The experience of learners taking Education for All: Disability, Diversity and Inclusion

For many, there are insurmountable barriers to accessing quality education. These barriers may be physical disabilities, geographical remoteness, social problems or a myriad of other kinds of obstacles, but they have a common result – for all these people, educational opportunities are often limited and inaccessible.

Over the past few years MOOCs have been noted for breaking down the financial barriers to education by offering fee-free courses, however, unbeknown to many, international MOOC platforms pay special attention to accessibility. For the educators creating the Education for All: Disability, Diversity and Inclusion MOOC, accessibility was a particular concern given their focus on disability and on reaching learners from low income countries. We use this blog to tell the story of a few learners on the MOOC who describe aspects of accessibility in the MOOC which are important for their personal circumstances.

For the disability community, the platforms have to comply with strict accessibility regulatory frameworks of their host countries, ensuring that there are subtitles on each video file and that there are transcripts which can be downloaded. Images must also have proper descriptions so that screen reader software can decipher them.

Ari from Johannesburg is blind but he does not let this hinder is thirst for learning. In the past he struggled to find a way to get to lectures and courses offered at the usual educational institutions but is now enthusiastic about MOOCs as they allow him to study. Ari is not the only person with a disability; we don’t know how many people taking the Education for All: Disability, Diversity and Inclusion course are living with a disability, but there have been significant individual stories.

Accessibility in MOOCs is of broader value than only those with a physical disability. Reduced mobility in elderly people often places enormous barriers for accessing education. Molly, a pensioner from Cape Town explained how she attended the University of Cape Town’s annual public education programme, Summer School which offered two weeks of lectures on a range of topics open to all. But the lectures were held on the main university campus, requiring her to drive or take public transport, walk up steps and navigate the lecture theatres. In her eighties, with her physical mobility reduced – both walking and driving – she is limited to the retirement complex in which she lives. But with a computer and an internet connection, she has rediscovered the joys of lifelong learning from her own room, having enrolled and completed over 10 MOOCs on FutureLearn.  

Making education accessible is also about geography and location. Alison, an occupational therapist working at a rural hospital told us how she has struggled to find staff development opportunities for her team as it is impractical and expensive to drive hundreds of kilometres for a seminar or training workshop. But she found it very convenient to download video lectures from the Education for All MOOC and then play them offline during a staff meeting. As a result she was able to structure a discussion around the topics raised on the MOOC and implement changes in the outpatients practice, of the hospital where she works, treating families of disabled children.  

Alison’ story alludes to another unappreciated value of a MOOC: the flexibility. Working people may be bound by office hours. Others have family responsibilities which mean they may need to carve out study time late at night; or on a weekend. They might choose to spend one evening doing an entire week’s worth on the course, or squeeze in half an hour every day during a lunch break at work. In Alison’s case, she could download videos and then use them at a different time from the course schedule – when it suited her team.

Traditionally, online courses have been mostly accessed using desktop or laptop computers, but not everyone has regular access to a computer. Mobile devices (particularly phones) are more affordable and increasingly ubiquitous, and can be used to access online courses. Nomfundo explained to us how she had participated in the Education for All course, including submitting peer review assignments, and bought a certificate entirely on her smartphone.

The design of Education for All assumes that learners will interact with many others participating in the course, and share experiences. Aside from the discussions on the video lectures and readings, there are structured assignments submitted for review by others on the course (peer reviewed assignments).  

I enjoyed the assignments because they gave me the opportunity to design interventions that I could use. Peer reviews offered insight to my thoughts and I learned new strategies I may not have known. I believe I [sic] hands on activities as they enable me [to] understand and these two strategies came in very handy! (post course survey)

The course was aimed at people involved in some way in trying to promote inclusive education – teachers, school administrators, family or community members. The first run of the course (May 2016) reflected the intended target audience.


The free six-week online course – Education for All: Disability, Diversity and Inclusion – from the Disability Studies Division, at the University of Cape Town is offered through the online learning platform FutureLearn. It has been endorsed by the South African government’s Department of Basic Education for teacher professional development, and received very positive reviews on the open MOOC website, Class Central.

Some of the learners’ mentioned in the blog appear in a learner stories video on the CILT website).

The lightboard – making magic

The lightboard – making magic Safyr glass; lumo markers; black fabric; LED striplighting – it has all the features of magic making. And it does seem magical when it is in action. Meet our newest teaching tool – the lightboard.

Stats 1000 tutor, Imtyaz Rahim recording a video using the lightboard
Stats 1000 tutor, Imtyaz Rahim recording a video using the lightboard

The ‘lightboard’ is one clever innovation away from the original ‘black or white board’ which suits emerging online teaching spaces. Designed for lecturing to a camera so that the lecturer can be seen front-facing by the audience, it is a massive pane of glass on a metal frame – much like a whiteboard, but transparent. The lecturer speaks to the students (facing the glass and the camera) while making notes onto the glass lightboard. Of course, the writing will appear back-to-front during filming, but during the video processing phase, it gets reversed. Now the lecturer may suddenly appear left-handed (if they were right-handed) but the writing and numbers are corrected for the viewer! Have a look at the demonstration by CILT’s former Head of Digital Media, TinaShe Makwande:

Custom built for the Centre in Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) by UCT’s Mechanical Engineering Department’s construction and electrical workshop in 2015, this lightboard required many ingredients to make the magic happen. With the blessing of Mechanical Engineering head, Prof Knutson, engineering technicians Horst Emrich and Richard Whittemore designed and built the lightboard over several months to specifications supplied by CILT. There were issues around sourcing the correct materials including the crucial decision about what kind of glass would work? (Eventually, specially thickened safyr glass was selected). Other taxing issues included how to stabilize the huge contraption. It weighs over 60kg and stand more than 2m high. (Horst built special stabilising legs.) How to make it moveable since we did not have a large enough studio to store it? (Handles and very sturdy wheels with parking brakes!). How to ensure even lighting across the whole pane of glass? (Glueing the LED strip all around the perimeter).

First created by academics from Northwestern University in Illinois, USA who were making video lectures for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the academics shared the ‘recipe’ online as an open source design. It has been replicated in various online learning environments – here is an example from an Australian university MOOC (you can see the lightboard in action towards the end of the video) – and it can enhance online teaching, especially where students need to watch teachers work through problems step-by-step. UCT’s MOOC Climate Change Mitigation made in 2015 used the lightboard for some lectures and academics from UCT’s Statistics department have found the lightboard to be an invaluable teaching tool. They incorporate it into many of their online course lectures.

In September, the Stats educators filmed additional material for their existing online Stats 1000 course – mainly working through tough test questions which students have been struggling with. Veteran online instructor, Dr Leanne Scott inducted two of her tutors in the magic of how to use the lightboard for teaching.

For all its light and magic, the lightboard is not an impromptu teaching tool – it requires special set up (lighting is quite tricky) and meticulous planning, and practicing how to teach with it takes some time. But watching the results in online courses definitely indicate that for some concepts, the lightboard is an excellent resource for online teaching.

For a demonstration or to find out about CILT’s lightboard and filming rates, contact the head of Digital Media, Nawaal Deane (

Education for All: Disability, Diversity and Inclusion – new course launches

Ed4Al resized

Education for All: Disability, Diversity and Inclusion is the latest course to be developed by the UCT MOOCs project. As the title suggests, it deals with themes such as disability and diversity through the concept of inclusive education. Millions of children around the world are excluded from access to education because of a disability – their exclusion robs them of their potential and diminishes our society. Inclusive education is about addressing barriers to learning and participation, and transforming school communities to allow them to really benefit from inclusion.

Presented by Dr Judith McKenzie and Mrs Chioma Ohajunwa of the Disability Studies Programme at UCT, this course aims to help teachers, other professionals, and parents to tackle inclusion – in a practical way – in their own environment. Over six weeks, the course will look at the background of disability, and strategies for creating an enabling environment in the school and community through the following themes:

  • Week 1 – Why inclusion?
  • Week 2 – Education begins at home
  • Week 3 – Creating an inclusive school
  • Week 4 – Community partnerships for success
  • Week 5 – Changing classroom practices
  • Week 6 – Building networks

The promotion of inclusive education has wider implications for inclusion and diversity in society at large. As Judy mentions in her recent blog post on FutureLearn:

“Listening to a school principal who has contributed to this online course, I was struck by what she said about parents at her inclusive school. These parents did not grow up among children with disabilities, as during their childhood those children were either separated from other ‘normal’ children into special education programmes, or not sent to school at all. Parents can therefore often struggle more with the idea of inclusive education than the children themselves. This made me think about how powerful both exclusion and inclusion are in shaping the way we think about our world, and highlighted for me the need to promote inclusion in education if we are to develop a socially cohesive society in which everyone can participate and have a role to play.”

She goes on to explain:

“When we begin to understand how to include disability in our schools and classrooms it will have a knock-on effect on how we deal with other forms of diversity. Let me give you an example: when a child who has a visual impairment has their needs met in the classroom, the teacher might make an effort to ensure that everything that is presented visually is also read out orally, which not only helps this child learn, but at the same time makes it easier for children with low literacy levels and those who do not have a visual impairment but rather a more auditory style of learning. By catering for one form of diversity, the options become wider, embracing an ever greater range of difference.”

The course consists of video presentations, readings, and activities on each of the various topics covered. There is also a strong emphasis on interactivity promoted by the discussion forums on the FutureLearn platform. At the end of each week, Chioma interviews someone who is actively involved in the area of inclusive education. Excerpts from these interviews are included in the course in audio format, to facilitate access for those who may have low bandwidth. Together with the video lecture presentations on the course, these interviews provide insights from people ‘on-the-ground’, fighting for inclusive education.

In the first week’s interview, disability activist Looks Matoto says that “disability has made me an activist”, and does not believe inclusive education involves lowering standards, but rather “creat[ing] an enabling environment so that I may reach the same standard as you.”

Another interviewee, Marlene Le Roux, who is not only the mother of a disabled son but is also disabled herself, believes that “what was my blessing is that no-one had time to feel sorry for me…what was my saving grace is that there was no time for me to feel sorry for myself, because it was survival.”

Teacher Bokatsi Tshegetsang, who was interviewed about classroom practices says “as teachers sometimes we have this mentality that special education is for ‘those teachers’, that is what they are supposed to do ‘out there’, but it is for everyone, and being inclusive is something that you can include everywhere.”

The course message is amplified in the final week interview with school principal Fatima Shabodien who says “a child is not isolated, a child comes from a community, and communities evolve out of bigger structures, so we have to look at society in general when we look at any issue.”

The course starts 04 April on FutureLearn, and you can sign up for free here. Follow the course hashtag on Twitter #FLEd4All.