Funding changes in Scottish FE sector prompt Margaret McKay to reflect on the wider opportunities for colleges to embrace digital inclusion in widenening participation…
A review of funding to support disabled students in FE colleges in Scotland was undertaken last academic year (2015-2016). Engaging with a wide range of stakeholder groups, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) canvassed staff and students about how the existing funding model (previously known as Extended Learning Support) could be improved. As a result the funding methodology will change and an Access and Inclusion Fund will be created. The purpose of this will be to supplement core funding to promote an inclusive college environment and to support inclusive practices in teaching, ICT and welfare. FE colleges in Scotland will be expected to produce an Access and Inclusion Strategy demonstrating their inclusive practices, investment in their staff and college resource.
The review acknowledges that institutions have evolved significantly in their capacity to support students with disabilities. According to SFC, claims for funding to support disabled students have trebled in the 10 year period from 2004/05 to 20014/2015. They recognise that the focus on a medical model is not representative of the nature of support offered by FE colleges across the country, and value the wide spectrum of support provided to learners who do not fit into traditional disability categories. The new funding model signals a more embedded approach, and one that challenges institutional barriers within an institution rather than placing the ‘problem’ with the learner.
Widening the net
Specific support for individual students with disclosed disabilities will continue. The review endorses the fact that there can be much to gain where inclusive practice is embedded and mainstreamed across institutions. The days where disability support staff are perceived to have sole responsibility for supporting students with disabilities are in the past.
In terms of assistive technologies there are fewer instances where software to support disabled students are found located in dedicated rooms for the exclusive use of specified learners. Instead institutions are unpacking the potential that enabling technology tools (such as text to speech, word prediction, mind mapping and other similar enabling technologies) can yield for all learners.
Being a digitally inclusive organisation however is far more than simply providing access to assistive software and apps:
It’s about working towards a point where all staff regardless of their role understand the importance of creating information that is accessible and inclusive.
Where teaching staff are confident in using digital technologies to offer flexible and alternative ways of delivering the curriculum.
Where learning technologists understand principles of accessible practice and promote and encourage the use of learning and teaching tools to empower all learners.
It’s about having a library service whose staff are comfortable in showing students how to use apps and software to personalise the way they access information, and library systems that are accessible for students who use assistive technologies.
This is all underpinned by IT networks that engage with other parts of the organisation to address the impact of their development on different user groups (especially disabled students), and who work with others to provide access to enabling technologies on all computers across the institution.
Embedding digital inclusion into your Access and Inclusion Strategy
In order to ensure that these practices are implemented, embedded and joined it’s important to adopt a structural approach by threading accessibility into strategy and policy. The question is this; what will this look like in practice in your own organisation, and how do you document (and evidence) this in your Access and Inclusion Strategy? Julia Taylor provides some useful pointers in her blog ‘Turning Inclusive Policy into Accessible Practice’.
When drafting your Access and Inclusion Strategy it’s worth reflecting on where your institution is in terms of its accessibility maturity, and to consider how it addresses the following aspects of digital inclusion:
- Delivering course content in an interactive and multi-sensory way enhances learning for students who struggle with text. For example ensuring transcripts/captions are available to augment audio and video can benefit learners with sensory barriers and also many other students such as those with English as an additional language.
- Are there policies in place to ensure that all information (including course content) is accessible in order to reach as wide an audience as possible? Then staff know what is valued and expected and they will plan accordingly. Students will know what they are entitled to and everyone will know how to access support.
- Are there CPD opportunities for all staff to help support their knowledge and practice? As well as staff knowing how to create accessible material, free add-ons within everyday systems such as the speak selected text feature in Word or Office Mix and Sway in PowerPoint provide excellent ways of making content more engaging. Learning technologists have a pivotal role to play in introducing and supporting the use of engaging technologies.
Some of the most effective solutions in an organisation are the most underestimated, and many of the technologies and tools we use every-day if used to their potential, offer real possibilities.
- Is your VLE used purely as a repository for documents or does it offer interactive, engaging and accessible content?
- Does your e-book platform allow learners to personalise the way they access it? Do staff in your organisation know and understand the inclusivity opportunities that exist within technologies?
- Does your organisation encourage and support widespread use of mobile devices? Personal devices with personalised apps can support independence and differentiation. Rich media and digitally diverse resources will encourage engagement for the widest range of learning styles and needs.
- Does your IT/network provide access to assistive technologies (commercial tools where site licenses have been purchased), free/open source productivity tools, add-ons for web browsers or support roaming profiles for accessibility?
- Adopting a strategic approach is a good way to improve cost efficiency, support quality assurance and to avoid risk to reputation. This relies on top down institutional approaches with buy in from senior leadership teams. Building inclusivity into all aspects of quality criteria and performance review ensures that inclusivity underpins practice.
- Does your procurement procedures consider the accessibility of e-resources? Purchasing more accessible systems reduces the cost of supporting learners who struggle to access content, or having to adapt and retro-fixing inaccessible resources.
- Does your organisation widely promote the use of enabling technologies such as text to speech, colour masking, word prediction, mind mapping and other similar enabling technologies?
- Giving all learners the skills to adapt and personalise the way they access learning encourages personal control and independence. For example being able to save text to MP3 allows students to listen to content which can be paused, replayed, revisited. Providing learners with the appropriate technologies provides the opportunity for them to articulate their knowledge in writing, by video or by podcast.
- Are staff development opportunities in place to support this knowledge sharing?
The impact for learners?
Pulling the threads of strategy and practice together can help promote positive changes in the digital landscape. What will this look like at a grassroots level, and what impact might it have on a practical level to learners?
“The prospectus and the college website were really user friendly and easy to access online. Although there was a lot of information it was chunked into small sections and I was and I was able to magnify the text”
“When we were shown how to use the learning platform at the beginning of our course the whole class were shown the built in accessibility features and how they could help us. It was great because it made me feel less awkward about having to ask for help with this, and interestingly when chatting to some of my fellow students I realised that they found them really helpful too”
“Our course tutor explained that all the college computers have text to speech software and explained why this might help with our learning. I had been shown this same software at school but ignored it because I didn’t want to be different from my pals. Now a lot of my college friends are using it which is great because I don’t feel any different”
“Information on the learning platform explains how to view headings on long Word and PDF documents and provides links to text to speech tools. This is great especially when my concentration isn’t too great”
“The library staff are really helpful and provide me with some great hints and tips about apps that can help me manage my studying better”
“I was a bit concerned when I heard that my construction course would have a lot of written work as part of the programme. I shouldn’t have worried because my lecturer has said that I can record what I want to say rather than write it down”
“Although it is nerve racking, our stonemasonry lecturer videos us and uses this to offer feedback on where we can improve”
“I’ve downloaded a few accessibility apps on my tablet device but didn’t realise that there were so many wonderful built in support features to help me until I met with my learning support tutor”