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Technologies for STEM learning

Modern Container-based Learning Interface and Delivery Infrastructure (MCLIDI)

Project leader(s): 
Mark Hall and Soraya Kouadri Mostéfaoui

TT284 (Web Technologies) is a popular level 2 module covering fundamental web technologies. One challenge students face is the large number of elements they have to deal with during their studies of the module. Even for the simple introductory activities at the beginning of the module they concurrently work on multiple HTML and CSS files and the complexity increases throughout the module. Students need to follow the instructions in the browser, make the required changes in the editor, then switch back to a second browser window to see the results. This constant switching adds significant cognitive load and introduces an additional source of errors into the learning process. The additional cognitive load is particularly problematic for neurodiverse1 students and students with disabilities, for whom dealing with all these elements presents a higher baseline cognitive load, creating an accessibility barrier to learning success. As a result, TT284 has poor retention and low student satisfaction. Workload and complexity are amongst the most frequent reasons of dissatisfaction.

This project will develop and evaluate a modern container-based learning interface and delivery infrastructure, focussing on supporting neurodiverse students and students with disabilities, particularly those with vision and motor-skill impairments and dyslexia. The developed infrastructure will benefit all students and will be adaptable to other modules within the university. A range of existing technologies will be combined to deliver a highly accessible integrated interface in which the students would have access to the module materials, file editor, and the resulting website within a single browser window. This will significantly reduce the cognitive load and the number of errors made due to that load.

The anticipated outcomes will be an improved student learning experience, better student satisfaction, improved retention, and an understanding of the cost impacts of this approach. The experience and satisfaction will be monitored and evaluated using a range of methods, including questionnaires, focus groups, and automatic monitoring of the students’ interactions with the new infrastructure.


Mark Hall and Soraya Kouadri Mostéfaoui poster (PPTX)

Remote sighted helper support for visually impaired students: exploring good practice: Stage 1

Project leader(s): 
Richard Walker

This action research project will explore how visually impaired (VI) students may be supported by a remote sighted (RS) helper to interact with visually complex teaching resources, as this support process is being evolved. We aim to document student and helper reactions to this novel method of support, and to evaluate whether RS helper support is comparable with, or has advantages over physically-present sighted helper support for some VI students and whether such support may usefully be provided in future. If RS helper support is seen to be advantageous in some situations, then guidelines will be drawn up reflecting best practice.

Specifically, we expect to consider the following questions:

  • How does RS helper-VI student collaboration work?
  • How can the particular requirements and study preferences of the VI individual be incorporated?
  • What challenges are faced by each party?
  • What strategies are used by each?
  • What communications technologies are useful in facilitating communications, and how may they be well-used?
  • Can good practice be identified for sighted helper support of VI students even where the support is not remote?

The context is the introductory programming block of TM111, based on the drag-and-drop visual programming environment OUBuild in which students create computer programs by manipulating coloured blocks representing code.

Although computer applications, including programming environments, are increasingly accessible to people with disabilities, or accessible in conjunction with assistive technologies (screenreaders, for example), some including OUBuild remain very difficult or impossible for VI students to interact with directly because of their fundamentally visual nature (Siegfried, 2006).

Hence until now VI students have typically needed a specialist sighted helper physically present alongside them to help navigate the TM111 OUBuild-based teaching materials, for almost all of their study of the programming teaching, across a study period spanning nearly two months. The sighted helper typically interacts with the programming environment as instructed by the student, describing the results to the student.

The processes involved in arranging physically-present support from an IT-literate specialist sighted helper can be complex and lengthy. In the current lockdown this model of support is impossible so emergency measures have been put into place for three VI students on TM111 20D, in which a helper will support these students remotely, using synchronous online communications software. This is new territory necessitated by an unprecedented situation but worth documenting and exploring since, even when lockdown restrictions end, remote support may be considerably easier to facilitate than physically-present support.

We expect the outcomes of the project to help support future VI students on TM111. They may also be of interest to those involved in supporting VI students in other academic areas where sighted helper support is required to navigate visually complex teaching materials.

Richard Walker project poster


Siegfried, R.M. (2006) Visual Programming and the Blind:  The Challenge and the Opportunity

A review of the use of Office 365 and Adobe Connect for active learning by ALs tutoring on T227 and TXY227

Project leader(s): 
Katharine Jewett

There are pockets of innovation taking place within the AL community in how digital technologies are being used for teaching and learning; from use of discussion forums to support practice learning to using Adobe Connect for active learning and Onenote being used to support students with learning difficulties or for those who just want to get better at organising ideas. The challenges and opportunities of using digital technologies for learning and the impact on the learner experience are not widely shared. Digital skills are not integrated into the day-to-day professional practice of all ALs, whatever their subject area. ALs themselves bring many skills and experiences from their use of digital technologies. Some of these may need to be adapted and progressed if they are to support students more widely. But in other ways - such as their use of Office 365 and Adobe Connect and their habits of sharing and collaborating online – ALs have much to show us.

I will utilise a survey report for quantitative data and to capture information from ALs tutoring on two modules within the STEM faculty: T227  - Change, Strategy and Projects at work, an OU level 2 module and TXY227, the equivalent compulsory module studied by students taking the BSc (Honours) Digital and Technology Solutions Degree Apprenticeship, BSc (Honours) IT: Software Development Graduate Apprenticeship and BSc (Honours) Cyber Security Graduate Apprenticeship.   

The research will:

  • Identify what OU approved technologies (Office 365 and Adobe Connect) are being used by ALs on the ground, why and how.
  • Explore how digital technologies can help ALs meet responsibilities under disability and equality law
  • Understand from ALs how digital technologies can support day-to-day learning habits for students, as well as, subject-specific practices from best practice within AL community.
  • Keep up to date with new approaches and new ways of using technology to support student learning, wherever it takes place.

Katharine Jewitt project poster

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