New Regulations Can Make Blended Learning Truly Inclusive

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This is a guest post by Robert McLaren, Head of Industry Technology and Innovation at Policy Connect, a British cross party collaborative think tank. He specializes in Assistive Technology policy including managing the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology in the U.K.

The new UK Public Sector Web Accessibility Regulations can help spark accessibility and universal design in higher education.

The rise of blended learning (a mix of online and on-campus learning) had lead to more flexible and creative approaches to education with accessible design of online content playing a key part by—giving students the choice to view and engage with content on their phone, Braille display, Kindle, or as an audio file, and more. However, the sector hasn’t taken full advantage of the potential of the technology yet. Students frequently struggle with inaccessible course content such as documents which have been scanned into the system: these cannot be marked with digital highlights or text select functions, and are harder to view on tablets and phones. This is frustrating for all students and in particular for disabled students as it leaves them reliant on support staff to make special adjustments. Moreover, reactive adjustments often take some time to put in place and put disabled students one step behind their peers. 

The new digital accessibility regulations address this by making good practice a requirement. Online learning content, including documents and videos, has to meet accessibility guidelines, and sites have to include an accessibility statement: a public declaration of their level of accessibility and a form to make requests or complaints.

The cross-party think tank Policy Connect and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Assistive Technology have published a report on the regulations, co-chaired by Conservative Peer Lord Holmes and Labour’s Seema Malhotra MP. The report, which was sponsored by Blackboard Ally, found that regulations can transform blended learning to benefit all students. Yet, to take advantage of these new regulations, government, the Office for Students and sector organisations need to support Higher Education Insitutions (HEIs) to implement change.

The inquiry heard that lecturers often lack the digital skills they need to make accessible documents—or even awareness of what is required. Demands on staff time and a lack of priority given to this area in staff training programs have contributed to a skills gap. The government has a legal obligation to raise awareness of the regulations and the benefits of digital accessibility, and promote related training and the report call for the these efforts to be targeted to meet the needs of the education section.  

Because of these regulations, HEIsmust have a strategy for making blended learning inclusive. Drawing from best practice examples such as the University of Kent and the University of Derby, the inquiry found that HEIs should establish multi-departmental working groups, with student representation and participation from leadership, to develop and oversee the strategy.

 Since we began our inquiry on digital accessibility in HE we’ve found real support for change in the sector. Learning technologists across the country have signed up to an online forum to share best practice, and have created a working group to produce resources for the whole sector to us. At the same time, Piers Wilkinson of the NUS Disabled Students Committee is preparing a toolkit for students. We have the opportunity to create more usable and flexible blended learning for all students. What we need now is a strong demonstration of commitment from both the government and higher education providers themselves to make that a reality.