Covid-19 is a chance to make education inclusive

Disabled students face significant disadvantage, but we can deliver learning that’s truly accessible


As universities adapt around Covid-19, Kellie Mote – accessibility specialist at the education and technology not-for-profit, Jisc – highlights the opportunity to deliver more inclusive experiences for all.

To say this is a busy and unsettled time for universities is an understatement. The pressures applied by Covid-19 continue to demand agility and vision from sector leaders, with institutions moving in and out of lockdown, and the move to online or hybrid teaching presenting multiple challenges – particularly when staff are unsure whose responsibility it is to test and update aspects of a large digital estate.

A strategic approach

In this context, it is arguably more important than ever that organisations take a strategic approach to delivering learning that’s truly accessible to all – and for that to happen, management buy-in is essential.

Institutions worked hard to meet the new Public Sector Web Accessibility Regulations, but there is more work to be done across the sector, and disabled students still face significant disadvantage compared to their non-disabled peers.

Stark truths

A recent survey of disabled students highlights some stark truths. A quarter (26%) of 513 respondents rated the accessibility of their course at just one or two out of five.

The same number said they ‘always’ or ‘often’ feel excluded from social activities because of a lack of disability awareness. That survey informed 12 recommendations to government and universities – including the need for a senior leader within each institution to take direct responsibility for the experiences of disabled students.

Student engagement is also crucial, as it directs use and delivery of assistive technology, and is also key to maintaining engagement.

In Jisc’s survey of students’ digital experiences 2020, 19% of more than 25,500 university students said they use at least one of four specified assistive technologies (screen readers, dictation, alternative input devices and screen magnification) – yet nearly half (49%) of them said they have not been offered support to do so.

The early indications from Jisc’s equivalent survey of higher education staff, which will be published on November 17, suggest that that while 14% of HE teaching staff use at least one of the same four assistive technologies, only around four in ten say their organisation had offered support to use these.

Collaboration and agility

Accessibility has therefore been central to the scenario-planning of the Learning and Teaching Reimagined collaboration, through which vice-chancellors and sector leaders are coming together to consider the challenges of the future.

Planning for 2021 and beyond, universities leaders have stressed that accessibility needs greater investment as digital education and a more agile approach unfolds, reaching an increasingly diverse student population with a more inclusive and accessible experience.

Digital must be at the heart of our education systems. As Covid-19 is proving, technology plays a critical role in supporting all learners – but for disabled students, it’s critical, increasing access to teaching and supporting learning with assistive technologies.

To help deepen understanding the role such tools can play, Jisc recently collaborated with the University of Dundee’s department of computing to develop an MSc in educational assistive technology (EduAT), delivering advanced training for staff and accessibility practitioners.

Technology at the heart of change

In Jisc’s accessibility community groups, people across higher education are collaborating to focus on specific uses of technology, with the goal of ensuring that all students can access new and changing modes of delivery, looking at topics ranging from optimising accuracy in video captioning to the implications of immersive technology.

Innovative applications of artificial intelligence have potential to remove administrative barriers for students too, and an Open University/Jisc project investigates the use of virtual assistants to make it easier for disabled students to disclose a need and access support.

This involves knowledge exchange activities following the Microsoft funded ADMINS development work (Assistants to the Disclosure and Management of Information about Needs and Support).

Now, it feels like we’re at a turning point; as universities adapt to find new modes of teaching and learning, we have an opportunity to deliver better experiences for all students.

There are great examples of innovation in the tertiary education sector, and leaders are embracing a joined-up approach. I’m as excited as they are by the potential to improve the experiences of all learners, no matter where they are located or what their needs.

The learning and teaching reimagined report will be published on 4 November with a framework and guidance co-created with university leaders. The results will be discussed at a free webinar. Registrations are now open.

About the author: Kellie Mote is a subject specialist at Jisc. She provides strategic guidance that helps educators ensure their digital content is accessible to everyone.