Can digital learning create an inclusive classroom that combines diversity and awareness?

The Equality Act of 2010 ensured that all UK universities provide learning support to disabled learners to include note taking, special equipment, interpreters, and extra time in tutorials and exams. However, according to Dr. Demetra Katsifli, Senior Director of Industry Management at Blackboard, the key to improving accessibility isn’t just adding additional services, it’s addressing the learning content itself, the way it’s shared, and making sure that existing materials and tools accommodate different learning abilities. She believes that, alongside a change in social perceptions of disability, there is now a golden opportunity to harness digital learning to create an inclusive classroom combining diversity, awareness, and improved learning opportunities for all. 

Accessibility through a digital learning environment is one of the hot topics in education. However, people think about accessibility in different ways. According to Jisc, a not-for-profit organisation supporting UK education, accessibility in education involves not only designing systems to optimise access, but also reducing and overcoming the barriers that might occur in areas like digital content, teaching and learning activities, and assessments.

At present, the main drivers of accessibility initiatives are the needs of students with disabilities. While supporting these students is an absolute must, I believe it’s time to think less about accessibility as only related to disability and more about accessibility as the cornerstone of an inclusive learning environment that focuses on learning outcomes for everyone regardless of how each student works towards the end result.

To get additional support, students need to declare their disability. However, some of the challenges they are facing may not be reported or can go unnoticed (think about colour vision deficiency). In other cases, which are not linked to disabilities, the content and the tools become less accessible due to different or non-traditional learning styles. An inclusive learning approach would help encompass all these learning needs at once and the resulting benefits can be leveraged by all students. For example, creating alternative versions of a document, such as Semantic HTML, audio, ePub, and electronic Braille, will certainly help students with visual impairments, but they can also benefit auditory learners or non-traditional learners who prefer to access their lessons by audio, on the go. The same can be said about video content. Adding closed captions to a video can help students with hearing impairments, but also those who speak English as a second language and those who are finding a particular topic difficult to understand.

Sometimes, it is not even necessary to create something new; it is only required to think creatively and find alternative uses of existing technology, like virtual collaborative learning tools. These are usually deployed to engage students and provide them with additional learning opportunities throughout their participation in lessons, their assignments and during revision. However, online collaboration becomes an invaluable solution, for example, when students are long-term hospitalised or for students with social impairments to make them feel part of the classroom.

Adopting an inclusive approach requires thorough planning and implementation. As we have seen, it is not only about adding accessible elements to existing technology, but also about working from the outset to develop a learning environment that benefits the widest group.

How are institutions coping with these new requirements? Blackboard has hosted a number of webinars about accessibility, involving experts such as Professor Helen Petrie, Equality Champion for Computer Science at the University of York and Alistair McNaught, Accessibility and Inclusion Subject Specialist at Jisc. It’s clear that, to date, institutions have struggled to keep up with the diverse demands of accessible education.

“People have put a lot of money, effort and thought into physical accessibility at universities,” says the University of York’s Professor Petrie, “but, strangely, the universities’ digital environment has often lagged behind.” Petrie sees the issue of improving digital access as much more multi-faceted than physical access, with the challenges being complex and not easily understood. “When we talk about access it is often perceived as a unified concept, but students have so many different needs and what might be accessible for one person might not be for another.”

Creating a more accessible learning environment requires the removing of existing barriers as well as making a cultural shift towards the so-called social model of disability. This model emphasises that the barriers to participation and success for disabled students (and by extension students with different learning abilities) do not come from the students themselves, but from society and its institutions, systems and processes. It’s an important change of perspective and it can only come from a high-level review of teaching practices, pedagogy and class content. Alistair McNaught from Jisc supports this approach and believes that issues need to be viewed differently. “We look at things the wrong way around,” he says. “Many see the student having a problem…but would the student have the problem if the material had been created with better accessibility in the first place?”

Focusing on the student is, of course, the main objective for any accessibility initiative but, as Professor Petrie reminds us, accessibility is just as relevant for educators as well. “Lots of emphasis is put on e-access for students, but we should also consider staff,” she says. A well-equipped inclusive classroom would save time on teaching preparation and delivery. Free the technology – free the teacher. Many university teachers are given little notice that a student with a disability will be joining their class, leaving them no time to prepare properly or amend their learning content accordingly. They do not have the time or support to amend their learning plans in a dynamic way.

It is clear that to truly support every student, higher education institutions will need systems and processes that will adapt to every eventuality. It’s never too early to take accessibility into account and consultation should take place during the planning stages for a course and well before a technology is implemented. Perhaps the key for any university to be truly successful with inclusive classrooms, be they physical or virtual, is to strike the right balance between the technical and the holistic provision to give every learner every opportunity to succeed and every teacher the support they require to manage their students’ needs.


Author: Dr. Demetra Katsifli
Senior Director of Industry Management at Blackboard