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Disability Practice in the Spotlight

How Inclusive is my Subject? (HIIMS)

Photo of Wendy Paulusz
Wendy Paulusz

A new project at La Trobe University is enabling more inclusion for students – by helping academics to pinpoint just how inclusive their classes are.

Known as ‘How Inclusive is my Subject?’ (HIIMS), it is an online professional development module for La Trobe staff that prompts them to reflect on various aspects of their subjects, including assessment, curriculum design, accessible learning resources, teaching, team/group work and more.

Wendy Paulusz is lead content writer on the project and says HIIMS has been designed to be as easy and useful for staff to use as possible.

“The idea for HIIMS originally came from Darren Britten, who is the manager of Inclusive Resource Development at La Trobe University, because they were often having to talk to academics about how to make things more inclusive. He wanted a more scalable and proactive approach to assist academic staff in answering the question, 'How Inclusive Is My Subject?'” she explains.

With a teaching background in special education, primary, secondary, TAFE, and university both here and overseas, Wendy could relate to the issues academics face in designing an inclusive program of study. Working with students as a disability advisor and academic skills advisor “helped me to develop a better understanding of the student perspective and their issues,” she says.

Importantly, HIIMS isn’t just designed for the benefit of students with a disability – because as Wendy notes, inclusive education benefits everyone.

“It will accommodate not just students with a disability but all students at the university, because La Trobe has a very diverse student population. So, it's important to be able to produce and deliver information in a way that is inclusive of all students using the principles of universal design for learning.”

The online professional development module is designed to be completed at one’s own pace. When staff open the module, they must first choose their role; after this, they will choose which section they wish to work – Teaching or Accessible resources for example - and answer a series of questions, which are aimed at identifying “the strength of your subject [and] the potential barriers that limit student participation and engagement”, Wendy explains.

The answers are weighted according to the potential impact that removing the identified barriers will provide to students, and contribute to a report collated at the end of the module. The report acts as a guide for academics as to which areas they should focus on to increase inclusivity in their subject. Results are kept completely confidential.

“It's very interactive, so people get a response immediately as to where they can be more inclusive and what areas to work on. No one is expected to be 100% inclusive either!” Wendy says.

As well as the review, HIIMS also includes a Community of Practice section that provides information and links to extensive resources, not just from within La Trobe such as policies and procedures, and quotes and papers from staff, but also resources from other universities and educational sites such as ADCET to help guide staff in removing and minimising barriers that can impede student engagement and success.

As Wendy explains, this can be valuable for teachers who may not have time to complete the review aspect of the module. The Community of Practice is an interactive, grassroots space where academics can learn from each other in the Peer Focus pages and find out what strategies and practices work for students in Guides and Tips.

“If you have, for example, a particular student with an issue in your class, you can look up at the [appropriate] Guides and Tips page; or if you want more information on how to be more accessible you can look up that section and just get some quick tips on what to do,” Wendy says.

The interactivity of the module is unique, Wendy says, as is the organic, grassroots nature of the community of practice.

Another key to the module is the fact that it isn’t compulsory. Wendy says this was a strategic decision.

“Staff are already overwhelmed with a lot of things that they have to do. We're trying to use a different approach to support them to be more inclusive rather than forcing them to be compliant and telling them they have to be more inclusive. By providing resources and opportunities to see what their peers are doing we want to show them that it is possible to be more inclusive without too much work. Show them the value of doing it, because it is actually beneficial for all students when you are inclusive because that is good teaching.

“HIIMS is not disability specific; it is for all students, such as students from a refugee background or students from a low SES background, Indigenous students, those from a non-English speaking background or mature-aged students. It hasn't got one specific target in that sense. It's about being inclusive and using the principles of universal design which support all students.”

Wendy says the university is trying to keep the module as active and interactive as possible. Workshops on HIIMS are offered in the university both face-to-face and online. And from these workshops, staff volunteer to promote HIIMS within their own subject areas. They are the ‘inclusive ambassadors’ who also provide feedback on the module which makes it reflective of what staff need and want.

“It's working with people at the coalface and supporting them so that they can then support each other in this quite tough teaching and learning environment.”

Written by: Danielle Kutchel

June 2019