‘This is a pivotal moment to embrace inclusion and innovation’
Perspective is an interesting thing. I wonder what the hard-working staff and students at England’s universities would’ve said a year ago if we predicted the change they were about to experience through the pandemic – or if we suggested how it would impact on our diverse student cohort.
I imagine they would have read last weeks’ Office for Students' (OfS) report on digital teaching and learning as ‘blue sky thinking’. A nice aim for ten years’ time, if a little unrealistic.
Embracing stability and inclusiveness
COVID-19 changed everything in our universities, tipping the scales towards online learning, and demanding staff and students develop the skills and flexibility needed to move teaching between physical and digital environments.
It’s been quite a journey – and what I see now is a strong drive within institutions and across the global HE space to creating stability and inclusiveness in what has, so far, been a pretty unstable landscape. There is no turning back.
Plotting a path forward, the recommendations proposed by the recent OfS report build on those of the Jisc-led, joint-sector learning and teaching reimagined report, which published back in November. Both call for digital at the heart of pedagogy, assessment and curriculum, both look for consistency in institution-wide digital strategies, and both push for technology to address inclusion to support all students.
Supporting disabled students
The OfS report spends some time looking specifically at the needs of disabled students in the post-COVID world, and shows that the increase in remote delivery, to an extent, levels the playing field and is less exclusionist. It also shows a significantly greater appetite from disabled students to keep remote exams and assessments in future. This is all within broader accelerated shift from teaching to learning that will transform the HE experience for everyone. That change we imagined might take ten to 15 years? It’s happening right before our eyes.
Jisc has a direct role to play in this space, supporting universities and colleges to meet accessibility regulations that encourage them to provide better learning resources, such as captioned video. We’re also working with members to see opportunities to embrace technology-enhanced learning overall - for example, helping them identify their digital strengths and gaps, and supporting universities to build digital capabilities among both staff and students, with inclusion built in.
Interestingly, Jisc's 2020 digital experience insights survey found that 19 percent of students used at least one of four assistive technologies, yet only 51 percent of those who used them said their organisation offered support. Upskilling staff is crucial to give greater confidence to learners that use assistive technology, enabling them to fully engage with blended learning.
As for our current systems of assessment, they are neither in step with employers’ needs, nor well-served by the technology supplier market. While we know that remote exams and assessments are currently fraught with difficulty, with issues around cheating and beyond, many of the mechanisms for managing this are probably not inclusive. The system needs an overhaul.
Making sure that students have access to the digital tools they need before they start their studies is an important piece of this puzzle, as that will support learners with both tech and confidence as they embark on their HE course. Additional assistance may be required here – and this is the moment for universities, sector bodies, tech companies and government to work together to make sure disadvantaged students are not unintentionally excluded by technological requirements.
English higher education institutions are shifting their focus towards digital flexibility that meets current and future labour market needs. We need a modular approach, allowing learners to work while they learn. Greater inclusion, and well-designed digital pedagogy, is a crucial step.
‘Capture good from a challenging time’
Forget how we might have viewed technology-enabled learning in the past. This is a pivotal time and an incredible opportunity to capture good from challenging times, delivering hybrid teaching that’s truly inclusive.
Let’s seize both the moment and the momentum to innovate, and think about how immersive technologies – artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality – can support learning opportunities that deliver for all, and are truly accessible and lifelong.
Jonathan Baldwin is Jisc’s managing director of HE. Jonathan's session at Digifest 2021 at 14:10 on Wednesday 10 March will reflect on digital leadership. A panel discussion at Digifest at 12:00 on Thursday 11 March, asks ‘What’s next for accessibility and inclusion? Getting it right for students’