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The pioneers of blended learning: what we learned from disabled students

Before joining Unite Students, I spent a decade leading a university disability service. I started my career in higher education as a disability adviser in 2005, the same year as the SEND Act came into law. We read needs assessments with enthusiasm and recommend learning and teaching adjustments to our academic colleagues with gusto. This included notes in advance, staggered deadlines, extra time in exams, assistive technology and, this was a big one, lecture capture.

Lecture capture software was new to us all, or at least in this context and on this scale, and the anxiety from academic colleagues was palpable. Will students watch it? Will they upload it to social media? Combined with notes in advance will students ever attend lectures?

Much research was born that eased the passage to lecture capture, often demonstrating an enhanced learning experience. For example, Dommett and colleagues recently found that: “students felt lecture capture reduced anxiety, particularly for those with disabilities, indicating that lecture capture may be a useful tool in creating an environment that supports mental wellbeing”[i].

For me, having spoken to at least 6000 disabled students over the years I remain convinced that their university experience was enriched as a result of this technology. The idea that minority groups (disabled students and students with dyslexia in this case) are leaders in the diverse manner in which learning happens, is one I hold dear. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that they were the trail blazers that rightly demanded that we should listen to, and understand, their needs. Fifteen years on, what we learned and the changes we made has allowed for their non-disabled peers to respond to the challenge of learning in a pandemic.

Maybe my assertions are a stretch, but I see a relationship between the growing numbers of disabled students attending university and the success of reasonable adjustments. If they enabled disabled people to attend university in slightly more representative numbers, it makes sense that they created an atmosphere for opportunity for all. And, in fact, this is the premise behind the principles of Universal Design – that we should design learning for all possible learners.

I have been out of the university disabled student service world for almost five years and many things have changed, not least in the disabled students’ allowance. But it seems fitting that I can still remember so many stories and feel thankful for having the opportunity to pioneer approaches for a few students that ultimately would benefit the many.

In my role at Unite Students, Covid-19 now presents a pressing need to ensure that service delivery is adapted for disabled students and allows them to live safely in their accommodation while self-isolating or shielding. Never before has a bespoke, case-by-case, service offer been so critical. And, once again, it allows me to reflect on how these adaptations may apply more widely to the students who live with us.

The majority of universities are working on students returning to campus in September which is great news, and we know from our own research that they are keen to, once it is safe enough. However, social distancing is likely to be around for some time and, therefore, most students will probably experience some level of blended learning, at least in the short term during the first term of the new academic year and possibly into 2021.

As we approach a new academic year, different than any other before it, I am confident that listening to and learning from disabled students will contribute greatly to that blended learning experience. In particular, their understanding of the critical importance of emotional wellbeing to academic success will surely come into its own.

My message to the new intake, facing the prospect of blended learning, is to go ahead and try it. It is a valid and effective method of learning and teaching that you may find more useful and engaging, and it will provide opportunities that will enhance the overall student experience. Your disabled peers, especially early adopters, have benefited and gone onto achieve great things. You will too.

[i]Dommett, E.J., Gardner, B. & van Tilburg, W. Staff and student views of lecture capture: a qualitative study. Int J Educ Technol High Educ 16, 23 (2019).