Why invest in accessibility? Because we all matter

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.

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.

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.

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.

Turning new challenges into new opportunities in light of 12th November 2020 – uni dropout day

Turning new challenges into new opportunities in light of 12th November 2020 – uni dropout day

You may not know but today, Thursday 12th November, is an important date. Aside from being the 30th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for the World Wide Web, a survey by London’s New College of the Humanities found that 12th November was the date when first-year students are most likely to drop out of university. Today we are in the midst of a global pandemic and the challenges facing new students are therefore greater than ever before – could 2020 see the highest dropout rate to date? Or could the peak date move earlier? A more important question we are all thinking about in the sector is, how can we better support students?

The life of a university student is, most of the time, a positive one. Students arrive on campus, go to lectures, go to a party or two, make new friends, take exams, complete coursework and graduate. However, like any area of life there can be challenges, which in a worst-case scenario results in the student dropping out and missing out on their opportunity at a degree. Every year since 2015 there has been a rise in university dropout rates with two-thirds of UK universities being affected.

So why is there this constant increase in students leaving university? I’m sure if there was an easy answer to that question the rates would be decreasing and not increasing, for now, let’s focus on why this time of year is a particular cause for concern. Come November students are a few weeks away from completing their first term, the novelty of student life is a distant memory. Freshers’ week has been and gone, they’ve met new people, started their course and given university life a good go but for whatever personal reason it’s just not worked out.

Mental health, has seen a significant increase as a reason for dropping out of university over the last few years. When comparing statistics in 2009/10 to 2014/15 there was a 210% increase in university dropouts among students with mental health problems. This is a big increase and this year we know mental health is a much bigger challenge not just for new students but also for the entire global population. Our DSA Sector Lead, Emma Sheakey, has written a blog which looks at the innovative ways universities are trying to support students’ mental health.

The figures mentioned above illustrate that mental health is having an impact on the universities dropout rates, but it’s not all doom and gloom. I like to think of myself as an optimist – my glass is always half full. Therefore, I like to concentrate on the new opportunities that can help to overcome the current challenges associated with mental health and the dropout crisis. There are two key challenges at this time which we can manage, one is keeping new students engaged in their course and the second is maintaining healthy mental wellbeing.

Challenge 1: Keeping Students Engaged During a Pandemic

Opportunity 1: Data-driven Personalisation and Inclusive Learning

There’s no denying 2020 has been the year of remote learning and working. Not only has it helped students continue to learn whilst self-isolating or in lockdown, but it has recently been announced that all university teaching must move to online by 9th December to support students getting home for Christmas.

When learning takes place in person it’s difficult to truly know how engaged your audience is. With online lectures you can access data that tells you if students are looking at a different screen or clicking somewhere else – indicating they are not engaged. This may seem a bit ‘big brother’ but using this data positively can help personalise the learning experience.

Brockenhurst College in the New Forest analyses student’s data before the student even arrives. The college looks at student’s geo-social demographic backgrounds, their previous qualifications, how they engaged in the recruitment journey, and what they do on the website, tracking information like what they’re searching for. By looking at this data the college can understand the best support staff to work with the student as well as develop a suitable timetable for them and even see if they are on the correct course, creating a truly personalised experience.

Nottingham Trent University recently piloted an initiative to use students’ data to improve relations between tutor and student and hopefully improve retention. They monitored four factors which signalled student engagement – library use, card swipes into buildings, virtual learning environment use and electronic submission of coursework. The pilot found if a student’s average level of engagement is low only a quarter make normal progress from first to second year. If there is no student engagement for a fortnight then tutors get an automatic email encouraging them to start a dialogue with the student.

Personalisation in a digital learning experience is endless; assistive software like Recite.Me can enable a user to fully customise the format of content on the web to suit their needs, programmes like Caption.Ed will automatically transcribe a lecture for you in real time and e-learning tools like Learning Labs will teach you how to get the most out of all of this assistive technology.

Providing assistive technology means providing a high-quality inclusive learning strategy, which is ideal at a time when more students are learning remotely than ever before. This new world approach could present an opportunity to further improve inclusivity, as we will have greater volumes of digital data than previously, which could uncover new findings about the way HE students learn best.

This idea of personalisation to help with student’s learning is not new to us at Learning Labs. You can read more about this in Chris Collier’s blog from a few months ago. In addition to these personalisation features Learning Labs has a positive message bar sharing healthy wellbeing tips that help motivate learners to maintain a positive mental state whilst studying.

Challenge 2: Student Isolation and Feelings of Loneliness

Opportunity 2: Increase Mental Wellbeing Awareness

In any normal year, students’ mental health will play an important role in how they adapt to university life. This year has been anything but ordinary so it’s no surprise students’ mental health has reflected this. A recent survey found that 26% of full-time students reported feeling hopeless as well as 36% saying they felt lonely. How can you combat loneliness during lockdown? Different strategies work for different people but just by being aware of the issue is a major step forward. We now need to take the challenge of students’ mental health and use it as an opportunity to empower students, and society, to have a greater awareness of mental health as a whole, and for individuals to have greater awareness of their own personal mental wellness status at any given moment in time.

A recent survey found almost nine in ten students struggled with anxiety, which was an increase of almost 19 percentage points when compared to 2017 figures. With mental health it’s not always enough to have someone there to talk to. Sometimes you need that person to make the first move.

Historically mental health and physical health have not been seen as equals. How many places have you worked where there has been at least one trained first aider? And how many places have you worked where there has been at least one trained mental health first aider?

This is partly due to mental health first aiders being a relatively new initiative. Mental Health First Aid England launched as a community interest company in 2009. During that time more than 114,000 Mental Health First Aiders have been trained in England. A special mention has to go to Arts University Bournemouth which has recently been named as having the highest ratio of mental health first aiders to students. More than 200 of the staff at the university are trained mental health first aiders which accounts to 58 qualified staff members per 1,000 students. The next university is the University of Leicester which has 38 mental health first aiders per 1,000 students.

Arts University Bournemouth is taking this idea further. Not only are they ensuring there is an effective amount of mental health first aiders available to students but they are also offering a mental health first aider two-day course to all graduating students, setting them up perfectly for the world of work.

Something we have considered at Learning Labs is that if we were able to combine remote, digital resources and the subject of learning about mental wellbeing at this time we could make a huge positive impact on student mental wellbeing. All I will say for now is watch this space…!

Hopes for the class of 2020

There’s no denying we are in unprecedented times. None of us have ever experienced university like students today are. Who could have predicted, before 2020, that students would have had to be tested before they could go home for Christmas to be with their family?

It’s these challenges that will ensure students’ mental health is at the forefront for some time to come and this will undoubtedly have an effect on the dropout rate. Ever the optimist though, I honestly think we need to look at these challenges and see them as opportunities then, hopefully, 12th November can be remembered only for the likes of Tim Berners-Lee.

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

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 are on 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.

One of the live poll results from our CPD Revolution Online events

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.