Higher Education: Digital equity and autism

A view of Griffith University building which is new and about seven storeys high.Beware the diagnosis – it leads to stereotypes and misplaced assumptions. This was one of the findings from a research project at Griffith University. A common assumption is that people with autism find it difficult or stressful in social situations. For example, university discussion groups and making presentations. An assumption that follows is online learning would be their preferred learning method. Turns out this is not the case. Indeed, they had difficulty with online content for three key reasons. And these are also experienced by neurotypical students:

    1. Students had problems identifying which parts of the online content were most important
    2. They needed clarification of content by instructors to aid their online learning
    3. Students found it helpful when the instructor communicated links between content across the weeks or modules. 

So, the diagnosis is not the person. The research paper includes a literature review and a survey of students who identified as having autism. The paper has much useful information regarding the design of teaching and learning. The major point is that what’s good for students with autism is good for everyone. 

The title of the study is, “Online learning for university students on the autism spectrum: A systematic review and questionnaire study”. It was published in the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology – special issue: Digital Equity. It’s open access.

Abstract: Online course delivery is increasingly being used by universities to deliver accessible and flexible learning environments. As this mode of delivery grows it is important to consider the equity of the learning experience for all students. As online delivery may reduce challenges and stressors present in face-to-face delivery, it could be suggested that it may promote student learning for specific student groups, including those with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. However, little is known about the experience of learning online for students on the autism spectrum. This article presents findings from two studies: a systematic review of the literature and a survey of students on the autism spectrum studying online. From the systematic literature review, only four previous studies were identified reporting on this topic. Findings from two studies identified that the online environment provided both facilitators of and barriers to the learning experience for students on the autism spectrum. Although the online environment provided flexibility for learning, how design factors are employed in online delivery may unintentionally create barriers to the learning experience for students on the spectrum. An outcome from this study has been the creation of a suite of resources to assist with course design and delivery. Implications for practice or policy:

•  Consider the impact of course design on students with diverse learning profiles.
•  Not all students disclose their diagnosis, so ensure methods of accessing support are clear.
•  Work proactively to ensure that interactions with instructors and are responsive and flexible to facilitate the online learning of all students.  

Innovation, inclusion and leadership

Students and teachers in a lecture room.“Inclusive design can help all human beings experience the world around them in a fair and equal way”. This is the definition on the Global Disability Innovation Hub website. Their blog page is titled,  “Why inclusive design matters and how we are leading change”.  The blog leads up to their new Masters course Disability, Design and Innovation. The course design process included people with disability.

This multidisciplinary course is run in conjunction with the University College London, Loughborough University, University of the Arts and London College of Fashion. International students can also apply. There are bursaries available for UK and EU residents (submission dates closed for this year).  Here is a video with a brief overview.

The Global Disability Innovation Hub has more information on their website on research, education and practice.

The Disability Innovation Summit will be run alongside the Tokyo Paralympic Games. Call for papers will run between October 2019 and March 2020. Priority will be given to submissions with: a passion to collaborate globally; products and ideas that are ready to go to market, or have the ability to be scaled; and tangible solutions that can impact lives around the world.  

An accessible campus is part of sustainability

Edifice of a federation stone building with arched entrance with step leading to it.Linking “sustainability” with universal design is not a new idea, especially when thinking about social sustainability. A new book,Towards Green Campus Operations, includes a chapter that moves away from “green” to social sustainability. The argument is that making the campus more universally accessible is a sustainability exercise. The more accessible the campus is, the more likely the students are to enroll and, more importantly, finish their course. This is good for the university and sustains their student intake and retention. The authors also argue that academics need to be educated about this issue too. The chapter, “Educational Institutions and Universal Accessibility: In Search of Sustainability on University Campus”, is available through Springer Link.

Abstract: The paper reports proposals and solutions of the design and implementation for universal accessibility at the university campus, complying with current legislation and community demands. It addresses the challenges of raising academic awareness about the subject and of the accessible route project overcoming the campus large dimensions, urbanized areas and rugged topography. It is the result of a project and an accessible route shared through pedestrian and motorized routes and with its implantation overcoming barriers in the implementation. The theme was conducted with a focus on social sustainability, as it is a requirement to obtain the universal and legitimate right to higher education and the benefits of the university campus as a community educational, environmental and leisure urban equipment. The results of the article demonstrate that universal accessibility, more than a legal requirement for educational institutions, contributes to social sustainability. The spatial adequacies allow the universalization of the possibility of entry and stay of persons with disabilities or reduced mobility in the university campus, expanding their training at an higher level. 

Inclusive practice in higher education

Cover page of the Journal of Inclusive practice in further and higher education.The 2016 Journal of Inclusive Practice in Further and Higher Education includes papers from the International Conference. All articles include the concept of universal design in learning with a focus on neurodiversity.  It covers methods and research in higher education and transition to work. Contributions to this journal encourage emancipatory methods with neurodiverse people, particularly involving their personal experiences.  The Journal is published in Word format making it widely accessible.

The papers cover a diversity of topics such as academic access for diverse learners, thinking and practicing differently, experiences of staff, links between perceptual talent and dyslexia, and modification of exam papers.