While a virtual learning environment (VLE) is a vital resource for all students, it can also be an effective assistive technology for disabled students allowing them to be more independent learners.
Getting the best use from such technology is dependent on the ability of lecturers to be creative and innovative. Teaching staff with good digital skills can have as much of a positive impact on the progress of disabled students as the quality of the specialist support on offer.
As far back as 2010, Ofsted research identified that where the best teaching was noted, “the need for excessive additional interventions was reduced, enabling the most specialist staff to have more time to provide additional support for the smaller group of…young people who were the most in need”.
Inspiring best practice
Jisc’s accessibility and inclusion specialists visit member organisations up and down the UK giving their advice, not only to help members comply with legal obligations to support disabled students, but also to inspire best practice in this area. They cover elements including the website and prospectus, but here we concentrate on the attributes of the VLE.
One of the benefits of being a member of Jisc is that best practice can be easily shared across the sector, so we’ve collated a few examples of how VLEs have been put to good use for the benefit of all students.
1. A range of media
Different media suit different learners, so, when collecting information on the VLE, teachers should include a range of media and ensure that each is as accessible as possible.
For example, Word documents or pdfs should be easily accessible via the navigation pane or bookmark panel respectively. Podcasts and videos should have accompanying transcripts or key point summaries.
Bishop Aukland College's media-rich VLE
Glasgow Kelvin College's use of video
Glasgow Kelvin College presents a video-based introduction to support services on the VLE and its website. Accurate captions/subtitles are embedded as a core feature rather than less accurate auto-generated captions.
2. Step-by-step learning
It may be obvious to teachers how one topic leads to another, but it may not be obvious to all learners, especially those from diverse educational or cultural backgrounds or neurodiverse students.
Use the VLE to make links to prior learning, or to build complex ideas step-by-step. The VLE should be a story, not a store cupboard.
The University of Westminster's weekly resources
The University of Westminster's construction technology and innovation course has clearly identified week-by-week resource collections, with an overview of the content.
The University of East London's traffic light system
The University of East London sports therapy skills course has a simple but highly effective traffic light system to help students identify requirements for different outcomes.
3. Clear language
Ensure assignments are accompanied by plain English marking criteria.
Exemplify not just model answers, but weak answers as well. This is especially important for those who lack confidence, or come from diverse backgrounds. A range of model answers related to the marking scripts helps all students develop metacognition.
The University of Staffordshire's table of tasks
The University of Staffordshire’s course - introduction to law and practice - has very clear expectations that involve both self-assessment and reflective journaling.
Anglia Ruskin University's useful announcements
Anglia Ruskin University's digital marketing communications course uses the announcements feature in the VLE to reinforce deadlines, provide feedback and disseminate opportunities.
4. Active learning
Use the VLE creatively so that students don’t merely consume content, but they adapt, improve and critique it, too. Creative tasks play to the skills of different students. For example, a student with dyslexia or ADHD may struggle with passive consumption of reading lists yet excel in active tasks that demand more than simple note-taking.
North Shropshire College's interactive activities
North Shropshire College's anatomy and physiology in sport module makes elegant use of Word documents to create active drag-and-drop exercises from what might otherwise have been passive handouts.
Glasgow Clyde College's collaborative podcast
5. Collaborative learning
Most VLEs provide tools for learners to work together on discussion threads. Alternatively, link out to external collaborative tools like Google Docs/Slides/Spreadsheets, or Office tools. Collaborative tasks can develop peer support networks, especially if the groups are created by the tutor, not chosen by students, which can be isolating for some. Tutor-allocated groups can help include students with disabilities, anxiety issues etc, and collaborative work allows disabled students to play to their strengths. For example, a deaf student may be good at research or organisation, but feel vulnerable when making presentations.
The University of Wolverhampton's discussion forum
The University of Wolverhampton's song writing course uses a discussion forum to engage students in group work on song analysis.
5. Reflective learning
Give students confidence by using feedback effectively. This might include generic feedback on assignment submissions, self-testing opportunities, discussion-list reflection or links to external blogs for reflective posts. This benefits all students, especially those with short term memory issues or anxiety.
The University of Reading's group feedback
The University of Portsmouth's useful news feed
The University of Portsmouth’s social context of policing course has direct links to relevant news, helping students reflect on course materials in the light of current affairs.
How can we help?
To get the most from your investment in the learning platform a number of things need to work together:
- A robust and reliable digital infrastructure, including good wifi connectivity, and a simple and quick log-on process
- An organisation-wide strategy for teaching, learning and assessment so that student experience is consistent
- The student experience needs to be at the heart of planning and investment
- A range of high quality digital resources need to be available