Why digitisation can create more inclusive and diverse university populations

Diversity of thought and experience at every strata of society has never been more vital

The importance of diversity, equity and inclusion has never been more vital – or more recognised. Movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo have raised the profile of some of the most prevalent issues and inequalities, and driven a thirst for change. For too long in higher education, students from ethnic minorities, with disabilities, or from disadvantaged backgrounds have been prevented from accessing the same opportunities as others. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic is further exacerbating pre-existing challenges, and added new ones, making the need for positive action more urgent than ever before.

The prohibitive cost of course materials

Access to course material is vital. Students from all backgrounds, as well as those with learning disabilities, must be able to understand and learn from the content delivered in lectures, seminars, and via learning management platforms.

The cost of course materials is a sticking-point for many students. A typical student can expect to budget between £450 and £1070 for books and equipment per year. A recent report into the prohibitive cost of physical textbooks found that 65 percent of students had opted against buying a book because it was too costly, with 55 percent of these then stating they were concerned that their grade would suffer as a result. Students shouldn’t have to choose between paying for food and books, yet many do, in particular those from financially disadvantaged backgrounds.

The pandemic has forced many universities to facilitate online learning at short notice, which aggravated the content accessibility issue. Students who previously relied on their university library to loan books they couldn’t afford no longer had this option available. Libraries were forced to close their doors, or to reduce access to books, which usually had to be quarantined between loans.

“Students shouldn’t have to choose between paying for food and books, yet many do, in particular those from financially disadvantaged backgrounds”

Leveraging technology to achieve equity in access to course materials

Although many institutions are setting up scholarships and bursaries to help students finance learning resources, there are also technologies that are helping to ensure students have access to learning resources more affordably. Platforms like BibliU partner with institutions to deliver  accessible textbooks and learning materials within university learning environments. These partnerships enable institutions to offer course materials at no additional cost to students, and to make them available digitally.

Many students with disabilities have been deterred  from pursuing higher education due to course materials not being disseminated in accessible ways or via assistive technologies. With the emergence of many new technologies, there’s no reason why such students should not be empowered to pursue the same opportunities as others; for example, students with poor sight can use text-to-speech software, whilst those with neurological disabilities can use tools like speed-readers to have a more consistent reading experience akin to their peers.

Other technologies being used by students with disabilities include tools like captioning, dictation software and software like Good Feel that can convert things like musical scores into braille. Technology such as AIRA’s can allow blind or low vision students to use augmented reality and call an expert to help identify their surroundings, locate books in the library, or even find items in a bag.

With tools like these, as well as synchronised online annotations, students who learn differently can have the means to thrive. Learners who may have difficulty transporting large numbers of physical textbooks around a university campus will no longer need to, with access to an entire digital library in their pocket.

Diversity, equity and inclusion are systemic issues that we must tackle within all levels of education. One option available to universities in beginning to address these challenges and improve the accessibility of education is through the leveraging of new technologies. By tapping into the wealth of innovative solutions becoming available, the higher education sector  can drive positive  change and ensure that students with different learning styles and needs can be reached. Only then can we make progress in ensuring that an individual’s socio-economic background, or personal learning style, does not preclude access to education and opportunity.

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