Tuesday, 29 September 2020

eLearning in Challenging Times: Homeschooling UK

Homeschooled your children during the COVID-19 lockdown? We would love to hear from you.

Homeschooling UK Survey is now open (anonymous 10-15mins)

In March when the UK government closed schools and imposed lockdown restrictions, to stem the spread of COVID-19, we all were hurled into a situation that we have never been in before. While adjusting to the life with new measures like social distancing; no pasta, rice, flour or toilet rolls on supermarket shelves; and setting up our “home offices” (wherever there was a space on a table top)  – some of us who have young families, had to learn to “homeschool” our children while also doing our fulltime jobs.

Image by: EliasSch Pixabay

As a mother to primary school twins, I can tell you how amazing, frustrating, infuriating and many other adjectives can be added to describe this experience. We started taking in a day at a time first. But soon we reduce that to an hour at a time as we realised even a day is too long time when doing juggling homeschooling with a full-time job.

In April when I was put on furlough I was worried how I would fill my days. But later when I started getting into proper homeschooling, I realised even the furlough time was not enough! My furlough time came at a crucial time as the twins were getting ready for their eleven plus (secondary school entrance tests). 

One of the best things we did before the lockdown was collecting a box of hand-me-down books from a friend's place. These books were used workbooks. But I could copy questions (either by hand - yes, I copied them in my new found 'free' time - or using the until then under used home printer). These workbooks together with BBC Bitesize, IXL subscription and the work sent home by school kept us going until the summer school break. 

The researcher inside me wanted to gather the experience of eLearning in challenging times and I was not alone there. I soon found collaborators in Japan, New Zealand, Egypt and Sri Lanka who wanted to do similar work and possibly draw comparisons. We wanted to do both homeschooing experience as well as the experience of higher education students – however, with the pressing needs of "Transform" project at work (where we transformed all our Autumn 2020 offering) I was only able to progress on the homeschooling study. 

So far, we have launched two surveys: 

The survey is designed as an anonymous survey and to take no more than 10-15 mins of time. We hope to gather homeschooling experiences from parents and caregivers of young people.

If you have homeschooled a young person during the school closure period due to COVID-19 pandemic and you are a resident of UK (or Sri Lanka) please can you participate in our survey please?

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Online Learning in Challenging Times

Just before I was put on furlough, I had the opportunity to write a short article for the magazine Construction Manager, which they have published under the title Don’t exclude disadvantaged users in rush to online learning. A longer version of the same was published on the UCEM blog under the title Online learning in challenging times: Guest blog by our Learning Technology Researcher, Dr Tharindu Liyanagunawardena.

My final version before the edits is published here.

Social distancing implemented by countries across the world to combat the spread of coronavirus has caused unprecedented changes in our daily lives. The situation posed a great challenge to educational institutions across the world, causing them to cancel lectures and graduation ceremonies, and, where applicable, ask students to vacate their halls and accommodation.

In adapting to the situation, most institutions have adopted online learning. For many traditional institutions this is the first time that they are trying to use technology on such a large scale. In their hurry to adopt technology to overcome the immediate threat of not being able to continue, there is always the danger of institutions rushing into using technologies without proper appraisal (accessibility, security and privacy concerns, for example) or adequate user training.

There is also the possibility of excluding groups of users who are not able to engage with the technologies for various reasons. Some may not possess the required level of digital literacy while there could also be issues of accessibility both for people with disabilities and people who do not have the luxury of broadband connectivity. Therefore, it is important that decision makers address these issues. For example, if a student with a hearing disability had a note-taker in class how could we support them now with online lectures? Or now that most overseas students are in their home countries, can we conduct online classes and expect them to be present despite the time differences? What if the technology we adopt is barred in some countries where our students reside?

Living or visiting a developing country, you may have experienced the difficulties in accessing the internet away from city centres. The unreliable connectivity often cannot support high-definition videos while in some rural places you would be lucky to get electricity!

I hope these points are considered by leaders at institutions currently going digital.
In my role as a Learning Technology Researcher and Chair of the Online Learning Research Centre at University College of Estate Management (UCEM), I scan the horizon, assess educational technology and consider how we can use it to enhance our students’ experience. We are always thinking about the practical aspects and accessibility of the technology we appraise.

As the leading provider of supported online education for the Built Environment, UCEM is better placed than most to face this difficult situation. Sharing our experiences of online learning will hopefully help other organisations learn from us. 

Monday, 16 March 2020

Research in Distance Education (and eLearning) Conference RIDE2020

Every year I look forward to the RIDE Conference hosted by University of London. Because this is a conference about Research in Distance Education, it is so relevant to UCEM as we are in essence a supported distance education provider.

This year RIDE2020 was on 13th March and at a time when everyone is starting to worry about the spread of Corona virus. When I left Reading I knew there will be few people because on the train to London I got a seat! Circle line from Paddington too was very quiet. On the train I was thinking how to greet people now that most people are not comfortable with shaking hands.
Tweet from Friday 13 March
Tweet from Friday 13 March 2020
Conference attendance was I would say less than 50% given the number of empty chairs in the hall, which was a shame really given how good it is. We were encouraged to practice "social distancing" by making use of all the available space. Quite a few sessions were cancelled but some sessions were conducted via Zoom conferencing and it all worked well in the end.

It was lovely to meet so many known faces and also to grow my network by getting to know like minded others. It was great to listen to Prof. Allison Littlejohn and getting to know some interesting and highly relevant work conducted by the London Knowledge Lab (such as iRead and Connecting Displaced People). Afternoon keynote was by Prof. Martin Weller, which was presented remotely. He talked about Open ed as the anti-disruption.

My presentation about how transcripts were used by students at UCEM was the last presentation on the day in one of the parallel sessions. My slides Automatic Transcripts: Student and Tutor views from Built Environment Education are shared in SlideShare. Despite my session being the last, there was good engagement and questions from the audience, I think especially because accessibility is an area that is very relevant in the UK with the new accessibility regulations - The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018.

This conference amidst the Covid-19 spread showed that perhaps we need to re-think about attending conferences in person when there is long distance travel involved - especially air travel. Perhaps, we can reduce air travel and be more green and sustainable by presenting our work online. Martin presented his keynote remotely and it was done skillfully. The keynote was engaging and it showed even the keynotes at conferences can adapt to Covid-19 and can also adapt to fight against climate change. Two other sessions I attended too was presented via Zoom and they worked almost perfectly. Once in a while there was few words that we missed due to poor connectivity but it didn't harm the experience.

My next conference is OER20 which is also going to be held online due to Covid-19. So this year many conferences will be run more environment friendly way. Perhaps this crisis is a wake-up call for us to think about being more sustainable and green in attending conferences?

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Understanding Accessibility of PDFs

I have run a few accessibility awareness workshops at UCEM recently with my colleague Graham. You can see a video montage of some of the workshop activities.
However, I feel we need to look at accessibility of PDFs separately as it is much more complex (at least to me) tagging and correcting reading order etc.

So I spent some time studying the WebAIM PDF Accessibility and PDF - the Print Devil's Format? and trying to create an accessible PDF from a document that wasn't read properly by the screen reader. Here I am sharing what I learned hoping it will help someone else too.

Best Thing to do ..

... is to make your document accessible before converting to PDF!

It may be much easier to address accessibility issues if you use the source document. 
If you don't have the source document you can create it from the PDF by using File > Export To option.

Before converting to PDF check the documents for:
  • headings
  • alternative text for images
  • table structures (make sure table header row etc is indicated)
  • descriptive links
  • lists 
  • columns
  • text size, font (San Serif fonts are easier to read), spacing and justification (left justified letters are easier to read)
  • colour contrast
  • not using colour to differentiate meaning
  • document title
  • document language

Creating a PDF file 

There are various ways you can create a PDF file using a source file. Here I will take the example of a Microsoft Word file in a Windows environment. 


Creating a PDF using Acrobat Tab's Create PDF and is your best bet to creating an accessible PDF. PDFMaker add-in that gives you facility to create PDF within Microsoft Word will be installed when a compatible version of Acrobat is installed. Make sure in the Acrobat tab > Preferences have a tick in the checkbox against "Enable Accessibility and Reflow with tagged Adobe PDF". This allows creating a PDF file that will reflow when user Zooms it (without having to scroll).


However, if you do not have Acrobat Tab, you can use File > Save As  then from the drop-down select PDF. Make sure under More options > Options > Document structure tags for accessibility is checked.

Never Print to PDF

Creating a PDF using "Print" to PDF option loses the document's structure and tags that makes it accessible to assistive technologies (screen-readers).

Checking a PDF for Accessibility

If you have followed accessibility good practice and created the PDF using above recommended way there should not be too much to correct in terms of tagging etc. 

Check for Reflow

Reflow test is to check that a PDF document can be magnified without having to scroll horizontally to see the text off-screen. To do this use View > Zoom > Reflow. Now you can magnify the page and observe how the document behaves. If a document does not correctly reflow you will have to change the document structure - explained later in the post.

Convert Scanned Text

If the PDF is a scanned document first thing in making it accessible is to make sure that it contains real text. To do this, got to Tools > Enhance Scans and add it. In the PDF with scanned text go to Enhance Scans in the Tools pane and select Recognize Text > In this File.

Changing background colour

You should be able to change the background colour with Edit > Preferences > Accessibility > Replace Document Colours. Sometimes this may not work well; for example, if there are background images.

Read Out Loud

If the document is not a scanned image, the text should be selectable and these could be read by assistive technologies. You can check this by View > Read out loud. Reading order affects the way content will be read out.

Tags and Reading Order


For me this was the most difficult bit to learn. You can open the Tags pane by View > Show/Hide > Navigation Panes > Tags. This will show all the tags within the PDF in a tree structure. When a screen reader looks to read a PDF, it gets the information from these tags.

Reading Order Tool (called Touch Up Reading Order or TURO)

Accessibility > Reading Order (or Touch Up Reading Order). By selecting the Structure types radio button in the Reading Order dialog. Here you can see the tags associated with items in the document and you can add or change a tag by drawing a box around content with the crosshairs and then selecting the desired tag from the Reading Order window.

I found that removing the existing incorrect structure by using Clear Page Structure and starting clean was easier than trying to correct the structure.

Content vs Tag Order

The content order is displayed by the Reading Order tool. This is NOT the same as the tag order.  Once you have created the structure of the document it is easier to order it and drag and drop the tags into right places.
According to WebAIM tutorial's Repair the Content and Tag Order section, the changes made in the Order pane is reflected in both Order pane and Tags pane but they say it can be unpredictable and it is best to complete Order pane first and then verified in the Tags pane.

Table Editor

With Reading Order dialog open you can either select the table and right click to elect the Table Editor or Select the Table Editor from the Reading Order dialog itself. You can also select Edit Table Summary from right click menu to add a summary to the table.
In the Table Editor, borders of the table will be highlighted. In the Table Editor mode you can right click to show Table Cell Properties. Now you can specify whether the cell is a Header Cell or a Data Cell. If the Cell is a Header Cell, then assign the scope as appropriate.
After making the changes, verify table structure with the Tags Panel. Tables with multi-level row or column headers or cells spanning multiple columns or rows may need careful work to ensure they will be presented correctly by screen readers.

I have only given a quick introduction to using the Table Editor. In Adobe Help site PDF Accessibility Repair: Examine and Repair Tables is a good tutorial to follow.

Set Alternate Text

To show the Accessibility Tools panel for the first time go to Tools Tab  > Accessibility and Add the accessibility tool. From the Accessibility pane select Set Alternate Text Tool. It will identify all images and allows you to add alternate text for these.

Accessibility Checker

Similar to MS Office suite, Adobe also provides an accessibility checker. If you have Acrobat DC you can use the accessibility checker. This tool is also in the Accessibility pane. To show the Accessibility Tools panel for the first time go to Tools Tab  > Accessibility and Add the accessibility tool. You can check for Accessibility using Accessibility panel's Full Check. Even if this automated tool does not report any problems with the PDF still there could be.

I am not still sure I am fully confident on making a PDF file accessible. At least I know what and where to look for if something isn't working right :)


Adobe (n.d.). PDF Accessibility Repair: Examine and Repair Tables. Available at: https://www.adobe.com/accessibility/products/acrobat/pdf-repair-repair-tables.html
McNaught, A. (15 November 2019). PDF - the Print Devli's Format? Available at: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/pdf-print-devils-format-alistair-mcnaught/
WebAIM (26 April 2019). PDF Accessibility. Available at: https://webaim.org/techniques/acrobat/ 

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Volunteering day at Cedar Court

Last Tuesday myself and about 14 other staff members from UCEM volunteered at Cedar Court, Extra Care Housing under the scheme organised by UCEM with EmployeeVounteering. This was one of the four employee volunteering days organised by UCEM as part of its centenary celebrations.
I have been a volunteer with The Link Visiting Scheme  for several years until my “friend” passed away at the age of 93. I just could not make up my mind to go back because I was so emotionally involved. So I thought to take a break and go back when I am ready.  Since then, I have used the Volunteering Day offered by UCEM to do a lesson at a local primary school (half-day) and then when this opportunity came up I jumped at it. I selected an opportunity where it was possible to do art, craft, games and the like rather than physical work mainly because of my previous experience with The Link Visiting Scheme and knew I enjoyed that type of interactivity more.
So when I got details for the day email to say that we will be doing cleaning patio, deck area and the garden at Cedar Court, I must say I thought did I pick the right event. Thankfully it was a sunny October Tuesday (it rained all day on Monday!) and I joined in with few others doing weeding. It was only a small area so it only took us about an hour and a half to finish the clearing the garden ready for winter.
Next we went inside to play games with the residents. Cedar Court provide housing to a wide variety of people, who have mental and physical health issues, learning disabilities and there are also elderly residents who just need that reassurance. It was fun playing games – I played Dominoes while others played card games, Jenga and Mega 4 in a Line (Connect 4). After lunch we had a six rounds of Bingo. It was my first time playing Bingo and on the last round I won the house – but I only got a toffee as we had the boxes of chocolates reserved for the residents.
Paw prints painted on a flower pot
Painted flower pot
After bingo there were few activities to select from. Nail art, decorating Gingerbread, painting pots or just chatting. I was talking to a resident who picked painting as her activity so I went along with her and we sat beside each other painting our pots and chatting. It was lovely to hear how she had worked for a firm that produced tins for Huntley and Palmers, how Reading had changed over the years and what activities they do at Cedar Court. I must say the activity I enjoyed most was painting flower pots.
After finishing the pot we planted Daffodil bulbs in them. We had many cups of teas over the day but after the final activity there was tea and a selection of yummy cakes.
In the Asian culture that I grew up in, going into residential care (even if it is a nursing home) is looked down upon. Offspring are expected to take care of their parents in their old age. I thought it could be isolating and boring to live in an assisted living accommodation. However, after seeing Cedar Court to me it seems like a houseshare with some people getting bit more help. According to the residents I spoke to, they have lot of activities going on to keep them occupied and they are happy there. Given that we are an aging society perhaps we will be needing more assisted living accommodation to support our aging population? However, residents very much appreciated us being there. I would definitely join another employee volunteering event if it were to be offered, I enjoyed the day very much 🙂

Monday, 24 June 2019

Celebrating the Best Research Paper Award #EDEN19

It feels great to be recognised for the effort you put in for your work. Some of the research we do, does not give the results we intend. It tells us that what we wanted is not happening or it is not effective. But this is part of the research. There could be various reasons for that, which I will not go into here. After all this post is to celebrate the prestigious European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN) Best Research Paper Award!
  EDEN19 Best Research Paper Award
EDEN19 Best Research Paper Award - photo by Ben McCammick-Copley 
When I started my research into looking at whether off-the-shelf automatic transcription software was good enough to be used for Built Environment Education, I never expected it to be recognised this way. Of course, I knew that at EDEN they awarded the best research paper award every year at their conference. But I did not know how it was selected nor did I think I will be that lucky person.

When I got to know that I was one of the eight finalists out of the shortlisted 23 papers, I was delighted to be one of the best to be considered in the final round. Going to Bruges was my first visit to Belgium. One of my colleagues from UCEM asked me to take a photograph with #OswaldTheOwl if I could. So, on my way to Bruges I made it to the Grand Place to make sure I captured a picture with Oswald.

Grand Place Brussels
Grand Place, Brussels

The conference was well organised (I think I will be writing another blog about the conference) - undoubtedly the best conference organisation I have seen. I had the privilege to listen to two of the Best Research Paper Award nominated presentations on Tuesday 18th June afternoon. They both were PhD research projects and the quality of the work was very high. So I was really glad that my work had been shortlisted among those high quality research.

At the Conference Gala Dinner, which was held at the amazing Market Hall (first constructed in 1240!) they announced the winner of the Best Research Paper Award. The chair of the Jury said it was a unanimous decision. This years’ theme was “Connecting through Educational Technology” and the jury had agreed my work Automatic Transcription software: Good enough foraccessibility? A case study from Built Environment Education was well aligned with the theme. He further said that when they critically evaluated each criterion:
  • contributes convincingly to the theme(s) of the conference;
  • deals with a research question of relevance for conference participants;
  • rigorous examination/research methods are applied;
  • findings, results and outcomes are convincingly presented and critically examined;
  • conclusions are thoroughly discussed (including aspects like applicability, transferability, and/or further research);
  • literature is reviewed against the state of art.
Receiving the Best Paper Award from Prof. Alan Tait

there could be no other winner. They commended being open and honest about my small study and being critical about the limitations of the study. Methodology, he said, was designed so meticulously that they could not ask for anything more. This coming from Prof. Alan Tait, a very well-respected researcher in Distance Education and the chair of the Jury, meant a lot to me.

As researchers we continuously criticise our work to find better ways of doing things the next time. It doesn’t help many women suffer from Imposter Syndrome and have self-doubts. However, I think now it is time for me to celebrate. But before that I need to thank my amazing PhD supervisors Prof. Andrew Adams (Meiji University, Japan), Professor EmeritaShirley Williams and Prof. Naz Rassool (University of Reading, UK) for guiding me through my PhD to make me the independent researcher I am today.
Online education team celebrating my award
Online Education Team Celebration at UCEM
You can access the full paper and presentation.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Good practice for accessibility

This blog post was first published on UCEM Online Education Blog - 7 May, 2019

I came across Lee Fallin and Sue Watling 's  Designing for diverse learners poster where they have adapted work from Accessibility Poster Series from the Home Office Digital.  I am promoting accessible materials at UCEM and was looking to put up some posters in the Hub area (communal space) to remind my colleagues of accessibility good practice when I found Lee and Sue's poster shared with CC license.

Though I have published some of my work with CC license in open access journals, this is my first re-mix of CC licensed work . I wasn't sure how much of a change was considered a re-mix. So after talking to Lucy, Information Governance Manager at UCEM I am confident in publishing it with share-alike license similar to the work I adapted. Asma, our Graphic Designer at UCEM, helped me by designing it with her graphic design software and saving it as a PDF.
An image of the Accessibility poster
In this version of work, we wanted to say why we needed to do each of these suggested accessibility enhancing steps. For example, we should not use colour as the only means to convey meaning (e.g. red  letters for wrong answers and green letters for correct answers) because colour-blind learners may not be able to  access the content as they may not be able to distinguish the different colours. I think giving reasons why something needs  to be done in a certain way makes it more real as people can make connections.
This poster was designed to be visual as we are hoping to print it and display it at UCEM.  I also created an accessible version of this poster in a text only version which can also be downloaded.
Again I want to thank Lee and Sue for their amazing work. Had they not shared this with CC license we would not have been able to adapt it.
Creative Commons License
Good practice for accessibility version 1.0 by Tharindu Liyanagunawardena and Asma Hussain is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. To provide feedback on this poster, download a copy access: https://bit.ly/2COygZv 
This poster is based on Designing for diverse learners by Lee Fallin and Sue Watling at: http://bit.ly/2EsDn1g.