What do we mean by 'inclusive' teaching and learning?

Blog posts

9 Nov 2017

Emma Pollard

Emma Pollard, Principal Research Fellow

A new study undertaken by IES and REAP (Researching Access, Equity and Participation) at Lancaster University has explored inclusive models of support for disabled students in the higher education (HE) sector in England. The research involved an online survey with responses from 105 HE providers and 13 provider case studies, and found strong support for inclusivity. Sixty per cent of providers rated themselves as at least halfway towards being fully inclusive and all providers reported that they are moving forward with an inclusive support agenda.

Inclusive learning has been defined as that which is ‘meaningful, relevant and accessible [in both content and delivery] to all’, and is ‘enriched by the varied experiences of students’. Inclusive models of support are associated with the social model of disability, where it is recognised that it is society that disables individuals rather than disability being a ‘problem’ of an individual.

A key aspect of this new study was to explore how providers understand inclusivity and the ways in which it is manifested. Most commonly, an inclusive model of disability support was associated with the provision of online materials and with accessible teaching, examination and curriculum. Here, institution representatives spoke of ensuring teaching materials/resources are fully accessible, including recording of lectures and workshops (lecture capture) and having course materials available online (often through institutions’ Virtual Learning Environments); providing lecture notes in advance; and providing course materials in a variety of formats. They also spoke of using a diverse range of approaches to teaching and assessment to support different learning styles, to consider inclusion right from the start, and providing access for all students to a wide range of assistive technology Inclusive models were also associated with accessible estates (eg campuses) and with limited individual adjustments, or having ‘invisible practices’ (support that students are not specifically aware of or that that doesn’t appear different or special).

So, for institutions, inclusive models meant thinking about: the design and delivery of courses and services; the physical and virtual space that students engage with; and proactively anticipating the needs of the whole student body. It was generally recognised that an inclusive model would not obviate the need for reactive support for some individual needs, which would require specific adjustments, but could substantially reduce these.

Providers felt that more could and should be done to move towards a fully inclusive model, not least because an inclusive approach can potentially enable institutions to provide more support with fewer resources and/or reduce demand for services.

Providers also reported that they needed greater staff engagement with training, further adjustments to estates and technology (ie greater adoption of assistive technology), and more work on creating inclusive assessment, teaching and learning approaches. However, institutional culture appeared to be a key stumbling block, and there may not yet be a widespread commitment to, or awareness of, inclusive support within institutions. Indeed, our research identified a high degree of variability in the implementation of inclusive models within institutions, which leads to patchy and inconsistent practice. Providers felt that they needed greater buy-in from academic staff for inclusivity in curriculum design and delivery, and that there needed to be cultural change in order to move to greater inclusion.

Shifting the culture is about helping and enabling all staff to think more broadly about inclusive practice, to think beyond making individual reasonable adjustments for individual students and to think about accessibility for all. It is about recognising that all staff have a part to play, that inclusive practice is not just a technical issue that needs to be dealt with by someone else, and that changes can be small but yet still make a big difference. It is also about overcoming individual staff fears and reluctance that inclusive practice means a complete overhaul in a teaching style perfected over years, adopting new and daunting technologies and potential exposure to critique due to lecture capture; or that their subject can only be delivered and assessed in a certain way. Staff training across the institution is important in shifting the culture as it raises awareness, provides practical information, guidance and support, and encourages action. Staff training also ensures a shared understanding and commitment, and indicates an investment on the behalf of the institution. The research shows that institutions offer a range of training to staff but this tends to be voluntary, focused on general disability awareness or supporting specific conditions rather than about inclusive practices, and directed at certain staff groups rather than all staff (academic staff, library staff and those in teaching support roles). Institutions therefore feel they need more help and support in furthering staff understanding of inclusive practices.

It is clear that HE providers are passionate about inclusive teaching and learning. Some institutions have had a commitment to adopting an inclusive agenda for some time and have made significant progress, but others are new to this. Also, smaller institutions, further education (FE) colleges and specialist institutions appear to be further along in their journey. This could reflect their smaller student body and thus closer links between staff and students, and, indeed, between staff across the institution. All institutions do recognise, however, that they still have a way to go and will need funding to continue to move in the right direction and to trial proactive, anticipatory approaches to support the whole of their student body. 

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.