Written with my own hand: me and braille

This months VICTAR blog comes from Ryan Lardner-Cameron. Ryan is a sixth form student at Priestley Smith School and throughout 2018-19 he is spending a day a week with us in the centre. We asked Ryan to write his thoughts in response to this article on the relevance of braille today, which we published in The Conversation last year.

My experience

I started learning braille from the age of 10 years old.  I did this because at the age of 9 I was losing my eye sight so the best solution was to learn braille.  When I was in primary school I only learnt the alphabet but when I got to secondary school I started to learn the short cuts of braille (grade 2).  With large print, it got to the point that it was too hard to see and read so I made the decision in Year 8 (age 13) to go to ‘full time braille’.  When it first came to learning grade 1 braille I got introduced to braille by using an egg box and some marbles to represent the dots.  Also I am now using a Braillenote (a bit like a laptop) and I am really independent using it.  I can do most things from creating a document to going on the internet.

With my eye sight it quickly got worst so when it happened the teachers started getting me into braille.  I don’t have any lessons from my braille teacher anymore – I have stopped having braille lessons about 3 years ago.  Also when it comes doing my lessons and my work, I do all my work in braille or sometimes I use a computer with speech.  But with writing and reading print I don’t do that anymore.

My feelings towards braille

I feel that braille is an important skill to have even if you are sighted – at least it’s important to understand what braille is. I feel that understanding is important for all people because it is very tricky to read and plus if you are in a mainstream school it is important for sighted people to know how blind people read and write.  Also, I feel that it is very important to me because it is the way people can communicate with me when it comes to doing work and it is the way I do my work day to day.  Furthermore, I have my Braillenote so that is another thing that is important. A Braillenote is a ‘braille laptop’ for braille users that has a braille display on it.

At the start of learning braille I hated it so much that I didn’t want to do at first, but now I enjoy it so much and I prefer using a Braillenote over a computer.

Another thing that I feel is that if a person is going to learn braille I feel that it is way easier to learn it as a child than an adult because when it comes to learning when you are older people say that it is trickier. Finally, another feelings towards braille is that for me it is quicker to type on a Braillenote than a computer because of the six keys on the Braillenote compared to the Qwerty keyboard on the computer. As well as this making it quicker for me, the braille shortcuts means that is can be quicker then typing a whole word.

Ryan braillenote
Ryan using his Braillenote

My feelings towards braille and technology

With braille and technology I feel that it is still evolving and not dying.  I think that braille is still evolving because, for example, they brought out the “Braillenote touch” and that is an improvement on the “Braillenote.” Also I feel that braille could still evolve in many ways like with groceries – because when you go shopping and you are a braille user it is very tricky to find the items because there is no braille on the groceries.  Another thing how braille is evolving is that you can connect your phone to the “Braillenote” and that is another way how braille is useful to people.  This is because they might prefer to use there Braillenote on their phone to go around it than using the screenreader (speech).  Also with using a Braillenote on a phone I feel that there are advantages and disadvantages.  The advantage is that it is quicker to type than using a scream reader.  But the disadvantage is that it is easier to listen to the screenreader than reading the braille.  Furthermore, there is some braille around the public like on buses but the braille could be improved because there is no braille in some places where it would make a great difference to braille users.  Another thing I feel about technology is that if braille with technology died it would make it tricky for braille users to write, read and go on the internet.  So I mean that it would be better to keep the braille and technology going because it is a great skill to learn and it is helpful.

Finally I feel that people should not feel that braille is dead or dying. It is a great help to blind people and it is still evolving to help.

Ryan Lardner-Cameron


Reflections of studying for the Mandatory Qualification for Teachers of Children with Vision Impairment

This months VICTAR blog comes from John Turnbull who is Specialist Education Support Officer for Guide Dogs. John reflects on the journey he has made since starting studying for the Mandatory Qualification for Teachers of Children with Vision Impairment with us at Vision Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research.

“I have now been studying with VICTAR at the University of Birmingham since September 2014, in the field of vision impairments.

Initially I was studying for the MQ (mandatory qualification) for teachers of children with a vision impairment which enabled me to qualify as a specialist teacher of children and young people with vision impairments (QTVI), but have gone on to complete my Masters in this discipline and am intending to extend my studies to the next level.

The course itself, in becoming a QTVI, was very informative and did allow the acquisition of a lot of new skills, along with being emerged in a great deal of current research in this very specialist area.

Furthermore, we were supported throughout this time, as students, often whom had been out of this type of formal learning for many years, by professionals, with an enviable reputation of working with children and young people with VI SEN, which was a constant source of advice, guidance and reassurance.

However, one of the most beneficial aspects of this course is the access to so many other professionals in this field. Here I was able to meet with professionals whom were teaching in diverse settings, from specialist and special schools, to residential colleges and teachers whom were working across enormous geographical locations, offering a peripatetic service of support to children and young people with a vision impairment.

This course also enabled me to complete pieces of research which were specific to my areas of interest and that which is aided by my day to day role. During the MQ course itself, I completed a short piece of research, which looked at the importance of the support provided to children and young people with a vision impairment and how their support should be managed to ensure that it was enough to enable access, but did not impact on independence or their ability to become a meaningful member of their peer group and the society of which they were part.

My second piece of research, which was significantly more in-depth, looked at the access children and young people with a vision impairment had to mobility and Independent Living Skills and how this impacted on their current life and their future expectations and ability to reach personal goals.

The research I am intending to move toward, will be concentrating upon access to Educational Health Care plans and how the quality of these documents can impact on the support on offer to children and young people with a vision impairment and their future life expectations, along with their independence skills, to enable their ambitions to become a reality.

Again, throughout my on-going study with VICTAR, University of Birmingham, I have been able to obtain a great deal of advice and guidance. For example, I have had advice and guidance in making the research I completed relevant to my job role. This has sought to add clarity to some of the key areas which affect parents and children and young people affected by a vision impairment. This has often meant that the eventual research is some distance from the original concept, but this has nevertheless, ensured that the studies are relevant to today’s society and current areas of need.”

John Turnbull, Specialist Education Support Officer, Guide Dogs Children and Young People’s Services

Disabled Students’ Allowance: is it fit for purpose?

What is Disabled Students’ Allowance?

Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) is a non-means tested scheme for UK-based students, which aims to remove barriers to learning for students with disabilities. In the case of vision impairment, it can be used to fund things like mobility training around a campus, specialist equipment like Jaws and assistance in practical sessions.

In 2015 the UK Government announced that it was going to reform DSA, placing greater responsibility on Higher Education (HE) institutions (both practically and financially) for the non-medical support that disabled students receive. The rationale behind this was that it would give greater incentive for HE institutions to remove barriers to learning through inclusive practice, and that this in turn would improve student experience. For example, instead of using DSA funds to pay for staff to convert lecture material for it to be accessible for a student using a screenreader, institutions should ensure that published lecture material is provided to all students in an accessible format. Department for Business Innovation and Skills who had responsibility for this reform also argued that students with disabilities in HE should be able to make greater use of assistive technology, reducing the need for human support.

What does the research evidence say?

In this month’s blog I draw upon evidence from the Longitudinal Transitions Study to discuss how well DSA is working for student’s with vision impairment.

The first thing that I would like to emphasise is that DSA is absolutely essential for many students with vision impairment to be able to succeed on their courses. Many of the young people that we have spoken to simply would not have been able to access their courses if it weren’t for the support that DSA provides. For example, one participant reflected:

“It’s been very, very useful in terms of my equipment and my non-medical help, because without those things I couldn’t go to university really. I wouldn’t be able to access my course without this equipment that I put through DSA because I didn’t have it otherwise.”

However, DSA is not without problems. We recently worked with Thomas Pocklington Trust to produce a research briefing to outline to the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation ways in which the current scheme is not working for students with vision impairment. Some of the key issues identified include:

  • DSA assessors lacking the knowledge and skill set to assess students with vision impairment and to make appropriate support recommendations.
  • Frequent delays faced by students in receiving their allocated support from DSA, putting them at a massive disadvantage as they make the transition into HE.
  • Equipment provided through DSA not fit for intended purpose, even in the case of laptops where students contribute £200 towards its purchase.
  • Restrictions in purchasing mainstream equipment such as tablet computers, despite evidence demonstrating their effective role to help overcome challenges associated with vision impairment.
  • Students not being able to access the non-medical helper support allocated due to rigid qualification criteria for staff providing specialist support, and a shortage of trained professionals who can meet those criteria.

So, is it fit for purpose?

As outlined earlier, the UK Government asserted that it is possible to reduce the amount of human support that students with disabilities require if they make use of assistive technology. Certainly, our research evidence supports this, with many of the participants giving examples of the ways in which they overcame barriers to learning and participation through using technology. What is concerning, however, is that the amount of money available through DSA to fund technology has not changed (other than a small increase to reflect inflation) and instead there still exists a huge emphasis on human support.

Funding available through Disabled Student Allowance for a full-time course by year

2014-15 2018-19
Specialist equipment £5,212 for the whole course £5,529 for the whole course
Non-medical helper £20,725 a year £21,987 a year

Depending on the individual and the nature of their vision impairment or the type of course that they are studying, it may be that they will require a large amount of human support. However, the main point of concern I would like to raise is the lack of flexibility in the system. Many of the young people that we have spoken to reported not being to access certain equipment that would have enabled them to work more independently in HE due to the restricted budget for specialist equipment. Additionally, several participants shared their frustration of not being able to access mainstream technology (such as tablet computers) through DSA, despite the fact that (due to the inclusive design of this equipment) they could use it to overcome specific challenges that they faced as a result of their vision impairment.

This lack of flexibility in DSA guidance seems to go against its intended purpose. Department for Education state that the DSA scheme ‘is in place to provide the more specialist aspects of support’ (p23) – i.e. the very specific adjustments that individual requires that can’t be addressed through inclusive practice and reasonable adjustments. The problem being faced by students with vision impairment, is that whilst the role of DSA is supposed to be to address specific needs, the guidelines DSA works to are still very prescriptive. Consequently, students are having difficulties in accessing the type and balance of support that would suit them and their circumstances best.

As noted in our recent briefing, we urge the government to take action to address the challenges that students with vision impairment are facing in accessing the full range of support they need to be able to study and live independently in HE. DSA plays an absolutely vital role in helping students with vision impairment overcome barriers in participation on their courses, but at the same time, its own mechanisms can act as a further barrier to the student.

Rachel Hewett

P.S. If you are a young person with a vision impairment and are applying for university, or even at university already, we have produced some guidance resources here. Also, if you are a professional supporting students with vision impairment in higher education, you can find some guidance resources here.

We would love to hear from young people about their experiences of education, habilitation/mobility support, applying for and using DSA, or any other issue that is important them.

For further information, contact Thomas Pocklington Trust Children and Young People Managers

Tara Chattaway, tara.chattaway@pocklington-trust.org.uk 07854 372420

Laura Hughes, laura.hughes@pocklington-trust.org.uk 07970 232660

Birmingham’s Sensory Support Tackling Adulthood Transition Challenges

This months VICTAR blog comes from Anna Roche who leads on post-16 transition work at Birmingham Local Authority Sensory Impairment team. Anna talks about her experience of setting up a new project which aims to improve access to work experience opportunities for young people with sensory impairment. Anna set up this project after attending our ESRC Festival of Social Science event last year

Anna Roche, Birmingham VI Service

“I am visiting teacher that supports young people with a vision loss across Birmingham, including school leavers, looking for their next steps in life.  I have recently taken up this post and from my experience so far within the service and through meeting with Rachel Hewett who has conducted a Longitudinal Study on behalf of VICTAR, I have gained an insight into the challenges young people with a vision loss have in ultimately finding careers which match their potential.

A lot has changed for young people in the last decade – fewer want to continue in formal education and more want to get into work earlier, often via apprenticeships.  For young people with a vision loss, the explosion of accessible technology available in the mainstream, i.e. smart phones, tablets, the improved ease of internet connection and cheap downloadable software resources, has meant that our school leavers with a vision loss have the tools to and means available to access work systems more easily.  Coupled with the fact that business information is almost universally being managed electronically these days would surely mean that things are looking rosy for our young people seeking employment, right?  Wrong.  According to the RNIB ‘Employment Status and Sight Loss” report, February 2017: “There has been a significant decrease in the proportion of registered blind and partially sighted people of working age in any form of employment over the last decade from one in three in 2005 to around one in four in 2015.”

Some students we have are very adept at using the new technology; touch typing and managing their own access by enlarging educational texts independently on their devices.  However, we do still have a lot of the old fashioned bulky magnifying equipment floating around the city being used by our students, and some students still rely on staff to photocopy or print text enlargements, even in secondary school, which doesn’t set them up well for progressing onto college or the workplace where the expectation is that access needs will be managed without assistant support.

Another issue that poses a barrier to young people with a vision loss getting into work is that often employers, very conscientious of health and safety regulations, are not leaping to offer opportunities, even for work experience.  Less than 2% of the Apprenticeships on offer in Birmingham are with Disability Confident employers, which provide slim pickings.

Additionally, we know from surveys we have conducted that we need to help families have ambitious but realistic aspirations for their child with a vision loss as they move on from school.  Parents also wanted more information to help their children make decisions about next steps after school and some parents also felt their children lacked confidence outside of the safety of the school environment in relation to managing and explaining their vision loss, especially in positive terms (e.g. I can see this much….., I use this equipment to help me…)

So, having identified key issues we need to address as: the need to improve the mainstream technology skills of our young people overall; improve our engagement and support of families; and improve, update and specialise the careers advice we give to our young people and create more work experience opportunities – we have set about trying to make a change in these areas.

This term we held a parents’ workshop to provide realistic inspiration by having a young speaker with a degenerative vision loss who had navigated through school and college to achieve success both in industry and personally.  We asked her not to sugar-coat her experiences or the additional challenges that vision loss caused her to face, but to explain how she was able to overcome these and explain her strategies that have helped her not only achieve her goals, but sometimes just to keep going.  We also incorporated time for the parents to chat and share experiences with each other, as some parents do not have any other parents of children with a vision loss in their social circle, and we know from feedback that parents found this to be therapeutic.  We spent some time with the parents at the workshop planning how next year we can improve how we connect with them and resulting from this we have already booked in termly parents’ workshops for next year at John Lewis’ Community Room in central Birmingham.  Each session will have a different focus, such as how to support their child with the job application process, etc.  We are also planning a ‘Pathways’ event where FE providers will be invited to explain to parents and their children how they can support young people with a vision loss whether they choose to study as part of an academic course or an apprenticeship.  As part of this event we are planning a joint parent/child life coaching session designed to prepare them for barriers they will face and give the problem solving skills to tackle these challenges successfully.

To address the lack of career advice available locally, we have looked to specialist charities to run sessions tailored to support those with vision loss navigate their way into the world of work.  This month Dan from the charity Blind in Business ran a brilliant session called ‘Future Focus’ for teenagers which included mock interviews and exercises which really helped the students think about their upcoming challenges and how they can practically address these.  We have booked another careers day with the charity Look UK for the Autumn Term and we will intend to make these a regular occurrence to ensure that careers advice and support is ongoing.

To increase work experience opportunities we have begun to make links with the Education and Skills Directorate of the council to build links which we hope will open some opportunities.  There are many college, apprenticeship and job fairs happening around Birmingham and we intend to organise group visits where we will prep our young people to go and chat to colleges and employers and explain personally how they manage their vision loss, and the additional skills they have because of this, and hopefully inspire potential employers to become disability confident and provide opportunities.

To increase use of appropriate technology we had Ben from RNIB come and deliver the valuable ‘Legacy’ training to upskill our teams to know how to use the accessibility features and apps that support vision loss to capacity on tablet technology.  We have just agreed a partnership with a local Apple supplier Jigsaw24 and they have agreed to do a great ‘bundle’ deal which includes the latest iPad, a keyboard case and Apple pencil (which students can use to take freehand notes or complete uploaded workbooks – and have these remotely marked by teachers without having to hand in or print work) at a greatly reduced price (please see their website)  This bundle will encourage students to manage their equipment, access and practice touch typing without having masses of separate equipment to lug around school.  With the right training to ensure the right texts and presentations are uploaded to the iPad efficiently, this will also save schools the time and resources previously used to print out materials.

Finally, at the start of September, members of our team are undertaking a bid writing course in order that we can start making serious applications for available funds that we can use to support our initiatives that will help our young people transition into adulthood.  As well as local transition events, we also want to organise more events that build confidence and team working skills for our Birmingham students, e.g. adventure outings including residential activity breaks – which will be great for developing students’ independence, a keenness for challenging themselves and a hunger for working towards a sense of achievement, but also will provide great C.V. content.

We are starting to set the wheels in motion to improve how we prepare young people for adulthood – watch this space for future success stories and a change in the employment statistics for people with a vision loss!”

Anna Roche, Birmingham VI Service

VIEW 2018 Conference

In this month’s VICTAR blog, Jane Thistlethwaite reviews the VIEW 2018 conference.

VIEW 2018 was held March in Birmingham with approximately 140 QTVI’s from Sensory Resource Centres and residential school provisions, representatives from RNIB and staff from the QTVI course at the University of Birmingham. The two-day conference included a range of very informative keynote presentations and an array of interesting hands on workshops.

VIEW conference 2018
VIEW conference 2018

Presenters from Great Ormond Street shared two interesting presentations. The first keynote on ‘Understanding Childhood Vision Impairment’ noted the need for a clearer definition of vision impairment (VI) and challenges around VI being a low incidence high cost disability. Certification of children with a VI is not mandatory and registration rates can be low due to parents not wanting their child registered. Additionally, certification does not capture all types of VI and there is a variance in what acuity level should be noted.

Presenters Professor Jugnoo Rahi, Professor of Epidemiology at Great Ormond Street and Lucie Teoh, Research Assistant outlined a longitudinal study they are undertaking. Key points being researched in their study include trends in epidemiology and the distinct difference between functional vision and vision function.

Dr Jenefer Sargent , Consultant Paediatrician in the Neurodisability Service, Great Ormond Street, delivered a most informative presentation on ‘Vision Impairment, Can you See the Whole Child’. This presentation explored how we can get the most out of a functional vision assessment.

Julie Colley (Head Teacher) and Rachel McVeigh SENCO, presented a number of slides demonstrating a range of inclusive programmes in place at Highfields School, where not only students with VI are readily included in outdoor programmes, excursions and classroom based activities, but many learners with a variety of diverse learning requirements. The positive ‘’can do’’ attitude was evident, as was the enthusiasm to ensure they could adapt any programme requirement.

Christina Matawa, QTVI and Regional Tutor on the University of Birmingham QTVI course, and Andrea Ferris, Hammersmith and Fulham Sensory and Language Impairment team, lead delegates through a wonderful workshop session on ‘Learning with iPads’. This was such a useful session for all that included a range of adaptive uses of the iPad. Key themes of this presentation were inclusion and empowerment of the student to manage their own learning through the iPad.

Gwyn McCormack, Positive Eye, led two fabulous, hands on sessions and was available at her stand throughout the conference for delegates to visit and interact with her many resources and view the excellent learning programmes she has developed.

It was Rory Cobb’s last conference as Chair. Rory delivered a witty and reflective journey of his years in the sector with a nautical theme stemming from past roles.

The conference concluded with a presentation by inspirational speaker Amar Latif, who describes himself as the Indian, Scottish, bald, blind guy who is an intrepid traveller! ‘Blind Guy Who Wants to Show you the World’ was the lead line of Amar’s keynote. An excellent delivery by an articulate, well-travelled and grounded advocate for people who are blind. Amar has established his own travel company that specialises in extreme and exciting travel destination tours for people who are blind and want to stretch their horizons.  This was a most positive note to conclude the conference on.

Jane Thistlethwaite

My first visit to Community Based Childcare Centres in Malawi

In this month’s blog, Dr Anita Soni shares her experiences of visiting Community Based Childcare Centres in Malawi as part of the Let’s Grow Together project. Dr Paul Lynch, Principal Investigator of the study, is currently shortlisted for the University of Birmingham Philanthropic Research Project of 2018. You can watch a video of Paul talking about his plans to develop the Let’s Grow Together project further and vote to help the project team secure further research funding at: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/alumni/PRP.aspx

In February 2018, I visited Malawi to observe the inclusion of children in the Community Based Childcare Centres (CBCCs). It was an exciting opportunity – I have worked in and with Children’s Centres, nurseries and playgroups for many years as a teacher and more recently as an Educational Psychologist, and observing children is something I love to do. But this was different; I was nervous about what I would see in one of the least developed countries in the world – over 85 percent of the population lives rurally and the infant mortality rate is shockingly high – and how that might make me feel and respond.

So what was my anxiety based on? After all, I’ve worked with children in a range of settings here in the West Midlands, including the poorest in the UK. When I sat down and thought about it, I realised it was about seeing individuals who are probably among the most vulnerable in the world. These kids are young, they are deprived AND they are disabled. A sobering prospect.

The reality was very different. Yes, these children were at childcare settings that were stripped to the bone. Buildings were small and often windowless and roofless, and that’s if they existed at all – at some there was only a tree to provide shade from the scorching African sun. None had running water or toilets. But for the harsh environment, what was striking was how much joy the many of the children got from being with their peers.


This wasn’t universal. Comfort, a ten year old boy with a physical disability, spent much of his time lonely and sad. His face lit up only when another boy he was particularly friendly with, was near him, or if he was able to play with the single bike that was available to the 70 children. Conversely, nine year old Mercy , who had macrocephaly, was completely involved by staff and other children, helping to lead activities, and adapting games so she could participate. A stark illustration of the difference made by true inclusion.


At one point, I realised I had completely relaxed into it. It was raining, and we had buckets out to catch the drips, and staff had provided the children with crockery and cutlery to occupy them. As I looked round, I couldn’t spot the children with disabilities, they were completely engaged in drumming with spoons and using bowls as steering wheels. I could have been anywhere.


It brought to mind Dan Goodley’s comments that disability is often regarded as dehumanising, and that’s simply not right. The whole world over, regardless of social and medical issues, everyone has their own normal, and focusing on getting everyone to do the same things leads to exclusion and therefore isolation. Children are children are children, and that’s something to celebrate.

Dr Anita Soni, Co-Investigator (with editing support from Asha Fowells)

Accessible equations

In this guest blog, Professor Dave Smith from University of Birmingham shares his experience of ensuring that mathematical content is accessible to students with vision impairment. Our longitudinal transitions study has highlighted how challenging it can be for VI students studying STEM in Higher Education, with academic staff often unsure of how best to provide support. 

Professor Dave Smith, School of Mathematics, University of Birmingham

There is a divide in the academic world between those for whom equations and mathematical expressions are their primary tools, and everyone else! Pure and applied mathematicians, computer scientists, physicists and many computational biologists (for the purposes of this blog post I will refer to all of us as mathematicians for short) typically find that widely-used tools such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint are unsatisfying for the preparation of mathematics. Their main drawbacks are the combination of a clunky point-and-click interface with (to the experienced eye) substandard aesthetics.  The alternative system, still relatively known outside of quantitative disciplines, is the typesetting language LaTeX (pronounced ‘Lay-Tech’ or possibly ‘Lah-Tech’) which was mainly developed in the 1970s and 80s. LaTeX enables the production of professional-quality printed documents with equations that most mathematicians consider rather beautiful; it is no surprise therefore that the vast majority of us produce all of our lecture notes and other course materials (handouts, exercises, slides and even examinations) in LaTeX. Typically the implementation that is used is ‘PDFLaTeX’, which converts LaTeX ‘source code’ into a PDF file that can be viewed electronically or printed. LaTeX has undoubtedly revolutionised mathematical publishing, and has also influenced the development of HTML (hypertext markup language), the basis for the web.

One of the great appeals of PDFLaTeX is that it gives us complete control over the visual layout. However, therein lies a weakness – not everyone consumes lecture material visually, and not all who do see in the same way. The most powerful example of this diversity is the use of screenreaders by blind and visually-impaired students. Equations appearing in PDF files produced by LaTeX are completely unintelligible to a screenreader. A workaround for this difficulty (used with success in the School of Mathematics) involves providing the LaTeX source files so that the code itself can be interpreted – ‘backslashes, curly brackets and all’ by a screenreader. This is a workable solution – and perhaps the best that can be expected in a short timeframe – but wouldn’t it be preferable if the core set of notes were suitable to be adapted by students to their varying needs? Other examples of how materials may need to be ‘consumed’ differently include the use of large print by students with visual impairments, or the use of sans-serif fonts and coloured backgrounds by students with dyslexia. Special materials can be printed out on request, but wouldn’t it be better if students could simply enlarge text, or experiment with changing the font or background to see what works best for them? The issue of how we consume reading material is most acutely relevant to those with visual impairment, however across all of the academic community we now view content across a range of devices, from monitors to laptops to tablets and phones, all of which require text to be able to resize and reflow according to the dimensions of the screen. We wouldn’t expect the Guardian online (or indeed the Big Conversation blog) to comes as a downloadable PDF. It seems reasonable that students should have similar expections of course materials.

HTML-based materials by contrast provide an excellent and up-to-date way to deliver device-friendly, resizable and reformattable content, along with the other advantages of web-based materials (particularly interactivity). The University’s online learning environment Canvas is a user-friendly platform for colleagues unfamilar with HTML code to prepare webpages. But what about mathematics? The best solution I am aware of involves integrating the old and the new: LaTeX expressions – which can be included by enclosing within the symbols \( and \) – within an HTML web page. LaTeX expressions can then be interpreted into mathematics through the online service MathJax, a javascript engine developed by the American Mathematical Society and Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. MathJax can be included in a webpage by adding a code snippet to the start of the HTML file; in Canvas this is done automatically. The result is mathematical expressions that look beautiful but more importantly are then available as MathML for the use of screenreaders. Having prepared materials in this way one no longer needs to anticipate all of the possible needs of current or future students – the power is with the student to manipulate the content appropriate to their needs. An example Canvas-LaTeX page is available at this link.

For the lecturer, converting a set of LaTeX notes to ‘Canvas-LaTeX’ or ‘HTML-LaTeX’ is essentially an task of cutting-and-pasting and then modifying commands such as section headings and figures – something that can be accomplished in a few hours for a 20 credit lecture course. Therefore there is a great opportunity to bring our lecture notes into the 21st Century, retaining many of the advantages of LaTeX along with much greater accessibility. This change may require a shift in how we view course materials – our job is to provide content (text and equations), but we need to accept that our control over their precise visual appearance is a luxury which does not meet the needs of blind, visually-impaired or dyslexic students.

Professor Dave Smith, School of Mathematics