CHAT Gathering: AT supporting Inclusive Education during Covid 19

FreedomTech held a CHAT gathering on 20 October 2020 to discuss how Assistive and Accessible Technology has been supporting inclusive education during COVID 19.

Sarah Gavra Boland hosted the gathering along with Siobhan Long and Joan O’Donnell.

Opening Remarks:

We kicked off with some words from Stuart Lawler, from Sight and Sound Technology, who outlined how they changed their model of service delivery during COVID, and started a Wednesday webinar series. It has been just over a year since FreedomTech and Sight and Sound launched our partnership and Stuart noted how no one could have predicted how usable online platforms have become in this short time, as many services and supports moved online. He also complimented the work of FreedomTech in holding a space for people to come together and learn and share information around AT. Stuart led a brief discussion with a panel of three speakers around their experience or learning about the shift to online learning across school and college.

Primary and secondary school: Georgina O’Malley, Digital Learning Co-ordinator at Mount Anville School, Dublin reported some unexpected benefits from the move to Virtual Learning Environments. Students were more forthcoming about their needs using digital chat methods (email, chat boxes, VLE chat options) than they would be in person, leading to earlier intervention. She also found that using a VLE (in her case, Schoology) useful for students with dyslexia as they can print information in a format that is accessible to themselves. Teachers had also pre-recorded classes during lockdown and students reported this to be more useful than live presentations, as it allowed them to watch at their own pace, rewind and review when necessary.

Adult Education and Further Education: Phil McSweeney, along with Sophie Casey and students on the St. John of God Skills for Life programme, in IT Tralee spoke about how they upskilled in using WhatsApp and Zoom during the initial stages of lockdown. This allowed for the 20 week Skills for Life course to proceed. Since September, they have taken a blended learning approach. Siobhan Mooney talked about what this meant for the students, and James Doyle gave a demonstration of his AAC app, Proloquo2go, which he uses during Zoom classes.

Emily Smith, UCD AT Specialist talked about the online training and resources in use, including Bright Space. Academic skills workshops were delivered, as well as encouraging interaction using Blackboard Collaboration, and preserving mental health resources. Lisa Padden mentioned that these resources would be made available to share.

Higher Education: Lisa Padden, Project Lead at the University for All at UCD, focused on inclusion for everyone attending UCD. She found that introducing technology solutions, such as text to speech and Blackboard Ally, allowed everyone to access the VLE, without have to disclose disabilities. This was included in the orientation package rolled out to over 10,000 students attending the university.

We had further discussion in breakout rooms which each panellist led. Some main points were then fed back in a final plenary session. The following notes give a flavour of the discussion held in each break out group.

Breakout Room discussion

Primary and Secondary Schools

The following notes outline the discussion:

It is important to ensure that use of technology is kept as simple as possible, i.e. no changing of passwords, email as a communications system preferred by most, having a contact person for students to approach if they experience any difficulties

  • There is a need to support schools, teachers and other staff, students and parents in the steep learning curve that a new approach requires, and in providing training remotely
  • Proactive communication with parents is very important
  • Learning Management System – making content accessible, through the use of subtitling, providing transcripts etc. Teachers need to be encouraged and supported to make accessible and inclusive content. Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom are being used at secondary level, while primary schools tend to use Google Classroom
  • Education Centres – how can they support school staff? Feedback included giving teachers simple and easy solutions that they can put into practice the next day. The Enable Ireland AT Study Smart module was mentioned as an example (free to access: The upcoming collaboration between EI and Monaghan Education Centre was also mentioned as a means for teachers to upskill, along with a future course with the ALL Institute in Maynooth University.
  • How to accommodate students who could not currently attend school due to being in a high-risk category. At present, teachers’ unions are involved, and streaming of lessons is not happening, as unions feel it is inappropriate. However, teachers are in contact with students learning at home, providing homework and correcting and giving feedback using VLEs. Digital submission of work is proving useful for a lot of students. Some individual schools plan to have teachers in high-risk categories streaming classes to school. A plan to match high-risk students and teachers has not happened.
  • Moving technology between school and home – difficulties in ensuring sanitation, some only sending home equipment at weekends. Difficulties arising when technology needs to be shared, i.e. microphones paired with hearing aids, computers in a computer room. Visiting teachers are giving support in the areas of hearing and visual aids. Removing computers and whole room disinfection are also in use.
  • When recommending AT for students, the possibility of remote learning may need to be considered when prescribing i.e. extra camera.
  • Keeping things as simple as possible – changing the background of slides to light yellow reduces glare, using inbuilt accessibility checkers, encouraging communication and idea sharing between teacher

Notes from Further Education breakout room:-

Benefits of Office 365 and in particular Microsoft Stream: allows users to watch videos from across an organization in the Stream application or in other applications any time on any device. It offers: speech to text, auto-generated closed captions, and face detection features create more ways to find and interact with videos, so everyone can access relevant content quickly and easily. One participant thought this was highly beneficial from a teaching point of view as it collects answers from students, lists student interactions and presents in excel. It can also be used for transcriptions and has the added benefit of supporting literacy.

Caption.ed can be good for captioning ‘difficult’ accents and for people with communication difficulties. The desktop software version has just been rolled out (as well as plug-in), and one participant commented that it was very good for Science courses. In UCD students get an allocation for a fixed number of hours of captioning. Site licenses are also available. It was seen as important to purchase educational site licenses to make them as widely available as possible.

Web Accessibility Directive: A statutory Instrument was signed off by Government in September 2020 which transposed the European Directive into Irish law. This means that all public bodies website’s must be accessible. There is a concern about the lack of awareness of this directive in universities This is in addition to Public Sector Duty which stipulates that all public services must be accessible.

Universities do fall under this directive as in 2018, British Universities took a case and the outcome of this was that they DO fall under the directive. The same principles apply to universities and the higher education sector. Many of the issues are around content accessibility.

There was a sense in which there is so much out there already that people are already using. However, there’s also a lack of awareness on accessibility features. Should not just rest with AT Officers etc. Everyone should be able to access the same resources and maximise them.

Site Licenses: There was a discussion around difficulties with Cloud Governance and Data Protection, which poses lots of technical issues. There is a need to change the procurement process which comes under Public Sector Duty). Accessibility is not always a priority but GDPR is. Participant experience was that when new technology is being rolled out, accessibility is not being given priority.

For many disabled academics and students, life became easier because of Covid-19. When everything moved on-line, there were no more hand written scripts and grading and report writing became easier. Faculties became more open, and there was a change in attitude with everyone working to make sure both staff and students had the tools they needed. There were still concerns expressed by hard of hearing students, one of whom said that if lecturers/trainers don’t have accessibility awareness training/use closed captions etc then it won’t be made available to students etc

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