless of disability.

Connecting their presentation to wider issues, there are two competing (yet complementary) accessibility approaches: individualised design and universal design.  There is also the way in which accessibility can be facilitated by the use of helpers, to enable learners to gain access to materials and learning experiences.

It was great that this presentation explicitly spoke to the accessibility and disability dimension of WP, also connecting to the importance of technology.  During Stuart and Jennifer’s presentation, I was continually trying to relate their experiences with my own experience of tutoring on the OU module, H810 Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students (OU web page)

Talking circle

I chose to attend innovation in design and pedagogy.  I do admit that I did get a bit ‘ranty’ (in a gentle way) during this session.  This was a good opportunity to chat about some of the issues that were raised and to properly meet some of the fellow delegates.  Some of the views that I expressed within this session are featured in the reflection section that follows.

Closing keynote:  class, culture and access to higher education

The closing keynote was by John Storan from the University of East London.  John’s keynote was a welcome difference; it had a richly personal tone.  He introduced us to members of his family (who were projected onto a screen using PowerPoint), and talked us through the early years of his life, and his journey into teacher training college, whilst constantly reflecting on notions of difference.

He also spoke about a really interesting OU connection too.  John was a participant in a study that gave way to a book entitled, Family and kinship in East London (Wikipedia), by Michael Yong and Peter Willmott.  (This is one of those interesting looking books that I’m definitely going to be reading – again, further homework from this conference).  ‘We were the subject’, John told us.  He also went onto make the point about the connections between lived experience, research, policy and curriculum.

I’ve made a note in my notebook of the phrase, ‘not clever, able enough’.  I have also been subject to what I now know to be ‘imposter syndrome’.  In the question and answer session, I’ve made a note about that the codes of language can easily become barriers.

Reflections

One of the really unexpected things about this conference was the way that it accidentally encouraged me to think about my own journey to and through higher education.  Although for much of my early life I didn’t live in an area that would feature highly in any WP initiatives, higher education was an unfamiliar world to my immediate family.

Of course, my journey and my choices end up being quite nuanced when I start to pick apart the details of my biography, but I think there was one intervention that made a lasting impression.  This intervention was a single speech given by a member of staff at my former college about the opportunity that university study gave.  I remember coming away thinking, ‘I’m going to apply; I have nothing to lose, and everything to gain’.  A number of my peers thought the same.

The conference presented a number of different perspectives: the importance of assessing the effectiveness of interventions and the importance of theory, how to design WP curriculum, how to make curriculum accessible, and how to make materials engaging for different groups.  One aspect that I thought was lacking was that of the voices of the students.  It’s all very well discussing between ourselves what we think that we should be doing, but I felt it would be really valuable to hear the views of students. 

An area that would be particularly useful is to hear about instances of failure, or to hear about what went wrong when students tried university level study but couldn’t complete for some reason.  There are some really rich narratives that have the potential to tell researchers in WP and curriculum a lot about what institutions (and individuals) need to do.  The challenge, of course, is finding those people who would like to come forward and share their views.

In the sessions that I attended, there were clear discussions about class, socio-economic status and disability, but there seemed to be an opportunity to discuss more about ethnicity.  Quantitative research has shown that there is an attainment gap.   There was an opportunity for some qualitative discussions and more sharing of views regarding this subject.

Another thought relates to the number of keynote speeches.  Keynote speeches are really important, and it was great that they were varied – and they are very important in tone and agenda setting, but more paper sessions (and perhaps a plenary discussion?) might expose different issues and allow more contacts to be made.

I appreciate that these final reflections sound a bit ‘whingey’; they’re not intended to be.  WP is an important issue, and from the amount of follow-up homework I’ve got to do this clearly tells me that the conference was a great success. 

In some ways I guess the conference was slightly different to what I had expected (in terms of the debate and discussions).  I was expecting it to be slightly less ‘academic’ and slightly more practitioner focussed (or oriented to those who deal with WP issues on a day to day basis).   The unexpected difference, however, was very welcome; I’ve learnt some new stuff.

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Widening Participation through Curriculum Conference (day 1 of 2)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 24 Apr 2019, 17:31

There are some days when I feel very lucky; lucky in the sense that my transition from school, to college and to university happened pretty painlessly.  Although my background has been far from privileged, I feel that I ended up making the right choices the exactly right time, all by accident rather than by design.

Some of these thoughts were going through my head as I walked towards the hotel where the Widening Participation through Curriculum conference was held.  Other thoughts were connected with my day job, which all about supporting the delivery of a range of undergraduate computing and ICT modules.  WP (as it seemed to be known within the conference), is something that I consider to be fundamentally important; it touches on my interactions with students, and the times that I work with members of a module team.  I also had a question, which was, ‘what more could I do [to help with WP]?’

This post is a summary of my own views of the Widening Participation through Curriculum conference that was held on two days from 30 April 2014 in Milton Keynes.  It’s intended as a rough bunch of notes for myself, and might be of distant interest to other delegates who were at the event (or anyone else who might find these ramblings remotely interesting).

Opening remarks

The opening address was by Martin Bean, Vice chancellor of the university.  He asked the question, ‘how do we ensure that widening participation is achieved?’  This is an easy question to ask, but a whole lot more difficult to answer.  Martin talked about moving from informal to formal learning, and the challenge of reaching out and connecting with adult learners in a sustainable way.  Other points included the importance of access curriculum (pre-university level study).  Access curriculum has the potential to encourage learners and to develop confidence.

Martin also touched upon the potential offered by MOOCs, or, massive open online course.   The OU has created a company called FutureLearn, which has collaborations with other UK and international universities.  A question is whether it might be possible to create level 0 (or access) courses in the form of MOOCs that could help to prepare learners for formal study (connecting back to the idea of transitions from informal to formal learning).  One thought that I did have is about the importance and use of technology.  Technology might not be the issue, but figuring out strategies to use it effectively might be.

Keynote 1: WP and disruption – global challenges

The first keynote of the conference was by Belinda Tynan, PVC for teaching and learning.  As she spoke, I made some rough notes, and I’ve scribbled down the following important points: models of partnerships, curriculum theory, impact of curriculum reform, and how students are being engaged.

Belinda touched upon a number of wide issues such as changing demographics, discrepancy between rich and poor, unemployment, and the relationship between technology and social inclusion; all really great points.

Another interesting point was about the digital spaces where the university does not have a formal presence.  We were told that there are in the order of 150 Facebook groups that students have set up to help themselves.  As an aside, I’ve often wondered about these spaces, and whether they can tell us something that the university could be doing better, in terms of either technology, interactive system design, or how to foster and develop collaboration.  Another thought relates to the research question: how much learning actually occurs within these spaces?   How much are we able to see?

A phrase that jumped out at me was, ‘designing curriculum that fits into people’s lives’.  Perhaps it is important that curriculum designers create small fragments of materials to allow students can manage the complexity of their studies.  Other key phrases include the importance of motivation, the role of on-line discussions, and the challenge of finding time.

We were shown a short video about learning analytics.  Learning analytics is a pretty simple concept.  Whenever we interact with a system, we leave a trace (often in the form of a web request).  The idea is the perhaps the sum total of traces will be able to tell us something about how students are getting along.  By using clever technology (such as machine learning algorithms), it might be possible to uncover and initiate targeted interventions, perhaps in collaboration with student support teams.

One thought that I had during this presentation was, ‘where is the tutor in this picture?’  Technology was mentioned a lot, but there was little mention about the personal support that OU tutors (or lecturers) offer.   There are many factors in helping students along their journey, and my own view is that tutors are a really important part of this.

The concluding points in Belinda’s keynote (if I’ve noted this down properly) return to the notion of challenges: the importance of the broader societal context, and the importance of connecting learning theory to student journeys.

Session 1: Measuring and demonstrating impact

Delegates could go to a number of parallel sessions about different topics.  The first paper session I dropped into was entitled ‘measuring and demonstrating impact’.  This session comprised of two presentation.

The first presentation was entitled, ‘Impact of a pre-access curriculum on attainment over 10 years’, and it was from representatives of an organisation called Asdan Education, which is a charity which grew out of research from the University of West of England.  I hadn’t heard of this organisation before, so all this was news to me.  Asdan have what is called Certificate of personal effectiveness (Asdan website).  The presentation contained a lot of data suggested that the curriculum (and the work by the charity) led to an improvement to some GCSE results.

The second presentation of the morning, given by Nichola Grayson and Johanna Delaney was entitled, ‘can the key principles of open skills training enhance the experience of prospective students’. Interestingly, Nichola and Johnanna were from the library services at the University of Manchester.  Their talk was all about revision of library resources called ‘my learning essentials’.

The university currently has something called a ‘Manchester access programme’, which includes visits from schools, and an ‘extended project qualification’ (which I think allows students to gather up some UCAS points, used for university entry).  The open new training programme (if I have understand it correctly) has an emphasis on skills, adopts a workshop format and makes use of online resources.

During this presentation, I was introduced to some new terms and WP debates.  I heard the concept of the ‘deficit model’ for the first time, and there were immediate comments about its appropriateness (but more of this problematic concept later).

Session 2: Theory revisited

I went to this session because I had no idea what ‘theory’ means in the context of Widening Participation; I was hoping to learn something!

The first presentation was by my colleague Jonathan Hughes who gave a presentation entitled, ‘developing a theoretical framework to explore what widening participation has done for ‘non-traditional students’ and what it has done to them.’  Jonathan and his colleague Alice Peasgood has been interviewing WP experts, which includes mostly professors who had been published.  Interviews recorded and transcribed, and then analysed.

Johnathan made an interesting comment (or quip) that this is a technique that can be considered to be a short-cut to a literature review.  This is an idea that I’m going to take away with me, and it has actually inspired some thinking about an idea about how to understand the teaching of programming.

His analysis is to use a technique called thematic analysis (Wikipedia) drawing on the work of Braun and Clarke.  This was also interesting: in terms of qualitative research, I’m more familiar with grounded theory (Wikipedia).  This alerted me to one of the dangers of going to conferences: that you can easily give yourself lots of homework to do.

Jonathan highlighted three main themes: the policy context (tuition fees in higher education), wider context of marketised higher education, and how policies are interpreted and operationalised.  (He has written more about these in his paper).  I’ve made a note of a comment that there are different theoretical frameworks to understand WP: one is to enable the gifted and talented to study, another is how best to meet the needs of employers, and how to transform the university rather than the students.

The second talk by Jayne Clapton, was entitled, ‘seeing a ‘complex’ conceptual understanding of WP and social inclusion in HE’.  Jane presented a graphic of a metaphor of a complex mechanism which had a number of interlocking parts (which, I believe, represent various drivers and influences).

The discussion section was really interesting, particularly since the deficit model was attacked pretty comprehensively.  To add a bit more detail, the ‘model’ is where potential students have some kind of deficit, perhaps in terms of socio-economic background, for instance.  To overcome this there is the idea of having some kind of intervention done to them to help prepare them for higher education.  An alternative perspective is to view students in terms of ‘assets’; development opportunities can represent investments in individuals.

A concluding discussion centred upon the importance of research.  Research always has the potential to inform and guide government policy.  The point was that ‘we need effective research to back up any arguments that we make, and we need to know about the effectiveness about projects or interventions’.

Keynote 2: The ‘academic challenge’ in HE: intersectional dimensions and unintended affects on pedagogic encounters

The second keynote was by Professor Gill Crozier from Roehampton University.  I’ve made a note that Gill was talking about transition; that the transition to higher education is more difficult for working class, and black and ethnic minority students.  Some students can be unsure what university was all about (I certainly place myself in that category).  Studying at university can expose students to unequal power relations between class, gender and race.

A really interesting point that I’ve noted down is one that relates to attitude.  In some cases, some lecturers are not happy giving additional support, since this requires them to ‘become nurturing’ in some senses, and some might consider it to beyond the remit of their core ‘academic’ duties.  I personally found this view surprising.  I personally view those moments of additional support as real opportunities to help learners find the heart of a discipline, or get to the root of a problem that might be troublesome.  These moments allow you to reflect on and understand core ideas within your own discipline.  In comparison to lecturing in front of a room, you need to be dynamic; you need to get to the heart of the problem, and try your best to be as engaging as possible.   I also made a note about the importance of creating a ‘learner identity’.

There was a lot in terms of content in this presentation.  Two interesting notes that I made in my notebook are, ‘social identifies profoundly shape dispositions’ (I’m not quite sure what context I’ve written this), and ‘little attention given to the experience of students at university’ (which is something that I’ll come back to in the final part of this blog).

Keynote 3: Widening success through curriculum: innovation in design and pedagogy

Stephanie Marshall, CEO of the Higher Education Academy (HEA website) gave the third keynote speech.  Stephanie began with an interesting anecdote, and one that I really appreciated.  Stephanie spoke about her early days of being a lecturer at (I think) the University of York.  She spoke to a colleague who apparently told her that ‘the OU had taught me to do all this’, meaning, how to become a lecturer by running training sessions that allows associate lecturers to understand how to run group sessions, and how to choose and design effective activities.

My ears pricked up when Stephanie mentioned the HEA’s Professional Standards Framework (HEA website).  The UKPSF relates to the HEA’s accreditation process where lecturers have to submit cases to demonstrate their teaching and learning skills in higher education.

Like so many HE institutions, the HEA has also been through a period of substantial change, which has recently included a substantial reduction in funding.  This said, the HEA continues to run projects that aim to influence the whole of the sector.  Work streams currently include curriculum design, innovative pedagogies, transitions, and staff transitions (helping staff to do the things that they need to do).

There are also projects that relate to widening participation.  One that I’ve explicitly taken a note of is the retention and success project (HEA website) (it appears that there’s a whole bunch of interesting looking resources, which I didn’t know existed).  Other projects I’ve noted connect to themes such as attainment and progression, learning analytics and employability.

On the subject of WP, Stephanie gave a really interesting example.  During the presentation of a module, students studying English at one university expressed concerns about the relevance of particular set text to the students who were studying them.   This challenge led to the co-development of curriculum, a collaboration between students and lecturers to choose text that were more representative (in terms of the ethnicity of the student body), thus allowing the module to be more engaging.  This strikes me as one of the fundamental advantages of face to face teaching; lecturers can learn, and challenging (and important) debates can emerge.

A final resource (or reference) that I wasn’t aware of was something called the Graduate attributes framework (University of Edinburgh).  Again, further homework!

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OU e-learning Community – Considering Accessibility

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 4 May 2014, 17:36

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.

Reflections

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. 

 

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ESRC seminar: inclusion, usability and difference

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On 22 April 2013 I managed to find a bit of time to attend a seminar that touched upon some of the themes that I recently blogged about, namely, the way in which technology can be made available (and can be used to help) different groups of users. 

During the day there were a total of five presentations, each of which touched upon many of the different themes that continue to be a strong interest: accessibility, usability, and the way in which technology can potentially help people.  Like so many of these blogs, I'm going to do a bit of a write-up of each presentation, and then conclude with a set of thoughts and points which emerged from the closing discussion.

Older people and on-line social interactions

The first talk of the day was by Shailey Minocha who talked about a project called OCQL (project website) that has been exploring how technology may be able to be used to help and support older people.  If you're interested, I've written a brief blog summary of an earlier workshop that Shailey and her colleagues ran.

Some of the issues that the project aims to explore are the different motivations for being on-line, understanding various advantages and disadvantages and corresponding potential risks and obstacles. Another aspect of the project was to explore whether we might be able to offer advice to designers to allow them to create more usable systems.

Shailey touched upon challenges and dilemmas that users may face.  One challenge is how we might help to create formal and informal support networks to enable users to not only get online in the first place, but also help users to develop their technology skills.  One comment that I noted was that 'buying a [internet] connected computer is easy, it's continuing to use it that is difficult'.

Shailey gave us a flavour of some preliminary findings.  A simple motivation for getting connected is a desire to keep in touch with people, which is connected with the advantage that certain aspects of technology has a potential to reduce social isolation.  Some of the obstacles included the need to gain technical support and the challenges that lie with understanding certain concepts and metaphors that are a necessary part of being on-line.  The perceived risks include fears about a loss of privacy, concerns about knowing who or which organisations or products to trust.  The perceived disadvantages include the fear that technology might take over the lives of the user and this might take the user away from other events and activities that were important.

I remember a really interesting anecdote of a user who started to use an iPad.  The device was used so much (to keep in contact with distant friends and family), that this took away from time socialising with other people who lived nearby.

Shailey also left us some recommendations.  Training, it was suggested, should be personalised to the needs of individuals.  One-off training sessions are not sufficient.  Instead, training should take place over a longer period of time. 

For those who are interested, here are two links to some related resources.  The first is a link to a paper entitled, Conducting empirical research with older people (ORO repository), to be presented at a human-computer interaction (HCI) conference.  The second is a set of web resources (Delicious) that have been acquired during the project.

Towards the end of the presentation I noted two really interesting questions.  The first was, 'to what extent is the familiarity of technology a temporary problem?', and the second question (which is related to the first) is: 'putting age as an issue to one side, how can we all prepare ourselves to become familiar with and work with the next big technological innovation that may be on the horizon?'

The haptic bracelets

Simon Holland, from the department of Computing and Communication introduced us to devices known as the Haptic Bracelet (Music Computer Laboratory).  In essence, a haptic bracelet is a wearable device that you can put on your wrist or ankle.  The word haptic, of course, relates to your sense of touch.  The devices can be controlled so that they can vibrate at different frequencies or produce rhythms.  They also contain accelerometers which can be used to detect movement and gestures. 

My first question was, 'okay, so all this stuff is pretty cool but what on earth can it be used for?'  Simon clearly had anticipated this thought and provided some very compelling answers.  Fundamentally, it can be used with the teaching of music, specifically with the teaching of rhythm, or drumming.  Drum kits have pedals; drummers use both their hands and their feet.  Simon told us that he imagined a device that was akin to an iPod: a form of music player that could help musicians to more directly (and immediately) learn and feel rhythms.  When I started to think about this, I really wanted one - I could imagine that a haptic iPod could add a whole new dimension to the music which I listen to as a travel across London on the tube.

Its one thing listening to a piece of music through headphones, it's something totally different if you're feeling beats and vibrations through the same limbs that could be creating exactly the same rhythm if you were sitting at a drum kit.  I've noted the following quote that pretty much sums it up:  'at best, it goes through your two ears... [but] how do you know what limb is doing what?!'  All this can be linked to a music education approach called Dalcroze Eurhythmics (wikipedia), which was something totally new to me.  Something else that I hadn't heard of before is sensorimotor contingency theory (which I don't know anything about, but whatever it is, it sounds very cool!)

Early on in his talk, Simon suggested that these devices have the potential to be an assistive technology.  One area in which these devices might be useful is with gait rehabilitation, i.e. by providing additional feedback to people who are trying to re-learn how to walk following a brain injury or stroke.  Apparently a metronome is used to help people to move in time with a rhythm, which is a useful technique to regain (and guide) rhythmic motor control.  One of the advantages of using haptic bracelets is that the responses or feedback they could provide could be more dynamic.  Plus, due to the presence of an accelerometer, different feedback might be presented in real-time - but this is mostly conjecture on my part; this is something that is a part of on-going research.

During the final part of Simon's slot, we were given an opportunity to play with some of the bracelets.  Pairs were configured in such a way that we were able to 'send' real-time rhythms wirelessly to another user.  When we 'tapped' on a table, the same 'tap' was picked up by someone else who was wearing another bracelet.

We were introduced to other (potential) uses.  These included sport, gaming, and helping with group synchronisation (or learning) in dance.  Fascinating stuff!

Digital inclusion in the era of the smartphone

Becky Faith is a doctoral student at the Open University who spoke about some of her research interests, and it was all pretty interesting stuff.  One of her areas of interest is how technology (particularly the smartphone) can be used as a means of support for vulnerable people (and how it might be used to gain support from others). 

During Becky's talk I was introduced to a range of new terms, phrases and frameworks that I hadn't heard of before, such as capability theory (which might relate to what rights people may have but are not aware of) and technofeminist theory.   I also noted questions that related to the roles of the private sector versus the state in facilitating access to technology.  This reminded me of one of the drivers for good interaction design and usability: that it can lead to higher levels of productivity, more effective sales and lower costs.  Since goods and services are now on-line, facilitating digital inclusion also, fundamentally, means good business sense.

Becky's session was also very interactive.  We were given a challenge: we had to find out a very specific piece of information using our smartphone (if we had one).  This was to find the name of our MEP.  We were also asked how we might feel if this was our only device.  I, for one, wouldn't be very happy.  I (personally) feel more comfortable with a keyboard that moves than one that is only visible on a screen.

The activity gave way to a debate.  Some users will be faced with fundamental access challenges.  These could be thought of in in terms of the availability of devices or availability of signal coverage.  Ultimately, there is the necessity of understanding the needs of the users, their situations and the kinds of devices and equipment they may have access to.  A thought provoking session.

Careware

Andrew Stuart from Careware (company website) started his presentation by describing a question that he had asked himself, or he had been asked by someone else (I didn't note down the exact wording!).  The question was, 'why can't I find my dog using my iPhone?'.  Dogs go missing all the time.  The company that Andrew established created a GPS dog collar, which allowed dogs to be found using iPhones.  A great idea!

Andrew's company later expanded to create devices, such as a tracking belt, which could be used with vulnerable people.  Tracking dogs is one thing, but tracking people is a whole other issue.  The idea of people wearing tracking devices obviously raises serious ethical issues, but the necessity for privacy needs to be balanced against the desire to ensure that vulnerable people (who are sometimes family members) are cared for and looked after.  It is argued that personal tracking devices can help some people to maintain their independence whilst allowing family members not only peace of mind but also open up new ways to offer personal support.  Users of a personal tracker can, for instance, press a button to alert other people of difficulties or problems.  A GPS belt (instead of a collar) is a device that is very different from a mobile phone (which, arguably, with its in built GPS facilities, can almost do a very similar task).

Andrew's presentation touched on a number of different issues, i.e. centralised telemedicine through call centres versus the use of individual devices for families, and the roles that local authorities may be able to play.  There were also hints of future developments, such as the use of accelerometers to potentially detect falls.

Open University modules such as Fundamentals of Interaction Design touch upon subjects such as wearable computing or wearable interfaces.  It was interesting to see that two presentations demonstrated two very different types of wearable devices - and both presentations were about how they can be used to help people, but in very different ways.

Exploring new technologies through playful peer-to-peer engagement in informal learning

The final presentation of the day was by Josie Tetley, from the Health and Social Care faculty.  Josie spoke of an EU funded project called Opt-In which 'aims to explore if and how new technologies can improve the quality of life of older people' and investigates 'whether existing pedagogic approaches are the best way of enabling older people to learn new technologies'.

Getting people to play with technology was one of the topics that were mentioned, both in a research lab, but also as a part of informal social settings.  Josie also spoke about the different research methods that were used, such as questionnaires, diaries and semi-structured interviews.  One point that I've noted include that some technologies can lead to obvious instances of deskilling, such as overreliance and use of satellite navigation systems.   

Some preliminary findings include that some users are interested in certain applications, notably video telephony applications such as Skype or FaceTime (wikipedia).  Technology, it was also said, can be readily accepted.  I also noted a really good phrase, which is that good technology transcends all age groups.

Summary

All in all, a very interesting event.  I have to say that I wasn't quite sure what I was letting myself in for.  I didn't really know too much about what was on the agenda before the morning of the seminar.  I was more guided by the words of the title that sparked an interest.

The most significant point that I took away from the day was that my conception of what an assistive technology was had been fundamentally broadened.  Another take away point related to the importance of considering the types of learning that are appropriate to different user groups. 

It was also great fun to hear about different research projects and gain an awareness of new ideas and frameworks.  Learning about subjects that are slightly outside our own discipline has the potential to be both rewarding and refreshing.

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Accessibility workshop: modules and module team representatives

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 9 Feb 2014, 16:13

For reasons that currently escape me, I seem to have found myself on three different module teams where I have some responsibility for accessibility.  The first two are design modules (design and innovation qualification) that are currently being developed by the university.  The third is M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design, a module that I have tutored since its launch in 2006. 

I've been asked to write what is called an accessibility guide for the design modules.  For M364, I was asked to attend an accessibility workshop that was held on 17 October 2012 at the university in Milton Keynes.  This blog post is a rough set of notes that relate to this event (which was intended to inform and help those who are charged with writing an accessibility guide).  As well as being an aide memoir for on-going work, I hope that it might be useful for my H810 Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students groups who may be confronted with similar challenges.  Furthermore, I hope that the summary may be of use to come of my colleagues.

Setting the scene

The workshop began with a bit of scene setting.  Accessibility and support for students with disabilities is provided by a number of different parts of the university.  These include Disabled Student Services, the Institute of Educational Technology (IET) who offer internal consultancy and advice, and the Library.  Responsibility also lies with faculties, such as the Faculty of Mathematics Computing and Technology in which I am primarily based.  Accessibility, it is said, is closely connected with one of the key objectives of the university: to be open to people.

We were all reminded for the fundamental need to anticipate the needs of students during the module production process.  This is especially important at the moment since there are a significant number of modules that are currently in production.  We were also reminded that a tension between content and accessibility can sometimes arise.  Academics may wish to present materials and suggest activities that may be difficult for some learners to engage with, for example.  There is the need to consider the implications of module design choices.

The types of anticipatory adjustments that could be made include figure descriptions, transcripts for videos, subtitling, alternative learning activities and the provision of alternative formats.  It should always be remembered that alternative formats, such as documents supplied in Word, PDFs and ePub formats have the potential to help all students.  Alternative formats (as well as standard provision of materials, such as those offered through the university virtual learning environment) can be consumed and manipulated by assistive technologies, such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, for example.  Other relevant assistive technologies that can be applied include voice recognition software and mobile devices.

Further scene setting consisted of painting a rough picture of the different types of disabilities that are declared by students.  I was interested to learn that only a relatively small number of broad categories make up the majority of declarations.  Although putting people in boxes or categories can be useful in terms of understanding the bigger picture, it's always important to remember that the challenges and conditions that people face can be very varied.  By way of additional information (and guidelines) I also remember a reference to a document by the Quality assurance agency (QAA) entitled code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education, Section 3: Disabled students (QAA website).  This might be worth a look if you are especially interested in these kinds of policy documents and guidance that relate to higher education.

It was also stated that it is important to consider accessibility as early as possible in the module design process.  The reason for this should be obvious: it is far easier to include accessibility during the early stages of the design of a new module than to it is to retrofit accessibility into an existing structure.  This takes us onto one of the aims of the workshop; to explore the role of a dedicated accessibility co-ordinator who sits on a module team.  One of the responsibilities of a co-ordinator is to write an accessibility guide for a module.

Responsibilities of a module team accessibility co-ordinator

Our first main activity of the day was to consider and discuss the different responsibilities of an accessibility co-ordinator.  Working in a small group, we quickly got stuck in.  We soon discovered that we had pretty different roles and responsibilities within the university.

The responsibilities that we considered were important were the necessity supporting module authors and liaise with colleagues, keeping track of what learning materials are being produced within a module and actively obtain support and guidance from different departments where necessary.  A fundamental responsibility was, of course, to produce an accessibility guide (which is now an important part of the module production process).

A co-ordinator must have an understanding of different sources of information, know how modules are produced, know something about the module material and have some facilitating and project management skills.  An ability to write clearly and succinctly is also important too!

Looking and some guides

After a period of discussion about the role of the co-ordinator, we then went onto have a look at a set of different accessibility guides with a view to trying to summarise what works well and what could be done better. 

Accessibility guides for individual modules are now being written for every new module.  The first module that had an accessibility guide was U116 Environment: journeys through a changing world. This was followed by TU100 My digital life.  A very detailed accessibility guide is also available for H810.

A fundamental question is: what is the purpose of the guide and who is it aimed for?  My understanding is that it can be used by a number of different people, ranging from learning support advisors who help students to choose modules, through to tutors and students.  It is a document for different audiences.

One thing that struck me that we don't yet have the perfect document, structure or system to provide all the information that everyone needs.  This very much reflects my own understanding that accessibility isn't producing a document or a standard or set of instructions.  Instead, it is more of a process where the artefacts can mediate and reflect interaction between people who work together to provide effective support.

One of the key difficulties that we uncovered was that there is an obvious tension between generic and specific advice.  There is a clear risk of offering too much information which has the potential to overwhelm the reader, but in some instances potential students may have very specific questions about the accessibility of certain aspects of a module.

I've made a note of some of the shared conclusions and assumptions about the purpose of a module accessibility guide.  Firstly, the guide is there to highlight accessibility challenges.  It should also say something about what alternative resources are available and also offer information and guidance about how to support students.

One really important question that was asked was: at what point in the module production should we create this?  The answer is writing the guide should happen during the module production process.  This allows the co-ordinator to be involved with the module development and allow potential accessibility problems to be addressed early.  

Moving forwards

I found the workshop useful.  One of the main conclusions was that there needed to be more clarity about the role of an accessibility co-ordinator.  I understand that the results from the discussions have been noted and there may well be follow up meetings.

Accessibility (as well as support for individual students) is something that needs to be owned by individuals.  Reflecting my understanding that it is a process, the guide is needed to be something that needs to be refreshed as a module team gains more experience over the years in which a module is delivered.

One thing is very clear for me.  Given my role as co-ordinator on a couple of modules, I clearly need to get more of an appreciation as to what is going on so I can then consider the kinds of potential challenges that students may face. 

A key challenge is to understand the (sometimes implicit) assumptions that module teams make about the extent of adjustments that can be made and present them in a way that can be understood to different audiences.  This strikes me as a pretty tough challenge, but one that is very important.

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Xerte Project AGM

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 18 Feb 2013, 19:13

Xerte is an open source tool that can be used to create e-learning content that can be delivered through virtual learning environments such as Moodle.  This blog post is a summary of a meeting entitled Xerte Project AGM that was held at the East Midlands Conference Centre at the University of Nottingham on 10 October 2012.  The purpose of the day was to share information about the current release about the Xerte tool, to offer an opportunity to different users to talk to each other and also to allow delegates to gain some understanding about where the development of the tool is heading.

One of my main motivations for posting a summary of the event is to share some information about the project with my H810 Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students tutor group.  Xerte is a tool that is considered to create accessible learning material - this means that the materials that are presented through (or using) Xerte may be able to be consumed by people who have different impairments. One of the activities that H810 students have to do is to create digital educational materials with a view to understanding what accessibility means and what challenges students may face when the begin to interact with digital materials.  Xerte can be one tool that could be used to create digital materials for some audiences.

This blog will contain some further description of accessibility (what it is and what it isn't); a subject that was mentioned during the day.  I'll also say something about other approaches that can be used to create digital materials.  Xerte isn't the beginning and end of accessibility - no single tool can solve the challenge of creating educational materials that are functionally and practically accessible to learners.  Xerte is one of many tools that can be used to contribute towards the creation of accessible resources, which is something different and separate to accessible pedagogy.

Introductions

The day was introduced by Wyn Morgan, director of teaching and learning at Nottingham.  Wyn immediately touched upon some of the objectives of the tool and the project - to allow the simple creation of attractive e-learning materials.

Wyn's introduction was followed by a brief presentation by Amber Thomas, who I understand is the manager for the JISC Rapid Innovation programme.  Amber mentioned the importance of a connected project called Xenith, but more of this later.

Project Overview

Julian Tenney presented an overview of the Xerte project and also described its history.  As a computer scientist, Julian's unexpected but very relevant introduction resonated strongly with me.  He mentioned two important and interesting books: Hackers, by Steven Levy, and The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric S Raymond.  Julian introduced us to the importance of open source software and described the benefit and strength of having a community of interested developers who work together to create something (in this case, a software tool) for the common good.

I made a note of a number of interesting quotes that can be connected to both books.  These are: 'always yield to the hands on' (which means, just get on and build stuff), 'hackers should be judged by their hacking', 'the world is full of interesting problems to be solved', and 'boredom and drudgery are evil'.  When it comes to the challenge of creating digital educational resources that can be delivered on-line, developers can be quickly faced with similar challenges time and time again.  The interesting and difficult problems lie with how best to overcome the drudgery of familiar problems.

I learnt that the first version of Xerte was released in 2006.  Julian mentioned other tools that can be used to create materials and touched upon the issue of both their cost and their complexity.  Continued development moved from a desktop based application to a set of on-line tools that can be hosted on an institutional web server (as far as I understand things).

An important point from Julian's introductory presentation that I paraphrase is that one of the constants of working with technology is continual change.  During the time between the launch of the original version of Xerte and the date of this blog post, we have seen the emergence of tablet based devices and the increased use of mobile devices, such as smartphones.  The standalone version of Xerte currently delivers content using a technology called Flash (wikipedia), which is a product by Adobe.  According to the Wikipedia article that was just referenced, Adobe has no intention to support Flash for mobile devices.  Instead, Adobe has announced that they wish to develop products for more open standards such as HTML 5. 

This brief excursion into the domain of software technology deftly took us onto the point of the day where the delegates were encouraged to celebrate the release of the new versions of the Xerte software and toolkits.

New Features and Page Types

Ron Mitchell introduced a number of new features and touched upon some topics that were addressed later during the day.  Topics that were mentioned included internationalisation, accessibility and the subject of Flash support.  Other subjects that were less familiar to me included how to support authentication through LDAP (lightweight directory access protocol) when using the Xerte Online Toolkit (as opposed to the standalone version), some hints about how to integrate some aspects of the Xerte software with the Moodle VLE, and how a tool such as Jmol (a Java viewer for molecular structures) could be added to content that is authored through Xerte.

One of the challenges with authoring tools is how to embed either non-standard material or materials that were derived from third party sources.  I seem to remember being told about something called an Embed code which (as far as I understand things) enables HTML code to be embedded directly within content authored through Xerte.  The advantage of this is that you can potentially make use of rich third party websites to create interactive activities.

Internationalisation

I understand the internationalisation as one of those words that is very similar to the term software localisation; it's all about making sure that your software system can be used by people in other countries.  One of the challenges with any software localisation initiative is to create (or harness) a mechanism to replace hardcoded phrases and terms with labels, and have them dynamically changed depending on the locale in which a system is deployed.  Luckily, this is exactly the kind of thing that the developers have been working on: a part of the project called XerteTrans.

Connector Templates

When I found myself working in industry I created a number of e-learning objects that were simply 'page turners'.  What I mean is that you had a learning object that had a pretty boring (but simple) structure - a learning object that was just one page after another.  At the time there wasn't any (easy) way to create a network of pages to take a user through a series of different paths.  It turns out that the new connector templates (which contains something called a connector page), allows you to do just this. 

The way that things work is through a page ID.  Pages can have IDs if you want to add links between them. Apparently there are a couple of different types of connector pages: linear, non-linear and some others (I can't quite make out my handwriting at this point!) The principle of a connector template may well be something that is very useful.  It is a concept that seems significantly easier to understand than other e-learning standards and tools that have tried to offer similar functionality.

A final reflection on this subject is that it is possible to connect sets of pages (or slides) together using PowerPoint, a very different tool that has been designed for a very different audience and purpose.

Xenith and HTML 5

Returning to earlier subjects, Julian Tenney and Fay Cross described a JISC funded project called Xenith. The aim of Xenith is to create a system to allow content that has been authored using Xerte to be presented using HTML 5 (Wikipedia).  The motivation behind this work is to ensure that e-learning materials can be delivered on a wide variety of platforms.  When HTML 5 is used with toolkits such as jQuery, there is less of an argument for making use of Adobe Flash.  There are two problems with continuing to use Flash.  The first is that due to a historic fall out between Apple and Adobe, Flash cannot be used on iOS (iPhone, iPad and iPod) devices.  Secondly, Flash has not been considered to be a technology that has been historically very accessible.

Apparently, a Flash interface will remain in the client version of Xerte for the foreseeable future, but to help uncover accessibility challenges the Xenith developers have been working with JISC TechDis.  It was during this final part of the presentation that the NVDA screen reader was mentioned (which is freely available for download).

Accessibility

Alistair McNaught from TechDis gave a very interesting presentation about some of the general principles of technical and pedagogic accessibility.  Alistair emphasised the point that accessibility isn't just about whether or not something is generally accessible; the term 'accessibility' can be viewed as a label.  I also remember the point that the application of different types of accessibility standards and guidelines don't necessarily guarantee a good or accessible learning experience.

I made a note of the following words.  Accessibility is about: forethought, respect, pragmatism, testing and communication.  Forethought relates to the simple fact that people can become disabled.  There is also the point that higher educational institutions should be anticipatory.  Respect is about admitting that something may be accessible for some people but not for others.  A description of a diagram prepared for a learner who has a visual impairment may not be appropriate if it contains an inordinate amount of description, some of which may be superfluous to an underlying learning objective or pedagogic aim.  Pragmatism relates to making decisions that work for the individual and for the institution.  Testing of both content and services is necessary to understand the challenges that learners face.  Even though educational content may be accessible in a legislative sense, learners may face their own practical challenges.  My understanding is that all these points can be addressed through communication and negotiation.

It was mentioned that Xerte is accessible, but there are some important caveats.  Firstly, it makes use of Flash, secondly the templates offer some restrictions and that access depends on differences between screen readers and browsers.  It is the issue of the browser that reminds us that technical accessibility is a complex issue.  It is also dependent upon the design of the learning materials that we create.

To conclude, Alistair mentioned a couple of links that may be useful.  The first is the TechDis Xerte page.  The second is the Voices page, which relates to a funded project to create an 'English' synthetic voice that can be used with screen reading software.

For those students who are studying H810, I especially recommend Alistair's presentation which can be viewed on-line by visiting the AGM website.  Alistair's presentation starts at about the 88 minute mark.

Closing Discussions and Comments

The final part of the day gave way to discussions, facilitated by Inge Donkervoort, about how to develop the Xerte community site. Delegates were then asked whether they would like an opportunity to attend a similar event next year.

Reflections

One of the things I helped to develop when I worked in industry was a standards compliant (I use this term with a degree of hand waving) 'mini-VLE'.  It didn't take off for a whole host of reasons, but I thought it was pretty cool!  It had a simple navigation facility and users could create a repository of learning objects.  During my time on the project (which predated the release of Xerte), I kept a relatively close eye on which tools I could use to author learning materials.  Two tools that I used was a Microsoft Word based add in (originally called CourseGenie) which allowed authors to create series of separate pages which were then all packaged together to create a single zip file, and an old tool called Reload.  I also had a look at some commercial tools too.

One of the challenges that I came across was that, in some cases, it wasn't easy to determine what content should be created and managed by the VLE and what content was created and managed by an authoring tool.  An administrator of a VLE can define titles and make available on-line communication tools such as forums and wikis and then choose to provide learners with sets of pages (which may or may not be interactive) that have been created using tools like Xerte.  Relating back to accessibility, even though content may be notionally accessible it is also important to consider the route in which end users gain access to content.  Accessible content is pointless if the environment which is used to deliver the content is either inaccessible or is too difficult to navigate.

Reflecting on this issue, there is a 'line' that exists between the internal world of the VLE and the external world of a tool that generates material that can be delivered through (or by) a VLE.  In some respect, I feel that this notional line is never going to be pinned down due to differences between the ways in which systems operate and the environments in which they are used.  Standards can play an important role in trying to defining such issues and helping to make things to work together, but different standards will undoubtedly place the line at different points.

During my time as a developer I also thought the obvious question of, 'why don't we make available other digital resources, such as documents and PowerPoint files to learners?'  Or, to take the opposite view of this question, 'why should I have to use authoring tools at all?'  I have no (personal) objections about using authoring tools to create digital materials.  The benefit of tools such as Xerte is that the output can be simple, directly and clear to understand.  The choice of the mechanisms used to create materials for delivery to students should be dictated primarily by the pedagogic objectives of a module or course of study.

And finally...

One thought did plague me towards the end of the day, and it was this: the emphasis on the day was primarily about technology; there was very little (if at all) about learning and pedagogy.  This can be viewed from two sides - understanding more about the situations in which a particular tool (in combination with other tools) can best be used, and secondly how users (educators or learning technologists) can best begin to learn about the tool and how it can be applied.  Some e-learning tools work well in some situations than others.  Also, educators need to know how to help learners work with the tools (and the results that they generate).

All in all, I had an enjoyable day.  I even recognised a fellow Open University tutor!  It was a good opportunity to chat about the challenges of using and working with technology and to become informed about what interesting developments were on the horizon and how the Xerte tool was being used.  It was also great to learn that a community of users was being established. 

Finally, it was great how the developers were directly tacking the challenge of constant changes in technology, such as the emergence of tablet computers and new HTML standards.  Tackling such an issue head on whilst at the same time trying to establish a community of active open source developers can certainly help to establish a sustainable long-term project.

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Inclusive Learning in Further and Higher Education

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 22 Feb 2012, 22:38

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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.

Introductions

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.

Panel discussion

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.

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Disability history month

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 9 Dec 2011, 10:40

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The second UK disability history month has run (or is currently running, at the time of writing) between 22 November and 22 December.  During this month I managed to attend two events.  I'm going to summarise both of them within this short post with the hope that it could be of interest to someone.

There are a number of reasons why I wanted to play a small part within the week.  The first is that over the last couple of years I've been involved with a research project that has been exploring how technology might be able to be used to make a difference to the lives of people with disability.  Secondly, I tutor on an Open University module that explores some of the strategies and approaches about how to best use technology and to make some aspects of learning and teaching as inclusive as possible.  The third perspective is one that is personal, since I am afflicted by a condition that can be considered as a disability under current legislation.

The first event I attended was held at the TUC headquarters in London.  This event was subtitled 'why we are failing disabled people' and addressed the subject of disability hate crime.  The second event was sponsored by the UCU, the University and College Union that represents the interests of lecturers and teachers within further and higher education.  I couldn't 'attend' this second event in person due to work commitments, but the event was recorded by the Open University.  (You might be able to access this presentation, but I'm unsure whether you can do this from beyond the boundaries of the university systems).  This second event was more about contexualising disability history and celebrating their civil rights achievements.

SCAPEGOAT, TUC headquarters, London

The main speaker for this event was Katharine Quarmby, a journalist who has done extensive research into disability hate crime, publishing a recent book on the subject entitled 'Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people'.  Katherine gave a powerful and shocking account of incidents of disability hate crime, a small number of which I remembered from media coverage.

During her research, she reported she studied over 100 cases.  Some of the crimes were perpetrated by people who were considered to be friends with a victim, so called 'mate crime'.  Katherine connected her presentation to both contemporary and historical issues.  The historical issue being the way that disability has been perceived, the contemporary relating to the perception towards enabling benefits, such as the disabled living allowance.

One point stood out for me, and this was that the reporting of this type of hate crime is on the increase, but another view is that perhaps those incidents that have been recorded may well be the tip of an iceberg.

The other main speaker of the day was Stephen Brookes, who is co-ordinator of the National disability hate crime network.  Stephen began with a definition which is 'disability hate crime is any criminal office which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a persons disability or perceived disability'. 

One slide that Stephen used, entitled 'we are not...' stood out for me.  It contained the words, 'more vulnerable than everyone else, so don't label us', 'the problem', 'in the way. It's not our fault for being there!'.  Stephen went on to present a couple of specific cases, and then emphasised the point that tackling the issue is the responsibility of everyone and many different authorities and organisations.

Stephen also mentioned a report that he has been involved with, which is entitled Inquiry into disability related harassment, which can be found on the Equality and Human Rights Commission website.

Towards the end of the day there was an hour long plenary session where members of the audience could address each other and the panel.  One of the points that I clearly remember is a delegate who introduced the term, 'disability hate incident' (I think I have remembered this correctly).  These are incidents of subtle discrimination through maliciousness, ignorance or carelessness.  It was argued that the incidence of these events are significantly higher than that of crimes, which are, of course, considered to be under reported.

This point really got me thinking about my own experiences, how it relates to the social model of disability (wikipedia) and how to facilitate change either within an institution or wider society.  Other issues that were raised were equally important, such as the issue of employment and the role that prejudice may play.

I won't say this event was one that was enjoyable, since that wouldn't be an appropriate word for it.  I would say that it was challenging, and from this perspective, it was entirely successful.

Celebrate Disability History Month

The second event that I attended was recorded.  As mentioned earlier, I was able to access a recording of a presentation by Richard Reiser, co-ordinator of the Disability History Month, made at the Open University on Monday 28 November 2011.

Richard gave a very clear presentation about how disability has been perceived throughout different periods of history.  Richard spoke about the time of ancient Greece and Rome, moving onto medieval period, towards the Elizabethan period, through the Enlightenment to the present day, whilst speaking about the Nazism and the role of asylums and associated legislation.

Richard then moved to present a powerful exposition of the disability rights movement.  Richard also made explicit reference to the notion of language, with a view to how the choice of language relates to perceptions throughout society.

Exploring and choosing appropriate language is related to education, and suggested that more needs to be done, especially if eight out of ten children who are disabled report bullying.  Richard concluded by saying that we need disability history month to provide a focal point to help us to understand common ground and to facilitate the change the perceptions.

Reflections

There was a lot packed into these two presentations, and credit must go to the organisers.  The first thing that struck me was the extent of union involvement, and the number of union activists that participated.  The materials that were distributed at the first event, were impressive, i.e. a booklet about the use of language, a booklet entitled 'a trade union guide to the law and good practice', and another booklet entitled, 'representing and supporting members with mental health problems at work'.

A number of different themes (over these two presentations) jump out at me.  The first is the notion of 'struggle'.  I remember a number of different metaphors being used to describe both the experiences and situation, such as 'the tip of the iceberg', and that people are involved in a 'flight' for equality.  Such words, I believe, are very apt, and reflect a relationship between disablism and other civil rights movements.

On the subject of metaphor and words, an important theme is, of course, is language and its use, purely because of the implicit meanings that innocuous words and phrases may convey.  The third and final issue relates to that of responsibility, responsibility in the terms of being able to challenge inappropriate views and behaviour of others.

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Supporting students with dyslexia

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 18 May 2018, 09:04

On Saturday 5 November I attended an Open University in London associate lecturer staff development event, held in the OU's offices in Camden.  I attended two sessions.  The first session was all about developments to the virtual learning environment, and the second event was all about how to best support students with dyslexia from a tutor's perspective.

This blog post is an edited set of notes from the second session.  I'm mainly blogging this event so I can share some of the themes with my H810 Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students group, but I also hope that these notes might be useful for other Open University associate lecturers who might accidentally stumble across them.

The supporting students with dyslexia session was facilitated by Lyn Beazley who works in the South East region, she also tutors with the university.  I also understand that Lyn is also a full member of an organisation called PATOSS which is an abbreviation for 'the professional association of teachers of students with specific learning difficulties'.

Introduction

Lyn began the session by setting the scene.  She introduced what dyslexia is by pointing us to a number of definitions.  The first one was by the British Dyslexia Association, which is, 'dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty which mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills' and that it is 'present at birth and is lifelong in its effects'.  This definition gave way to a bit of debate, which is likely to echo some of the debates within dyslexia studies itself.

The second definition was from someone called McLoughlin (cited by Tonnessen) who define developmental dyslexia as 'a genetically inherited and neurological determined inefficiency in working memory ... It has particular impact on verbal and written communication as well as on organisation, planning and adaptation to change'.

One of Lyn's slides entitled, 'a social model of dyslexia' echoes one of the topics within H810, namely, the different models of disability.  The key points that Lyn made was that the social model takes account of human diversity where difference is emphasised as opposed to deficit.  Furthermore, materials that are dyslexia-friendly are likely to be user friend (which echoes a research finding which says that accessible technology is technology that is also easy to use).  A final point was people who have dyslexia also have particular strengths.

Some of these strengths were considered to be visual thinking, entrepreneurial skills, vision, creativity and lateral thinking.  People with dyslexia face difficulties whilst studying, these include writing assignments, that it takes longer to process information, reduced confidence and self-esteem, concentration, reading effectively, writing (and also the structure of documents) and spelling.

Assessment

An important question is: what happens if you think a student might be dyslexic?  One thing that you can do is discuss things with a regional advisor who can offer some advice about what to do next.  This may initiate the process of dyslexia being formally diagnosed (or assessed, as it is otherwise known).  Assessment is something that is done by a trained assessor who is able to determine whether someone is dyslexic or whether there may be other differences that might have to be taken into account.

Lyn told us that during the assessment process, assessors measure IQ and study strengths and weaknesses of personal performance.  There are, of course, financial costs associated to assessment.  If it is done privately, the cost can be between three and four hundred pounds.  If a student is receiving financial support then the university may be able to cover the cost of some (if not all) of the assessment.  

Being recognised as dyslexic enables students to access to a range of different resources.  One part of the assessment process is to determine the nature of the difference (or its characteristics?)  Another part is to determine what technologies or support might be best suited to an individual student.  After determining whether a student is dyslexic a student may then be eligible for something called the Disabled Students Allowance (or DSA).  The DSA enables students to receive finances to enable the purchase of a computer which may be then used with assistive technologies, such as text to speech software, for instance.

One thing that I didn't know was the extent that students can be offered one to one personal support with a specialist dyslexia tutor.  Another point worth mentioning is that students might be able to make use of the alternative formats the Open University provides.  One of the most popular alternative format is the use of comb binding.  Comb binding is where the materials are bound in a slightly different way, allowing coloured overlays to be more easily put on top of each of the pages.  Also, comb bound study materials can be more easily scanned using assistive technologies, enabling the textual materials to be manipulated.  Another alternative format might be the provision of the materials in audio form.

One thing is certain: the assessment process takes time.  It can take quite a while for the Disabled Students Allowance to come through.  If a student starts the assessment process at the same time as starting a module, there is the potential that a student might not be able to keep up with the pace of study.  Even if assistive technology arrives on time students still have to master the practicalities of working with the equipment and developing a repertoire of learning strategies to most effectively make use of the technology.

This wasn't something that was mentioned in the session, but the Services for Disabled Students team do have a solution to this impasse, which is the provision of loan items.  If a student is working through the assessment process, it might be possible to loan some assistive technology items as an interim measure.

Debates

Lyn's session gave way to a number of debates, some of which relate directly to H810.  One of them linked to the notion of reasonable adjustments.  I also remember a reference to the recent Equality Act (institutions, of course, have an obligation to respond to the needs of students).  I also have memories of a short conversation about that more and more Open University materials are being made available only on-line.  Whilst this might make accessibility difficult in one sense, technology may enable materials to be potentially accessible to a wider audience.

Another interesting debate centred around the sharing of study and writing skills.  It was concluded that tutors should feel free to give guidance about how to structure documents and compose paragraphs.  Sometimes, it was argued, that sharing things that are obvious can really help people to get a better grip of what they have to do.  Such advice isn't only useful to students who have dyslexia - it can be useful to all students too.  General guidance about how to present arguments, compose paragraphs and structure essays has been incredibly useful during my own Open University study.

Summary

I've been attending Associate Lecturer staff development on and off for what must be over six years.  I still remember attending my first one, where I was overwhelmed by seeing so many people who collectively help to present a myriad of different subjects.  I sense that they try to do two key things: to give useful information and encourage you to reflect on your own practice and think about how you engage with those who are taking the module you are helping to present.  This event was no exception. 

When I was leaving the VLE session I heard someone say, 'I always get something out of these events'.  That is certainly the case.  When it comes to the second event, I've taken a note of a number of resources that some members of the Open University might be able to access (depending upon their own access permissions).

The first is a set of web pages entitled: tutor resources for disabled students.  We were also guided to a really useful document which is called Associate lecturer's guidelines for marking the work of students with dyslexia.  I had not seen this document before; new things are added to the tutor guidance pages all the time. 

Another useful link is, of course, the Skills for Study website (which can be found through the Teaching and Learning link on Tutorhome, which you will have access to if you just happen to be an Associate Lecturer). 

All in all, the general Associate Lecturer development day was useful as well as being fun and friendly.  It emphasised, to me, that there are many different types of resources that both tutors and students can draw upon to help the journey of studying.

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Distance Learning for Computing and ICT Workshop

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 3 Mar 2014, 18:47

A Higher Education Academy sponsored distance learning workshop for computing and ICT was held at the Open University on Thursday 20 October 2011.  The workshop addressed a number of different themes.  These included internationalisation and the delivery of modules to different countries, professionalization and industry, models of distance learning, the use of technology and its accessibility.

The day was divided up into a number of different sessions, and I'll do my best to summarise them.  I feel that blogging this event is going to be a little bit different from the previous times I have blogged HEA workshops since this time I was less of an observer and more of a participant.  This said, I'll do my best!

Introduction and keynote

The event was introduced by Professor Hugh Robinson, head of the department of Computing at the Open University.  Hugh briefly spoke about the history of the university and mentioned that Open means that students who enrol to courses do not necessarily have to have any qualifications.  This connected to one of the university's themes: to be open in terms of people, places and ideas.  Distance education enables education to be open in all these respects but it is apparent that due to the changes in the higher education sector, all institutions are to face challenges in the future.

Hugh's opening presentation gave way to Mike Richards keynote presentation about a new computing module entitled TU100, My Digital Life.  Mike described some of the main topic areas of this new module which will for a common entry point to a number of degrees.  This module addresses themes that are rather different to those that used to be on the computing curriculum, mostly due to the changes in technology and what is meant by a 'computer'.

Mike mentioned important subjects such as privacy and security, the notion of ubiquitous computing and what is meant by 'free', connecting to subject of open source software systems.  Mike went on to say that the TU100 module contains some hardware that might once have been known as a 'home experiment kit'.

In the case of TU100 this is in the form of a programmable microcontroller board which can be configured in a way to work with different types of measurements and share the results with other people over the internet.  Furthermore, the microcontroller (and connected software) can be developed using a visual programming language called Sense, which is a version of Scratch, a popular introductory programming environment developed by MIT.

Mike's presentation emphasised that distance education need not only begin and end with a virtual learning environment.  A distance education module can contain a rich set of resources such as video materials and physical equipment that can be used to facilitate both understanding and debate.  Mike emphasised the point that many issues that connect to the increasingly broad discipline of computing (broad because of its impact on so many other areas of human activity) is that some debates do not have right or wrong answers.

One thing is certain: technology has changed so many different aspects of our lives and will continue to do so in ways that we may not be able to expect.  It's my understanding that one of the aims of TU100 is to highlight and uncover different debates and help students to navigate them.  What was very clear is that computing education is so much more than just technology and getting it to do cool stuff.  It's essential to understand and to consider how technology affects so many different aspects of our lives.

Morning session

The first presentation in the morning session was by Quan Dang from London Metropolitan University.  Quan's presentation was entitled, 'blending virtual support into traditional module delivery to enhance student learning'.  Quan emphasised how synchronous tools, such as on-line text chat could be used to create virtual 'drop in' sessions outside of core teaching hours to enable students to gain regarding subjects such as computer programming.  Quan's presentation was very though provoking since it made me ask myself the question, 'what different tools and practices might we potentially adopt (at a distance) to help student get to grips with difficult issues such as debugging'.  Debugging is something (in my humble opinion) that you can best learn by seeing how different people consume elements of the programming tools that are available through development environments.  Getting a feeling of the different strategies that can be applied is something that can only be gained through experience, and technology certainly has the potential to facilitate this.

The following presentation, by Amanda Banks from the University of Manchester, was entitled 'advanced professional education in computer science'.  Amanda spoke at some length about how a tool such as MediaWiki could be used to enable students to create useful materials that could be used with others.  This presentation was also thought provoking: Wiki's can certainly be used within on-line modules to enable to student to generate materials for their own study, but Amanda's presentation made me consider the possibility that wiki-hosted material can be used between different module presentations as a way to facilitate debates about different ideas.

The final presentation was by Philip Scown, from Manchester Metropolitan University Business School.  Philip's thought provoking presentation was entitled, 'the unseen university: full-flexible degrees enabled by technology'. Philip argued that technology can potentially allow different models of studying and learning, such as modules which don't have start dates, for instance.  I can't do justice to Philip's talk within this space, so I do encourage you to have a look on the HEA website where I understand that his presentation slides are hosted.

First afternoon session

The afternoon session was started by Mark Ratcliffe, discipline lead for computing at the Higher Education Academy.  Mark outlined the role of the HEA and then went on to describe funding opportunities and the role of a HEA academic associates.  Mark then directed us to the HEA website for more information.

Distance education is one of those terms that can mean different things to different people, and this difference was, in part, highlighted by Mariana Lilley's first presentation of the afternoon that had the title, 'online, tutored e-learning and blended: three modalities for the delivery of distance learning programmes in computer science'.  Mariana's presentation also represented a form of case study of a programme that is presented internationally by the University of Hertfordshire.  It was interesting to hear about the application of different tools, such as Elluminate (now Blackboard Collaborate), QuestionMark Perception and VitalSource Bookshelf.  This suggested to me the point that distance learning is now facilitated by a mix of different tools and made me question whether we have (collectively) identified best (or most effective) mix.  Institutions have to necessarily explore technology in combination with pedagogic practice, and sharing case studies is certainly one way to understand something about what is successful.

Mariana's presentation was nicely complemented by Paul Sant's (in collaboration with his colleague Malcolm Sant) who was from the University of Bedfordshire.  Paul's presentation was entitled, 'distance learning in higher education - an international case study'.  Paul identified a number of challenges which included, 'how can we ensure that distance students remain engaged? How can we offer support in a way that meets their schedule and requirements?', and 'How can we ensure that the work performed by students meets their potential?'  Paul mentioned tools such as the Blackboard VLE and synchronous tools by Horizon Wimba.  Paul's presentation also helped to expose the subject of partnerships with international institutions.

Second afternoon session

The final session of the day was broadly intended to focus upon the needs of the student from two different perspectives.  Steve Green from the Accessibility Research Centre, Teeside University kicked off this session by describing 'studying accessibility and adaptive technologies using blended learning and widgets'.  Accessibility is an important subject since it enables students to make use of learning resources irrespective of how or where they may be studying (both in terms of their physical and technical environment), but also widens the way in which resources may be consumed, taking into account learners with additional requirements.  Steve described how students create accessible widgets and their evaluation.

Steve's talk reminded me of a question that I was asked not so long ago, which is, given that distance legislation is now an international endeavour and the development of accessibility is supported by equality legislation, where do the boundaries lie in terms of offering support to students?  The answer may depend on the issue of how partnerships are developed and function.

The final presentation of the day, entitled 'finding a foundation for flexibility: learner centred design' was by Andrew Pyper from the University of Hertfordshire.  The underlying theme is that institutions need to understand the needs of their learners to best support them.  Tools such as learner centred design, which is known to the interaction design and human-computer interaction communities, have the potential to create rich pictures which then potential guide the development of both learning experiences and technology alike.

Plenary

Towards the end of the day there was a bit of time to hold an open discussion about some of the different themes that the presentations had exposed.  Many thanks to Amanda, Philip and Andrew for taking part.  Some of the themes that came to my mind were the issues of  tools and technology, internationalisation, industry and employability, and student skills.  Points included that we need to be careful about our assumptions of the technology that students might have.  Another important point is that one way to differentiate between different institutions might be in terms of the technologies that they use (and also how they use it).

We were also reminded about something called the Stanford Machine Learning course, which provoked some debate about 'free' (which relates back to Mike Richard's earlier TU100 presentation), and we were all directed towards the QAA Distance Learning precepts (many thanks to Richard Howley for bringing this to our attention).

Summary

All in all, it was a fun day!  There were loads of questions asked following each of the sessions and much opportunity for talk and debate in between.  I have to confess I was very relieved when the tea, coffees and sandwiches arrived on time, so thanks are extended to the Open University catering group.

It's tough, for me, to say what the highlight of the day was due to the number of very interesting thought provoking presentations.  I certainly feel that there is always an opportunity to learn lessons from each other; it is clearly apparent that there are many different ways to approach distance education.  Whilst there are many differences between institutions, similar issues are often grappled with, such as how to best make use of technology and ensure that students are offered the best possible level of support.

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