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London AL development conference: April 2019

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On Saturday 27 April, I went to the London Associate Lecturer development conference which took place at the London School of Economics. What follows is a short blog summary of the event, where I highlight some of what I thought were the key take away points.

This conference was a busy event; there were six parallel sessions. Some of the sessions covered important themes, such as the new tutor contract, supporting students with English as a second language, using the OU library, and supporting students in secure environments (such as in prisons, or in care institutions) and more.

Keynote: polar science and engagement

The opening keynote was from Professor Mark Brandon, @icey_mark a polar oceanographer, who is responsible for co‐ordinating and leading free learning and broadcast across the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Faculty, as well as being an associate dean for Enterprise and External and Engagement. 

Before taking on these roles, he carried out almost three years of field work as a as a researcher in Antarctica for the British Antarctic Survey, and as part of the US Antarctic Program. Mark has also been a Principle Academic Advisor for the BBC Frozen Planet series and was a member of the Blue Planet II academic team, and is working on Frozen Planet II.

Mark’s presentation was rich with media clips, reflecting his position in the university, and the university’s 50th anniversary. On this point, he commented on a recent BBC 4 documentary that celebrated the university’s 50th birthday.

Mark played YouTube clips from S102, an introduction to science module, giving us examples of some of the very first OU productions where students were sent large home experiment kits. He took us on a journey from the past, to the present, sharing clips of OU/BBC co-productions such as Frozen Planet  (YouTube), Blue Planet II (YouTube). A notable comment was about the reach of the university. Following a TV series, 550,000 posters were sent across the country.

We were also given examples of how digital media and IT can be used to make learning accessible, explicitly drawing on S111 Questions in Science (Open University) where students could using Google Earth to look for evidence of Penguins from space. If I’ve noted this down properly, this has led to situations where students can now use real time satellite data.

Looking towards the future, we were told about some of the programmes that had connections to other faculties, or were currently under development, reflecting the breadth of the disciplines that are studied by OU students.

Throughout Mark’s talk, there were nods towards the importance of the associate lecturer (in fact, I think Mark also said that he used to be one!). There were two quotes that I noted down. These were: “associate lecturers are fundamentally important”, and “you are the difference”.

Enabling student employability and career progression

The second introductory presentation was by Marie Da Silva, from the university careers service. Marie’s talk connected to a number of university abbreviations. Two I noted down were, CES: Careers and employability services, and EECP: Enhanced employability and career progression.

An important point was that most students are motivated by career aims, which means that employability skills is something that the university takes seriously and addresses in a number of different ways.

In terms of curriculum, the university has a new employability framework which is being embedded within the curriculum with help from some associate lecturers who are mapping curriculum (qualifications) against the frameworks.

The university also has some student-employer connectivity projects, something called OU online talent connect, and even runs something called virtual career fairs. We were told about the university careers hub www.open.ac.uk/careers which can offer different types of services, such as one to one careers interview, something called a CV builder, and 100s of webinars, guides and workbooks. 

It’s important to remember that over 300k students and alumni can access the university careers service. It was interesting to hear that 25% of referrals were from ALs.

During Marie’s presentation, I remembered the recent OU careers conference (blog summary) that I went to a few weeks earlier. Another dimension was that research and scholarship was also another activity that was carried out in the university.

Session 1: Educating everyone: overcoming barriers to success

The first session that I attended (as a conference delegate) was by Rehana Awan who tutors on access modules, and Jay Rixon from LTI academic (which, I think, is an abbreviation from Learning and teaching innovation).

Rehana and Jay got us all playing a board game; a version of snakes and ladders. The snakes were learning barriers (a student might be struggling to understand the academic standards, dealing with exam nerves), and the ladders were learning enablers (such as speaking to a SST, or getting an additional support session from a tutor).

During this session, we were directed to different resources, such as a site called Can I do it? There was also an OpenLearn resource called Am I ready to be a distance learner? (OpenLearn).

Rehana is an ‘access’ tutor. Access courses help students to become familiar with what it means to become a learner again, and it represents a way to return back to study.

There are three different access courses, reflecting three different broad areas of study:

  • Arts and languages
  • People, work and society (law, business, psychology and childhood)
  • Science, technology and maths 

Each access course lasts for 30 weeks and requires students to study up to 9 hours per weeks. All students are provided with 1 to 1 telephone tutorials with a tutor. Fee waivers can be used with access modules, which means that two thirds of students will be eligible to study for free. 

One of the things that I learnt from this session was that the language of assessment has recently changed to make it simpler and easier to understand, since the language of assessment can exclude non-traditional learners. I also learnt that students were sent a leaflet about IT: how can I get online?

The final part of the session had a slightly different feel to it. We were introduced to the idea of using of maps to explain and visualise ideas, and the use of storytelling to aid communication. There was a link to an organisation called Sea Salt Learning

Rehana and Jay gave us a challenge: draw a map of potential barriers to study. I draw a map of potential barriers and challenges that TM470 students could face. The idea was that map drawing and sketching might be an activity that could be used with our own students.

Session 2: Inclusive Practice

The second presentation of the day was facilitated by Jo Mapplebeck, one of the university’s SPLD advisor. (SPLD being an abbreviation for: specific learning difficulty, and this addresses things like dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, and ADHD).  Jo’s session had the full title of: ‘making the most of your student’s disability profiles to better support your students’ but it was pretty informal, and represented a useful opportunity to share experiences with each other.

During the session, we discussed how we best support students who may have disclosed that they are on the autism spectrum. I remembered a phrase from a disabled student services conference that I attended some years ago, which went:  ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, which means you’ve met one person with autism’. This ultimately means that different students need different adjustments. This led to a discussion about the information that was presented on student profiles, and how that information could be a useful way to begin discussions.

A useful tip from one tutor was: ‘if I can’t get them on the phone, I text them’. Another important point was: if you encounter a challenging student call your line manager (staff tutor), do what you can to protect your boundaries, encourage the student to speak with a student support advisor.

An important message from Jo’s session was about the role that inclusive practice can play in the student experience. If the university (and tutors) mainstream the things that make the difference for all students, all students can potentially benefit from those adjustments. A simple example of this is that a video transcript might be useful for a student with a hearing impairment, but it could also be used as a searchable textual resources that can be used to introduce important module concepts.

Different colleagues within the university make different adjustments, i.e. module teams, the disability support team can guide students to different resources, and associate lecturers can work with each other (and university colleagues) to present resources (particularly tutorial resources) in different formats.

After the session, I picked up a couple of useful handouts that Jo had provided. One had the title: top tips for supporting students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs). Some of the top tips were: read the disability profile, use the student’s preferred mode of communication, make early proactive contact, read a document called ‘dyslexia marking guidelines’, check if students understand the TMA questions, use simple language, avoid asking the student questions in tutorials, allow students to record tutorials if they need to, and be empathetic. 

Session 3: The new basics of TutorHome

One of the final sessions of the day was facilitated by yours truly. The session, which was all about the TutorHome website, was advertised in the conference brochure in a really confusing way: it had the above title, but had an abstract that related to the subject of ‘critical incidents’. Thankfully, everyone who came to the session wanted to know about the TutorHome website (which was what I had planned for!)

The session was designed to be as interactive as possible: I was the driver of the computer that was used to make a presentation, and I asked all the participants to tell me where to go and where to click. During the session, I remember that we looked at following parts of the TutorHome website, amongst others:

  • How to customise the front screen by adding useful links
  • How to customise the tutor dashboard, by adding boxes and links
  • How to find different module websites
  • How to look at a summary of some of the communications between a student and the student support team
  • How to find a tool that lets tutors look at different stats that relate to different modules
  • How to look at the Associate Lecturer Activity review, and what the different parts were
  • How to find the study skills resource links to useful PDF booklets that we could pass onto students.

The session was an hour and a quarter long, but it felt as if we only had just got going and had started to scratch the surface of the TutorHome site. An interesting thing about this kind of session is that I usually learn quite a lot too.

Reflections

One of the real pleasures of this event was that the AL development team trusted me sufficiently to welcome everyone and introduce our keynote speaker, and our careers speaker, both of whom did a great job. If was going to change anything (to the bit that I did), I would have made a bit of space for a really short Q&A session, but since everything ran exactly (and perfectly!) to the schedule, there wasn’t the time for this.

In some respects, it’s hard to choose a highlight from this conference, since there were so many great parts to the day: there was Mark’s presentation which emphasised the role of broadcasting and the reach of the university, there was Rehana’s and Jay’s presentation about the importance of access courses and that they got us thinking about tutorial activities. Jo’s session about inclusive practice gave us a space to share experiences, and the TutorHome session was fun (since everyone used the TutorHome site in slightly different ways).

Putting the sessions to one side, one of the most important aspects of these conference is, simply, the opportunity to chat to each other. In doing so, there’s opportunities to share experiences, learn from each other, and find support. When everyone is working at a distance, these types of events are (in my view) really important.

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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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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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Inclusive Learning in Further and Higher Education

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

Photograph of the Open University

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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