The JISC-funded TechDis service provides advice and guidance on technology and disability to promote an accessible and inclusive experience for students and staff. This means that TechDis potentially needs to affect the knowledge and practice of every member of staff in every institution. It was decided that one of the best ways in which this process could be facilitated would be to offer staff from any discipline or role area the opportunity to undertake small trials and projects in areas specific to their own work, in order for them to uncover and develop good practice in those areas. The Higher Education Academy were approached for funding, and we are very grateful to them for agreeing to jointly fund this scheme with TechDis.
The HEAT Scheme
The scheme was advertised during summer and autumn 2006, requesting members of staff to submit a ‘bid’ for technology with which to undertake a small project of their choice. The technology requested was required to fall within the very widest boundary of what might be referred to as ‘assistive technology’ – from anything that may benefit a specific learner or learners, to trialling a different style or medium of teaching. Staff could ask for anything ranging from traditional ‘assistive technologies’ such as screen reading software to more mainstream technologies such as video cameras and digital voice recorders. This process was facilitated by the Academy’s Subject Network, with all bids submitted through the relevant Subject Centres (see www.heacademy.ac.uk for further details of the Academy’s Subject Network).
TechDis received 26 bids from across 11 of the 24 Subject Centre discipline groupings. A total of 19 bids were funded, and the project reports from many of these are summarised in this article. All of the full reports can be found at www.techdis.ac.uk/getheatscheme.
Several of the projects focussed on the creation of multimedia resources. One of the most ambitious of these is being undertaken by the UK Centre for Legal Education at Warwick University, whose project formed part of a wider suite of activity. They were awarded a video camera, digital voice recorder, microphone and editing software with which to begin making a series of podcasts and audio-visual materials aimed at new lecturers in the legal disciplines. Not only will the materials themselves be as accessible as possible and will therefore act as exemplars in their own right, but the material content will highlight the importance of accessibility, how using a range of technologies and media can aid inclusion, and how it can be readily embedded across the teaching of Law rather than as an adjunct.
While the above project is still in its early stages, another has used video and stills camera technology in real time with students and has produced some interesting feedback. A project by Ian Gilhespy in the School of Sport, Physical Education and Leisure at the College of St Mark and St John, aims to produce reusable learning objects for use by all students, but which are particularly usable by students who are visually impaired, deaf or hard of hearing. The initial results from this work are encouraging – tracking data shows that a large number of the students have accessed the materials and that some are particularly heavy users. Those students who are heavy users of these materials have obviously found a teaching method they prefer to work with, and therefore in their case this technology is presumably ‘assistive’ to their education. Although the work is still in an early stage, focus group feedback suggests that the auditory information in particular is very useful for students who need help to ‘visualise’ certain concepts.
A project by Gkatzidou, Pearson and Bailey at the University of Teesside’s Accessibility Research Centre took an existing flash-based learning object and created from it a video podcast suitable for use with a handheld media player such as an iPod or Creative Zen, which was tested with a small group of students. The result was less interactive than the original learning object, and one student found the lack of control frustrating. However in general feedback from the students was positive. Figure 1 shows the Flash object displayed on an iPod.
Figure 1: Flash-based learning materials reformatted to display on an iPod, from a project by Gkatzidou, Pearson and Bailey at the University of Teesside
Making audio recordings of lectures available to students as podcasts was a common theme across the multimedia projects. Karen Gresty’s project at the University of Plymouth found that 96% of respondents who had listened to the files felt that more learning had taken place as a result. The flexibility of this resource proved popular with students – most students listened to the podcasts at home, but a considerable number listened on public transport or while driving. These findings were reflected in other projects; all students involved in the project by Badge, Scott and Cann at the University of Leicester said that they would use the podcasts in the future.
These projects also made a variety of other support materials available as podcasts. The University of Leicester team provided online animated software demonstrations, and David Hindley at Nottingham Trent University provided an online guide to an assignment which students had previously found difficult. These received positive feedback from students, as they were available precisely when support was needed and could be used at the appropriate pace. Also popular were podcasts created by Cathy Leng at Bath Spa University, introducing new topic areas on a weekly basis and linking them with current news stories. The University of Leicester team faced some technical difficulties creating podcasts from student help sessions - group sessions conducted in a computer laboratory. The level of background noise and mobility of the tutor made obtaining good sound quality difficult, and as a result student uptake of these podcasts was relatively low. Figure 2 shows the capturing of audio feedback via an mp3 player taking place.
Figure 2: Capturing audio feedback with an mp3 player during the project by Badge, Scott and Cann at the University of Leicester.
Podcasts recorded by the students themselves also featured in several projects. Cathy Leng’s project offered the option of recording a podcast based on a written assignment as an alternative to the traditional presentation given during a seminar. The podcasts were uploaded to the University’s VLE, with the facility for other students and tutors to ask questions and give feedback. The students liked the flexibility of this option, and also valued the ability to listen to their own presentations and reflect on their performance. It also had the effect of allowing seminars to be used for additional teaching activities. In addition this project looked at the production of collaborative podcasts within small groups, designed to enable students to share understanding of the directed reading. Students responded enthusiastically to this option and it was felt that they showed greater engagement with the material.
Student creation of resources was also the focus of a project by Hellawell and Priestley at the University of Bradford - a dyslexic student used a handheld video recorder to record a series of “mini documentaries” outlining her experiences of her first physiotherapy placement. These documentaries provided an opportunity for reflective learning for the student. The student felt that this was a very positive experience and allowed her to reflect on her experiences and to record them in a way that would have been much more difficult with a written journal. The clips produced were edited and converted to a format suitable for playing on PCs, and audio podcasts of the clips were produced. These will be shared with future students to assist them with preparing for their own placements. Figure 3 shows a screen shot from the student’s reflective ‘mini documentary’.
Figure 3. Screen shot from a student’s ‘mini documentary’ from the project by Hellawell and Priestley at the University of Bradford.
‘Mainstream Technology’ Projects
A group of projects involved the use of technologies not usually thought of as ‘assistive’. Andy Pulman at Bournemouth University investigated the use of a Nintendo DS Lite - a handheld gaming console using two screens and a combination of touch screen input and traditional controls, with the software “Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training: How Old is Your Brain?” for students needing to improve their numeracy skills. The software provides training sessions consisting of a series of memory, arithmetic and concentration tasks which are completed using the touch screen. A total of 12 students used the package completing a total of 54 training sessions; all felt that using this equipment had had a positive impact on their numeracy skills and memory. Figure 4 shows students using the DS Lite during a tutorial session.
Figure 4: Students using the Nintendo DS Lite to improve arithmetic skills in a project by Pulman at Bournemouth University.
Two further projects looked at the use of the Gyration wireless keyboard and mouse to encourage student participation in lectures. Paul Chin at the University of Hull carried out a small trial during two classes of first-year students, while Sydney Tyrrell at Coventry University undertook a larger scale trial over 9 weeks involving approximately 180 students. In both cases the mouse and keyboard were passed to students allowing them to have direct input into class discussions and demonstrations. It was felt that the equipment enabled the lecturer to actively engage more students than was previously possible, both because the lecturer was free to move around the classroom and focus on individual students where necessary, and because students were more likely to participate when attention was not drawn specifically to them.
In a project by Wendelin Romer at the University of York students used the mind mapping software Inspiration for essay planning and writing. They found it particularly useful for planning the structure and content of essays, and most also found it to be a useful tool for the initial development of ideas, with the strongest positive responses coming from those students who identified themselves as dyslexic and visual learners. A mature student at the University of Newcastle also used the software for private study and revision in a project by Gillian Brown. The student felt that the ability to add images to the mind map resulted in better recall of the content, that the software was useful in organising their thoughts, and reported increased confidence during the exam. In the same project, the software was used by small groups of students during a Problem Based Learning class. It was felt to be particularly useful for allowing groups to collect and organise ideas, and the resulting diagram could be saved and returned to later by students. Figure 5 shows a screen shot of the mind mapping software being used to plan an essay.
Figure 5: Screen shot of mind mapping software being used to plan an essay, from the project by Romer at the University of York.
‘Assistive Technology’ Projects
Several of the funded projects worked with technology that falls within the traditional definition of ‘assistive’. Two were provided with a Talking Tactile Tablet, a touch sensitive, multi sensory device which provides instant audio feedback from tactile images. Peter Chevins, in the School of Life Sciences at Keele University, utilised this equipment to produce appropriate materials for two visually impaired students on a Neuroscience degree programme. While one of these students has a little residual vision, the other has none. During a session on electron microscopy, students are shown a Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM) and then a cutaway model to illustrate how the machine actually works. A representation of the cutaway model was produced via the Talking Tactile Tablet to allow the visually impaired students to understand this process more fully. Each area of the tactile image is accompanied by an audio file explaining the function of each part of the machine. Figure 6 shows the cartoon interpretation of the TEM for use with the Talking Tactile Tablet. A similar technique was used to express the concept of analysing the images produced by the TEM, which the students would not normally be able to experience other than by having someone present to describe the image to them. By producing these bespoke materials, the staff had empowered the students to learn at their own pace and in their own time, as the devices could potentially be loaned to the students for revision purposes.
Figure 6: A diagrammatic representation of a Transmission Electron Microscope for use with a Talking Tactile Tablet in the project by Chevins at the University of Keele.
The other recipient of a Talking Tactile Tablet is preparing materials for a Level 4 Pathology module. Sally Cassella at the University of Derby has found that the use of the technology to associate audio files with specific areas of the tactile diagrams (which have graphical equivalents for sighted students) can also assist students who have difficulty in note taking, and in fact the utilisation of a different type of media has excited interest in a range of students.
In the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the University of Newcastle, Rebecca McCready has undertaken a series of trials using ScreenRuler software. ScreenRuler provides a x2 magnified movable ruler of changeable width across the screen to assist with on-screen reading. This can aid users with a slight visual impairment (including, as the project information points out, those with hangovers!) but is intended largely for users who have difficulty finding and maintaining their location on screen, for most of whom this is a symptom of dyslexia. Figure 7 shows a screen shot of the ScreenRuler software being used with an online IT tutorial.
Figure 7: Screen shot of ScreenRuler being used with an IT tutorial, from the project by McCready at the University of Newcastle.
Upon trialling the software with a range of users, some of whom had a known disability and some of whom did not, their comments ranged from negative “didn’t really need it” to positive “stops you ‘getting lost’”. When broken down into specific tasks there was a more negative response, particularly when trying to undertake complex tasks such as working with spreadsheets, but a much more positive response in terms of on-screen reading. Several of the users with no stated impairment expressed positive views about the extra dimensions the software brought to the process of reading from a screen.
Turning the use of assistive technology on its head, a project led by Andy Crowe and joining Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, focussed not upon how technology could be used to improve the learning experience of students with particular needs, but how it could be used to broaden the awareness of teachers of the range of assistive technologies available and their potential to resolve many apparent access issues. In the space of little more than a month three workshops were held at three different campuses with a total audience of 15 staff. The workshops were well received as delegates were given the opportunity to use the technologies described and get a feel for how they might relate to the teaching of their particular subject area. Feedback quotes were generally positive and varied, but perhaps one of the most telling helps to exemplify the aims of the entire HEAT scheme, as well as of Andy Crowe’s project in particular: “It certainly makes me more aware of how physically impaired students could be assisted in course completion”.
HEAT Round 2 – Call For Bids
In order to build on the success of this scheme, a second tranche of HEAT funding is now available. The closing date for bids is May 31st 2007. All bids must be submitted via one of the Higher Education Academy's Subject Centres. Priority will be given to bids that satisfy one or more of the following criteria, although bids that do not will also be considered for funding: