Accessibility Awareness Week

Co-hosted by the Teaching Enhancement Unit and DCU Students’ Union, the inaugural DCU Accessibility Awareness Week (May 17th – 21st) aimed to get the DCU community talking, thinking and learning about accessibility and inclusive education. 

The event drew on the expertise of staff within the DCU community and external contributors from across Ireland, the UK and Australia. We are particularly grateful to the following staff who gave so generously of their time in guiding the development of the programme: Donal Fitzpatrick, School of Computing; Rishi Gulati, School of Law and Government; Anne O’Connor, Head of Disability Service; Mary McGovern, Assistive Technology Coordinator; and our external advisor Dara Ryder CEO of AHEAD. 

The Teaching Enhancement Unit’s approach to accessibility is underpinned by the principles of Universal Design for Learning, a framework developed to guide curriculum design to give all students equal opportunities to learn. While Accessibility Awareness Week addressed the broader student experience, the UDL framework was used to frame the teaching and learning aspect of the programme. You can learn more about Universal Design for Learning, and how this framework supports and intersects with Accessibility, on the TEU website. 

The Programme

The programme was officially launched by DCU’s President, Professor Daire Keogh who reaffirmed our commitment to an inclusive university and highlighted some of the fantastic work happening across the University. Mindful of the many demands on staff time, the programme offered a mix of opportunities to engage with the programme.

Staff could dip into a selection of curated online resources; attend 30-minute practical workshops; or take a full hour to listen in and participate with the daily 60 minute panel discussions.

The majority of the workshops and panel discussions were recorded and are available now on the TEU website. Irish Sign Language (ISL) translators were present for the majority of the live events and live captions were available in Zoom. 

The workshops, facilitated by experts from DCU and AHEAD, provided participants with strategies to make ‘small changes’ to their practice to make an impact on accessibility and inclusion. Recordings from these events, and additional supporting resources are available on the TEU website. The Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Unit based in HR, took the opportunity of Accessibility Awareness Week to launch a guideline for staff on Inclusive Ways of Working.

This guideline offers support to staff across the university in adopting inclusive ways of working – from how you design documents, to turning on closed captions for virtual meetings or how to better understand the role of pronouns. 

The panel discussions offered rich food for thought from a range of perspectives including DCU staff, students and external experts in the field of accessibility and inclusive education. These insights will inform future work by the Teaching Enhancement Unit and DCUSU in creating a truly inclusive University experience for both staff and students. Recordings of these panel discussions are available on the TEU website in both video and audio formats. 

An Authentic Student Voice

It was essential to the TEU and DCUSU that an authentic student voice informed the programme of events. Students past and present contributed to the panel discussions throughout the week, offering invaluable insights into their lived experience of accessibility and inclusive education. Tuesday’s student only panel was a true highlight of the week, with rich discussion around the impact of accessibility on the student experience of University

In addition to including the student voice in the panel discussions, students with a lived experience of accessibility were invited to record a brief video to frame the workshop aspect of the programme. Catherine Gallagher, currently a PhD student in the School of Communication, poses four questions to consider in relation to accessibility and inclusion. Catherine’s questions in the above video offer a clear framework for those working in a University context to reflect on accessibility and inclusion in their day to day working practices.

The DCUSU perspective

DCU Students’ Union has long desired to improve the experience for students with disabilities, both nationally and locally. As VP for Welfare & Equality 2020-21, this was a key area of interest of mine for the year. Following on from the success of the Society Accessibility Policy, which I developed alongside the Society Life Committee and the Students with Disabilities Advisory Group (SwD AG), it was a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with the TEU on the inaugural Accessibility Awareness Week.

The key objective for this week was to centre lived experiences of students with disabilities and take those as a lead for how to best improve the teaching and learning experience.

It was truly a pleasure to work alongside the SwD AG and TEU on the project. At each step, the student experience was always considered. 

It was a great honour to chair the Student Panel and facilitate the conversation between Catherine, Bobbie, & Kate. The honesty that the students offered was inspiring and insightful. From that panel, and indeed from the week itself, it was clear that inclusive practices in Higher Education aren’t burdensome. Often, it is small adjustments and some simple questions that go a long way.

I hope to see the week only grow and expand as the years go on, and I’m proud to have been part of its first iteration.

Dean O’Reilly

Plans for 2022

Feedback from participants on the inaugural Accessibility Awareness Week was most positive, and we hope that the event will become a permanent fixture on the DCU calendar.  While this year focused largely on raising accessibility awareness for staff, we aim to broaden the programme towards raising student awareness of accessibility in 2022. A key suggestion from participants was to change the timing of the event. Taking on board this advice, next year’s Accessibility Awareness Week is planned for February 2022. If you are interested in being involved in next year’s event, please contact us at teaching.enhancement@dcu.ie

Thank yous

The TEU and DCUSU would like to thank all of those who contributed to the inaugural Accessibility Awareness Week. 

Trevor Boland, AHEAD (External); Karen Buckley, School of Special & Inclusive Education; Kevin Cogan, DCU student and creator of Dyslex.ie; Lorna Greene, EDI Unit; Donal Fitzpatrick, School of Computing; Catherine Gallagher, PhD student, School of Communications; Tracy Galvin, Queen’s University Belfast (External); Kate Goodman, Vice President for Academic Life, DCUSU; Rishi Gulati, School of Law & Government; Bobbie Hickey, VP for Diversity and Inclusion, DCUSU; David Kennedy, School of Human Development; Evelyn Kelleher, School of Nursing, Psychotherapy and Community Health;  Kate Lister, Open University, UK (External);  Mary McGovern, Information Systems Services; Rob Lowney, Teaching Enhancement Unit; Huy Nguyen, CEO/Founder Enabler Interactive (External);  Anne O’Connor, Disability & Learning Support Service; Michael O’Connor, former DCU student; Lisa Padden, UCD (External);  Nicholas Parsons, Senior Solicitor and Chair of the Disability, Subcommittee of the Law Society of New South Wales Diversity and Inclusion Committee (External);  Donal Rice, National Disability Authority (External); Dara Ryder, AHEAD (External); Ms Renata Zanetti, Independent Consultant (External). 

Moving Large Cohorts Online: A Collaborative Research Journey

Strange Days Indeed!

Over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, with Zoom now at the heart of our new ‘remote’ lives, it is easy to forget that in March 2020, online teaching and learning was a brand new experience for many staff and students. With little time for planning, the initial pivot to remote teaching and learning was very much an emergency response and far from what we would aspire to in terms of online teaching and learning design. As April and May unfolded, it became clear that the emergency pivot online would continue into the new academic year.

This extended period offered the DCU community an opportunity to move past emergency remote teaching and learning provision, and to conceptualize the student learning experience for the online space in a more considered manner.

While the pedagogical redesign of learning activities continued to be undertaken in an emergency context, there was a little more time to consider the needs of both students and staff. Conversations were happening at local and National level around how best to address these needs as we moved into a second semester of remote teaching and learning. 

Against the background of such conversations, a funding call from the DCU Educational Trust, sparked an idea for a potential research study for Ann Marie Farrell, Lecturer in the School of Special and Inclusive Education.

Having a wealth of experience and expertise in large cohort teaching and learning, Ann Marie was particularly concerned about the implications of the emergency pivot to remote teaching and learning for students and staff in such contexts.

The invitation to get involved in the project was a ‘no-brainer’ for the Teaching Enhancement Unit (TEU) contingent (*Karen Buckley, Mark Glynn, Rob Lowney and Suzanne Stone). As the Unit planned for a second semester supporting staff around remote teaching and learning, insights on the particular challenges of the large cohort context would be invaluable.  Seán Smyth (4th year Bachelor of Education student) completed our research team, adding an incisive student perspective

Meeting the Challenge

Having successfully secured funding for the research project, reality struck! The prospect of fitting an additional piece of work into our schedules at such a demanding time was frankly terrifying.

It was important to the team that the research would offer practical support for DCU staff as we moved into the next academic year, adding the additional challenge of a short timeframe.

Despite these challenges the project structure took shape and the collaborative and supportive team environment enabled the work to progress at the required pace. The purpose of the study was determined as follows:

  • To shed light on the sudden transition of DCU’s large classes (100+ students) from the face-to-face teaching and learning setting to the online environment in March 2020 from the perspectives of staff and students; 
  • To contextualise the findings arising from the examination of the transition referred to above by reviewing relevant literature; and
  • To inform the work (a) of academics in DCU teaching large-class cohorts and (b) of DCU’s academic developers and learning technologists, supporting them in this endeavour, as large programmes and modules move online in the forthcoming academic year.

This three-fold purpose guided our research design and data collection process with data collected from three sources: (1) a rapid, systematised review of relevant literature; 2) surveys of DCU students and staff who experienced the recent pivot of their large classes online; and (3) information relating to the TEU teaching supports provided to staff during the period March-June 2020. The support of the DCU Educational Trust allowed us to outsource the data analysis which would not have been tenable for the team to complete within our short project timeframe. 

Just in Time Sharing

Our research team was committed to publishing guidelines for staff, as soon as possible, to support them in redesigning the large-class learning environment for the 2020/21 academic year. While the full report was not ready for publication, in early September 2020 a set of summary guidelines, drawing on the findings of the research, was collated and circulated to staff within DCU.

Moving Large Face-to-face Classes Online, provided timely guidance for staff across four key aspects of teaching online: curriculum design in the online space; teaching; learning and engagement; and assessment.

The guidance document was structured to offer both immediate and ongoing advice, thus supporting staff in the immediate context and also for online or hybrid contexts that are likely to increase in the future beyond COVID-19. In addition, the research team was committed to sharing the initial findings and guidance document with those teaching and learning in Higher Education beyond the DCU community. The findings were shared at several national and international events from June 2020, and we hope to continue this dissemination in the coming months. 

From Challenge to Opportunity

While the study was borne of challenging times, we feel that the crisis placed a spotlight on teaching and learning and offered us as practitioners in Higher Education an invaluable opportunity to reflect on what constitutes good teaching and learning.  While the focus was on the large cohort teaching context, we feel that the findings can inform practice in all teaching and learning contexts.

The final research report was published in February of this year and the warm response on social media and the engagement statistics have been most rewarding for the research team. Our hope is that this small research project offers some support for those teaching and learning in large cohort contexts, both in the current remote teaching context and into the future, which seems inevitably to include an increased level of remote and hybrid teaching and learning.

*Note: Karen Buckley has since taken up the role of Assistant Professor at the School of Special and Inclusive Education, Institute of Education.