Challenge 3: an inclusive digital experience

All institutions have to to deliver an inclusive experience to students, and technology can play an important part in addressing disadvantages and difficulties of access. At the same time institutions may inadvertently introduce new disadvantages if digital technologies become intrinsic to the student experience. These need to be addressed in digital policy. Positive uses of digital technology to promote diversity and inclusion might involve: virtual exchanges; students expressing ideas in public forums where they encounter different perspectives; use of multiple media to express ideas and valuing diverse kinds of learning outcome; online identity work.

On this page:
Key issues
Further resources

Key issues

Inclusivity benefits of digital technology: Digital technologies offer learning resources and opportunities to people who might otherwise not access them, whether due to physical disability, geographical remoteness, lack of funding, or other commitments. Even in traditional face-to-face settings, assistive technologies make it easier for all learners to participate. Recorded lectures benefit learners with visual impairments and those who need extra time to read text. Digital versions of course materials allow learners to use text-to-speech options and other accessibility tools. These adjustments make a difference to all learners, not just those with formally recognised needs.

We know that variables such as gender and ethnic / social background affect students’ satisfaction as well as their educational outcomes, but there is some evidence that online participation lessens the impact of some of these differences.

Inclusivity risks: There are however risks from our increasing dependence on digital technology. The digital divide is becoming narrower (fewer students arrive without any digital skills or experience) but deeper (those affected find their disadvantage amplified at every turn). Digital disadvantage can exacerbate other disadvantages such as a lack of resources or not having English as a first language. Some uses of technology also create specific accessibility barriers, such as the use of audio without transcripts or of images without textual summaries alongside.

Legal responsibilities: Universities and colleges now have a legal responsibility to ensure that learning is accessible to all and to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ under the Equality Act 2010 to anticipate and respond to learner needs. Changes to the Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) from 1st September 2015 require institutions to give greater consideration to how the delivery and assessment of their courses affect disabled people and how best to provide support. The changes encourage greater use of the technology available. Degree awarding bodies now also have to offer an accessible digital version of all formal exams.

Positive opportunities: Digital technologies, used sensitively and pro-actively, can promote diversity and challenge assumptions that entrench inequalities. Collaborations can be established with learners from other cultures. Students with different perspectives can gather evidence and express their views in safe online spaces. Authentic professional and research projects can expose students to difference and diversity in their field of study.

Solutions: inclusive curriculum design

  • Design learning and assessment tasks that support learner choice in how they are carried out and in the actual outcomes – so all students can demonstrate their abilities
  • Design activities that value learners’ existing skills and promote self-reliance.
  • Use different media to communicate ideas including audio, video, images, text, live speech, data formats and other technical representations. Too much text disadvantages learners with a print impairment (potentially ten per cent of learners), learners with English as a second language and learners with sensory, concentration and memory difficulties. Most people learn better with two different media channels, regardless of whether or not they have a recognised difficulty with one of them.
  • Capture learning events so learners can revisit them in their own time e.g. use screencast technologies to capture demonstrations, encourage learners to record seminars and share their notes/recordings/mindmaps etc, use lecture capture where this is an option, make resources available in accessible digital formats.
  • Ensure learners with low levels of digital access and confidence are not additionally disadvantaged, i.e. ensure free access and/or loan schemes and ICT support are available
  • Explore the different uses and benefits of a range of technologies, and encourage students to share ideas and applications of their own.
  • Consider how digital technologies open up new ways of teaching and learning, and how this might support learners who find it difficult to participate in other ways e.g. MOOCs, webinars, video lectures, open learning materials.
  • Consider how virtual environments can be used proactively to introduce diversity, challenge assumptions, and redress inequalities in the way students participate.

Solutions: Involving students

  • Involve learners in creating advisory resources on issues they particularly understand e.g. international learners, disabled learners, adult returners, online learners.
  • Engage a range of students as representatives and change agents on projects concerning the digital environment.
  • Work with societies and the students’ union/guild to ensure that opportunities for digital technologies to promote inclusivity are considered in all aspects of the student experience.
  • Ensure that digital communications with prospective students are fully accessible and include a wide range of student voices and identities.

Solutions: strategy and policy

  • Ensure learning and teaching strategies acknowledge the sources of inequality and promote alternative modes of engagement where these are known to help e.g. flexible delivery models, multiple representational media, diverse opportunities for being assessed.
  • Review digital policies and practices (e.g. ‘Bring your own device’) for their impact on students with different needs, resources and preferences.
  • Consider how to make assistive technologies more mainstream and how advice on AT can be accessed more easily by students whether or not they have an assessed impairment.
  • Look across strategies for a joined-up approach to supporting students with diverse needs.


Further resources

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