I've have a fun couple of days. I recently attended the Open University's 2010 Disabled Student Services conference. Okay, I admit, I probably gate crashed the event since I'm not a member of the DSS group, but it was certainly a very worthwhile thing to do. On more than one occasion colleagues said to me, 'it's great to have someone like you here; we certainly need more faculty at these events'.
The overall objectives of the conference were to develop greater awareness of issues affecting the sector, to gain information about developments within the University, gain a greater understanding of the needs of specific disabilities, work towards more standardised delivery of services and, of course, to find out what each other does.
For me, this conference was all about learning about the different roles that people have, and what information needed to be shared to ensure that all our learners get the best possible service.
Tuesday 9th November
A conference is not really a conference without a keynote. The first day kicked off with a keynote by Will Swann who is responsible for the development, promotion and evaluation of services to support the teaching of students.
The part of Will's presentation that jumped out at me was a concise presentation of the potential ramifications of changes to Higher Education funding. One thing was clear: things are going to change, but we're not quite sure exactly how they will change. The changes may affect those students who wish to study for personal development as opposed to choosing to study for purely economic and career development reasons. Underneath is an interesting philosophical debate about what higher education is good for. Essentially, Will asked us to consider the challenge of how to maintain effective provision of services in a world where change is a certainty.
Following the keynote, we were led toward the first set of workshops. I attended a workshop that perhaps had the longest title: Exceptional examination arrangements and special circumstances, policies and procedures. The event was facilitated by Ilse Berry and Peter Taylor. Peter is the chair of the subcommittee which makes decisions about very many things exam related, such as whether individual students may be able to defer exams (due to changes in personal circumstances), or whether alternative examination arrangements could be organised.
I got a lot out of this first workshop: I gained more of an understanding of the procedures and policies, and the effect that the Disability Discrimination Act (now the Equality Act) has on these policies. There was some debate about whether everyone knows everything they should know to best advise our students. There was some discussion about Associate Lecturers, and I feel that I need to ask whether it might be possible to offer some internal staff development training to those who most closely work with students.
I also learnt quite a bit about the range of different examination arrangements that can be put in place. I never knew that an exam could be taken over an extended period of time, for example. It was all very thought provoking and showed me how much we try to collectively help.
I was unable to attend the afternoon event due to a meeting with a colleague in another department, but I was able to return to the conference in time to hear one of the student sessions. Alex Wise, a student with dyslexia gave a very clear description of some of the challenges that he has faced during his educational career. He also described some of the strategies and adaptations he both uses and has discovered.
Alex's presentation underlined a number of different points for me. Firstly, the complexity and uniqueness of conditions such as dyslexia (I briefly studied the very broad subject of language processing when I was a postgrad student, but I was sorely missing a 'personal' perspective). Secondly, the fact that effective strategies may only be discovered through a combination of hard won experience and trial and error. A final point is that strategies and tools need not necessarily be high tech.
Wednesday 10th November
The second day (much like the first) was a delight. In true academic style, I duly forgot which workshop I had signed up for, and was directed towards a session entitled, 'Sensory impairment: science course for screen readers, and D/eaf students and Openings courses - access for all?', presented by Jeff Bashton and Julie Morrison. I was later to discover that it was two workshops for the price of one. I had certainly chosen wisely.
Jeff works as a visual impairment advisor for the Open University. He introduced the science project he is working on (which is a work in progress), and then he had a treat in store for all delegates. One by one, we all donned blindfolds that Julie had given us, and we began to study two tactile diagrams (using only our touch).
I found both tactile diagrams unfathomable (which is, pretty much, an understatement!) I could do nothing more than explore the boundaries of each diagram and get a rough understanding about its size and shape (and how the different elements were related spatially). I couldn't make a jump from lines and bumps through to understanding a picture as a whole. This, of course, was one of the points. The tactile diagrams that I was presented with proved to be totally confusing without accompanying auditory descriptions.
Julie 'talked us through' each image (using our fingers!) When I removed my blindfold, I was surprised by what I saw - it bore hardly any relationship to what I thought I was 'seeing'.
During the second part of the workshop Julie spoke about her with the British Sign Language, where she presented a small number of case studies to highlight the challenges that BSL users might face when trying to study. To BSL users, English is, of course, a second language. Julie's overview of the history of deaf education (and the role that Alexander Graham Bell played) was illuminating. Thanks Julie!
This second workshop ended with a demonstration of how tough it can be to understand digital materials. Taking a particularly accessible course as an example, Julie showed us a video without sound (it was an interview which had no subtitles of signing). We then had a look at the transcript of the video. The transcript contained all the peculiarities of expression that you find whenever you write down spoken language. It was briefly considered that perhaps different learners may benefit from different versions of the same materials, which is one of the ideas embedded within the EU4ALL project I worked on for a couple of years.
A fabulous afternoon...
I struggled to give a name to the section of the conference where the delightful and charming Francesca Martinez came to talk to us for an hour or so. It was only after just under a week of wondering did I come up with this final subheading.
I'm not joking; Francesca had us all rolling in the isles of the conference hall with laughter with a delicious mixture of political and observational stories. There was, however, a serious tone that resonated clearly with the objectives of the conference: everyone is connected by a common thread of humanity regardless of who we are and what personal circumstances we face.
Francesca is the best kind of comedian; one who makes us think about ourselves and the absurdities that we face. I, for one, ended the day thinking to myself, 'I need to seize the day more'. And seizing the day can, of course, mean making time to find out about new things (and having fun too, of course!) Linking this to studying, it is more than possible to find an abundance of fun in learning and maintain optimism about the way in which the fun present may potentially give rise to a fabulous future.
So, what were the overriding themes that I took away from the conference? The first one was communication: we all need to talk to each other because internal policies (as well as external legislation) are subject to perpetual change and evolution. Talk is an eternal necessity (which is what I continue to try to tell my colleagues when I sneak off to the cafe area...)
The second theme is that of information: advisors as well as students need information to make effective decisions about whether or not to take a course of study. Accessibility, it was stated, wasn't just a matter of making sure that materials are available in different formats. It also relates to whether or not materials can be study-able too, and this goes back to whether, for example, individual learning activities.
The final theme relates to challenges that are inherent within the changing political and economic climate. Whilst education is priceless, it always has a financial cost. Different ways to pay for education has the potential to affect the decision making of those who may wish to study for a wide range of different reasons (and not just to 'get a better job').
Consider, for example, a hypothetical potential student (who is incidentally fabulous) who might just 'try out' a module just to find out if he or she likes it, who then goes on to discover they are more than capable of degree level study. A stumbling block to access is, of course, always going to be cost. As mentioned in the conference keynote, there will be the need for creative solutions to ensure that all students are continued to be presented with equal opportunities to study.
The DSS conference has shown, to me, how much work goes behind the scenes (and how much still needs to be done) to ensure equal opportunity to study remains a reality for all.