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The accessibility benefits of using audio in teaching and learning

My last 2 posts in this blog, have looked at the use of audio within teaching and learning as follows:

In this post I want to think about some of the accessibility benefits and issues for this area of work. Firstly (and sadly) a lot of people use accessibility as an excuse not to use audio more, often stating that they don’t want to use audio in case they have a deaf learner in their class.
No hay más ciego que el que no quiere ver...

This is a commonly misunderstood area – as (although it may sound silly) many deaf learners actually find audio content really useful. Agreed, if someone has no hearing then audio is of no use to them, but many people that are identified as being deaf have some hearing, and many of them will have hearing aids that will amplify noise so that they can hear something. For these learners accessing a lecture is often difficult as the hearing aids will pick up all noise in the room, including the lecturers voice, mutterings from other learners, the hum of the strip lighting, the squeaking of pens etc. making it very hard to hear. The use of induction loops has helped this issues to a certain extent, but still isn’t ideal, as you hear the tutors contribution but not necessarily what other learners say. If however as part of the process an audio file has been produced summarising the key learning points (and remember you can always get the learners to do this – see my post on ipadio) – a deaf learner can in a quiet environment (e.g. their bedroom) listen to this – altering the volume accordingly so that they can hear it through an ordinary audio player and pick up some extremely valuable information that would otherwise have been missed. With this in mind, when I record audio, I amplify the recording slightly (which is very easy to do with things like audacity) – as it is always possible to turn the volume down, but it isn’t possible to turn the volume up above its maximum.

Another question that I am often asked is “Do we need to provide a transcript for all the audio recordings we make?”. This question again is another barrier (excuse) that stops people using audio, as the time to create such a transcript puts them off.

Personally, my interpretation of the law (and I am not a lawyer – so do not take this as legal advice) is as follows:

The law (Equality Act 2010) states that

  1. We have to make reasonable adjustment.
  2. We have an anticipatory duty, to be prepared for a variety of disabilities and associated possible adaptations.

So – what does that mean? Part 1 is simple – yes if we are using audio and we have a learner who states that they need a transcription then we need to provide it.

Part 2 – is more tricky. Many people interpret this as we should produce the transcripts upfront, but this doesn’t make sense to me, as if we followed that logic through it would mean for every session someone delivers, they would have to turn up with their resources printed on a variety of colours of paper, in different fonts sizes and fonts, and in audio format, Braille format, videoed as British Sign Language etc. This to me wouldn’t be a reasonable expectation.

So I don’t automatically provide transcripts, however what I have done with a few organisations that I have worked with is ensure that there is a mechanism in place to create such transcripts if required (e.g. if a student asks for one) – very quickly (this I think is a reasonable adjustment). Many people ask me if there is a technological solution to converting audio to text, and sadly there isn’t a fully reliable one, so my solution would be to just employ a very fast typing temp, who could listen to the audio files, and transcribe them. The problem here is many organisation would then argue over whose budget would pay for this temp (e.g. is it central, is it the teaching team(s), is it learner support). Personally I think it should be a central budget – as the key here would be getting it done quickly and the organisation should have a procedure in place to do this if a student requests it. I am aware that most organisations don’t, which is a shame as it would be a very simple mechanism to put in place.

So in summary – we should not avoid using audio on accessibility grounds, instead we should embrace it, if we can make sure that audio recordings are clear and recorded at above average volume then great. If we do produce transcripts up front then brilliant but of not possible then having a mechanism in place to create them should suffice.

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‘Flipping eL’ – ‘The Flipped Classroom’ – part 2 – One size doesn’t fit all!

In my previous post I introduced my opinion on the notion of the ‘Flipped Classroom’. In general I think this is a model that may have potential for certain learners on certain courses in certain situations, the problem is there are many situations were this won’t work, and my fear is that organisations will try to implement a 1 size fits all approach which invariably becomes a 1 size fits none.

Different sizes of boots

One size doesn’t fit all

For the flipped classroom to work, the notion has to be fully embedded, understood, and embraced by the tutors and learners to be successful. When I was at school, doing my GCSE subjects, we had a homework timetable where on each evening we would have 3 different subjects worth of homework – each 30mins long, and as students we did this without exception – so in this situation the flipped classroom could work – however I was lucky enough to have passed my 12+ and ended up at a very good Grammar School. I don’t think this model would work with schools that have less motivated students, or ones where students have less supportive family home lives. If you have a mixed group of students, where some do the necessary preparatory work, and others don’t the risk is that parts of the face to face sessions, would be spent trying to ‘catch up’ those that didn’t do their prep work – which would annoy those that did and seriously weaken the model. There will also be a fear from the school managers of the impact on league table positions, which I would see resulting in extra work for the teachers as they try to accomodate the needs of the less motivated students, to ensure they don’t do worse than the previous model.

If we look at HE, hopefully learners are more self motivated, better at managing their time and want to learn – so again there is potential that this could work – but I think we would need to advertise clearly before students enrol on a course, that this is the intended model, so that they can make a conscious decision as to whether they would prefer this model or not, and if not they then choose an alternate provider. If students have signed up for a course at an institution, and then suddenly we introduce this model without discussion with them, then I would expect an element of dissatisfaction from them, and if they are paying up to £9K per year for the privilege then in my opinion, dissatisfaction just isn’t an option.

The most interesting area for this model is FE – which is where I started my lecturing career. The norm within traditional FE is that students don’t get ‘homework’ the same as they did at school, so there isn’t the culture within FE for students to do out of class hours (unless it is an assessed piece of work). Many doing FE courses also have part-time work, and those on courses like BTECs will have huge amounts of coursework to negotiate leaving them no extra time for this model. The only way that this time could be created, would be to reduce the teaching timetable – but the risk of that is the learners just spend the time doing more part-time work, or other distracting activity, so I foresee the need to have ‘monitored’ class time where the learners sit in a classroom doing their prep – but this then self defeats the point of the process.

Where this model may work very well within FE is if learners actively choose to study their courses via a mixture of face to face and online delivery methods – This model had been difficult in the past to achieve as the funding model required a recording of the guided learning hours, so it was very difficult to quantify and record the proportion of time spent on the online elements – and because the college didn’t want its funding reduced had to deliver the same full number of contact hours. Changes to the funding mechanism in recent years means that FE qualifications will have a notional numbers of hours from which the funding model is based, however these hours do not have to be accounted for down to the last minute as was previous. This opens a lot of potential new avenues for FE colleges and Work Based Learning providers in particular, but from my experience as a freelance consultant, most organisations are not moving forward quickly in this area – one exception is Loughborough College, and in particular the sport courses – with whom I have been working on these things for a few years now. They have been delivering online learning at FE level very successfully for about 5 years, mainly to elite athletes for whom the demands of training and competition prevent them accessing a traditional face to face based course.

In a subject like sport there is always going to be a need for some face to face element, in order to access specialist equipment, in order to teach elements such as coaching, massage etc. and for a tutor to accurately assess the practices of the learners. So if a learner is choosing a course such as sport but they want to learn primarily through online learning – then this is where the flipped classroom can work. If the online content element of the course is thorough and well designed, then it is possible for the majority of the teaching and learning to take place via this medium – then learners come together at key times (e.g. for an intensive days or days) in which to cover the practical elements – but hopefully with some pre-knowledge so their time in the lab or gym is maximised.

The problem that most organisations face, and FE colleges in particular – is the diversity of the types of the courses offered (and the types of learners that study them) – means that each course would need its own unique model of doing this (if they went down this route) – but that is harder to roll out, and harder to manage. I have worked with a couple of colleges recently who are seriously looking at the model of the flipped classroom, and I am concerned that they are trying to enforce a model of ‘1 size fits all’ onto all of their courses – which I think will result in problems.

My next posts in this series will be trying to analyse some of the benefits and problems that this model would bring, and look at how an organisation could go about implementing this model if they do go with it.