Issues in Providing Learning Support for Disabled Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities

Examples of Good Practice in Higher Education Institutions Offering Field Classes

Planning field experience, travel, sites, activities

Having established the overall context within which a department operates its fieldwork requirements, specific arrangements will need to underpin the selection of field class destinations and sites, associated travel and activities. Students may need to be reminded to complete declarations of their particular needs. This will alert tutors to specific needs which will require accommodating somewhere, and the data from which will increasingly inform the general practice in considering the advantages and disadvantages of particular destinations, travel arrangements and sites. The general characteristics of the activities which will be undertaken on arrival will also need careful consideration. There are many examples of good practice in this area, and authoritative guides on meeting particular needs (Boxes 24 and 25).

Box 24: The Open University approach to advising students on the availability of fieldwork options

The Open University is one of the largest providers of courses in geography, earth and environmental sciences in the UK and routinely runs sets of field classes involving hundreds of distance-learning students. Since the majority of these are mature entrants who chose to participate in a degree course, the number of disabled students tends to be disproportionately high. As a consequence the University is experienced and has a positive and supportive approach to disability, and clear policies on inclusion. It has developed an extensive range of guidance notes for course tutors, and excellent documentation which goes out to students considering their attendance at a residential school. The University will also provide (and pay for) personal helpers, who may be family members if this is most appropriate (see Box 2), and has a range of equipment available at many destinations. Many of the supporting learning materials are available, or can be made available, in a variety of formats such as audiotape and Braille.

The book 'Students with Disabilities: Some Guidelines for Tutorial and Counselling Staff', part of the Open Teaching Toolkit series compiled by Deborah Cooper and staff of the Open University Office for Students with Disabilities, includes information on how students can effect choice on the location of their residential school. A list of the possible destinations is provided, which includes details such as (for the Durham location) 'Earth Science students with severe mobility problems should be advised about the high percentage of field work which takes place over very rough terrain'. The characteristics of the domestic arrangements are also set out, for example students contemplating a residential school based at Bath University campus are advised that 'blind students should be accompanied because of open, projecting concrete staircases', whereas at Sussex 'A special unit can accommodate two severely disabled students in a week'.

Disabled students themselves receive a larger guide Meeting Your Residential School Needs: A guide to services for disabled students and others who have special needs at residential school. The Open University's policy is set out clearly, namely that:

'The University is committed to offering disabled students and anyone who has special needs the opportunity to attend residential schools. It will take all practical steps to offer this opportunity, making special allocation to residential schools and providing support and facilities. The University must, nevertheless, be satisfied that:

Guidance is given to staff and students with specific impairments, including a wide range of medical conditions, and these are supported by anecdotes provided by disabled students which explain how they approached arrangements to facilitate their study outside their normal domestic situation, and how much they benefited from their experience. Details of both the domestic and educational facilities of different destinations are given in detail. Students are able to request excusal from residential schools if they feel they would be unable to cope, or that attendance might exacerbate their medical condition. Whilst for most geography, earth and environmental science departments the choice of field destinations on offer from the Open University for foundation level courses (and some higher level courses) cannot be matched, the principles underlying the production of support materials are worthy of emulation. In particular the careful description of destinations and their limitations for students with specific impairments, combined with the availability of specific equipment (visual and acoustic aids, mobility support equipment) represents exceptionally good practice.

Box 25: University of Gloucestershire's approach to offering choice in destinations

Where the number of students in a department is relatively large, or fieldclasses with similar learning outcomes can be run jointly to create larger group sizes in total (either in relation to the formal academic programme or for domestic reasons such as shared accommodation), it is sometimes possible to offer students different fieldwork options. Several different destinations may be offered, with a choice of cost, facilities and timing. The additional flexibility provided for students is helpful, as they can consider the advantages and challenges and make the optimum choice.

The School of Environment at the University of Gloucestershire offers seventeen degree programmes and three Higher National Diplomas in cognate disciplines including geography, environmental science, geology, rural planning, heritage management, environmental management, landscape architecture, garden design and local policy. Second level students are required to choose from a range of classes typically including some eight or nine destinations; the range has included Andalucia, Catalonia (Barcelona), Hungary, Belgium, Scotland, Uganda, and New York. By arrangement a student may also join a different class, for example to Berlin, Poland, North Wales or Patagonia, where they will study alongside students in a different level, but working to an agreed set of learning outcomes. A small number of students have also chosen to undertake a locally agreed independent study option, done over a period of time and supervised individually.

Inclusivity is intended to permeate the design of the curriculum, including fieldwork. Individual destinations are planned with specific themes (for example as water and environmental management in Andalucia), and are suitable for students from a particular range of fields - in this case, geography, natural and water resource management, environmental management and geology. The Barcelona destination has focused on urban design and society, and has supported students studying degrees in human geography, landscape architecture and local policy. The majority of students will have a choice of at least two, and possibly three or four destinations, according to their interest and any constraints on their activity. Project work is planned to allow individual students to meet individual course objectives, and part of the students' planning process is demonstration that their work will meet their required outcomes. Individual students, including disabled students, may discuss particular needs and aspirations with the destination tutors, and the optimum destination for each one can be identified.

There is additional complexity in arranging classes and ensuring that all student needs can be accommodated, but the academic benefits of this system have been significant. The facilitation of the needs of disabled students has had benefits for all students in offering choice to those with family, financial and other constraints. Students have enjoyed exercising this choice, and feeling a sense of commitment to their chosen destination. Standards of achievement have been high, and no student has been prevented from attending because of an impossible logistical challenge.

Page updated 14 December 2001

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