This post was written by Jackson Tait (UTS student and Digital Accessibility Ambassador).

The LX.lab has recently released Students Explain Digital Accessibility – a suite of videos about making your learning and teaching accessible. These videos were created in collaboration with UTS students who have a lived experience of disability – our Digital Accessibility Ambassadors. In the third part of a series of posts accompanying the videos, Digital Accessibility Ambassador Jackson Tait writes about why inclusive environments are essential for students.

Recently, Deloitte Access Economics conducted a review and found that in Queensland, as many other ‘reviews and inquiries across Australia have demonstrated, there remains a disparity between today’s policy and practice and that required to inclusively support every student achieving to the maximum of their potential’.

Joanna Anderson and Christopher Boyle in ‘Looking in the mirror: reflecting on 25 years of inclusive education in Australia’ (2019).

Inclusive environments are critical to the development and interpersonal growth of skill sets and teacher-student engagement in higher education. The Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning defines an inclusive environment as “an environment where all students feel supported intellectually and academically, and are extended a sense of belonging in the classroom regardless of identity, learning preferences, or education.” The quote from Anderson and Boyle’s paper highlights a fundamental pitfall facing the education sector of disparate inclusivity, between different Australian states and territories and how students are treated. This level of disparity also reflects on how students with disabilities and without disabilities engage within lectures and workshops, that can cause unwarranted strife for students in a learning environment that is not openly inclusive.

What inclusive environments do for students

Inclusive environments are important in lectures and workshops as they allow students the opportunity to:

1. Voice their opinions, concerns or learning requirements

When students have more opportunities for their voices to be heard, they are more likely to feel included and valued in the learning process.

2. Engage with the learning content as openly as possible

Open teacher-student engagement ensures that students are optimally focused and can learn at their own pace.

3. Collaborate with their fellow peers and teachers with comfortability

Classroom collaboration allows students to realise new opportunities and break down student-to-teacher and student-to-student hesitations.

Going online – feeling disengaged?

A recent 2020 report from the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency highlighted that 33% to 50% of students were ‘unhappy with online learning that were a result of instances such as ‘Information Technology problems, lacking academic interactions and lack of engagement’.

Naaman Zhou for The Guardian (2020)

Whilst a rapid shift to online learning has been necessary during the pandemic, this change has created new challenges for keeping students engaged during lectures, workshops and could lead to minimal social interaction and for some students to potentially dropout altogether. The reasoning for such disengagement and potential dropouts is related to limited connections and collaborations with student-to-student and teacher-student connections that are openly engaging and supportive. You can help students and staff feel satisfied and engaged by:

  1. Communicating with students and staff as much as possible by allowing them to voice their needs.
  2. Collaborate with student support services to make sure students know where to get support.
  3. Allow time for student-to-student and staff-to-staff interactions.

My personal experience

Speaking from personal experience in 2020, I often struggled with online learning as my learning environment wasn’t as inclusive as it could be. During lectures or workshops I’d often feel disengaged or bored due to the limited interactions with ‘turned off’ cameras and being in lectures that were content heavy, not allowing for social interactions. This initially made me reluctant to continue my degree until I reached out to my course coordinator and was able to engage proactively in my learning. Some changes that were made included turning on closed captioning for live stream workshops and clear facing cameras for lip reading at my own pace.

How you can help

As a UTS soon-to-be graduate, I’d love for you to take the time to reflect on your current learning environments and answer these questions:

  1. How can I change my lectures and workshops to be more inclusive?
  2. If I were a student, what would help me to succeed?
  3. How can I give my students the best opportunities to grow and learn from each other?

Ideas for these actions could be a daily debrief moment at the beginning of each workshop or even allowing students to randomly allocate for new collaboration opportunities with other students.

Feature image by Sigmund.

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