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65. Piloting an online research course for people with learning disabilities

Written by Andrea Bruun, Research Associate, Kingston University.

When I started working on The Victoria and Stuart Project, my colleagues mentioned this 8-week research course for people with learning disabilities. This famous research course often came up during our workday conversations. The course had been led by Irene and someone called Claire Lam and both Richard and Leon had completed the course in 2019. It sounded so cool! Then began a long process of me convincing Irene that we should run it again. All my hard persuasion work paid off, and we celebrated the 2024 research course cohort last week!

Let me start from the beginning. I was very keen on getting some more teaching experience and the research course sounded like the perfect combination of teaching and learning more about communication and making information accessible to people with learning disabilities. You can see a video about the 2019 research course below.

However, at the time, I only worked limited hours at Kingston University. This meant that it was very difficult to fit in the hours needed to plan and execute the research course. Months went by, and I was suddenly working full-time on the project. I had mentioned the research course during my appraisal meetings. At the latest one, Irene and I discussed it again, and she (finally) gave me the green light. She warned me it would be a lot of work, but I was thrilled – let’s worry about a big and challenging workload when we get to it! I would take the lead, with support from Irene, and we would teach together with our colleagues with a learning disability Richard and Leon, supported by Jo.

We put the 8 dates in the diary, booked the lesson rooms, and started preparing information materials. The 2019 course flyers needed updating, so we had accessible materials to recruit new students for the 2024 course. Flyers and videos were ready, and we started spreading the word. This was indeed exciting!

The excitement, however, disappeared when we reached the application deadline for the course. Only 5 people had applied for the course, and Irene said it was not worth the amount of work the course required to only run it for 5 students. What to do? We sat down and thought about our options. There was a group of three people with learning disabilities who really wanted to do the course. But they lived in the Northern part of country, which meant that they could not come down to Kingston for the weekly in-person lessons. They asked us: “Can you do the course online?”. Irene was not hooked on the idea about moving the course online. She remembered the amount of support each student had needed during the 2019 lessons, which would be difficult to provide on Zoom. Some parts of the course would also need to be reconsidered and adapted to an online format. I was still keen and indeed up for a challenge. So... I managed to convince Irene once again: we were going to experiment with an online research course!

On the first day of the course, we welcomed 8 students on Zoom. And what a journey it has been! The course is a serious and very practical one, with homework where the students have to practice their research skills in-between lessons. The students have created questionnaires, asked people to fill them in, done interviews and observations, formulated their own research questions and projects, and more. Last week we had an in-person celebration of the students completing the course. They presented their research projects in front of an audience and received their certificates. Such as proud moment for everyone!

It has been an intense 8 weeks, where we have spent every week in the office preparing for the afternoon lesson in the morning, and after the lesson we sent off materials for the next lesson. Looking back, I understand why Irene said it was not worth the amount of work and time to run the course for only 5 students. Despite some challenges with moving the course online, it was, in our opinion, a success. We managed to get it to work. So, we are going to share our experience with moving the course online in a research paper we are going to write – this also means we get to spend more time with our lovely cohort of students! You can read the 2019 research course paper here.

I am so grateful Irene gave me the chance to run the 2024 course online. This meant I gained my most-wanted teaching experience. But seeing the students grow has been the most rewarding part of doing the course. Learning research skills is one thing, but gaining confidence and personal growth is another thing. The latter is something you cannot prepare or plan for in advance in the same way as you can prepare lesson content. I had not really thought that this course would be able to do just that in only 8 weeks (and even online). There was a student who really struggled and could not face the camera during the first lesson. Fast-forward to the last lesson, the same student is presenting in front of an audience. A supporter sent us regular feedback during the course and said similar things about one of the students they were supporting; that the student was normally reticent in a group but that their confidence had developed over the weeks, and now the student was keen to ask questions and speak in the group. The growth we have witnessed has been absolutely incredible.

My mum asked me why we were doing this course and whether people with a learning disability could actually do research. This course has once again confirmed that they, with the right support, can indeed do research. In fact, it is highly likely that some of the students will be involved in future research projects we have in the pipeline. Some of them may even get a paid job on one of our future projects! Or they might get a research role elsewhere. So, in the spirit of it being Learning Disability Awareness Week 2024: “Do you see me?”. We absolutely do! There would be no learning disability research at Kingston University without researchers with a learning disability. Happy learning disability week!


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