On the 23rd of March 2022, BILT Student Fellows Ellen Graves and Kai Charles hosted the Accessibility and Blended Learning Conference, an afternoon of events held online over Zoom, which was attended by 36 staff and students, the majority being either Professional Services staff or teaching staff.
This conference was organised to invite attendees to engage in conversations on the implications and value of blended learning for accessibility and how blended learning can be implemented intentionally to build inclusive and accessible teaching and learning experiences. The afternoon consisted of three events. The first event was the keynote speech from Piers Wilkinson, Student Voice Commissioner for the Disabled Students’ Commission. Following the keynote, Kai chaired a panel on disabled students’ experiences of blended learning. The final event was a workshop ran by Ellen on inclusive assessment. After the workshop there was an opportunity to discuss final thoughts and key takeaways from the conference overall.
Keynote speech with Piers Wilkinson
The keynotes speech was presented by Piers Wilkinson, Policy and Campaigns Lead at Diversity and Ability (D&A) and who was appointed to the Disabled Students Commission in 2020.
With a background of lived experience and student advocacy, Piers encouraged the university to embrace the opportunities presented by new technology not just in terms of learning and teaching but also social and career opportunities for a more inclusive university experience. They discussed a number of reports on the barriers faced by disabled students specifing a list of key findings including a reduction in choice for disabled students, administrative burden, variation from module to module on accessibility,and experience of social isolation. They emphasised the need for universities to act on these findings and centre the lived experience of disabled students when designing solutions.
They finished by discussing their 5 C’s of accessibility: Communication, Certainty, Choice, Consistency, and Culture. Details of these can be seen in the included slide below.
Disabled students’ experiences of blended learning panel
The Panel, chaired by Kai Charles included four participants: Imo Bell (Communications coordinator from BUNS), Charlotte O’Brien (Chair of BUNS), Piers Wilkinson (Disability and accessibility expert), Martin Nutbeem (Senior digital education officer, DEO). It sought to centre disabled voices and discuss a way to move forward with accessibility, not only revealing the issues but also seeking ways in which to combat them.
The panel began with participants sharing their own experiences revealing an overall positive
image of blended learning whilst highlighting some of the issues of fully in-person or fully online learning.The panel highlighted a number of key points to consider when designing a more inclusive future for the university. Namely they emphasised the value of centering lived experience in future design, implementing a hybrid approach to lectures and seminars, the importance of flexibility and choice in our learning for accessibility and the need not to raise barriers that were lowered during the pandemic.
The panel concluded that effective implementation of blended learning was essential for an inclusive future for the university.
Inclusive assessment workshop
The workshop on inclusive assessment looked at three key questions.
- What is inclusive assessment?
- What are the implications of blended learning for inclusive assessment?
- How can blended learning be implemented to enable more inclusive assessment?
The workshop began by referencing Dr Pauline Hanesworth, who emphasised that assessment “is neither value-neutral nor culture-free” and that social justice needs to be the explicit outcome of inclusive assessment. Using Mentimeter, the session then asked participants to think about what inclusive assessment means. Common themes were about choice, flexibility, and equitable opportunity.
Following this, the workshop highlighted some key implications of blended learning for inclusive assessment. We explored how blended learning has enabled flexibility, choice and variety in assessment practices, allowing students to be assessed in environments and formats better suited to their needs and abilities. Blended learning has also allowed us to make greater use of valuable technologies which improve accessibility such as assistive technology. However, blended learning has also brought the issue of digital inequity into sharper focus.
Following this, participants were divided into breakout rooms for a Padlet activity. They were given different examples of students facing barriers to inclusive assessment and asked “How can blended learning be implemented to enable more inclusive assessment?” This activity sparked an insightful and productive conversation during feedback to the whole group. Several issues and ideas were raised here, which will be addressed in the following section. Several key issues and ideas were raised, providing a great jumping off point for thinking about what’s next in accessibility and blended learning, which is addressed in the following sections.
Conclusions from the day
The conference raised a number of key points regarding the future of blended learning and inclusivity, namely:
- Blended learning has transformative potential for accessible and inclusive learning experiences. It should be approached not as a compromise but as an opportunity to maximise benefits and move towards greater accessibility.
- That blended learning enables students greater flexibility, variety, and choice regarding’ learning and assessment became a recurring theme throughout the conference. As highlighted in the keynote speech, greater choice for students is central in forming a more accessible future.
- Barriers that were reduced during COVID are starting to be raised again. The consequences of this for students could be devastating, including forcing certain students to drop out of university altogether.
- Beyond sparking conversations and awareness of the barriers that exist, we need to work towards real solutions to the problems raised by disabled students.
Looking to the future, it is clear that a number of important changes need to be made, with university taking concrete action on the issues raised in the conference and maximising on the opportunities offered by blended learning. A number of key actions were explored in the conference:
- A sandwich approach to designing more accessible and inclusive experiences through blended learning. Ideally this would manifest as a joined up approach with future change directed by the involvement and lived experience of disabled students and staff and financed by the SMT.
- Disabled staff and student advocacy to push for greater change in university policy at the grassroots level is important. We have been in conversation with conference attendees regarding establishing a group to address this need.
- The potential of a hybrid approach to education and an extension of online access when it comes to career and social opportunities.
- The conference was able to happen as a result of the brilliant contributions and expertise brought by those who participated in it. For any* who wish to watch a full recording of any part of the conference links to the recordings of each part are included below.
* These recording are only available to staff and students from the University of Bristol – please get in touch if you would like access and are from another institution.