Tag Archives: Higher education

Supporting students with dyslexia

To mark Dyslexia Awareness Week Scotland, our disability support coordinator Mark Ross has gathered insights from staff who have experience of dyslexia and provides information about support services which are available.

Dyslexia has consistently been among the most disclosed disabilities within our university partnership and across further and higher education over the last few years. The university has clear processes in place to ensure the support requirements of individual students are identified, captured and communicated with relevant staff on a need-to-know basis.

Our disability and personal learning support plan processes enable us to make reasonable adjustments for students with dyslexia in line with our responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010. We also do as much as possible to ensure our provision is accessible to current and prospective students in advance and we recognise that not every student will require, or wish to set up, a personal learning support plan.

Gerald McLaughlin – Student Services Manager, Perth College UHI

The most often seen condition at Perth College UHI’s additional support service is specific learning difficulties. These conditions constitute around 40% to 45% of the students we support each year. Specific learning difficulties is an umbrella term for conditions such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. The etymology (origin of the word) of these conditions is: dys – difficult, then add the suffix (or ending) lexis – speech (for dyslexia) or praxis – movement (for dyspraxia) and calculia – to count (for dyscalculia). The most common specific learning difficulties condition we see is dyslexia.

As a dyslexia specialist and specific learning difficulty assessor of a number of years now, it is clear that the benefits of a dyslexia diagnosis are multifaceted and, more often than not, personal to the individual. The obvious benefit for our higher education students is to unlock funding such as Disabled Students’ Allowance.

However, there is personal benefit in terms of a diagnosis too. Anecdotally speaking, after more than a decade working in additional support, you begin to see patterns of folk with specific conditions congregating in certain courses. While I have not done any formal research (although, I do believe I have a PhD thesis in here somewhere) my contention is as follows. People with dyslexia are attracted to jobs that are more practical in nature, childcare and early education being a good example.

From around 2012 onwards, colleges such as Perth College UHI saw a steady stream of early childhood practitioners come on to degree courses such as the BA (Hons) childhood practice. A number of these, usually mature, students began to struggle with the advanced literacy elements of their courses. The college support systems would kick in and dyslexia screening and eventual diagnosis would be scheduled. Having completed a number of diagnoses for these (predominantly female) students, the overwhelming feedback I would receive from is that of catharsis! The student would invariably feel a sense of relief. Some comments I would receive, would be along the lines of ‘I knew I wasn’t thick’ – ‘I always knew there was something not right’. There were sometimes even tears of relief.

Many of these students would continue their educational journey to success. They would often report a sense of achievement from their hard work and endeavour. You could see their negative experiences of education dissipate; it is almost tangible.

They would now be supported appropriately by the university support systems and have equal access to the curriculum, sometimes for the first time in their life.

My part in the student journey to success is relatively incidental. You simply give the student a key. It needs to be said though, as a specific learning difficulty assessor, being able to give someone the key that allows them to unlock their full potential is by far the biggest privilege you can have!

Dr Gareth Davies – Lecturer and Programme Leader, Lews Castle College UHI

I started secondary school in Wales in 1979 and I was told I was thick. In the late 70s there wasn’t as much known about dyslexia as there is today and there was far less understanding of the challenges that those with dyslexia faced daily. A teacher told me I was too thick to do “O” level English and the school refused to put me in the “O” level group. 

Thus, I was denied the opportunity to study for one of the most basic and important gateway qualifications. Fortunately for me, my mother was an English teacher and she did not give up on me.  She told the school that she would keep me home on a Thursday morning and teach me herself. She did and I passed, but that was not the end of the story. I struggled to gain a BTEC diploma in business studies and then got relatively mundane jobs.

One job was working in a shop on the high-street in Bangor. I spent Saturdays watching students from the university casually milling around and popping into the pubs and I thought that looked like a fun thing to do, so I signed up for “A” level English evening classes and I squeaked through with a grade D which was enough to get me into Bangor University to study psychology. I honestly thought that if I lasted until Christmas before they found out I was thick and booted me out, I would be doing well. But that did not matter because I was in university having a great time and I was not working in the shop. Much to my surprise, I made it through to the second year (a degree is three years in Wales and England). 

As part of the degree, participation as a research subject was strongly encouraged so I signed up to be a control participant for Prof Tim Miles, a name that many in the dyslexia community will recognise. He told me I had come on the wrong day and that the subjects with dyslexia should come the following day. Of course, I protested that I did not have dyslexia, but Prof Miles just smiled and said that he was pretty sure that I was dyslexic. Who was I to argue? He referred me to an educational psychologist who confirmed his hunch. Thanks Tim!

Discovering that I had dyslexia was a moment that gave me the confidence to carry on with my studies. I did and I was successful. I had the feeling that a weight had been lifted from my shoulders and I was not, after all, “thick”. It was a great boost to my self-confidence.

I did a Master’s degree straight after my Bachelor’s degree and a few years later I completed a teaching qualification. A couple of years after that I did my PhD. The school was wrong, but to be fair, this was 35 years ago and dyslexia is now far better understood. Help and support is available in ways that didn’t exist when I was a student. There was some; I was given a computer and extra exam time and that was it. No one ever asked me how I was getting on. The university partnership has a host of resources that those with dyslexia can access so seek the help that is out there – it is far better than the help that was on offer 35 years ago. 

The lesson I have taken away from all this is never to let anyone hold you back. Having dyslexia does not mean that you cannot succeed – you can. I did.

The university’s accessibility project

To help staff ensure their learning content is accessible and to comply with accessibility regulations, the university is running a project with staff training at the heart of it. Not only will this ensure that students with disabilities are able to access learning content, creating accessible learning resources also enhances the experience for all students.  

The accessibility project team has:

  • Established a university-wide accessibility champions forum which will help staff locally
  • Created a self-directed accessibility support module for staff, comprising a suite of useful resources
  • Arranged online support which will include webinars, workshops, drop-ins and question and answer sessions
  • Used software tools to help make learning content accessible and available to students in alternative formats
  • Created an accessibility communications site which will give staff the information they need to start their accessibility enhancement journey

Students with dyslexia may find some of the available alternative formats such as audio, tagged PDF and BeeLine Reader useful. The BeeLine Reader is particularly helpful for people with dyslexia as it displays lines of text in different colours. For more information, see the BeeLine Reader section on Blackboard Ally’s  alternative formats webpage.

Microsoft Office

University of the Highlands and Islands students can download the offline versions of Office 365 applications (e.g. Word, PowerPoint, etc) for use during their studies. Microsoft Office has several in-built accessibility tools which can be useful for students and staff alike.

Accessing support  

  • Students who would like further details of available support can contact student services for advice.
  • Students can also contact their personal academic tutor for further information on the university’s accessibility project.

Connecting the partnership: how video conferencing shaped the University of the Highlands and Islands

As the University of the Highlands and Islands celebrates its tenth birthday, our longest serving video conferencing expert, Roray Stewart, provides an insight into the importance of the technology to the development of the partnership.  

When did you join the University of the Highlands and Islands partnership?

I started as an apprentice IT technician with Shetland College UHI in 1998, before becoming a video conference technician with the university in 2001. At the time there was an expansion of IT services taking place across the partnership. Partners could submit bids to host services. Shetland College UHI won the right to run the video conference service.

As part of my work at the college, I’d had some experience of helping staff and students use the video conference facilities. I found it interesting and could see that it had potential for becoming a more widely used technology. I worked alongside the senior video conference technician and video conference administrator.

How has your role changed over the time you have been with us?

There have been a few significant changes over the years:

  • The growth in video conferencing demand. In 2001 we ran 2200 conferences. Fast forward to 2019 and we were running 22140 conferences. For obvious reasons 2020 saw a significant growth with approximately 92,000 meetings on Webex alone. Add on Microsoft Teams and we will have hosted over 100,000 meetings!
  • The technology has moved on leaps and bounds with better quality audio and video and added features. Two of the main ones that enabled growth were desktop calling and recording of conferences.
  • We are no longer as hands on with scheduling meetings. We used to manually create each meeting the morning of the day it was due to take place.

What are some of your most memorable moments?

  • When we hit 10,000 conferences in a year in 2011. That seemed like such a milestone at the time.
  • Presenting at two online sessions which I would describe as being well outside my comfort zone. In August 2020 I ran a Webex training session to over 180 staff members. I had never presented to as many people before (or since). I also gave a presentation to the Webex community recently about the university and our transition to Webex. The live session reached 17 countries with 43 different organisations represented by 78 attendees.
  • Being lucky enough to have travelled around most of our campus locations throughout the years. The scenery is stunning and we have great staff around the partnership.

What is your proudest moment of working with the university?

Seeing university title granted and becoming the University of the Highlands and Islands. The hard work by many over the years had finally paid off.

Do you think the role of video conferencing has been vital to the development of our university partnership?

For me, it certainly has been one of the key tools in the development of the university partnership. Video conferencing has been used since the early days of getting the university off the ground, through the different phases of our development, to being awarded university title and now continuing through a global pandemic.

Due to our geographic spread, video conferencing will remain a key tool in our development going forward. It may take on a new name and the technology may change, but video will still be at the heart of it. Using a blend of face-to-face teaching and innovative technologies offers students the flexibility to study when and wherever they choose.

Do you think the university partnership is a pioneer in this area?

We were well known for being a pioneer in video conference use and our opinion was respected by other institutions, at conferences and by the equipment vendors. I remember colleagues that had attended or given presentations at conferences saying that the other attendees were always impressed by the sheer volume of video conferencing we did back then.

What do you think the future holds for video conferencing and online meetings?

Video conferencing and online meetings are here to stay – I think that’s safe to safe to say. Conferences and events will offer some form of online capability alongside in-person attendance for a while to come, although I’d expect that to reduce over time.

A couple of possible developments down the line could be 3D video conferencing or virtual reality meetings where attendees will meet in either a virtual representation of a real space or a purely virtual one. There are start-ups and companies already working on this, but whether they come to market time will tell.

For me it’s an exciting technology sector to work in and one I have a real passion for. Also, I finally no longer need to explain what my job is as everyone has been video calling or ‘Zooming’ for the last year or so!

Reflecting on interdisciplinarity at the University of the Highlands and Islands

When the University of the Highlands and Islands partnership was awarded university title in 2011, Professor Meg Bateman, a writer and senior lecturer at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI, composed the celebratory poem, Let the Northern Land Shine. Ten years on, Professor Bateman, reflects on the development of the partnership and collaboration across its sites and subject areas.

Ten years ago, Alison Lochhead kindly asked me to write a poem to mark the University of the Highlands and Islands becoming a university. I was inspired. I saw our thirteen colleges like a constellation, pulling together an area that had become fragmented and demoralised by emigration, two world wars, distance from centres of power and the brain drain of its youth. 

It wasn’t always so. It appears that the wider culture of building stone circles, and thousands of years later of building brochs, was initiated in the north of Scotland and moved south. Pictish, Gaelic and Norse culture had probed the land mass and aligned peoples with various centres of power, among them Burghead in Moray, Finlaggan in Islay (and Greece in the imagination), Orkney and Shetland, the Hebrides and Man. Far from the sea being isolating, it was enabling: of trade in gold from Ireland, wine from Spain and pigments from the Middle-East and of salvation as monks sailed to islands as far as Iceland and possibly even as far as Greenland and Canada, on sea-roads later extended by the Norse. Place-names too reveal a palimpsest of linguistic, religious, fiscal and topographic connections.

How wonderful that after generations of the young being ‘educated out’, it is now possible not only for students to remain on their native turf, but for the Highlands and Islands and its populations to become the beneficiaries and frame of reference.

By some alchemy of the ancient and modern, it is remarkable in our current environmental crisis that Gaelic poetry, lore and crofting offer a useful paradigm of man’s respectful and reciprocal relationship with nature (and there is archaeological evidence of this relationship being far older than Celtic civilisation). While the poetic trope of nature’s fertility being dependent on her satisfaction with her mate might be taught at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, its practical ramifications are manifest in the research on renewables in Shetland and Orkney and on the health of the sea at SAMS. It is often along such interdisciplinary fault-lines that understanding bubbles up. 

I teach six hours of grammar a week before embarking on literature, philosophy and what-not. I undertake this attention to detail gladly: it feels like combing the hair of the language. But over and above that daily practice, I want to describe the satisfactions of interdisciplinarity in my involvement with cultural studies and the Institute for Northern Studies in Orkney College, much of it in co-operation with that powerhouse, Donna Heddle. First we wrote a course looking at the medieval literature of the Highlands and Islands in five languages (I handled one). Then she asked me to write ‘The Gaelic Legacy’, a core module for the MLitt in Highlands and Islands literature. In this, I tried to present the most interesting and salient aspects of Gaelic culture to post-graduates of other disciplines, for example, history, psychology, theology and geography.

The results were startling. An American student wrote an essay comparing Fionn mac Cumhaill and his Fenian band to a brotherhood of Vietnam war veterans, proud bikers on the edge of society. Instantly she had imbued these medieval tales and ballads with contemporary social and creative relevance. Another student looked at the archetype of the sovereignty goddess, who is both destructive and nurturing, as a precursor of the female warriors of modern animations.

The module is now taught by Iain Mac a’ Phearsain while I have a hand in supervising theses. We both feel that seeing Gaelic culture through the prism of other disciplines and vice versa has afforded us some of the deepest insights of our careers. Supervision has taken me where I would never have gone alone. My delight in selkie stories was challenged by their analysis in terms of toxic masculinity and rape apology. This year a student is showing how subjecting several Highland novels to a Jungian analysis can reveal and perhaps resolve some of our current social conflicts.  While I have been to the City of Dreadful Night with another student, I have also seen the bareness of Hoy as key to the numinous in the writing of George Mackay Brown and in Sylvia Wishart’s art.

It is a privilege to work with this institution whose backdrop is the physical beauty of the Highlands and Islands and whose work feels like a slowly opening flower – let’s say my favourite, grass of Parnassus, which grows locally in acidic soils, delicate, green-veined and honey-scented.

It is essential that we talk together more, our focus, the characteristics and inhabitants of the land, skies and waters, their ecosystems and their cultures, past, present and future.

How promising to hear our new principal Todd Walker say that Gaelic is what most excites him about coming to the University of the Highlands and Islands. Good man!