How Australian Education Providers Can Build Inclusive Learning Experiences

Every student can learn, just not on the same day, or in the same way.

George Evans

Education is foundational to growth and opportunity. This is why each person, no matter what their circumstances, should have the right to access quality education. This read examines inclusive and open education and offers practical tips in designing inclusive learning experiences.

What is inclusive or open education?

According to Education NSW, Inclusive Education means that “all students can access and fully participate in learning, supported by reasonable adjustments and teaching strategies tailored to meet their individual needs.” They qualify ‘all students’ to mean “regardless of disability, ethnicity, socio-economic status, nationality, language, gender, sexual orientation or faith”.

Open Education, as defined by the Open Education Consortium (a non-profit, global, members-based network of open education institutions and organisations), “encompasses resources, tools and practices that employ a framework of open sharing to improve educational access and effectiveness worldwide.”

Inclusive education is an ideal, whereas open education can be defined more as an approach, they work together to create open educational environments for everyone.

What is inclusive learning design?

Inclusive learning design is the process of taking the concepts and goals of Inclusive & Open Education and transforming them into programs and actionable initiatives. It harnesses OERs (Open Educational Resources) to create learning environments that cater across the board. According to the Floe Project’s Inclusive Design handbook, these OERs need to be inclusive in “cognitive, technological, sensory, regional [appropriate to the people who live/work there], dexterity [fine motor skills] and collaborative dimensions”.

Brief overview of current inclusive education landscape in Australia

According to the NSW Government’s Disability Strategy, there’s “4% growth in students receiving targeted individual support”, compared to “1% overall annual enrolment growth in NSW public schools.” Demand and need are both increasing, yet only 9% of teachers are trained to teach special education, with 61% of this group above the age of 50.

State Government education departments in Australia have stated their commitment to and policies of fostering cultures of inclusive education and have set up and published plans of how this will come into fruition.  As education falls under the jurisdiction of state governments in Australia, each state has drafted their own policy.

Although they all define inclusive education along the lines of the definitions above, many place particular focus and programming into providing equal education for those with disabilities. 

UAC, the University Admission Centre, the organisation responsible for calculating The ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank), in NSW & the ACT at the end of Year 12 studies and exams, offers a program called EAS, Educational Access Scheme in order to try equal opportunity for entrance into university. Some eligible reasons include giving family care, disruption to schooling, being at under-resourced schools, language barriers and learning difficulties.

You can also apply for special considerations in both high school and university for being in extenuating circumstances whether religious, family or person. 

Both globally and domestically there are organisations that advocate for inclusive education. In Australia, the ACIE (Australian Coalition for Inclusive Education)  – “a national coalition of organisations working together to advance Inclusive Education in Australia and across State and Territory education systems”, pledges to support “the goal and principles of inclusive education as a fundamental human right of every person”.

One of their members is All Means All – The Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education “a nationwide multi-stakeholder alliance working to implement an inclusive education system and remove the legal, structural and attitudinal barriers that limit the rights of some students, including students with disabilities, to access full inclusive education in regular classrooms in Australian schools”. They have developed toolkits for both parents and educators to navigate the landscape.

The UN also has education standards and code which state commitment to education for all and UNICEF has an inclusive education program.

A research paper published by Nasen on Inclusive Education in Australia in 2015 found that although it has been around in Australia for two decades as a policy and commitment, there is still a lot of work to be done in creating effective programs and approaches that bring the aims of inclusivity into actuality in educational contexts. 

How other leading nations are going about inclusive design

In Norway, inclusive education is a foundational principle. A research paper published by the OHCHR (the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner Human Rights) on Norway’s approach to education for people with disabilities found that the country “spends significant resources” on special needs education and support.

Norway has the PPT (The Educational and Psychological Counselling Service), which “can provide kindergartens and schools with advice and guidance in the management of education for groups within learning environments”, and is a mandatory municipal service agency and is subject to specific confidentiality and data protection processes (OHCHR). 

The Research Council of Norway has allocated NOK 28 million on special needs research between 2014-2023 as part of their new research program FINNUT (OHCHR).

UNESCO estimates that 90% of children with disabilities do not go to school, it is therefore “the policy of the Norwegian government to make sure that the needs and interests of children with disabilities whenever possible are taken into account and integrated in policies, programmes and projects in its development cooperation for education”. 

Making education more inclusive

Todd Rose, in his book The End of Average: How to Succeed in World That Values Sameness, examines the latest findings in psychology and sociology to show that when we focus on individuals “rather than group averages, we are empowered to rethink the world and our place in it” (Penguin). 

So much of the way we define success or intelligence can be through standardised tests or what’s determined ‘normal’, but the truth is that none of us are average. We are all unique and these standardised measures are limiting our scope of possibility.

The IRDC (Inclusive Research Design Centre) classified inclusive education by way of three dimensions after 25 years of research: 

  1. “All students are unique and variable.”
  2. “The process of designing education should itself be inclusive.”
  3. “The education practice strives to create culture change that benefits all within the context of changing complex adaptive systems that make up our world.”

Based on the findings from the above experts, we suggest a few practical ways to further educational design.

Practical tips to make education more inclusive

#1 Include a variety of people in your design

Give people a voice and seat at the table, especially the students who cannot currently access your teaching. The finished product will not be inclusive if the people who formulated it all think similarly and come from similar backgrounds. True inclusivity will come from the sharing of diverse opinions and experiences.

#2 Be mindful of economic access

As Jess Mitchell pointed out in her OpenEd18 Keynote Address, exclusion can often be financial, even if inadvertently. Textbooks, technology, stationary, learning materials and uniforms are all very pricey, which cannot be ignored if a system is to be inclusive and accessible to all. 

#3 Train teachers & facilitators effectively

People are the foundation to success. The way one teaches and defines success is learned. If the definitions and methods associated with education can be reformed at levels of initial training, there will be greater possibility for education to become truly inclusive.

#4 Re-examine measures for success

Our obsession with average and standardisation is incredibly exclusionary. Taking an exam in a time-pressured environment is not the only way to demonstrate a mastery of material. We must get creative in our definitions and expressions of success to truly value the individual differences of each student.

Case Study: how CFID helped Deakin and how we can help you too

Deakin University made a commitment to Digital Accessibility and enlisted the help of CFID “to create a professional development solution that provided University staff with the awareness and skills to create accessible content”.

We utilised a consultation approach to help them structure an effective program. We quickly pivoted training conducted totally online via Teachable with the start of the Pandemic. It was redesigned into three self-paced online modules, including practical examples and exercises. We also provided the staff with digital tip-sheets that could be shared. We also offered constant guidance and support via Slack.

Deakin now has a core group of people who can ensure content created is accessible.

If you’re looking to design an inclusive program and increase accessibility, please reach out for tailored consultancy and program design.