Adapting to needs

Use Case: Adapting to needs – intelligent accessibility

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What’s the issue?

The number of students entering university who have a known disability is increasing, (56% between 2011 and 2015) and at the same time funding has faced cuts, with an impact on outcomes.

Increasing demand for services and pressure on resources suggests universities could turn to intelligent solutions across campus to improve the student experience, encourage participation and improve outcomes.

What specific challenges are there?

Going to university can prove to be a daunting experience, from busy open days and freshers week to daily negotiation of timetabling and the campus.

Universities can be physically and organisationally complex, with a myriad of different types of buildings and access requirements, spread across large areas, sometimes involving multiple campuses. Getting around campus can be a challenge and that is before any adaptation for learning is considered.

Other concerns identified by prospective students include making friends and having the right equipment.

What solutions exist?

Many “smart” devices have emerged around independent living and home automation. These include controlling your heating, security and lighting through your smartphone, sometimes to a personalised schedule or in response to location. Lighting can be adjusted to improve contrast for improved visibility, or visual signals can indicate visitors at the door, or appliances in operation. Research on healthcare and society also is developing wearable devices to support different needs.

In addition, many commonplace smartphone apps can support communication, networking and socialising. Mapping and route finding is another application readily available, such as identifying routes for public transport, cycling or pedestrians.

Other apps available include those for communicating via sign language, speech generation from text, screen magnifiers using the phone’s camera, and tasks and visual prompting tools to help with organising and attention. The intelligent campus can provide ways of integrating these personal tools with physical facilities, IT and learning systems.

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How can these be used on campus?

The intelligent campus is well placed to offer personalised services and adaptive facilities. Smartphones can operate apps appropriate to the individual’s needs, using interfaces including speech and natural language recognition. These could communicate with the university infrastructure, identifying particular needs within a building or area, and adjusting the environment to suit.

Navigating your way around campus might include apps for accessible routing, tailored for different needs, avoiding more challenging obstacles and estimating travel time. Real time notification of appropriate nearby facilities such as disabled toilets, parking bays, transport or access ramps could be transmitted to students as they move around the campus. Notification of special access or other needs might also be received by timetabling services to allow provision for flexible start times or remote access.

In the classroom

Example of adaptive learning environments could include

  • a lecture theatre adopting different lighting settings or activating special access features, triggered by the arrival of a student triggers (either automated or under the control of the student’s phone)
  • automatically storing content from the lecture, shared and translated into multiple formats, available on platforms that are accessed by a variety of different devices
  • automatically incorporating personal profiles of learning styles, preferences and special considerations into teaching and learning activities
  • integrating existing interface tools and apps such as speech-text conversion, captioning and gestures with learning content
  • connecting accessibility apps with classroom facilities for example to respond to head movements or translate impaired speech
  • structuring the delivery of content to allow review and reflection at the student’s own pace and comfort level

What about ethical issues?

Confidentiality and security are clearly important, with information about disabilities and special needs as well as access to specific support services and financial support. This could be even more detailed than other contexts, to include daily activities and living patterns. Students need to be confident that their information is kept private and shared appropriately with service providers. For universities there may be challenges in deciding on priorities and technical implementation of a wide range of devices and adjustments.

Who needs to be involved?

A wide range of services across the institution have an interest in such services, from housing to finance, estates to learning and teaching. Student records, IT and libraries can will also play a crucial role, alongside specialist support services for accessibility.

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