Creative Inclusive Learning case study

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Content provided by Pip Le Hen, Digital Education Consultant - Birkbeck, University of London.

Case study slide deck - presented at the BLE Accessibility Forum 15th Feb 2024.

Context

The Creative Inclusive Learning project at Birkbeck, University of London is rolling out HyFlex learning to postgraduate programmes of study, to make them fully flexible -where possible- by 2025/26.

HyFlex (Hybrid Flexible) synchronises in-person and online teaching, enabling students to participate fully in lessons remotely whilst working alongside those in the classrooms on campus. The intention is that students, no matter which study mode they choose, can expect an equitable, high-quality experience.

It is estimated that up to one third of the College’s student base are either neuro-divergent, disabled, experience some form of mental health condition, or a combination thereof. The HyFlex Accessibility and Inclusivity sub-group, part of the Creative Inclusive Learning project, was established to help ensure that the challenges faced by these students were understood and that solutions were developed to overcome them.

HyFlex Accessibility and Inclusivity team

With thanks to the Birkbeck students who participated in the consultation, and to Laura Green, Arup Daripa, and Riccardo Benzo for conducting the three micro-teaches.

Hyflex student consultation

The purpose of the consultation was to help the sub-group work out how to make HyFlex accessible to more students.

Students were recruited in two ways: posters displayed in various locations across the estate with a heavy student footfall, and through direct engagement by Birkbeck’s disability lead, Mark Pimm, during the September 2023 Orientation days.

Three lecturers, Laura Green, Arup Daripa and Riccardo Benzo, volunteered to conduct 15-minute microteaches, each from a different background (Marketing, Foundation Skills, Economics). To reflect what was happening in Birkbeck classrooms, the lecturers were requested to teach something already prepared for their classes.

Feedback structure

Each microteach was followed by five minutes of ‘stop, start, continue’-style feedback, which gathered immediate thoughts from the students. The microteach staff were present so they could add their reflections, where relevant.

There was a 40-minute discussion at the end of the consultation, without microteach staff present. Students could provide more in-depth feedback.

There were two guiding questions for the final discussion:

Follow up questions included:

Student consultation findings

There were six themes that arose from the findings:

Inclusivity

This is the key selling point for HyFlex. Students who cannot attend campus can feel more involved, as HyFlex is more inclusive and synergistic than watching a recording.

Students can engage in a comfortable home environment. For example, if a disabled or neurodivergent student encounters difficulty with their condition during a session, turning their camera and mic off increases privacy and personal comfort.

Community-building

Challenge: community-building, especially when students miss the opportunity to meet their classmates and learn from peers.

Solution: create opportunities for both modes to communicate and work together, for example through meaningful learning environment activities. Teams can be used to form class chats / communities, however these require training and agreed behaviours to work effectively.

Learning preferences

Challenge: students who do not like online courses may find HyFlex an unfamiliar experience and may feel more involved in classroom discussions if they are on campus.

Solution: learner preference should be prioritised over convenience, balancing this against life commitments where possible.

Training

Challenge: students must be provided with training on using Teams and Panopto. For example, students signing in as guests need to be granted entry from the lobby, which can be disruptive for both students and staff.

Solution: provide training for students on both the online and on campus experience. Explain the purpose for using apps correctly and be mindful of the functionality students have. For example, students have limited functionality with tools like MS Whiteboard when signed in as guests. This training should be an ongoing activity as technology and practises evolve.

Teaching

Challenge: following accessible teaching methods.

Solution: PowerPoint slides should use colours that are clearly visible and do not contain too much text. If using alternative media to teach (for example, Mentimeter, interactive whiteboards), do a quick verbal check that students can see the medium before proceeding. Staff training should help to minimise any issues in this respect. Staff should consider what is best suited to the teaching purpose, as well as student want and need, rather than trying to use all available technology.

Classroom management

Challenge: managing speakers and discussing visual information.

Solution: set a code of conduct and agree rules/etiquette. For example, how will students enter discussions – through physical or digital hand-raising? How, or will, the chat function be used?

During discussions, staff should pay attention to when online students unmute their microphones, or have used the raise hand feature on Teams, as this indicates they want to speak. It can then be helpful to name the student and invite them to speak at an appropriate moment (if they are not already joining in verbally). This assists students who may be uncomfortable interrupting the lecturer or other speakers.

The lecturer should be mindful of where they stand to avoid blocking visual information. When teaching is more teacher-focused and less interactive, staff must ensure students can view the board.

It is helpful for teaching staff to consider what is visible to students when teaching – e.g., if the main digital display is the current slide, verbal instructions such as “this,” “that,” “this section of the graph” may be less meaningful to students joining online or students who are visually impaired.

Use of a digital cursor may help the former, while more verbal description may be more helpful for the latter, and potentially all students. Consider describing the visual information before offering analysis or asking this of students.

Tech management

Challenge: using the ‘chat’ in MS Teams and using multiple screens.

Solution: the chat function on Teams can be contentious; some staff and students find it overwhelming, as it is another form of input to manage and pay attention to. Staff should explain when, how or if chat will be used. When staff are using Teams chat, allow students time to write responses and respond directly to those contributions.

Using several screens and moving the content around can be distracting and confusing to follow. It is also difficult to follow captions if screens move around. Staff should indicate which screen(s) students should focus on.

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