Four AT innovations in 2020 that could help combat challenges of the pandemic

Four AT innovations in 2020 that could help combat challenges of the pandemic

There seems to be a national day for everything. Some are just plain ridiculous – anyone planning on celebrating ‘Pretend to be a time traveller day’? However, some national days are useful at highlighting a particular issue. The 18th November – 20th December is UK Disability History Month. It was while I was researching UK Disability History Month that I came across an article by the World Health Organisation that stated ‘only one in ten people in need have access to assistive technology’. There can be a whole host of reasons behind this figure such as lack of availability, training and/or funding etc. Assistive technology (AT) is such a broad term covering everything from toothbrushes to robots and with new products frequently coming onto the market it can be difficult to make sure you’re aware of all the new developments. That’s why this month, at the end of 2020, I decided to share with you my favourite AT finds from the past 12 months. I’d love to know your thoughts on any of the below AT, especially if you have had any first-hand experience of it. Also let me know if you think there’s a new and innovative AT that I missed off my list.

1. Robots vs poor mental health

There’s no denying 2020 has seen the topic of mental health come to the foreground. With local and national lockdowns causing large amounts of the country to spend time away from friends and family, people have been dealing with mental health conditions that they may not have experienced prior to the pandemic. One of the main issues being loneliness. Earlier this year robots were used in a number of care homes to help tackle the issue of loneliness.

The robots can move independently and gesture with robotic arms and hands. After some initial programming, the robots can learn about the interests of the care home residents, have basic conversations with them and even play their favourite music or teach them a new language.

Trials showed care home residents who interacted with the robots had a significant improvement in their mental health. You may think this sounds like something from a sci-fi film, I know I did when I read about it, but robots are not a new concept. Is this not just a step up from having Siri or Alexa available at the sound of your voice?

Before the pandemic it was reported that 45% of adults feel occasionally, sometimes or often lonely in England. This equates to twenty million people. Research by Sense has shown that up to 50% of disabled people will be lonely on any given day. Could we eventually live in a world where robots are commonplace to prevent feelings of loneliness? Not sure it gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling, but this is certainly a positive use of innovative technology for a very current, growing issue.

2. Smart glove signing vs face mask barriers

With social distancing coming into effect and face coverings become the literal must-have fashion accessory, 2020 has made us rethink the way we communicate with each other. The way you communicate with someone should empower you, not restrict you.

Earlier this year, bioengineers in America revealed a glove that can translate American Sign Language to speech in real time. The glove contains thin, stretchable sensors which run to the fingertips and can pick up motions and finger placement thanks to electronically conducting yarn – I’m not sure you’ll find that on the shelves in Hobbycraft! The device turns the finger movements into electrical signals which are sent to a small piece of circuit board (about the same size of a coin) which the user wears on their wrist. The circuit board then transmits these signals, via Bluetooth, to an app on your smartphone or tablet which will then display what has been signed.

This AT could not have come at a better time. AT can help people with hearing impairments communicate with a wider audience, whilst maintaining their social distance. However, it’s important to not take AT developments, like this one, for granted. I will still be increasing my sign language vocabulary so that I can also communicate with a wider audience.

Last year eQS held a lunch ‘n’ learn session on sign language, which was one of my favourite lunch ‘n’ learn sessions ever. Thanks to the session, and a campaign we ran during Deaf Awareness Week this year, I can sign ‘Hello. My name is Emma’ and ‘Stay home. Stay safe,’ and hopefully we will have another workshop next year so I can pick up some basic conversational skills.

3. Reading devices vs too much screen time

Earlier this year the OrCam Read was released and I was lucky enough to try it out. It is a portable reading device, created to support those with visual impairments but also as an aid for dyslexia or reading fatigue.

Trying this first-hand was a useful way of understanding how this could empower individuals with dyslexia or reading fatigue. With remote learning becoming the norm in 2020, some students have found it difficult to adapt to this new way of learning, which has increased our screen time. The OrCam Read helps them learn independently while they are away from the conventional classroom setting. As I found out first-hand, it can also help with day-to-day activities like baking that instagrammable banana bread we all tried our hand at during lockdown.

The device has two modes. Frame mode, where a frame appears that you position around the specific text you want read aloud, and pointer mode which displays a single red dot which allows you to more accurately select a specific word to start reading from.

I started a new book called ‘Three Women’ by Lisa Taddeo and used this as an opportunity to try it out. After staring at a laptop all day, it was nice to have something read aloud to me and saved straining my eyes, especially with it getting dark about 3pm at the moment. I also used it while I was whipping up some mince pies. I got the OrCam Read to snapshot the whole recipe then, using the pause, play and skip buttons, I had the recipe read to me as I went along.

4. Eye-movement control vs isolation

The world’s first eye-controlled device for iPad Pro was also released this year. Skyle has two tracing devices which detect your eye movement and turns them into pointer movements on your iPad, enabling users with conditions such as cerebral palsy, ALS and spinal cord injuries to use all the features of their iPad Pro.

By having this functionality users can experience new independence and benefits that come from being able to easily stay in contact with friends and family electronically via Zoom calls and social media. Something that has become the norm during the pandemic, especially for those having to shield at home for falling into a higher risk category.

Sadly, the Skyle is only available to use with iPad Pros but a year ago this device wasn’t even on the market so hopefully, as more people discover it and the demand for variations becomes apparent, it will become available for all devices.

To see how empowering this particular AT is to someone who is suffering from ALS, check out the review below, which was written by only using the Skyle:

What will the future hold?

AT users can experience greater independence thanks to new AT developments, and as Pretend to Be a Time Traveller Day took place this month why not envision how you think AT could progress in the future? Do you have an innovative idea? Or is there an issue that isn’t currently supported any existing AT? Just think, if the above innovations happened over the last year, imagine what could be available in five, ten, even twenty years? Maybe we’ll see AT go to infinity and beyond.

“A problem shared is a problem halved”. Three techniques that are driving positive conversations about mental health in 2021.

“A problem shared is a problem halved”. Three techniques that are driving positive conversations about mental health in 2021.

Congratulations! You have made it to the end of January. It’s no secret January can be one of the toughest months of the year when it comes to mental health. On top of its usual challenges, January this year was like no other due to the global pandemic. With this in mind I wanted to look at the positives out there, so I have been looking at innovative resources that are available to support people’s mental health.

As I was researching this topic one thing stood out. The main concept across the three resources I discovered was to get people talking about mental health. Dr Adrian James, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has recently been reported as saying the coronavirus crisis poses the greatest threat to mental health since the second world war. Therefore, now more than ever it is important people don’t suffer in silence and know mental health is not a taboo subject. In a survey conducted by Time to Change, 61% of people asked said mental health stigma and discrimination is as worse as the problem itself. The pandemic has brought a new reality that we are all experiencing together. It’s created a sense of comradery which people are drawing on to discuss mental health. It’s important though that we don’t lose this post-Covid and still encourage conversations around mental health. Let me know via the comments at the end of this blog of any other mental health initiatives you’ve discovered that you think should be on the list below.

1. Nationwide awareness campaigns to get people talking

There are several mental health national days and weeks that run throughout the year such as Mental Health Awareness Week (18th – 24th May), National Suicide Prevention Day (10th September) and World Mental Health Awareness Day (10th October). The most recent mental health national day, Time to Talk Day, takes place next week (4th February) and aims to get people talking about mental health. During the run up to and on Time to Talk Day last year 2.26 million people talked about their mental health more than they usually would.

Time to Talk Day is about encouraging people to let someone know you’re listening, creating space to share openly, and being there for someone who may be struggling with their mental health.

Thanks to technology, even though we may be in lockdown, we can still take part in Time to Talk Day. This year they have created a card game, which aims to help open up the conversation around mental health. The cards contain different questions which one person reads out. Everyone else then guesses which answer the reader would choose. Their choice is then revealed and everyone discusses what was chosen and why. By having more than one scenario a conversation is more likely to occur as there are more options to discuss. You can download the cards here.

Mental health problems aren’t going to go away once the pandemic is over. Statistically, 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year. The amount of people with common mental health problems went up by 20% between 1993 to 2014, in both men and women. To tackle mental health problems, we need to talk about mental health and listen to those conversations when they take place.

2. Social media entertainment that starts a trending conversation

Actor, comedian and mental health advocate, Joe Tracini, first piqued my interest during the first lockdown thanks to his flamboyant dance routines that he posted on Twitter (more on those later). However, he has been using his platform for a few years to open up and discuss his Borderline Personality Disorder and the effect this has on his mental health. Joe’s philosophy being; “if you feel alone tell somebody how you feel, and then you won’t be.” Joe has also often been educational with his humour, posting split screen videos where one half shows him and the other half shows his Borderline Personality Disorder. As someone who did not have much knowledge of Borderline Personality Disorder, I found these videos very powerful and interesting. They use humour to provide an insight into what Joe, and many others, are experiencing.

When lockdown started Joe decided to share his love of dance with the world to give him, and us, something else to concentrate on. Joe donned a sparkly leotard and talked his followers through unique dance moves such as ‘beef toe right’, ‘half eaten lobster’ and ‘bag for life’ (you need to see to understand – click to watch). These videos soon went viral and saw Joe appear on Good Morning Britain and even The Morning Show in Australia. Joe then used these platforms to encourage more people to open up about their mental health.

In July it was reported that Twitter’s daily use numbers had jumped 24 percent since the start of the pandemic, while Facebook’s numbers were up 27 percent, making social media the perfect tool for starting conversations about mental health. However, if you find yourself doomscrolling, (consuming a large quantity of negative online news at once) why not put your phone down and bust out a ‘beef toe right’ or a ‘half eaten lobster’?

3. Digital learning resources that help build courage to talk

I don’t know about you but my phone is littered with apps. If I can’t be bothered to cook, I’ll open Deliveroo. When I’ve gone for a run, I’ll look at Strava to see how I’ve performed and when I’m in need of a pick me up I’ll log in to TikTok. While I was researching this blog I came across a mental health app called Woebot.

Woebot is an app which features an interesting concept that uses an AI therapy chatbot. It’s designed to help you monitor your mood using conversation.

Messenger apps are being used more than phone calls or text messages as a way of having conversations. In 2019 there were 65 billion WhatsApp messages being sent daily. It therefore makes sense that Woebot is set up just like messenger apps such as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. I’m sure this familiarity would appeal to a generation that has grown up with the internet. Within seconds of it downloading I was talking to Woebot and gaining an insight into my mental health and because it felt familiar straight away, I was not left wondering what different buttons or menus do.

The app’s main function is to start conversations around mental health. One user said that they often use Woebot as ‘practice’ for talking to her friends and family about issues that might be affecting her. This idea of learning about yourself to gain courage to open up is something our team has built into the development of Learning Labs Plus. Our inhouse mental wellness tool (coming soon) is designed to empower people with knowledge around mental wellness. People can use our e-learning portal to learn about the subject of mental health, regularly assess their own mental wellness, take positive action to develop their mental wellness and then even share their account with a mentor to help guide their learning journey.

I don’t know about you but my phone is littered with apps. If I can’t be bothered to cook, I’ll open Deliveroo. When I’ve gone for a run, I’ll look at Strava to see how I’ve performed and when I’m in need of a pick me up I’ll log in to TikTok. While I was researching this blog I came across a mental health app called Woebot.

Woebot is an app which features an interesting concept that uses an AI therapy chatbot. It’s designed to help you monitor your mood using conversation.

Messenger apps are being used more than phone calls or text messages as a way of having conversations. In 2019 there were 65 billion WhatsApp messages being sent daily. It therefore makes sense that Woebot is set up just like messenger apps such as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. I’m sure this familiarity would appeal to a generation that has grown up with the internet. Within seconds of it downloading I was talking to Woebot and gaining an insight into my mental health and because it felt familiar straight away, I was not left wondering what different buttons or menus do.

The app’s main function is to start conversations around mental health. One user said that they often use Woebot as ‘practice’ for talking to her friends and family about issues that might be affecting her. This idea of learning about yourself to gain courage to open up is something our team has built into the development of Learning Labs Plus. Our inhouse mental wellness tool (coming soon) is designed to empower people with knowledge around mental wellness. People can use our e-learning portal to learn about the subject of mental health, regularly assess their own mental wellness, take positive action to develop their mental wellness and then even share their account with a mentor to help guide their learning journey.

Technology today can help us understand more about ourselves, which sometimes is the first step to being able to share that with someone else.

Let’s talk

In the spirit of this blog I’d love to start a conversation around mental health. Let me know in the comments if you have experience with any of the above (I’d particularly like to hear if you have tried one of Joe’s dance routines!) Do you feel you’ve had more conversations around mental health over the past few months or have you not noticed a difference? Either way I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Watch this space as we will be talking more about supporting mental wellness in the coming months when Learning Labs Plus is officially launched.

I’d like to end with a quote from Joe Tracini which I think everyone could benefit from weather you’re reading this after living through January during a global pandemic or sat at your desk in a busy office in a post-Covid world.

“I always try to find laughter. Even at the moment, with everything that’s happening, I’m looking for laughter. Right now, laughter is playing hide and seek with us. It’s everywhere, so turn around, count to ten, open your eyes and start looking.”

Three mental wellbeing initiatives that are bringing joy to students

Three mental wellbeing initiatives that are bringing joy to students

How are higher education students going to be supported with their mental health during a pandemic? If you know of any initiatives I’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Mental health has always been a topic close to my heart. Working within education I am particularly interested in students’ mental health and this year’s university students are going to have a very different experience to what you or I had. Packed lecture theatres are, for now, a thing of the past, and freshers are having to form important new friendships whilst also maintaining social distance. This is bound to impact mental health, so I started to look into what new initiatives might be in place this coming year.

In 2015/16, over 15,000 first-year students in UK universities reported that they had a mental health problem, compared to just 3,000 back in 2006. Today, three-quarters of adults with a mental illness will first experience symptoms before the age of 25. We are now in unprecedented times as we navigate our way through a global pandemic. Around half of all young adults will access higher education by the time they are 30, pandemic or not. So, now, more than ever there is a great need for mental health support. This is a very serious crisis, but the methods of providing support are fun and they are designed to bring joy – so read on as we delve into the uplifting solutions offered from within UK Higher Education.

1. The science of happiness course

In 2018 Bristol University launched a ten-week Science of Happiness course, creating a delightful opportunity for students to learn about wellbeing. The course was inspired by Yale University’s Psychology and Good Life course, which was the most popular in the university’s history with one in four students enrolling.

In the first year Bristol University made the ten-week course optional. It had no impact on the student’s overall grade. With no incentive other than to learn about their mental health, 400 students signed up to the course, highlighting the demand for mental health education.

Due to popularity, the course returned in 2019, this time counting towards 20 of the students 120 credits for their first year. The course starts by asking students to measure their own happiness levels and discover personal strengths, which will then be developed and reflected upon as the course plays out. Lectures cover a range of topics including how our minds distort happiness, the role of culture in happiness and a look at whether happiness is in our genes. Students are asked to try one of seven happiness exercises such as sleeping more, meditating and practising random acts of kindness.

You can find out more about the course here.

2. Therapy pets

Therapy pets are service animals that are trained to provide affection and comfort, which is as wonderful as it sounds! There are charities that can bring animals to visit people on site in places such as hospitals, care homes and universities to provide support in various stressful environments. You may think that concept of therapy pets sounds like a new fad however there is evidence of therapy pets being used as far back as ancient Greece where they would use horses to lift the spirits of the severely ill. Not sure how I would feel about a horse at my bedside!

In a university setting, therapy pets are more popular in the US with around 1,000 campuses using them. However, popularity is starting to rise in the UK. The University of Middlesex has recently put ‘canine teaching assistants’ on the staff to try and prevent lonely students from dropping out. Several students have said the canine teaching assistants have made them feel more connected to home as they missed their own family pet.

I know first-hand how effective therapy pets can be on your mental health. When I attended the University of Sunderland, we would frequently get visits from farm animals as a form of stress therapy. There is something about seeing a farm animal in an unexpected setting that took me out of the day-to-day life of university and immediately put a smile on my face. For those few minutes I was petting a goat, holding a rabbit or just watching the ducks waddle around I totally forgot about any deadlines I had looming or exams I needed to revise for. Just writing about it is making me smile. One study has found that playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax you. I imagine the same must be true, to some extent, of interacting with any animal be it a dog or a goat. I would feel calm for hours after a visit from our farm yard friends.

3. Partnerships with Mind

Ten universities across the UK, including University of Bath, University of Sheffield and Teesside University are taking part in the Mentally Healthy Universities programme, in partnership with Mind. The programme wants to reach over 6,000 students and aim to achieve its five goals by August 2021:

Ensure students are equipped to manage their mental health and thrive at university.
Ensure students have the knowledge and tools to build their resilience.
Ensure students are prepared to manage their mental health in future employment.
Reduce stigma and improve peer support for university staff.
Make positive changes to the way universities think and act about mental health.
The programme has got off to a great start. During the first year over 85 per cent of students had a better understanding of mental health problems and wellbeing. Over 90 per cent of students who took part in the ‘tools and techniques to manage your mental health’ course said they were more confident looking after their mental health and 100 per cent said they would recommend the course to a friend. Who can argue with stats like that?

Programmes like this just show that giving someone the tools to maintain their mental health is proving successful. It’s also something I witnessed first-hand at a recent webinar series we ran. Our keynote speaker was a mental health expert and in her 30-minute talk, which discussed a few simple techniques to maintaining positive wellbeing, we saw a clear shift in the audience’s attitude towards remote working. Check out the before and after mood boards below:

2020…and beyond

There’s no denying that this year has provided a unique set of challenges that have called for us to be more aware of our mental health. When lockdown hit, I decided to download the couch to 5K app. At first it was a way to get fit and do something worthwhile with my time outside. I quickly grew to love it and could feel the benefits it was having on my mental health. As I’ve mentioned above, our own mental health is unique. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you. That’s why I find it really positive that universities are trying different ways to support their students. They know mental health isn’t a one size fits all and you don’t know what is going to fit if you don’t try.

I’ve written this blog to get the conversation rolling so don’t be shy – let me know your thoughts on these mental health initiatives. Do you know of any different initiatives that universities are using? Do you think this is money well spent? Do you think there will still be a need after the pandemic?

It doesn’t just have to be comments about my blog. Feel free to leave pictures of your pets, even if they aren’t a trained therapy pet. After all, it has been scientifically proven that animals can boost your mood.

CPD Rev TV

CPD Rev TV

CPD Rev TV is running half-day sessions in January and February 2021. Within each half-day event you will have the opportunity to attend four breakout sessions. Each breakout session will last 15 minutes and will be hosted by one of our specialist AT partners. There are eight specialist AT partners to choose from. You can pick which four sessions you would like to attend when you make your booking.

The post-pandemic future: Embracing the new-world sense of community and connection. (To boldly go where no one has gone before!)

As a child of the sixties (just) and an unapologetic Star Trek fan I couldn’t resist the sub title and think it’s very relevant to the current situation. As lockdown starts to ease, our thoughts areon a return to a new normality; something that will feel familiar, and yet strangely unknown at the same time as it comes with a new set of rules around ways of interacting. We, like many businesses, are looking at ways we can safely have our teams working together under one roof. We also host a live event series across the UK for DSA professionals, in the form of ‘The CPD Revolution’ event series, for which we have also had to think about how these events can safely take place in a post-pandemic world.

What is the post-pandemic world though and what does that look like? What does ‘low-touch society’ mean? Is there a start point… or even an end point? And what will people’s personal response be to a world that is trying to reconnect people physically? These are just a few of the many questions, which I’m sure everyone is considering daily. Many business people’s thoughts are “well the world hasn’t changed while we’ve been hibernating” on which, my view is “but we have!”, and we as business leaders have a duty to help re-shape the world to respond accordingly.

Looking ahead into an undefined future can easily feel overwhelming and unattainable, which is also easy to see how people’s mental health has been so affected by the pandemic.

But there are also some great positives that can be taken from this strange period of limbo; the main one being this new sense of community we have managed to create and we should hold on to, even post-pandemic.

Creating a new sense of community

You may not realise it but you have probably joined lots of new communities during lockdown, not to mention the global sense of community we now have in seeing out the pandemic. 

Lockdown has allowed people to reclaim time to learn new instruments, languages and take up new hobbies. Many people have also developed their work-based knowledge and furloughed employees have been encouraged to undertake continued professional development (CPD). Families and friends have spent more time talking, especially with loved ones they wouldn’t normally see, as the weekly Zoom call has become the norm. Lockdown has even convinced my Dad that there is a use for the Amazon Echo which had sat collecting dust since Christmas 2018!

Through digital connections we are able to continue to learn and feel part of something bigger than just our ourselves. There are local choirs, pub quizzes and even virtual cheese and wine tasting clubs you can all join online! This opportunity for digital experiences is not only great for the future economy but more importantly, also opens up doors for us all to explore our own mental wellbeing.

For our business, by the time Coronavirus hit, we had booked a sold-out CPD event series across eight UK-wide locations and the challenge of lockdown came into play just nine days ahead of our first scheduled event. We didn’t want this community that depended on us, that we had worked hard to nurture, to then suddenly disappear or feel abandoned at such a crucial time. We felt we had no choice; we had to innovate. With everyone still wanting to learn and stay connected we knew there was still a need for The CPD Revolution events to take place, especially with mental wellness being a key component of the event, but what should they look like?

How do you run a live CPD event during lockdown?

The simple answer is… you don’t. Just like the 2020 Olympics, Wimbledon and Glastonbury, for the safety of all involved, our CPD Revolution live events would have to be postponed…twice as it happens.

Rather than draw a line under it, we immediately started thinking of innovative ways we could maintain our CPD Revolution community and the most obvious option was to deliver it online. Internally, our staff were already staying connected remotely with daily stand-ups on video calls. However, there were also new ‘pandemic world’ challenges we would face in presenting an external event online. This would no longer be the ‘hands-on’ experience we had marketed – how could we still create the sense of interaction, connection, and socialising people experienced at our live events? Would people even want to attend now?

We started with clear communication, sharing honest updates on email and social media, keeping our community informed. We were aware that many people who would like to attend may now be juggling other commitments such as caring for ill family members or home-schooling young children. We therefore made it easier to attend by splitting the day into two halves. This allowed people to choose to attend as much, or as little, of the event that time permitted.

It wasn’t just a case of moving all the offline content online. The topics covered would have to differ slightly to reflect the world we were now living in. DSA assessments and AT training were now moving to a remote setting, something that many assessors, trainers and students have rarely experienced before. We made this the main focus and ensured all the partner-delivered content related back to the main theme of assessing, training, working and learning remotely.

We were also acutely aware that people were now, more than ever, becoming concerned about their (and their loved ones’) mental health. We worked with our keynote to create a headline address for the conference that would give attendees motivation and resources to support their mental health and wellbeing during lockdown.

To encourage people to interact and feel engaged, even while attending remotely, we would pose questions, using live polls and the chat feed. This really gave a sense of being part of the event, even when you may be sat in a flat, 300 miles away, living completely alone.

Furthermore, to help attendees feel valued and connected, we also ended the final session of each day with 15 minutes where attendees could use the platform to simply network and talk to each other. 

Overall, there was a 27% increase in the amount of people that attended compared to the amount signed up to our live events – and one event even sold out (the platform wouldn’t allow for more sign ups!) This told us that not only had we managed to maintain our events community, but we had also grown it during what has been an incredibly difficult time for all.

What will the future hold?

I think it is safe to say that no one is quite sure what the answer to this is and actually I quite like the challenges that brings (on most days of the week). I doubt anyone a year ago would have predicted what 2020 would hold and probably just as well, but the truth is, we have all found out how resilient and resourceful we really are. There is no denying that this year has seen us all adapt in our personal and work lives whether it be working remotely whilst home schooling, queuing to enter the supermarket or seeing loved ones online rather than in person. The majority of these changes will eventually become a distant memory, but some are here to stay, and we can and MUST embrace that. I, like many of you, have used this time to attend webinar after webinar for my own personal development, not all great but always useful to see what others do. One quote that was mentioned on one of the early webinars I attended stuck with me throughout lockdown and will remain in my thoughts well beyond… ”Be the change you wish to see” – Mahatma Gandhi. We must ensure we find a way to use this crisis as a real catalyst for change and re-invention in both our personal and professional lives. Let’s keep the good things we have learned during lockdown and use our experiences to ensure we continue to make changes for good and don’t just slip back to “the norm”!

I believe the complement of in-person and digital connections in our working, learning, training and personal lives will continue on. Our business evolution into an online programme of CPD has grown an even stronger sense of community, on a platform that was not even part of our plan six months ago but is certainly now here to stay. 

We look forward to holding our live CPD events, but only when it is safe to do so. Our aim is to retain the user experience of previous CPD live events as much as possible, as well as incorporating the new rules of social distancing. We will also use this as an opportunity to think ‘outside the box’ (yes, I hate that phrase too but it works well here) and come up with new additions that we previously just wouldn’t have thought of. There are going to be many issues to take into account, some of which we have never considered before when facilitating a live event. Precautions we are already implementing include all venues having clearly marked walk-ways, replacing a buffet style lunch with pre-plated food and spacing all seating. So that attendees know what to expect, we will communicate the new health and safety measures prior to the event. And just as we adapted earlier in the year, I am confident we can adapt once again to produce effective, safe, live events.

Like any other business it’s important to use the changing times to innovate, whilst ensuring staff, customers and stakeholders all stay connected and feel valued. If the pandemic has taught me one thing, it is to cherish the new sense of community and connection we now have. Whilst there has been extreme isolation and fracturing of communities in our society, there has also been an abundance of inspiring stories and new opportunities, and I hope we can cling to those as we move into the undetermined future.

With dates commencing November 2020, sign up to the live CPD events for DSA professionals here: www.cpdrevolution.com.

The new science of e-learning: This time it’s personal.

Personalisation is everywhere. It has become so engrained in our everyday that we probably don’t even recognise it anymore. Amazon recommending products you may like – personalisation. Every marketing email you receive that uses your first name – personalisation. Generation Z or the iGen (people born between 1995 and 2012) are even more familiar with personalisation. They have grown up with social media, online shopping and even their university intranet will be personalised within their own profile.  

Why is personalisation so important when it comes to learning?  

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Learning is very different to shopping on Amazon. Learning is all about forming long-term memories. One of the most important areas of the brain that does this is the limbic system, which includes the amygdala and the hippocampus. For long-term memories to be formed, they have to pass through the amygdala to reach the hippocampus, where they can be sent to long-term storage.  

A recent study took three websites, the Facebook newsfeed, entertainment-orientated Yahoo and the heavily informational New York Times. The study found that “memory scores tend to be higher when stimuli are personally meaningful and provide opportunities for learning”. 

The study concludes by saying that “online activity, which is both personal and social is more immersive, more emotionally engaging, and more cognitively stimulating”. 

Due to the personalisation of the Facebook newsfeed, more memories were generated from this website than the other two, as the content was relevant and meaningful to users’ lives.  

This echoes the reasoning behind personalisation in Learning Labs. We believe our learners must become key drivers in their learning so that it becomes meaningful, valuable and personal to them – and therefore they engage with the portal more. Learning Labs already gives students the chance to learn the same thing in different ways with our Do, Watch, Read, and (more recent) Quiz Labs. However, we wanted to take the personalisation further.  

My most effective way of learning is different to yours

When we started developing our new personalisation features, it was important that the student was always in control and that any new features fitted in with the latest learning design theory and neuroscience findings.  

Many studies have shown that cognitive overload can hinder a student’s learning experience. As is the case when several people talk to you at the same time, having a mix of information on the same page can make it difficult to concentrate. However, it is also important to realise that what could cause cognitive overload for one student may not affect another.  

When students log into Learning Labs, they are now greeted by ‘My workspace’ – a personal learning environment, which they can tailor to meet their needs. The learner has the power to select which Labs are relevant to them based on the Assistive Technology they have been recommended. This drops the relevant Lab suites into their workspace and avoids cognitive overload of unnecessary and irrelevant content.   

Their personal workspace also includes the new ‘engagement dashboard.’ Here the student can see dials and percentages not only to help motivate their learning, but also to show which Lab type they have engaged with the most. This gives the student a clear and concise snapshot into how their learning is developing and helps them to feel a sense of achievement. 

Having this information at their fingertips means the student can personalise their learning experience. They can see particular categories of Lab that they have not engaged with, prompting them to try this learning type rather than continuing to work through the same style of Lab. 

To help the uninterrupted flow of learning (you may recall that feeling when you zone-out and have to take a step back to find your place again), Learning Labs also has a ‘Resume last Lab’ and a ‘Next suggested Lab’ button within ‘My workspace’. This enables the student to jump back in to their learning from where they left off or continue on without distractions in the learning content. These functions emulate social media such as YouTube, Instagram and the latest bite-sized video channel, TikTok. 

The learner is in the driving seat 

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From our knowledge of cognitive overload, we know that these features may not be beneficial to all students all of the time. The human brain is more unique than a fingerprint, so it was important that our new features could be controlled by the user. Students can now add/remove menu and content items at the flick of a switch, creating a unique learning experience for every user. As easily as they are turned off, they can be turned on again.  

Unlike social media, Amazon and those ‘Hey Chris! We thought you might like…’ marketing emails, we want our personalisation to create a truly beneficial experience for the end user. Our personalisation features assist users in achieving their academic potential, which will benefit them beyond their current course. 

See for yourself 

Throughout April and May, Learning Labs is hosting a series of CPD Revolution Online events, which will feature a live demo of our new personalisation features. Click the link below to book your free place on one of these dates and see personalised e-learning in action. Oh, and hear more about the science too. 

https://bit.ly/CPDRevonline  

To read more on the study mentioned in this article, ‘The Premium Experience: Neurological Engagement on Premium Websites,’ click here

Why invest in accessibility? Because we all matter.

Imagine visiting your favourite website. Maybe this means searching for the latest tech gadget or you want to look up that banana bread recipe everyone’s been baking during lockdown. Now imagine you’re on that website but you can’t read the text, or you can’t click a relevant link. Unfortunately, this is too often a reality for the 13.9 million people living with a disability in the UK.  

That’s a total of 22% of the UK population living with a disability. Therefore, for some of the people reading this blog, you will have already experienced a barrier to your online browsing in some form.

Accessing opportunity during lockdown

When the word ‘accessibility’ comes up many people will immediately think of the physical aspects such as wheelchair ramps into buildings or signage in braille. Less people will think about the digital world.

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Even less will think about hidden disabilities and how these can affect day-to-day life and be further amplified during this time of restriction. As a father of two children, who both have hidden disabilities, I’ve seen first-hand how a lack of awareness and accessibility can impact the affected individual and their family.

The current global pandemic is forcing us all to rely on digital resources more than ever. Yet 70% of UK websites are still not fully accessible. It is no surprise then, that 90% of disabled users click away from a website rather than report accessibility issues.

This is why now, more than ever, is a good time to focus on developing the accessibility of our digital landscape and, ultimately, opening our minds to a truly inclusive society.

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Our commitment to supporting accessibility

For me, Global Accessibility Awareness Day is always an ideal time to take stock and set some new goals to actively improve any areas of accessibility within our business.

  • Promoting an inclusive culture at work

As a business that operates in the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) sector, we are lucky to be right on the pulse of new assistive technology launches or updates that can support accessibility.

Plenty of this stuff also makes for brilliant workplace tools and it’s not just for people with specific disabilities – and that’s the key – assistive software publishers have designed their products with total inclusivity in mind from the start. Real design accessibility means a product should be usable by everyone – it does not mean it is designed for one specific disability.

Our staff always use the latest assistive technology to support them at work; for instance, I like to use mind mapping tools when we are coming up with product development ideas. You can put everything down in one diagram and it’s easy to share with the team.

We also run a monthly Lunch ‘n’ Learn programme with workshops often led by staff members for staff members. This has included a sign language workshop, which we recently put into practice to help celebrate Deaf Awareness Week. This was a lot of fun and helped bring the team together whilst we are all working remotely (you can watch a video of our efforts here, which proudly for me includes a guest appearance from my kids).

Our CPD Revolution Online programme has been running for the last two months whilst in lockdown for DSA professionals, this has offered over 6 hours of free CPD on nine different assistive technologies, plus a keynote on mental health. Thankfully, mental health is starting to become a much more prevalent area for people to talk about but is another area which we will be continuing to put a particular focus on in terms of raising awareness in the coming months. Over 95% of our staff were able to log in and attend themselves, helping them to better understand the mental health & accessibility needs of the end users we are supporting every day. 

  • Supporting end-user accessibility

There are a multitude of tools available to disabled internet users. Since 2009, mobile screen reading usage has increased by 70%. It is therefore important our e-learning portal is designed to enable these devices to interpret content correctly. Imagine walking into a cinema and joining a film halfway through or, more likely in my case, being woken up half way through by your disappointed Son. You’ve no idea who is who or what is happening – is the person on screen a hero or a villain? You lack context to understand what is taking place. Website page headers, hover descriptions and alt text provide users with the purpose and context of that particular webpage and of its content. Screen readers can communicate this information to the user aloud, supporting them in their decision making on the page.

The last few years has seen a significant rise in the popularity of video content, but how effective is it if only 78% of your audience can engage with it? This is why captions are so important, and if this isn’t possible then an equally informative, alternative content option should be easily accessible.

At Learning Labs, we don’t want to just tick a box and assume our portal is accessible. We are constantly looking at functions we can add that will support diverse needs. When users now log into the Learning Labs portal they are greeted with their own personal ‘My workspace’ page, as well as personalisation settings to further customise their experience. You can read more about the science behind this personalisation in Chris Collier’s latest blog. Although we are proud of these latest developments, we will never be ‘finished’ because there is no end point to true accessibility – we see our responsibility towards accessibility as a long-term commitment.

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Our team is currently undertaking a project that identifies areas of weakness in the Learning Labs portal and will be working on these to increase our accessibility. For instance, over the coming month we plan to improve the user experience for users where keyboard only navigation is essential with the introduction of consistent shortcut keys, improved tab ordering and active focus indicators.

We know, just like anything in life, there is always room for improvement. We are committed to consistently improving our accessibility and that includes only developing new features in Learning Labs that are inclusive.

How to support Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2020

From our own research into accessibility we know what a complex subject digital accessibility can be. That is why we have put together our ‘is it accessible?’ checklist for use when assessing a digital resource’s accessibility. We also have the CPD Revolution running today, which you can still sign up for, plus there are endless webinars, downloadable documents and conversations happening online that anyone can access.

  • Enquire about our free ‘Is it accessible?’ checklist to help you determine if an AT product meets your requirements. Email info@learninglabs.co
  • Today we are running a live demo of Learning Labs as part of our CPD Revolution Online – this is the final day of the series and you can still sign up here: https://bit.ly/BookCPDOnline
  • Join the accessibility conversation on social media using the hashtag #GAAD today.

There’s no denying the internet is rooted in all that we do. I challenge you to go a day without using it; there would be no Netflix, no social media, no supermarket delivery. In fact, you’d have to stop reading this blog. I also challenge you to try accessing a website for 10 minutes without the use of a mouse just to get a different perspective on accessibility. When something is so engrained in our everyday lives it can be difficult to see its weaknesses or see it from other people’s viewpoint – we just get used to it. Global Accessibility Awareness Day does a great job of highlighting issues, so if you are able to take an action (no matter how small) that generates further awareness, or improves digital accessibility for someone, then I encourage you to do so. If you can’t think of anything else, maybe just share this article with ten friends or have a five minute conversation about accessibility with your family at tea time. Because ultimately, we are all different and we all matter.