Notes from JISC Digital Festival (Day 1)

I attended the JISC Digital Festival in Birmingham, UK.  This blog post is a set of notes from Day 1 (11-March-2014).

Keynote – Diana Oblinger (CEO Educause)

“Why are we still talking about this digital stuff?”

It is about 25 years since we moved from the analogue world to the world of society, education and work being based on digital computing technologies. But we still use the term “digital” because either we see it as something special or we get concerned about “man vs machine”.  It is not just about digital – it is about demographics. In US only 17% of learners are traditional college students. Many are now studying as adults who may not have previously had a positive educational experience.  This changes what we need from education and “how” we deliver that education.


When you are engaged you learn better – leading to the hypothesis that face-to-face is always the best solution. But face-to-face often just presents text on a screen (a board or projector screen). However, digital technologies allow greater interaction between students and between them and data about what they are  investigating. We want to promote deep learning and develop skills through practice.  In these online practice environments not only is there student activity but there is data coming back from the students’ interaction. When have massive amounts of data can begin to realise the long-held goal of personalised learning.  This can lead to adaptive learning systems.

Student Empowerment

There are different types of students.  Two example profiles:

  1. ROI Skeptics – not sure education will be worth the effort; external barriers; lack of vision; juggling work and family etc.
  2. Highly motivated students who always expected a college (university) education

Students need help with their complicated lives to be able them to give education the right priority. Case management – dealing with the student holistically; early alert programmes (for e.g.) have significant and lasting impact. Some students are blissfully unaware that they might be at risk of failing the course. Here lies a potential for learning analytics. However, beyond that teachers need support on how to deliver those messages to the student, e.g. mobile phone text message? (BTW 43 words seems to be about the right length of message.)

Too much choice can be the enemy of student success if they choose courses they are not prepared for or at too high a level for where they are in their studies.  (C.F. consumer choice problems).  Software tools are emerging to address.  Example shown of a tool for students and their advisers as they seek to support them and their choices.

Alternative Models

IT in education can spawn over complexity and disorientation.  Interconnected elements:

  • Mission
  • Market
  • Margin

Part of this is coming from outside our institution – e..g. MOOCs; large-scale commercial educational providers.  Many customers (students) feel they are over-served by the traditional university system. Now a big puss on competency based education – prove you have particular skills irrespective of where you acquired them.  However, current IT systems just focus internally to the educational establishment.

Time is an opportunity cost.  Example “Direct to Degree” from University of Kentucky, enabling students to rapidly acquire a degree and reach their employment goals. If students never go to campus where do you provide their support? Another example from College for America that provides the support in the workplace. Can be low-cost models – e.g. 1 student completed degree in 3 month at cost of $1,350.

There is lots yet to do in the digital environment.  Need to design from the digital and with man & machine not man vs machine in mind.  A great frontier for all of us.

Three questions:

  1. What does it take to exceed expectations in this digital world?
  2. What capabilities (personnel, budget, skill) are required to deliver the value from IT?
  3. How do we optimise for a digital future??? – Answer yet to be told!
Steps and clap board Image credit:

Response and Reflections on keynote

Prof. Paul Curren VC at City University

Was in a situation of ailing IT and with many mismatch between demand and supply issues.  (Here the focus is on education not research or admin. but had to address all three). How to develop a personalised experience for the students and enable academic staff to give the support they want to provide?  Further, how do we enhance the educational experience? How can we do this in the context engendering a community experience. City has multiple campuses now.

Trying to achieve a clear vision (2016) of where wanted the university to be.   Investing in academic staff, IT and estate.  Focused on having sector leading IT areas in education.  In 2010/11 large IT service, 142 IT staff, £ 14.6 million budget.  But, very devolved, often software developed in-house and not fully documented and big problems occurred when staff move on.

Formulated a strategic plan with projects each under a PVC.

  • Engaging IT services around the student (e.g. brought in Moodle, Office 365) and organised around the concept of “The One City”.
  • Sourced commodity from external suppliers
  • Now spending less on IT, less staff but more junior staff at the coal-face and less IT managers
  • Standard high quality equipment in the student spaces
  • Listened to what students, staff and professional services members wanted
  • Moved core services to a central base in London

Where are we now?:

  • The student registration system now stabilised
  • Monitor student access to Moodle to check on student engagement (reduced drop out rates)
  • Early initiation to ensure things were scalable and multi-platform (including mobile to enable work while travel)
  • Provided easy access to student records
  • Using the big providers (e.g. SAP) linked to increasing in-house skills
  • IT staff now viewed differently – previously seen around their skill base (e.g. UNIX) – now seen around their relationship management and knowledge of integrating systems

Challenges for staff:

  • Academic staff need to move seamlessly between a “digital” and “real” world – provided a lot of training
  • IT staff – understanding their new role around the user/systems integration – again investment in training
  • Outsourcing and agreeing the boundaries


  • On a journey
  • Downtime reduced
  • Student Satisfaction Scores with IT increased

Martyn’s reflections

The key points that stood out for me from these two linked presentations were:

  1. We need to accept digital as being here and now and move to a “Man & Machine” mindset and not a “Man vs Machine” one
  2. Systems integration is key and outsourced systems are often the cost-effective way to go
  3. IT support staff need to see their role as focussed on the users (students, academics, admin staff, management) not on a particular area of technology that forms the core of their skill set
  4. It’s a ‘win-win’ situation of better services at lower cost that is achievable this way

A personal reflection from me:

The IT systems should be the servants of the educational, support and management processes not the other way round!

horzizonal line indicating end of blog post


New paper on planning for professionalism in accessibility

Just published in journal Research in Learning Technology is a paper I am a co-author on entitled:

Adapting online learning resources for all: planning for professionalism in accessibility

This blog post is a bit of shameless self publicity for this paper but is shared because we believe it contains important lessons for those seeking to address accessibility for disabled students especially in Higher Education.  The abstract and link to the full text follow:

Adapting online learning resources for all: planning for professionalism in accessibility

Patrick McAndrew, Robert Farrow and Martyn Cooper

Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK

(Received 7 May 2012; final version received 24 October 2012; Published 19 December 2012)


Online resources for education offer opportunities for those with disabilities but also raise challenges on how to best adjust resources to accommodate accessibility. Automated reconfiguration could in principle remove the need for expensive and time-consuming discussions about adaptation. On the other hand, human-based systems provide much needed direct support and can help understand options and individual circumstances. A study was carried out within an EU-funded accessibility project at The Open University (OU) in parallel with studies at three other European universities. The study combined focus groups, user-testing, management consultation and student survey data to help understand ways forward for accessibility. The results reinforce a holistic view of accessibility, based on three factors: positioning the university as a positive provider to disabled students; developing processes, systems and services to give personal help; and planning online materials which include alternatives. The development of a model that helps organisations incorporate professionalism in accessibility is described, though challenges remain. For example, a recurrent difficulty in providing adequate self-description of accessibility needs implies that a completely automated solution may not be attainable. A more beneficial focus, therefore, may be to develop systems that support the information flow required by the human “in the loop.”

Keywords: inclusion; students with disabilities; services; personalisation; evaluation; virtual learning environments; EU4ALL

The full text is freely available under a Creative Commons license at:

Your comments would be most welcome!

Models of disability and their relation to accessibility

This week I have been writing an introductory section for a paper on models of disability and accessibility.  This has led me to think again about the relationship between the two.

The Medical Model of Disability

Disabilities have traditionally been described with reference to medical conditions that they were seen to arise from.  This is known as the medical model of disability and was encapsulated in the 1980 World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International classification of impairments, disabilities, and handicaps [1] which included the following definitions:

  • Impairment = a loss or abnormality of physical bodily structure or function, of logic-psychic origin, or physiological or anatomical origin
  • Disability = any limitation or function loss deriving from impairment that prevents the performance of an activity in the time-lapse considered normal for a human being
  • Handicap = the disadvantaged condition deriving from impairment or disability limiting a person performing a role considered normal in respect of their age, sex and social and cultural factors

The Social Model of Disability

The main alternative to the medical model of disability is the social model.  This has been highly influential, over the last 30 years, in shaping policy, practice and attitudes to disabled people.  The social model stemmed from the publication of Fundamental Principles of Disability in 1976. [2] This revolutionised the understanding of disability arguing that it was not mainly caused by impairments but by the way society was organised and responded to disabled people.

In the social model, disability is caused by society and is not the ‘fault’ of an individual disabled person, or an inevitable consequence of their limitations. Disability is the product of the physical, organisational and attitudinal barriers present within society.  The social model takes account of disabled people as part of the economic, environmental and cultural society.

The WHO revised its definitions of disability, in part as a response to this social model, and from the realisation that the medical model was of very limited use in defining effective responses in meeting the needs of disabled people.  In 2001 WHO published the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) [3].  In the ICF disability is described as:

… the outcome or result of a complex relationship between an individual’s health condition and personal factors, and of the external factors that represent the circumstances in which the individual lives.

Building on the social model the IMS Global Learning Consortium, introducing its work developing technical standards for accessibility in e-learning, offered a more education specific definition of both disability and accessibility [4]:

… the term disability has been re-defined as a mismatch between the needs of the learner and the education offered. It is therefore not a personal trait but an artifact of the relationship between the learner and the learning environment or education delivery. Accessibility, given this re-definition, is the ability of the learning environment to adjust to the needs of all learners. Accessibility is determined by the flexibility of the education environment (with respect to presentation, control methods, access modality, and learner supports) and the availability of adequate alternative-but-equivalent content and activities. The needs and preferences of a user may arise from the context or environment the user is in, the tools available (e.g., mobile devices, assistive technologies such as Braille devices, voice recognition systems, or alternative keyboards, etc.), their background, or a disability in the traditional sense. Accessible systems adjust the user interface of the learning environment, locate needed resources and adjust the properties of the resources to match the needs and preferences of the user.

Post Social Models of Disability

The social model of disability has been criticised and various moves instigated to move beyond it. For an example see Torn Shakespeare and Nicholas Watson (2001) [5].  They argue instead for an Embodied Ontology: “we are our body, with all of its imperfections and impairments”.  Further, they assert that “there is no qualitative difference between disabled and non-disabled people because we are all impaired in some form, some more than others”. They consider the idea of a normal/perfect person as mythical. However, this discussions has been more within the academic world of disability studies and I would contest has yet to have widespread impact beyond this, and particularly relevant to this post, on accessibility.  That being said one direct relation to accessibility is that accessibility accommodations have benefits for many who do not consider themselves disabled. An example of this is the feature present in most modern browsers to enlarge the display of web pages in response to a short cut key, usually Ctrl +.  This was originally introduced for those with a visual impairment but at times is useful to all.  A major piece of research undertaken by Forrester for Microsoft in 2003 [6] supports this case of the wider benefit of accessibility accommodations.  It found that 57% of working-age computer users are likely to benefit from accessible technology (where accessible technology is understood as technical responses to promote access for disabled people to computer hardware and software).

Functional Models of Disability

The term accessibility is widely used in the context of web design. The W3C describes web accessibility thus:

Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web. [7]

This is in essence based on a functional model of disability.  Generally in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) a functional approach is most useful. What is important in the design of web-based applications or content is how the diversity of users access the computer. This design can be said to be accessible if it facilitates full interaction by all users irrespective of assistive technologies or access approaches that may be adopted by some.

The AccessForAll 3.0 Personal Needs and Preferences (PNP) provides a specification that enables comprehensive profiles of individuals’ access approaches and assistive technologies to be stored based on a functional model. This specification is being developed within the IMS Global Learning Consortium and went to public draft in September 2012 [8]. These functional profiles could be generated by disabled people themselves, possibly with the help of advisors, inputting their specific access approaches and requirements to a web-form. Such profiles have great potential in personalisation approaches to accessibility and in analytics based approaches to identifying accessibility issues, as discussed elsewhere in this blog.

A Note on WCAG and Models of Disability

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 [9], a formal recommendation of the web standards body the W3C, are the de facto international standard on web accessibility.  These are targeted at web developers and cover what is normally referred to as technical accessibility. They are organised according to four top-level principles of web accessibility: that web pages should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. WCAG are focussed at the properties of a web page and in so doing might be considered to be based on a functional model.  However, the user is deliberately subsumed in their formulation; their concern is the functional properties of the web page not the person accessing them.  This ignores the consequences of the social model of disability of the importance of context and the relational nature of accessibility.

The development of web assets or applications is a process. Accessibility considerations need to be built into the everyday practices across the web product life-cycle from conception and specification through development to delivery and maintenance. Recognising this, the British Standards Institute developed BS 8878: 2010 Web Accessibility Code of Practice [10]. This facilitates a pragmatic application of WCAG 2.0 within a process based approach and reasserts a user focus.


Our models of disability are important, they shape our attitudes and impact on how effectively the needs and preferences  of disabled people are met in design. The medical model is now widely seen as outmoded and a perpetuator of  discriminatory attitudes. The social model has had widespread influence. It is important in accessibility considerations because it recognises the importance of the context of the users and supports the view of accessibility as a relationship property; in the case of web accessibility the relationship being between the diversity of users and the web resource or application. Functional models have been asserted as the most useful in design and development and the potential of these for personalisation and analytics highlighted.


(All web-links checked 10 October 2012)

[1] World Health Organization, (1980) International classification of impairments, disabilities, and handicaps. A manual of classification relating to the consequences of disease. Geneva, WHO

[2]        UPIAS, (1976) Fundamental Principles of Disability, London: Union of Physically Impaired against Segregation, available on-line at:

[3]        World Health Organization. (2001) International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health. Geneva, WHO, Searchable online versions available at:

[4]        IMS Global Learning Consortium (2004) IMS AccessForAll Meta-data Overview.

[5]        Torn Shakespeare, Nicholas Watson, (2001) The social model of disability: An outdated ideology?, in Sharon N. Barnartt and Barbara M. Altman (ed.)Exploring Theories and Expanding Methodologies: Where we are and where we need to go (Research in Social Science and Disability, Volume 2), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.9-28. Availible on-line at:

[6]       Microsoft (2004) The wide range of abilities and its impact on computer technology. Available on-line at:

[7]       World Wide Web Consortium (2005). Introduction to Web Accessibility, available at:

[8]        IMS Global Learning Consortium (2012) Access for All (AfA), Version 3.0 Specification, Public Draft 1.0. Primer and specification documents available from:

[9]        W3C (2008), Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0), available at:

[10]         British Standards International (2010). BS 8878:2010 Web Accessibility – Code of Practice, (charged for publication available through and by subscription through BSOL