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Sophie Shearer looks at how technology is supporting students in higher education

It’s hard to avoid technology. For many of us, it is ingrained in almost every aspect of day-to-day life. It is integral to our social life and how we work, so it makes sense to expect educational institutions to effectively embed technology in their systems and processes.

University can be a life-changing experience that provides opportunities for students to gain knowledge and fulfil their dreams. Technology plays a key role in enhancing this experience for all students and it can really help to break down the barriers that some may face with their learning. 

Advances in technology are accelerating at lightening pace; many of the changes we are witnessing offer fantastic opportunities for disabled students to work independently and overcome difficulties which inhibit their success. In ways that were unimaginable just a few decades ago, technology is being used to help students with disabilities and SEN to attend classes both physically and remotely. 

Students with visual impairments, for example, can “see” objects or people in the classroom with the use of descriptive artificial intelligence tools. Computer apps are also providing  assistance with writing to those with dyslexia, and there are a range of tech solutions to help reduce stress for all and enable students to feel more in control of their studies.

It is important to note, though, that quite often the students with SEN or disabilities who manage to get to university come from very supportive homes and education networks. They can therefore experience a real shock when they are independently studying away from home for the first time and they may find that the strategies that worked for them when completing GCSEs and A Levels are no longer sufficient. 

Sometimes people may be reluctant to disclose their condition to their university or to fellow students, which can lead to difficulties studying, poor results and, for some, mental health concerns relating to pressure and their fear of failure. Students may also have additional health and physical challenges linked to their SEN or disability that can be misunderstood or missed completely by teaching staff and fellow students. IBS, migraines or fibromyalgia, for example, can all have a detrimental impact on learning. 

All students should share how they are feeling with their student support service and find the right technology solutions that work for them.   

Disabled Students’ Allowances

Government funded Disabled Students Allowances (DSA) are available if you are a student with a learning difficulty, health problem or disability. Those who are eligible can receive help with the costs of specialist equipment, including a computer, as well as additional costs incurred relating to non-medical helpers, travel expenses incurred because of a disability, and some other additional costs of studying.  

However, many students don’t know about DSA and miss out on the support they are entitled to. This can be a real own goal, not only for the individual student but also for the university, since students with disabilities who receive DSA have higher continuation rates (91.1 per cent) than non-disabled students (90 per cent) and students with disabilities not in receipt of DSA (87 per cent). They are also more likely to achieve a higher grade. (Higher Education Funding Council, October 2017). DSA can make a huge difference to students’ experiences and attainment at college, as Jose, a former University of Brighton student notes: “The technical support I have had with the team has been very professional and helpful, and I am certain that I would not be able to achieve a degree without the help I received from DSA.” 

DSA reforms in 2016 removed some of the centralised funding for non-medical help and placed responsibility on universities to make this provision. In line with Government policy, higher education institutions need to move away from the medical model of disability and take a holistic, institution-wide approach to remove barriers and create an inclusive learning environment for all.

 Technology plays a big part in this by providing the tools to succeed and providing scalable and personalised self-service information so students can easily access the assistive technology and other support they need. I believe the effective use of technology is fundamental to developing inclusion in our education establishments. 

Types of tech support 

Technological solutions can have a huge impact on learning right across the spectrum of SEN and disabilities. Inclusive design is a key element in both mainstream and specialist software development, and developments which can assist those with SEN and disabilities can also be of great benefit to the population as a whole.

For example, apps designed to assist those with low or no vision can also be incredibly supportive to someone without a visual impairment in bright sunlight, or for someone with a temporary sensitivity to light caused by a migraine. The use of voiceover (or text-to-speech) is an essential tool for many people with physical or hearing impairments. However, this technology, which is increasingly supplied as an inbuilt accessibility feature in computers and mobile devices, is also fantastic for hearing where spelling mistakes or grammatical errors have been made in an email or document. I often use my inbuilt voiceover to proof read blogs before they are published. 

Adaptations such as subtitles for hearing loss can benefit anyone in noisy environments, such as cafes or trains. Apps for those with cognitive impairments or emotional difficulties also offer fantastic benefits for the whole student population. For example, meditations apps recommended for anxiety and metal health conditions are particularly useful for improved sleep quality and encouraging a positive mindset. 

There are many apps that help with mobility that would also benefit anyone with an injury, such as a repetitive strain injury, or perhaps a new parent managing one handed while nursing a baby in the other. Apps that tell you where the best accessibility services are in public areas, or speech-to-text software that doesn’t require someone to type up their notes or messages, can be very helpful here. 

By bringing the conversation about inclusion to the forefront of education and allowing the benefits of technology to assist the whole institution we can improve the university experience for everyone.  

What can we expect in the future?

It’s important to acknowledge how technology is already being used to make education more inclusive, but we should also consider the role it might play in the education of future generations. As a piece on the BBC website highlights (www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-38758980), what students are learning is fundamentally changing, and it’s not just that children are learning the same things as they always were, just on new devices. Developments in artificial intelligence and robotics are already transforming working environments; many of the skills that children today will need when they enter employment are likely to be very different to those found in today’s workplaces. 

 It is time to embrace the potential of technology in education and how it can help people with disabilities, health conditions and SEN to achieve their goals. It will be fascinating to see how higher education institutions continue to adopt and utilise technology to benefit students and make education more inclusive. 

Further information

Sophie Shearer is Student Outreach and Innovation Lead at AbilityNet, a charity which supports people with a disability to use technology at home, at work and in education:
www.abilitynet.org.uk

Information about Disabled Students’ Allowances can be found at: 
www.gov.uk/disabled-students-allowances-dsas

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