Farewell TechDis

This week TechDis will be, in effect, closing as a separate JISC service and I too must say farewell: I have enjoyed my time here. Although my Advisor role has been a minor 0.2-0.4 FTE to compliment my HEA role it has given me great insight into the support for students with disabilities using technology. The TechDis website is a terrific resource and will be around for a while yet as JISC restructures its content. I do hope it continues to be widely used for a long time yet.

My HEA role that shall now be my only one (the first time I have had a single ‘job’ in 14 years) will enable me to continue to promote accessibility and inclusion with the use of technology as part of the Innovative Pedagogies workstream, and lot more besides. I shall certainly continue to use TechDis resources as I have no problem promoting relevant JISC resources where they fit into our HEA activities – the needs of the ‘client’ come first after all and from my perspective the only true competition between education providers belongs to UK vs The Rest of The World. The more our roles collaborate internally in the UK the better the outcomes for our students and ALL roles of staff engaged with them; directly and indirectly.

Working for TechDis within the HEA was my first employment outside the University of Leeds where I had spent 34 years slowly becoming institutionalised – that’s where you feel you are becoming more furniture than feature. I joined this crew as a part-time cover for Simon Ball over four years ago: we ran a workshop together at the University of Kent at Canterbury – I’ve covered so many more miles since and hours of train wifi. Witnessing the variation between education providers and all their approaches has confirmed my belief that the better cross-institutional networks we build (in any common interest group), the better the outcomes. Collaborate to compete works, infighting doesn’t – know thy friends.

This role has been ideal to get a much wider model of technology practice with TechDis, covering all the post-16 sectors – although my 11 years with the Bioscience Subject Centre gave me access to many HE providers through the Bioscience lens. Having Accessibility as a common element with many JISC projects e.g. Open Education Resources and Assessment & Feedback has enabled me to gain access to every type of provider and discuss projects with them.

Ironically I have run through my own disability path in parallel with my TechDis role as I learned to get to grips with diabetes – eventually needing and managing that fine balance of carbohydrates and insulin. It was like starting University all over again and at times I had my own learning difficulties as my blood sugar spiked or dipped, so having resources to hand that have helped me manage more information or re-experience it in so many convenient formats was a valuable insight to their usefulness to others. If you ever get that feeling when reading a book at bedtime that the content isn’t sinking in any more, just try having that after your lunch and working the rest of the day. I’m out the other side of this now but I’ve had the direct experience of discovering and resolving my own hidden disability, and the lack of understanding in the education network to cope with it. I can imagine how a dyslexic or sensory impaired student might feel in the wrong ‘climate’. When I landed at TechDis I felt chronologically lost for a while as well as geographically as any new start might be. TechDis was the best place to be while I learned to adjust to a new ability profile.

Simon was an excellent tutor in the ways of the Advisor while Shirley and I created the Inclusive Learning and Teaching SIG with the ALT to raise the profile of doing it better, and what it means. We had many contributors to our odd lunchtime seminars but I will not miss having to do them occasionally on the hoof: having one ear to a laptop while trains clattered outside the window after collaborate mangled the presenters slides was a particularly challenging one.  Lets hope our community can have a greater impact as it has migrated into the Open Education SIG.

The TechDis team blog (which superseded the need for this one) contains all the details of what happens next to TechDis as it also captures the thanks and best wishes from the communities we have worked with over the last 12 years. Please feel free to add more.

I’d like to thank our Director Sal Cooke for her extensive knowledge, insight and considerable experience of the education sectors and the political environments they sit within. I’d also like thank my fellow advisors – Lisa Featherstone and Alistair McNaught who have been a pleasure to work with and I am so pleased they have been asked to continue as specialist advisors in the new JISC structure so the agenda will be in safe hands.

The office crew are the indispensable engine of the whole operation; Jenny, Alison, Lorna, Emma, Sue, Alana and Mike. It’s quite an industry to ensure all the events were covered, publications released (in multiple formats of course) and websites managed. My thanks to all of them for their help and support.

The TechDis team 2014

One thing we know for certain is there are more changes and challenges to follow. Let’s enjoy them all the best we can.

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Too much incoming, but a simple tactic to help.

I should keep blogging of course, but I put it off, like claiming expenses – when the next one comes in I’ll do the batch. The problem is keeping up with the incoming and my terminal curiosity. Briefly then…

I have 8 digital literacy in the disciplines projects running and almost 60 CLL micro-projects. All of these have some accessibility tales within them (and I am sure I will have problems teasing them out) but they are only just reaching the final reporting stage. When they are in I can put out more about them. See the HEA website for more info- http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/cll and http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/digital-literacies

In so many recent interactions I have eventually led tutors towards the TechDis ‘User Needs’ section to discover what the issues are. Then the conversation begins. Have a visit, then contact our helpdesk.

If you have a project…

It would really help me to discover the accessibility aspects if you adopt this simple tactic:

  1. Identify students with disabilities as clear and separate skakeholder. Think of their needs in an anticipatory fashion. If you are only thinking of the students without disabilities as all the others can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis (i.e. fixed at the last minute) then start again. Read the advice on the legislation. It’s there to give you the time to do it properly. Now you have them properly in mind.
  2. In the final report of the project have a paragraph heading Accessibility Challenges, Issues and Benefits.
    This will describe what challenges were raised by various disabilities in the project (e.g. VI students could not see the detail in the demonstration of the weekly lab techniques), the issues that arose from these challenges (e.g. getting demonstrations onto accessible video in sufficient advance time) and the eventual benefits (e.g. the students found the video useful for practice; lab time saved; revision; better techniques from preparing scripts; everyone gained not only the disabled students etc.)
  3. Describe these in a slide whenever your project disseminates to an audience to raise the profile of the importance of doing the accessibility audit for your project to improve the outcomes for all future students, not just those who happened to be there at the time.

if the above was done for all projects, wherever you are, we could see each others innovations, tips, ideas etc. far more easily –  “Simples”.

Finally, with the forthcoming demise of the DSA we are concerned about the affect it will have on the support for students – but that’s what we are here for: to support the practitioners use the technology more effectively in their teaching. If you are writing about your practice and the use of our advice and guidance please use #techdis so we can pick it up more easily.

For TechDis matters the TechDis team blog is generally the place to follow hence this has dried up a little. There’s far more going on in there.

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Mozfest 2013 and engagement opportunities for users with disabilities

I  attended this weekend’s MozFest 2013 in Ravensbourne university to discover more about practice beyond tertiary education and how these communities develop accessible practice (or at least consider it) and their professional digital literacies. i was occasinally concerned at the evangelism of a few but generally impressed with the enthusiasm and innovative practices with those ‘let off the leash’ to develop something they had true belief in.

The event keeps Mozfest session notes available here so you can find many useful links to resources and projects without me having to repeat them. However, i would like to recommend their efforts for making it inclusive by recognising the incoming audience – the young developers who need inclusive language and not the baffling techno-babble so often used to reject newcomers to the territory.

My highlights were how OpenBadges were making inroads into presenting evidence for skills and abilities and how 3rd party services and plug-ins were reducing the pain to get started. The academic evidence of adopting the practice will follow in due course. From my TechDis perspective the Badges concept offers a way to illustrate users with disabilities can have equally valuable skills profiles to non-disabled students/workers. It will also focus effort on providing a more inclusive experience as the evidence of insufficient attention will be significantly visible amongst large co-horts. The SQA badges investigation was regarded as a significant win. Further progress is captured in Grainne Hamilton’s scoop.it and the OBSEG blog.

The privacy track raised the alarm level for many tracking activities which the user can become more aware of through the recent Mozilla LightBeam plug-in. I didn’t have time for this track but it is clearly worth knowing as the myth of privacy becomes more exposed.

The sciences, Journalism, and Open Data were also very impressive – look for yourself but the attitude towards doing all this inclusively where possible was often refreshing. The natural emergent property of communities like this include the desire to welcome all to enable truly widespread products. I had many discussions with practitioners about what they would feed back towards their former institution and it generally condensed into better ways to stay in touch. Now we have the technology the only excuse is time, so a little effort to make this interaction valuable for both sides could go a long way. I did not pick up on any effective strategies with the Mozfest participants.

I’ll put something into the digital literacies in the disciplines blog about the specifics but I have to welcome Mozilla’s attitude to being more pro-active to make the web work globally for common interests for all.Image


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Learnpod 2012

Yesterday I attended the LearnPod 2012 “unconference” held at Doncaster College.

“On the day, the agenda is set by delegates, who pitch ideas to share their expertise, or source the expertise of others to answer their questions. Some pitch interactive workshops and others pitch presentations, discussions and forums. Whilst it is not compulsory for delegates to do a presentation, as there is much to be gained from participation, those that do pitch their ideas can be sure that that their individual interests are met.

The event is the brainchild of Freeserve’s founding Chief Technology Officer (CTO), internet entrepreneur and college Chair of Governors, Rob Wilmott, and has captured the imagination of learning providers and technology entrepreneurs across the country. It’s also attracted high profile delegates including international social media legend Chris Brogan and community social media pioneer John Popham.”

LearnPod12 focused on how to move social media, technology and innovation forward.

Workshops were spawned on the spot from delegate interests;

Timetable of discussion topics for the day

Generated by the audience interests

And we certainly did. I pitched to offer 2 sessions: “OERs, Accessibility & Inclusion”, and “Horror Stories – learning from mistakes”. One of my mistakes being get more from your attendees by switching positions; move each to the front for a few minutes and change the dynamic.

In the first we discussed the OER landscape, use of repositories for finding licenced  materials and our professional preferences; it appears that communities form around each type of node and their expectations for sharing tend to follow the technologies on offer – little use of aggregators evident, or RSS feeds. “I’m not technical but…” is an academic expectation – in effect “I want the functional technology without having to have mastery ‘under the hood’ so to speak” – the best tools and the best collections please. But strategies to pool this knowledge vary, so an unconference is ideal to surface these.

In our “Horror stories” session we discussed how to learn from mistakes by taking apart some examples we had each hear about. Often it came down to managing expectations, actually following the policies and promises originally given, referring to the appropriate experts as soon as possible and confessing problems in the reporting. Having a space to share non-judgementally works.

General topics included Xerte tool kits (XOT) developments, the Xpert repository search for discovering resources, specifically the attribution image search which finds and embeds cc media with attribution.springpad.com – a more visual evernote; pinwheel.com – Find and leave notes around the world which can persist beyond the source (it copies); Trello.com – for organising tasks.

Google circles was liked by many as it provides a space to network without invading personal spaces like facebook. Many more tuned services ebuddy was/is used a lot by students; whatsapp for IM across different devices; path.com – If Twitter gets too noisy etc. More details are available through the Storify of the event, which will aggregate postings, tweets, images etc. See

I would recommend an unconference to quickly gather and share community knowledge/experiences but perhaps modify the ground rules to raise expectations from the attendees, perhaps handing over key themes from one speaker to another within a session or using a different facilitation technique in each room. It was certainly useful for me to engage with the non-HE sector as they appear to be more flexible around sharing issues and solutions on very common problems.

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How to share accessible practice in your JISC project

At a number of JISC project events recently I have suggested the following tactic to ensure accessibility is clearly addressed. This will enable us to identify and collate information for evidence, and what support was needed and eventually used (from TechDis or elsewhere). Obviously the proportion of students with accessibility needs within each project is low, but the sum total is probably equivalent to another project in itself. I therefore suggest (as I have at other JISC meetings):

  • All projects identify staff and students with accessibility needs as specific stakeholders;
  • Project reports should have a heading or sub-heading of ‘Accessibility issues, challenges and benefits’ to enable us to identify and collate these to compile evidence, and what support was needed and utilised; and
  • Project presentations during the dissemination phase should have one slide with the same heading to demonstrate their approach i.e. the improvements their project made with respect to accessibility, and therefore remind the audience that there is opportunity for discussion on this topic too i.e. it is not an unimportant element of the project.

I believe this simple tactic will save considerable time and inform future JISC developments. It will also probably improve the general usability of all projects. I have found it very difficult to identify ‘accessibility stories’ in many project reports and if the programme team support this approach (perhaps in any future reporting templates) it will ensure it receives the necessary attention. In some of the discussions I have had with various projects it appears that having liaison with a local disability support advisor on-campus has been “enough to meet minimum requirements” – we would like to do better. Even if a project does not need us directly it still needs to share its accessibility aspects.

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Final keynote


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If you don’t work socially, you won’t work at all?

This week I have been on a bit of a tour. We had some long-standing invitations to do some workshops in the south – Universities of Plymouth and Surrey. These are time-expensive so we have to engage as much geography as possible; inviting nearby related roles within the institution and beyond. It has worked very well.
Our preferred strategy is to get key roles joining our TechDis Tuesday and Xerte Friday monthly online events as this has far less time and travel costs – but it probably only works for those already engaged in online lists and networks. They typically can ‘dip in’ to our short lunchtime events without any problems. The risk here is that we build a ‘hardcore’ who are well versed in technologies that may scare of the less ‘digitised’. There are many practitioners doing wonderful work without relying mostly on computers, who have less of a need to be in there all the time. But are they really being left behind, like students without adequate assistive technologies? I fear so. There was less online community or use of its resources than I expected – so much passing silently by, so much being achieved but not shared as far as it could, so much not being returned. The role of the disability specialists was integrated into other communities in teaching and learning inconsistently, who are undervaluing them at times.
In our sessions I discussed the role of social media, particularly blogs and tweets. I’ve been guilty of reading more outputs than input but in my role, there is a lot to follow. I have re-disseminated this in many ways, including our workshops this week. But I fear that these skilled practitioners have not been able to find each other as no ‘critical mass’ has arisen to generate a following, and therefore a community of practice which is swiftly updated, chatting on what works well in practice. So, I’m going to try to nurture a small series of communities from the individuals I have met, to keep reflecting and sharing their tales of what works well in reality (we found some stuff that didn’t, which is just as valuable as stuff that does). I know where many bridges over this Rubicon are, and which are the wobbly ones.
It’s easy to catch up with practice with technologies through the back catalogue of TechDis Tuesdays and Xerte Fridays and now that our delegates have explored a few I hope to hear more about what they have done with them. This will help build an individual’s portfolio of evidence and assist with their ITQ certification, help the institution gain reward and recognition for the work they do (OASES), and benchmark some personal practice. More than ever this will be expected norm but there is a big leap to make, to dip in. Working with newcomers may help cover that middle ground between the visitors and residents, and at that point discover their natural momentum, so we can assist each other.
The week has also been a bit of CPD for me, to meet new roles working with disabilities which are comparatively new to me. Face-to-face has the best bandwidth of all, and although it has been a bit remote at times between, it has given me time to crystallise some thoughts about future opportunities. I’d like to thank all the delegates for their discussions and to the Universities of Plymouth and Surrey for hosting us.

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