In its broadest sense assistive technology is understood as any device that enables people with disabilities, however, in the context of the University of the Arts London it is a device or software that is used to support learning. This support covers a third of the university’s staff and students who are estimated to fall on some spectrum of the dyslexia scale, in addition to the large international student body that may seek language support. As an MA student at CSM, I am aware that at least one of my twenty-eight classmates has and receives tutoring for dyslexia, while the majority of my cohort are non-native English speakers and use a variety of tools to support their learning.
As manager of the Learning Zone at Kings Cross, David Bracegirdle is also a part of the senior management in Library Services, which was recently brought together with Academic Support and the university’s Disability Services. After making an assessment of the way the existing assistive technologies were being used, it was decided that the UAL would roll-out a new programme – to include the research and procurement of software – that would be more universally available and relevant to staff and students. As David explains, the digital tools that have been selected, and will soon be installed on all UAL computers, are Texthelp’s Read&Write Gold and Inspiration. Texthelp’s Read&Write software is said to be helpful for those who struggle with reading – which at the university can include, but is not limited to, non-native English speakers or those with dyslexia – and is capable of turning text to speech and vice versa. Inspiration is a mind-mapping tool that allows the user to get their thoughts down in a quick and simple way. Allowing connections between thoughts, it is also interactive and flexible because the user is able to move things around, and add images and videos.
With the Learning Zone leading the procurement of the new technologies, it is clear that the institution has taken the position to support those who learn differently in a more universal way. As David describes,
‘The University is trying to offer students as rich and as relevant a set of tools and environments as we can, and up until now we didn’t have a universal policy with regards to assistive technology. Different services and courses were recommending and supplying different things so having Library Services partner with University Disability Service, IT Department and Academic Support Services the University has identified a relevant, more universal and cost effective solution. We will offer assistive software to all staff and students, that not only support non-native English speakers and students and staff with dyslexia, but also allow all students and staff to engage with their own learning in different and perhaps more effective ways.
If we can develop this policy and strategy it is better for everyone involved, because we can start communicating and promoting the software in a more strategic way – in other words, they facilitate different approaches to learning for anyone at UAL. The Learning Zone’s universal access and flexible resources fit perfectly with this approach as we support any learning tools that are easy to use, flexible and supportive of a range of learning styles.’
Up until now the assistive technology that was available only existed on a few computers, each with different versions with perhaps patchy support. The benefit, as David underlines, is that in having Read&Write Gold and Inspiration available on every University computer it will improve access, improve staff and student familiarity of the software, and reshape the perception of assistive technologies.“These tools will be promoted for all to use, as they can support different learning styles and creative processes. The University is committed to embracing and supporting diversity, and this is one way we can support that ethos”.
In my own experience on my course I can see how this would be true. Our work, as I’m sure is true for many at CSM, is extremely collaborative and these tools strip away the misconception that a different approach is somehow less valuable. Having used tools similar to Inspiration during group work before, these and other applications allow every member to have a voice, no matter their language level or way of approaching ideas.
As is the case with most technology we use, these assistive technologies are thought to enhance our mode of learning and cannot replace the one-to-one support and training which I’m sure is vital to those who rely on the non-technological support mechanisms already in place. In terms of assistive technologies to be used by language and disabilities support staff, the university will also buy smaller numbers with more specific applications to suit individual needs, which will be allocated to the university’s disabilities service central team who coordinate the more particular or tailored needs.
It is yet to be seen how these new technologies will serve in practice. The cost of being able to provide the software to staff and students on their personal devices proved to be prohibitive, so in order to use them one would have to contend with the typically open space plans and working environments at CSM. As my course mate with dyslexia pointed out, she uses pen and paper for mind mapping exercises and to structure her thoughts, and although her dyslexia support tutor suggested she record herself she wasn’t recommended a specific technology to do so. To ensure these software are used not only more universally but by the core staff members and students they are intended for, it will be vital that they be promoted in a way that reaches not just those that use the Library and Learning Zone spaces frequently, but to all that may benefit from using and teaching with them.
As David tells me, the next stage of the process is the promotion of these tools and the diverse benefits they bring, to all UAL students and staff. He is particularly interested in the environments in which the use of the software may take place, which is part of the reason why the Learning Zone offers headphones, wacom tablets and group work ‘pods’ along with other assistive technologies, saying,
‘these can help students to engage with technology in the style that suits them, but I accept that we are not perfect and provision of these tools or spaces in the rest of UAL is varied. Feedback about the software and hardware will play an important part in our ongoing review of the provision, so if students or staff have positive or negative experiences then we are very happy to listen.’
Learning Zone at Kings Cross http://digitalpresent.myblog.arts.ac.uk/2012/12/12/exploring-the-learning-zone-at-kings-cross/