Accessible Organisations – Supporting learning providers in creating inclusive teaching and learning experiences

So, you want me to read for my degree? Considering a Universal Design for learning approach to reading through the use of audiobooks and accessibility tools

It seems logical to those of us working in higher education that students need to read for their degrees. Yet research indicates this isn’t so obvious to students themselves, with patterns of student reading not reflecting the approach and skills needed to succeed in HE. In this blog post, Michelle Malomo and Sarah Pittaway from the University of Worcester explore ways of reducing barriers to reading.

Taking this starting point, initial (currently unpublished) research with a group of Early Years students at the University of Worcester highlighted that students often perceive reading as a skill developed in primary school, and associate it with a pleasurable, nostalgic activity of their childhood not needed in their adult life. It appeared that students had not understood that “reading for your degree” was just that – you need to read. This research concluded that lecturers need to make reading explicit within their teaching, as well as accessible and purposeful.

Even when students understand the importance of reading, there are challenges that need to be considered, particularly when thinking about how to make reading accessible in a variety of formats. If you talk to students about their reading experiences, it becomes clear that there are also barriers to accessing reading material. As university staff, we recognise physical and learning disabilities such as dyslexia and visual impairment, but often don’t explore other barriers to engagement. For example, the SAGE scholars from Sussex spoke eloquently at Talis Insight about students experiencing eyestrain and headaches from reading online. We also need to recognise that our students are not “just” reading for a degree. Many are time-poor, working long hours or commuting, or have care responsibilities at home. Some of our students have even reported weight gain since their gym/self-care time is now spent reading.

Universal Design for Learning

Our research now is inspired by a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach, which helps us reshape teaching and learning through a flexible approach to curriculum design. UDL principles build on us having an understanding as to how the brain operates and processes learning. Understanding this has an implication for how we present reading materials to students. To enable all students to access reading material it is essential that curriculum design has the why, what and how of learning at its heart and that engagement with the curriculum, representation of resources and content and the expression of learning are crucial to enabling accessibility to all. UDL therefore acknowledges the range of issues that students experience, not just those with declared disabilities. A UDL perspective aims to develop good teaching practice that enhances the experience for everyone, rather than just making exceptions for those who declare. It removes barriers so that everyone can benefit, and this includes having multiple means of representation. In terms of student reading, this means different ways of accessing texts that might support a student who is time poor or struggling with eyestrain or who simply finds they prefer to read in different ways.

The Research

In order to explore this and develop good teaching practice, we investigated embedding audiobooks alongside print and ebooks in our online reading list system to see how students engaged with them. Ideally, we wanted books that could be streamed, like a Spotify type service. We also wanted books that could be downloaded and listened to when there was no internet connection, e.g. on the train. However, there are very few academic audiobook sources. On the Early Years reading lists that we were working with, none of the texts were available in audiobook format. We also discovered that audiobooks work on a print borrowing model, in which an individual is issued with an audiobook, making it inaccessible to others. This is not a suitable model of provision.

Instead we embedded some accessibility tools in lists for students to use. These included text-to-speech tools, speed-readers, and tools that enable the user to adjust their screen display. All are free browser extensions.

Of about 200 students, we’ve got around 30 clicks to these tools from the lists. However, we don’t know what they then did with those tools. Did they download them and make them part of their everyday study practice? Or did they click on them and find other barriers, e.g. a lack of confidence in their own digital capabilities in using these tools?

We need the qualitative data that make sense of this story. Our next step is to talk to students and course tutors about their experiences and strategies for reading. Have they used the tools we embedded and what difference did they make? If not, why not? Would an audiobook have felt like an easier option? Have they got alternative strategies for engaging with reading? There’s a huge amount of potential here to remove barriers to learning for a whole variety of students, and we’re just starting to work out how best to achieve this.

Michelle Malomo, FdA Partnership Co-ordinator/Senior Lecturer, Centre for Children and Families, School of Education, University of Worcester

Sarah Pittaway, Head of Library Academic Engagement, Library Services @ The Hive, University of Worcester

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