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.
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’
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.