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Long Read, Student Voice

Student Fellow reflections on equality, diversity, inclusion

The BILT Student Fellows were recently briefed on the University’s strategy for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) and why it’s important. Training was kindly provided by Robiu Salisu and Zoë Pither at the Student Inclusion Service. Student Inclusion Officer Robiu outlined the institutional BAME strategy and current initiatives such as the Access & Participation Plan and peer mentoring scheme. Head of Student Inclusion Zoë highlighted the services offered by the University that promote inclusion. She prompted the Student Fellows to challenge their assumptions, particularly in light of the pandemic, leading to great new insights.

This blog reflects on the training to explore how it connects to BILT’s key themes. As the year progresses, the Student Fellows will take this learning into a larger piece of work centered on students with disabilities and their varying experience of blended learning.

Questions

EDI, at its heart, is ensuring fair treatment and opportunity; relating to students it is about ensuring that they can achieve their full potential and strive academically in an environment where they can be themselves.

Looking ahead, the BILT Student Fellows want to tackle the following questions:

Equality
• Are students studying online afforded similar opportunities to develop a community?
• How can we address the attainment gap through assessment & feedback?
• Does the method of assessment influence the attainment gap?

Diversity
• How can we overcome imposter syndrome to assist with students feeling that they are researchers themselves?
• How can we encourage diversity of texts in course units?

Inclusion
• How are neurodiverse students supported through assessment?
• How much thought are we giving to students with limited bandwidth? What can we do to support their experience?
• Are disabled students feeling included during online learning?
• What are students’ experiences of declaring their disability, and asking for support?

Accessibility
• What are the best ways to check for continuous engagement (from students with disabilities) whilst teaching online?
• How are students who use assistive technologies coping with the move to primarily online learning?
• Do we teach about accessibility in our technology and designed oriented course units?
• How aware are staff of accessibility issues within their disciplines?

The training prompted the Student Fellows to start their journey of engaging actively with EDI matters. In the same week as the meetings Jonny, one of the Student Fellows particularly focused on Building Inclusive Online Communities also attended an event run by Sight Tech Global about how we can make technologies more accessible for people with visual impairment. Within this post he suggests how this might affect teaching and learning. Rhona then discusses mental health and wellbeing from a student’s perspective and links this to inclusion and assessment and feedback (another of BILT’s key theme). Rhona then reflects on the work of the EDI team in helping students with mental health difficulties. 

Accessibility 

Whilst accessibility is wide ranging, the Sight Tech Global event focused specifically on accessibility for people with visual impairment. I feel the best way to address this is by discussing things that surprised me, and how they relate to teaching and learning or the University. 

The first thing that surprised me was that about 95% of all content is locked in print form. Whilst this is not as large of a barrier as it used to be with the help of screen readers, there is still an issue with screen readers and e-books. Most e-books these days are relatively accessible, as the publisher can share the file similar to a Word document that contains the text. The issue arises with equations and pictures, this is because these are usually sent through as scalable graphics; so that they can look good whether you read them on a large or small screen. However, these cannot be read by a screen reader. Some platforms will put these pictures or equations through some form of AI to decipher them and provide alt-text, though these tend not to be too accurate. For instance, a photo of the Mona Lisa would be accompanied with the alt-text ‘a picture of a woman’ which clearly does not convey the significant points of the painting. The same can be said about equations, when run through various platforms they can sometimes miss out the mathematical signs thus leaving just the numbers. Also, without the correct formatting screen readers are not always sure what the numbers symbolise. 

As a University with a large STEM community, it is important to recognise these obstacles and how large they may be (a typical maths textbook can contain up to 5000 equations!) Whilst this isn’t something we can easily fix as a University, it is something to be cognisant of, particularly as screen readers are not solely used by the visually impaired, but also students with dyslexia, and students who get eye strain. 

Mental health and wellbeing  

The work of the EDI team is valuable in aiding students who are suffering from mental health difficulties and feel pressured and overwhelmed with assessments and feedback. As a university student who has long-term mental health conditions, I have experienced the support offered in applying for the likes of extensions, reasonable adjustments and self-certifications – allowing me to manage my university workload and assessments with my conditions. 

The Office for National Statistic have released statistics from the Student COVID-19 Insights Survey (SCIS) in England (8th – 18th Jan 2021). Of the students surveyed, 63% indicated that their mental health had worsened since the start of the autumn 2020 term. This data gives a harrowing indication of the significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of university students. These statistics indicate that there will be increasing pressure on the EDI teams and services to support students with assessment and feedback who are suffering from mental health difficulties and disabilities. For example, the pandemic will lead to an increase in the number of students with difficulties reaching out for academic support in the uncertain, overwhelming, concerning environment we are living in.  

The work of the EDI team is vitally important in academically supporting students with mental health difficulties regarding assessment and feedback. However, the pandemic is likely to result in significant pressure on the existing structure. Innovative, responsive and adaptable approaches are thus required. In our meeting with the teams, it was obvious that there is genuine passion about their work and members genuinely care about the students that they work with. This will ensure its success in adapting to new pressures and excelling in supporting students with assessment and feedback. 

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Hopefully the points in this post highlight the importance of embedding EDI within the university strategy and have planted a seed of interest which we will tend to together. Our next blog, written by Student Fellow Chloe, will focus on the inclusion and disability team and how they assist students through digital interventions. 

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