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New digital accessibility regulations are having an impact on universities and colleges. Our subject specialist on assistive technology, Rohan Slaughter, sets out what you need to know.

Some years ago, when I was working with assistive technology at the independent specialist Beaumont College, I met a student whose experience in my field had been quite negative – largely because he'd been offered technologies to do things that didn't interest him much.

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Small changes - big impact

My team started by asking the student about what he really wanted to do. More than anything, like most young people, he wanted to be able to access his music. So we set up a Windows tablet to allow him to control his music independently. Then, over time, we added the ability to control his TV remotely and also added vocabulary so he could use the tablet as a fully-featured voice output communication aid that allowed him to control standard Windows applications such as Microsoft Office.

What had started out as a student-led approach to making his life more enjoyable had turned into a way he could engage with the curriculum at a higher level than he would have found possible without the technology. I saw then how caring about accessibility and assistive technology can make the difference between failing and flying.

Facts and figures

Our 2019 digital experience insights survey results show that teaching staff often don't know enough about accessibility and assistive technologies.

In higher education...

17% of teaching staff said they use assistive technologies in their role but only 24% of these receive any support in using them.

Only 26% say they're informed about their responsibilities in relation to assistive and adaptive technologies.

In further education...

15% of teaching staff say they use assistive technologies in their role and only 40% of these receive any support in using them.

Only 16% say they're informed about their responsibilities in relation to assistive and adaptive technologies.

New accessibility regulations

While that was at a specialist college, assistive technology in various forms is widely used (19% of HE students and 14% of FE students either need or choose to use it, according to our 2019 digital experience insights survey) and accessibility matters for everyone.

GDS video

Accessibility regulations for online public services


That's been recognised by the government, with new digital accessibility regulations that came into effect in September. All public sector organisations, which will include most universities and colleges, must make sure they comply. And, while the new rules offer institutions an opportunity to widen participation and improve engagement, this does mean that some organisations need to consider equipping their staff with the skills and knowledge to implement the regulations.

Fortunately, there's an increasing amount of sector-specific guidance on getting it right, as well as a growing body of support to help you give staff the skills and knowledge they'll need.

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Resources to help you navigate and implement the regulations

UK government

A good starting place is the UK government page on making online public services accessible, developed by the Government Digital Service (GDS). GDS is responsible for monitoring the new regulations and its website spells out that you need to do two things:

  1. Make sure websites and mobile applications are "perceivable, operable, understandable and robust for all users"
  2. Publish an accessibility statement

The site offers guidance on how to do these things and also a template for your statement.

Further and Higher Education Digital Accessibility Working Group

You'll also find a rich and growing variety of resources – created by the Further and Higher Education Digital Accessibility Working Group. The group includes representatives from education and accessibility organisations and it provides a supportive space for people working on these issues in FE and HE. Its aim is to speed up the flow of information about the regulations and make sure it is relevant and helpful for the education sector.

The key output from its work to date is a digital accessibility toolkit offering rich resources including articles about effective approaches to improving digital accessibility, presentations, cheat sheets, templates and guidance on specific topics such as auditing for accessibility and procurement.

Jisc's role and resources

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At the end of last year, we published some legal guidance and we're working with a variety of stakeholders to ensure the digital accessibility regulations can benefit learning and teaching.

For example, we're working with both GDS and the Further and Higher Education Digital Accessibility Working Group and we're collaborating with the Department for Education on implementing its edtech strategy, with our chief executive Paul Feldman taking a seat within the leadership group. 

I'm also a member of the assistive technology experts' group, focusing on making sure assistive technologies are considered carefully as the edtech strategy rolls out.

We've also developed a range of measures to help members focus effectively on accessibility and compliance with the new regulations. 

For example, following an online briefing late last year in which we asked participants to choose the priorities they wanted us to focus on, we're running monthly webinars for members looking at issues such as accessibility statements and we're also offering online digital accessibility drop-in clinics from December. Join the JiscMail digital accessibility regulations list if you'd find these useful, as we'll be publicising opportunities there. The list is also an easy way to keep up with developments both within Jisc and at other universities and colleges.

You can also keep an eye on our accessibility landing page, which takes you to a range of resources.

Training assistive technologists of the future

Between 2010 and 2015, while working at Beaumont College, I led the Jisc-funded DART project, which provided training and support to help mainstream and specialist FE colleges improve their assistive technology services, aiming to replicate the assistive technologist role that had been developed at Beaumont College and National Star College.

Looking further into the future, we're exploring ways to develop structured training programmes at multiple levels with various HE partners, starting with an MSc for people who want to be assistive technologists. We think it's important to professionalise the role and we're taking a multi-disciplinary approach, aiming to introduce new modules alongside existing education, health and IT and technology modules.

It builds on previous Jisc work at Beaumont College where we developed an approach to training assistive technologists that started with a skills assessment for the individual, looking at their teaching/education skills, therapeutic approaches (notably from occupational therapy and speech and language therapy) and IT and assistive technology-related skills and knowledge; these three areas are combined in the educational assistive technologist role.

We plan to present the new modules as ongoing M level continuing professional development for professionals working in a variety of roles, including specialist teachers or lecturers, occupational therapists, and speech and language therapists. We're also considering introductory training courses to meet the specific assistive technology training needs of supporting staff such as learning support workers and social care staff.

This work is in its very early stages and we'll keep you posted.

Key dates

  • For new public sector websites (published on or after 23 September 2018), the regulations came into effect on 23 September 2019
  • All other public sector websites must comply by 23 September 2020
  • Public sector mobile applications must comply by 23 June 2021

When Swansea University wanted a better way of getting feedback from students, it looked to a tiny startup for the answer. Together they developed a platform that works in practice as well as on paper.

Educational technology (edtech) is thriving in the UK. But edtech businesses often struggle to test, pilot and prototype their products in real-life situations.

As a result, feedback can be limited, making it difficult to evaluate and refine the products.

Swansea University and a small edtech startup are bucking the trend by successfully developing a product together – and getting a Times Higher Education Live award nomination into the bargain. Swansea University was shortlisted in the technology innovation category for its work on Unitu, an online multi-device platform designed to disrupt the traditional ways students engage and better reflect the student experience.

Engaging students

In 2017-18, Swansea University rolled out Unitu following several small pilots. It enables students to post and comment anonymously on university-wide boards and staff can respond, which makes meaningful discussion easier.

More than 14,000 students have access to the system and in its first year there were more than 70,000 interactions with students.

Sophie Leslie, Swansea's student partnership and feedback development officer, says that the traditional ways they'd sought feedback, which relied on highly motivated students, did not always provide a true reflection of Swansea students' experience.

"Issues have been filtered and diluted when passing through the system, with student comments often having lost context upon reaching senior management."

Challenging cultural norms

By teaming up with the Unitu team, Sophie says they were able to develop a product that challenged the cultural norms around feedback and positively changed staff and student views of how to engage with each other.

The new platform has also been important in providing a voice for those students who are often hard to reach.

For Swansea, that success is all down to the relationship with the team behind Unitu and the way they worked as partners to develop a platform that works in practice as well as on paper.

Working with a startup

Anish Bagga, founder of Unitu, says that Swansea understood that they were working with a startup. Anish says:

"They accepted that there were going to be some challenges. But we were learning, they were learning."

Sophie explains:

"We currently have a fortnightly phone call with Unitu to look at any developments, issues or questions.

"We also work together on new software developments, which provides us with the opportunity to user-test new features, make suggestions and comments and they are also keen to gather feedback from the student users."

Anish adds:

"Through the constant engagement we had with Swansea we were able to observe how they were using it and to make changes.

"I would class our relationship with Swansea as a partnership, a value exchange, not just of money and service but of knowledge transfer. This allowed us to build more value into that product."

Disruptive impact

For Swansea, the platform has had the positive impact on feedback they'd hoped for.

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Areas that the feedback has influenced include student wellbeing, catering, sustainable transport, study and social spaces. And the university has also seen an increase in National Student Survey metrics, with improvements in the Learning Community and Student Voice categories.

Sophie says that she would happily work with similar small edtech startups in the future as a result of this work.

"The ability to work closely with the partner and therefore help shape the service has been a big help in creating a platform that best suits our students' needs and also the needs of our staff."

Sophie and Anish's tips for working with startups

Be clear about what you want from the technology

"You need very clear KPIs about what you want to gain from a project."

Have the right resources in place

"You need those resources in place to embed it into the institution – something like Unitu needed student reps just to implement it."

Involve staff and students

"The rollout of Unitu is a credit to our student partnership and engagement team, to the many colleagues who respond to student comments, and to the support and commitment of our student body as a whole."

Keep regular contact between institution and edtech

"The close working relationship allows for us to better communicate the needs of the students and staff to keep developing the platform."

Know your problem and focus on the solution

"For startups, the best institutions to work with are the ones who have an explicit desire to solve the problem that your team are working on."

Microsoft's announcement that it will no longer support the Windows 7 operating system has serious implications for legacy users. So, we have put together everything you need to know about the situation, and tips on how to proceed for institutions using the system.

What does the end of support mean?

The Microsoft website states: "After January 14, 2020, Microsoft will no longer provide security updates or support for PCs with Windows 7." This includes software updates and technical support.

While machines running Windows 7 will still work, any devices running the system that are connected to the internet are more vulnerable to cyber-attacks, due to their lack of security and regular updates.

How does end of support affect institutions?

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) warns that 'malware can spread much more easily on obsolete platforms because without security updates, known vulnerabilities will remain unpatched. As a result, it's crucial to move away from them as quickly as possible.'

Richard Jackson, cloud security engineer, e-infrastructure at Jisc, advises that the safest option is to migrate from Windows 7 to a supported operating system, which will have the regular security patching and technical support. He says:

"The end of support means you don't have an option to install security patches without substantial cost implications, and so problems can open up – whether through internal and/or external factors – with the issue only getting worse over time."

Jackson also notes that Server 2008/R2 is at end-of-life (EoL) and should be upgraded to Server 2016 as a minimum.

To put this into context, according to Microsoft Inspire 2018, roughly 80% of all enterprise applications run on Windows Server. Of those applications, 70% still run on Windows Server 2008 or earlier versions.

What can be done about it?

Colm Blake, cloud solutions consultant, e-infrastructure at Jisc, suggests there are two main possibilities for action:

  1. Upgrade on-premises – this option includes upgrading your servers and workstations to supported operating systems – at least Server 2016 and Windows 10 LTSC

  2. Migrate to cloud – this option means that the products you use, including your operating system and server, will be updated regularly and serviced by required security patches

Jon Hunt, information security officer, strategy and corporate services at Jisc, also emphasises the importance of having an end-of-life plan going forward for devices and software that will no longer be supported. The NCSC guidance on this matter says:

"At some point, updates will no longer be available (as the product reaches the end of its supported life), leaving it fixed at an old version that does not have the latest security patches. This means you need to be planning to replace your devices and software so the new ones are ready to use before the support for older versions expire."

How can Jisc help?

If you're unsure about how to start migrating or updating away from Windows 7, Jisc can help. Jackson suggests that end points (such as PCs, laptops, phones and tablets) may be some of the most vulnerable areas for education institutions, as they are potentially "open to untrustworthy parties or accidental misuse" due to the lack of physical security controls and entry points such as email clients/web browsers.

Jisc is a cloud solutions provider and can provide support for members interested in migrating to cloud services such as AWS or Azure.

Useful resources

Talk to an account manager about how Jisc can help migration and updating.

Find out about Jisc's cloud and cyber security services.

Digital transformation is of huge importance across sectors, and across the world. 

Research conducted by North Carolina State University's Enterprise Risk Management Initiative and management consulting firm Protiviti Inc., found that digital transformation was seen as the biggest risk factor in 2019.

Protiviti MD Jim DeLoach told The Wall Street Journal:

"Organisations need to gear up and align the culture, people, processes and intelligence gathering to embrace this rapidly changing environment."

What does 'digital transformation' mean?

Digital transformation is a broad term, but largely refers to the process of incorporating digital technologies into an organisation in order to streamline and improve working processes, and reach organisational goals.

This means that digital transformation is increasingly about change management; how staff and senior leaders respond to the digital technology available to them, and how it fits into an overall organisational strategy for improvement of services and working practices.

Chris Thomson, subject specialist in digital practice at Jisc, said:

"Technology holds out the promise of transformation, both for the individual and the organisation. But it's no longer news to say that adopting new technology – despite its benefits – can be extremely troublesome. It's something that's especially relevant for the people responsible for leading change in their institutions."

So how can educational institutions manage their digital transformation most effectively?

It all starts with culture

Change involving digital is inevitably complex, which is why strategy is key. Thomson said:

"As well as having a robust e-infrastructure, leaders have to consider how any change relates to a wider strategy, and what new processes and policies have to be designed to facilitate the change in practice. This is something that's applicable at any scale."

An article published in The Harvard Business Review in 2019 promotes a similar approach, stating that the first lesson in digital transformation is to "figure out your business strategy before you invest in anything".

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Digital technology is already relatively popular with teaching staff both in FE and HE. Jisc's digital experience insights survey from 2019 reveals that 43% of staff in FE and 48% in HE see themselves as early adopters of digital tech when they can see clear benefits.

The digital experience insights survey foreword by Professor Ian Diamond, chair of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, also notes the importance of technology in future workplaces and the imperative to improve digital skills and services. He said:

"It is well known that the UK has a digital skills gap so it's encouraging that survey responses show teaching staff are highly committed to ensuring their teaching practices prepare students for their future careers – the majority of which will involve technology."

However, there is a question around whether technology should be the starting point of any digital transformation. Andy Powell, Jisc cloud CTO, said:

"This may sound counter-intuitive, but applying tech without thoroughly understanding the problem is unproductive.

"None of this is really about technology. While [digital transformation] is highly likely to require significant migration to the public cloud, for example, the primary challenges will be around leadership and culture more than around technology."

Start with the why

Thomson explained:

"Although new tech is often very tempting it's rarely the whole answer to innovation. Using innovative technology doesn't inevitably make you more innovative. Most importantly, if you want to achieve transformation, start by thinking about why you want to change and what practice should look like, then work backwards."

Weston College identified that digital classrooms with collaborative learning capabilities improves course delivery. But before investing in this development, the college's assistant director Jon Hofgartner worked with Jisc to run a 'sticky campus roadshow', allowing college stakeholders to try out a fully outfitted digital classroom before committing to any purchase. Hofgartner said:

"We ran a traditional roundtable meeting with all of our heads of faculty and deputy principal in the roadshow classroom. At first, we struggled to work out how to use the space, but working in groups, we used the technology to share activity happening in the meeting – that was the lightbulb moment."

This allowed the college to reflect on how digital tools would help support its goal of increased collaborative learning, and the option for remote access.

Weston College has since rolled out development for two new spaces, including a digital classroom as a collaborative space, and a virtual classroom geared towards distance delivery.

There are many further resources available to both HE and FE institutions to help with implementing a strategy that fits with each institution's goals. For instance, in 2018, Lawrie Phipps, senior co-design manager, and James Clay, head of higher education and student experience at Jisc, wrote a paper for leaders in education to provide a structure that helped with the planning of technology implementation (pdf).

They called it a "digital lens". It's a way of taking a step back to look at the wider picture of digital change and suggests a step-by-step approach to project planning that provides room for effective consultation, reflection and evaluation.

What a digital strategy really looks like

For the University of Stirling (UoS), student experience was a key factor in its digital transformation strategy. During the 2017-18 academic year, UoS used the digital experience insights survey to monitor student experience as it developed its digital learning approach. This allowed monitoring of patterns and changes as the university's digital learning transformation initiative evolved, and an understanding of students' reactions.

Key to success was a clear strategy, starting withspecific goals and defined influences. Only then was it able to decide how (or whether) technology fitted into this journey.

The main point? As Thomson and Powell suggest:

"Start with why your institution wants to transform, then use the tools at your disposal – digital and otherwise – to help you enact changes."

For more information on digital transformation, the following resources may be of use.

Useful resources

Joining the organisation on 13 January, Nicola Arnold steps into the shoes of Mark Wright, who retired from the post in the summer of 2019.

Previously the finance director at St George's University of London, Nicola's focus will be ensuring that Jisc remains financially sustainable.

Nicola has worked in higher education for more than 10 years, first as deputy director of finance at University College London, before joining St George's in 2016. She qualified as an accountant while working with the "big four" firm Ernst and Young and then spent 12 years working at the BBC.

Nicola said:

"My focus will be on making sure there is investment in the areas that allow Jisc to bring new technologies and innovation to the sector. I will also make sure the organisation provides good value for money for members and funders, spending the sector's money wisely, so that Jisc's reputation as an efficient and lean organisation is maintained.

"It's not possible to work as a finance officer in higher education without being aware of Jisc's key functions like the Janet Network, Jisc Collections and eduroam, but now that I am here, I am beginning to learn that Jisc does even more than I realised. 

"These services would be more expensive and less tailored to the sector if procured from elsewhere - that's why there are many people who would like to replicate Jisc in other countries."

Jisc's, deputy chief executive and chief operating officer, Alice Colban said:

"We are delighted to have someone with Nicola's experience in higher education as our chief finance officer, and I'm sure she will bring new ideas and insights to this role.

"Jisc aims to be regarded as the best-run sector agency and recruiting talent - such as Nicola- into our professional services is vital to achieving this goal.

"Our strategy is underpinned by strong financial foundations and, under Nicola's guidance, we will continue to deliver high quality services, while ensuring that membership delivers great value and subscriptions are kept as low as possible."