From Ghent to Worcester: A pathway for universal inclusion

Dr Sean Bracken, co-Learning and Teaching Lead, Institute of Education

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Patrick Clarke (Specialist Learning Support Service Mnager at Student Services at the University of Worcester) and Dr. Helen Mongan-Ralis (University of Minnesota Duluth) whose erudite discussions and generosity of intellectual spirit have revealed the potentials of Universal Design for Learning.

Two years ago here at the University of Worcester, at one of a series of ‘food for thought’ seminars organised to raise awareness about staff and student intercultural and transnational experiences, a colleague shared her reflections about being ‘othered’ and estranged both within and outside of the university. Her stories have remained with me as a testimony for the need to counter the sometimes overt, but perhaps more frequently unconscious, influences of racial and cultural bias that inform pedagogical, social and cultural practices within and beyond our University.

Some might observe that the sharing of one academic’s experiences is anecdotal and unreliable. However, as a lecturer engaging first year undergraduate students in searching conversations about identity and inclusion in the educational context, time and again students have also shared personal experiences of being harassed and abused because of their ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and/or their religious beliefs. Make no mistake about it – this also impacts on students’ learning outcomes. The lived experiences of inequalities that students encounter are clearly reflected in the data associated with students’ achievements.

Students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are not achieving to the same extent as White students. In many cases, this is despite their arriving at the University from positions of equitable achievement and academic strength. Typical analyses of this situation generally tend to reflect a desire to explain away rather than tackle such inequalities.

It is frequently argued that, firstly the data is not that reliable because there are such small percentages of students involved and secondly, it is suggested that this situation merely mirrors a similar national state of affairs. But as educators, these covering explanations should be troubling and disquieting. Searching questions ought to be posed as to how structural and systematic biases and inequalities might be tackled rather than merely explained away enabling the status quo to continue being so.

At first, such systematic challenges may seem intractable. Individuals or small groups of educators may wish to make a positive difference but become overwhelmed by the apparently deep-seated nature of social inequalities. If social inertia is to be overcome, there is a need to be mindful of the bigger picture while taking forward individual initiatives.

Through interrogating policy developments, reflecting on our learning and teaching processes, and challenging unjust social practices, the tendencies towards exclusion and power exclusivity are highlighted and can be countered. Ultimately, this should lead to a roll back of the ‘business as usual’ so there is growing capacity to tackle replications of social, cultural ethnic or value based biases that compound inequalities. The capacity to effect more sustainable change arises particularly where individual initiatives are seen to contribute to a wider culture of what I would like to call ‘intentional organisational inclusivity’.

University teachers, students and senior leaders may question the forms and processes that would enable such systematic changes to be put into place. Whatever their foundations, these forms and processes should facilitate the stable progressive building of initiatives that are increasingly realistic and sustainable. Resultant emerging actions should be able to demonstrate impact in terms of changed experiences and outcomes for marginalised students.

The good news is that such blueprints for organisational transformation already exist. We can draw on learning shared by those that have faced similar challenges previously and who have developed models and processes enabling ‘intentional organisational inclusivity’ to become the bedrock for initiatives that aim to impact systematically on current values and practices.

Recently, I attended a conference at Howest University in Ghent that showcased how European higher educational providers have adopted and adapted an approach known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a model to make rapid systematic progress towards ‘intentional organisational inclusivity’.

Two particular case studies of whole organisational change were particularly impressive, those of the host University of Howest and of the prestigious McGill University in Canada. In the first instance, Howest adopted a concerted multi-layered approach involving all key stakeholders in the change process. This initiative resulted in demonstrable changes in the levels of retention and engagement of students who were identified as being ‘disadvantaged’. At McGill, the primary focus was upon up-skilling of teaching staff through targeted professional development – sustained collegiate capacity building was seen as crucial for success.

As identified in the publication by Burgstahler and Coy (2008), at its most basic universal design includes consideration of the following dimensions:

  1. Class climate – Ensure to engender a culture of respect for diversity and inclusiveness and insist upon high expectations for all students, this might also involve checking for personal bias through systematic self-reflection and awareness;
  2. Interaction – Promote regular and effective interactions between students and the instructor and ensure that communication methods are accessible to all participants;
  3. Physical environments and products – Enable participation by all students by interrogating whether the physical facilities, learning activities, pedagogical materials, and equipment are accessible to all students and reflective of their diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds;
  4. Delivery methods – Encourage student engagement by using multiple, accessible instructional methods accessible to all learners, for example this might involve the use of lecture capture to enable working students to access learning if the timetables clash with student imperatives to earn additional finances;
  5. Information resources and technology -Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are engaging, flexible, and accessible for all students, there should be consistency of availability in advance of and following taught sessions;
  6. Feedback and feed forward – Provide multiple modes and opportunities for feedback and feed forward,
  7. AssessmentRegularly assess student progress using multiple accessible methods and tools, and use data to adjust instruction accordingly ensure that students and professionals alike become increasingly ‘assessment literate’ through peer interactions, dialogue with lecturers and through systems such as personal academic tutoring;
  8. Accommodation – Plan for accommodations for students whose needs are not met by the instructional design.

At a university level, new learning and teaching initiatives should ensure that these aspects of inclusivity form the foundation for collaborative research projects. These have the very real potential to impact upon two core elements of lived experiences within the university and beyond. These are the social and cultural expressions of student and staff identities and, very importantly, their interrelationships with learning outcomes and professional progression (Burgstahler, 2013).

However, the constructive potential inherent in university initiatives should not be limited to what happens on campus. There is a social imperative to influence ways of thinking and being in wider society. When we dream big we have the capacity to tackle unjust systematic beliefs and practices on a grander scale. For example, through Project Zero, the Government of Norway has shared its aspiration to provide for a whole country that is ‘universal designed’ by 2025. It aims to do so by facilitating social engagement by all and by countering discrimination, accordingly:

The Ministry of Children and Equality is responsible for promoting equality and preventing discrimination on the basis of gender, age, sexual orientation, skin colour, ethnicity, religion or disability. Through this action plan for universal design and increased accessibility, the government is bringing both the equality policy and sustainability policy an important step further. (Norwegian Ministry of Children and Equality, 2009: 7).

If a country is working towards the realisation of such an ambitious aspiration, why shouldn’t it be achieved within a university? As exemplified in the collaborative and universal designed nature of the HIVE , the only library in the UK that is at once accessible by the wider public and tailored to meet the needs of university students, the University of Worcester is well placed to provide for a similar ambitious programme of university universal design.

Such an initiative should be developed with the intention of making an impact on wider ways of thinking, doing and being so that universal access and experiences become more than university idylls. Using its good offices, the University has scope to promote this concept of equity, inclusivity and universality within the City of Worcester and wider to incorporate the County of Worcestershire.

The incidences of ‘othering’ shared by my colleague from North Africa, whose experiences I alluded to earlier, were encountered within and beyond the confines of the university. We have recently seen, on both sides of the Atlantic, the dangers arising from divisiveness and inequalities associated with race and ethnicity. More than ever, we now need to articulate a plan for ensuring that our University and our society has the vision, will and capacity to address inequities and to create greater social cohesion. The stakes are too high to merely tinker at the edges of change.

The pathways of universal design offer tangible routes for at least partial redress for social, racial, ethnic and cultural inequalities and our challenge is to avail of the opportunities provided in order to plan for, and bring to fruition, the positive changes for learning and society.

To learn more about the conference focused on UDL, please visit the conference website at:

Burgstahler, S. , & Coy, R. (Eds.). (2008) Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice. Boston: Harvard Education Press.

Burgstahler, S. (2013) Universal design in higher education: Promising practices. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington. Retrieved from: Accessed, 9th July, 2016.

Norwegian Ministry of Children and Equality (2009) Norway universally designed by 2025 The Norwegian government’s action plan for universal design and increased accessibility 2009-2013. Retrieved from: Accessed, 9th July, 2016




‘So what do we tell the students to use for their referencing?’

This was the question put to me several times during the staff development day on 16 November 2015, while I manned a ‘stall’ in the morning (with Linzi McKerr) and facilitated a workshop in the afternoon (with Anthony Barnett, and Darren Cooper from ISES), both covering bibliographic management software. A simple question with a not-so-straightforward answer!

Students are often on the lookout for a simple tool that will do the mechanical task of referencing for them, putting dots and commas in the right place, and displaying all the elements of a reference for any given source with ease. We often come under pressure to ‘teach’ referencing, and recommend the tool which will solve all their problems.

When considering a response to such requests, an internal conflict flares up:

‘But referencing is an academic skill, it is part of your writing, you can’t expect a tool to do the work for you…. Then again, I can see that if you are new to academic writing, or find that referencing is problematic for other reasons (e.g. dyslexia), a tool might help…. There is no good time to ‘teach’ referencing, if it can be taught, you need to have a go and practice, and get feedback to develop this skill… Just follow the Harvard guide, you can’t go wrong!’

However, after some constructive and interesting discussions with colleagues on Monday, I’m starting to think about whether we should be making students more aware of their options. If they want to use a tool, can we recommend one (or more)? How do we manage their expectations of what these tools can do? When is the ‘best’ time to introduce the concept of reference management? (Indeed, when is the ‘best’ time to ‘teach’ Harvard referencing, and how??) Will they understand it all early on, or is it yet another ‘thing’ they have to learn?

I’m not sure I have the answers to all the questions posed above just yet, but perhaps there are discussions to be had which could take those questions forward. Leaving aside the wider issues of referencing policy, and the integration of academic skills teaching throughout university curricula,  I thought it would be useful to add a blog post on #thelearningconversation which points towards some of the available bibliographic management tools which might help.

Al the tools I’ve played with investigated so far are covered on a short document available here. My prezi from the workshop is here. At the risk of seeming a little biased, here are two tools I particularly like:

Mendeley: If you want to know more about what this can do, Darren Cooper is your man! He presented a great introduction to the tool during the afternoon workshop, demonstrating how he uses it for his research to manage his papers and references, and how he uses it with colleagues and students in a collaborative way. With Mendeley, you can save references, add PDFs, manage your references into folders, export bibliographies and cite while you write in Word. UW Harvard style is available in Mendeley. More information here. Zotero offers similar functionality; Anthony Barnett offered his insights during the workshop, showing how the tool can be easily used online to collect and store references.

RefMe: this strikes me as a little more basic compared to Mendeley, but this might be a bonus for new students and undergraduates. It is web-based, so saved references are stored and managed online, in a RefMe account. The UW Harvard style is available so bibliographies can be created and copied/pasted or inserted into Word. It works best with Chrome browser. You can add an extension (browser button) called a web clipper, which can save references you find to your RefMe library. There’s even an app which scans barcodes of books and pulls the reference into your library. More information here.

As with any tool though, it won’t always get it right 100% of the time. Students must be prepared to proof-read and tweak the output before submitting any assignment!

Sarah Purcell

Knowledge mobilisation and translational research BERA 2015

Last week Moira presented a paper at BERA 2015 at Queens University Belfast as part of a MESH (Mapping Educational Specialist knowHow initiative) symposium with Professor Marilyn Leask. The paper was titled ‘Mobilisation of new pedagogic knowledge to support national curriculum change – a model from the IT in Teacher Education professional organisation’.   Details available at :

Joining in with The Learning Conversation before, during and after the Annual UW Learning, Teaching and Student Experience Conference 2015

The UW Learning, Teaching and Student Experience Conference 2015 programme and abstracts can be found at

Joining in with The Learning Conversation 

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“Asking the right questions: A study to explore the means by which professional dialogue between learners and teachers can inform new course design” (Area 7)

Karen Blackmore and Michelle Rogers (IoE)

In an environment of rapidly evolving and competitive Higher Education, it is vital for institutions to be flexible in their provision (Alexandra, 2014). This project aims to support the creation of new programs by raising awareness of existing best practice, and augment this with a “learner centred” perspective. The researchers endeavour to discern the key elements of successful program design using a dialogic approach. Our thinking has been influenced from several theoretical perspectives including self-determinism theory (Ryan and Deci, 2006), which describes how adult learners require a degree of autonomy and opportunities to demonstrate competence, through to grounded theory of high quality leadership programs (Eich, 2008). By analysing empirical research data from interested parties (in the form of semi-structured interviews and questionnaires), we aim to design a suite of questions which can be used to prompt discourse surrounding new course design. The study draws on the work of Dolenceon, 2014 who created a structure to guide dialog and enquiry about curriculum. He identified seven key elements of program design and highlighted questioning approaches that could be used to interrogate these components, e.g. “What objectives do the learners seek?” helps to identify the motivations and learning experiences required by learners. “Who are the learners?” attempts to identify to what extent reciprocity exists between these two delineated roles. It is anticipated to use the findings from this study to inform successful future course design.

“The aim of the research was to develop a conceptual framework to support reflective practice as a way of being” (Area 7)

Karen Appleby (IoE)

 The aim of the research was to develop a conceptual framework to support reflective practice as a way of being. It builds on professional inquiry and research with students (Appleby 2010, Hanson 2012,) which informed the development of the curriculum content within Early Childhood programmes at the University of Worcester. Evaluation of student engagement with the curriculum, related professional discussion and other theoretical positions from literature supported further publications on the nature of reflective practice (Appleby 2010, Appleby & Andrews 2012, Hanson 2011). The research is based on principles of social constructivist and transformational theory. It draws on existing theory of critical thinking, professional learning and reflective practice. Within the context of action research as defined by Mc Niff & Whitehead (2011) a range of qualitative research methods was used to collect and analyse data from student evaluation of modules, professional conversations and literature. The main finding was the development of a conceptual framework described as ‘reflective activism’ within which the role and identity of early years practitioners as reflective activists is most significant. The outcome has been published (Hanson & Appleby 2015) and used to inform further curriculum development. Positive evaluations have been received from student practitioners and peer review.

“I know I am just a student but….’ An education provider’s perspectives in supporting students to raise concerns about professional practice in the context of safeguarding children.” (Area 6)

Claire Richards (NCSPVA) & Catriona Robinson (IoE)

The paper will present the initial findings of a study which aimed to highlight aspects of professional practice dilemmas for students of Early Childhood Studies and Education where they are working with children and families. Consequent to students’ understanding of their safeguarding responsibilities, dilemmas are identified when theory and practice may be at a critical variance. Early Years practitioners and Teachers continue to play an increasingly pivotal role in their safeguarding responsibilities to promote the rights of children. The promotion of the voice of the child is viewed as synonymous to hearing the voice of the student where concerns are identified in the context of professional practice. The university seeks to offer procedural approaches to enable students to raise concerns and access emotional support from staff. The study therefore examines the role and implication for academic staff in this process. The research is a qualitative study and acquired ethical approval from the Institute’s Ethics Committee of the Worcester of University. The results of this research indicate that students do identify a range of anxieties in the context of professional practice and there is a strong message that there is a need for more teaching focus on safeguarding children in preparation for practice. Academic staff have also indicated some concern about the need for support and further training on this issue.

“Developing a Teachers’ Resource Webpage” (Area 6)

Branwen Bingle (IoE)

After a course presentation done by LGB charity Stonewall, our Primary Initial Teacher Education trainees identified a need for more support and resources to help them create inclusive learning environments. In order to support our trainee teachers in tackling prejudiced-based bullying and support a wide range of pupils (and teachers themselves) in the classroom we developed a SAP project to create a UW website in order to support trainees and newly qualified teachers (NQTs). A team of students identified themselves as participants and collated resources and sources, judging their suitability and evaluating content on the webpage, supervised and guided in this role by a staff member from the UW IoE Primary centre and a director from an LGBT charity. This presentation outlines the process undertaken, from students’ motivation for becoming involved to the launch and reception of the webpages, from the perspective of the participants themselves.

“Increasing Student Engagement with Library Services” (Area 6)

Dr Sarah Pittaway and Shelley Probert, Academic Services

Traditional models of student engagement focus on engaging students with their learning, to become independent researchers. Library services have long sought to work with academics to engage with learners in this way. However, we are now also embarking on a new age of student engagement, in which we engage with students as partners and change agents, actively involved in the evaluation, development and delivery of library services. A new post, Student Engagement Co-ordinator, has been created with a remit to talk to students and get their feedback, challenging them on how we might deliver on their expectations, and taking ownership of exciting new projects. It is anticipated that this kind of student engagement will impact positively on the learning community more broadly. The students we engage with directly will see immediate benefits (e.g. small physical incentives in the form of pens, coffee vouchers; project experience; material for the Worcester Award), whilst their contributions and feedback will help us deliver a better service to the wider student body and create better dialogue with our student population. This paper will cover how this role has start to change our relationship with students and encourage colleagues to get involved with engaging with students in this way.