The Ahead Journal


A Review of Inclusive Education
& Employment Practices ISSN 2009-8286

How can we make the student experience more accessible, inclusive, and flexible? Exploring learner priorities emerging from the ALTITUDE Charter consultations

Dara Ryder



About the Author

Aibhe King, PhD

Assistant Professor, UCD School of Medicine, University College Dublin (UCD)

About the Author

Dr Deirdre McHugh

University of Galway


About the Author

Carol Neenan

Active Inclusion Officer, Cork Education and Training Board (CETB)

About the Author

Note: the authors of this article make up the ALTITUDE Learner Consultation Analysis Team, and produce this article with thanks to the wider ALTITUDE Learner Consultation Working Group who supported design of the consultation: Richard Healy (AHEAD), Ailbhe King (University College Dublin), Derina Johnson (Trinity College Dublin), Deirdre McHugh (University of Galway), Carol Neenan (Cork Education and Training Board), Dara Ryder (Working Group Chair, AHEAD)


The learner population in tertiary education is becoming increasingly diverse. Greater diversity in the student population, and a national and international policy emphasis on the right to an inclusive education for every learner, have drawn attention to the need for a more inclusive model of education across all sectors, and more inclusive educational environments. There is a growing momentum towards an inclusive, and more unified tertiary education sector in both policy and practice.

A universal design (UD) approach is increasingly seen as a central tenet of our response to ensuring all learners are included in the design and delivery of tertiary education, (Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, 2022). This has led to the inclusion of specific objectives within further education and training  FET) and higher education (HE) policy to embed universal design in our institutions (SOLAS, 2020; Higher Education Authority, 2022). Equally, the Public Sector Duty and a range of national equality legislation mean that Ireland has a robust legal framework concerning equitable access to education which education providers must meet.

While research shows that engagement with professional development is increasing and pockets of institutional good practice are evident, a commitment to universal design is not as evident in the institutional strategies and policies of many higher education institutions and education and training boards (Healy et al., 2023). This represents a threat to the sustainability of the approach and raises concerns about how well-supported a universal design approach is at the strategic level of tertiary institutions. It is within this context that calls for the development of a National Charter for Universal Design in Tertiary Education have arisen, leading to the development of ALTITUDE.

Modelling a universal design approach, the iterative process of developing the ALTITUDE Charter placed extensive consultation with the key users and beneficiaries of the Charter – learners and staff – at the heart of the process. This article shares the highest priorities identified by learners in the student consultation phase in order to make their learning experience more accessible, inclusive, and flexible – argued to be important outcomes of a universal design approach.

While the findings emerging from this consultation exercise served the primary function of informing the Charter development, the insights shared will be of interest to students and staff members working to improve the learner experience in all facets of tertiary education.

About the ALTITUDE Project

Funded by the HEA under PATH 4, the ALTITUDE Project is an extensive cross-sectoral collaboration involving six national agencies, fifteen HE institutions and six Education and Training Board (ETB) representatives nominated by Directors of FET to represent the FET sector. The project team comprised fifty-two individuals from these institutions with a broad range of roles and universal design expertise.

Vision of the ALTITUDE Project

‘Tertiary education institutions where all learners are transformatively included through universal design in education.’ (deriving the name ALTITUDE)

Mission of the Project

To support HEIs and ETBs to make sustainable progress towards systemically embedding a universal design approach, which places human diversity at the heart of tertiary education design and fosters student success for all.

The development of the Charter was informed by an international literature review, and a deep national consultation process involving a national consultation event, more than thirty staff and learner focus groups, a survey of FET and HE learners (1,200+ respondents), and a national stakeholder dialogue process.

A previous article published in Issue 16 of the AHEAD Journal explored the background to this project and the key themes emerging from the first phase of staff consultations. This was followed by a second phase of staff consultation in which focus groups were conducted in FET and HE settings across the country to give feedback on an early draft of the ALTITUDE Charter. This article however, explores the highest priorities of learners which emerged from the significant student consultation phase conducted by the project group to inform the development of the Charter and the associated toolkit which will support practical implementation.

Introducing the Four Pillars of the Charter

Drawing from national and international literature on the application of universal design in tertiary education contexts (Kelly & Padden, 2018; Burgstahler, 2009), the Charter recommends key strategic enablers which institutions should put in place to support sustainable implementation of UD across the learner experience and proposes collaborative action under four key pillars. Fundamental to its implementation is the collaboration between key functions working across the pillars.

Strategic Foundations sit above the 4 pillars: Learning, Teaching and Assessment Supports and Services Physical Environment Digital EnvironmentFigure 1 - The 4 Pillars of the ALTITUDE Charter, supported by Strategic Enablers

When exploring the design of the learner consultation, these pillars were used as a lens to frame key questions posed, exploring what would make the learner experience more accessible, inclusive, and flexible in these areas.

About the Learner Consultation

The purpose of the learner consultation was to explore the priorities of learners for action under the 4 pillars which would make their learning experience more accessible, inclusive, and flexible. The aim was for the team analysing the data to draw out these priorities into action points for consideration by the group developing the Charter and the associated toolkit. These priority action points were reviewed against the most recent draft of the charter, with updates made to the Charter text to ensure the systems level Charter actions aligned with and incorporated learner priorities. The group led by UCD working to develop the associated toolkit, reviewed the learner priorities and updated the text of the more detailed practical actions contained within it accordingly to ensure the guidance was well informed by the student voice. Through this process, the group aimed to ensure that the learner voice was strongly and meaningfully represented in the design of the Charter.

Consultation Methodology

The consultation was delivered through a mixed methodology approach, featuring both survey and focus group elements, and utilising a mix of convenience and purposive sampling. A focus group facilitation method was devised and shared with the project group, with encouragement given for group members to conduct focus groups in their institutions if they wished. An emphasis was placed on recruiting participants from disadvantaged cohorts to ensure their important voice was well represented in the dataset. Focus group participants were asked to discuss and agree on responses to each of the following questions which were designed to feed directly into the four pillars of the Charter:

  • What are the 3 biggest changes you would make to how you are taught and assessed on your course/programme to make it more accessible, inclusive, and flexible?
  • What are the 3 biggest changes you would make to how supports and services are designed and provided at your university/college/centre to make them more accessible, inclusive, and flexible?
  • What are the 3 biggest changes you would make to the online platforms and digital communications used by your university/college/centre to improve how you access and use them?
  • What are the 3 biggest changes you would make to the buildings and outdoor areas of your university/college/centre to reduce barriers and/or improve your experience?

Focus group facilitators within participating institutions then fed these responses back into a central collection mechanism for analysis.

A survey featuring the same questions was devised and circulated to students by project group members in their institutions, and by AHEAD through its networks. Project team members were asked to ensure that access and learner support services circulated the survey to learners engaged with their services to ensure the voice of disadvantaged learners was well represented.

Analysis Process

Due to the high number of open text fields in the survey data and the high level of responses, the Learner Consultation Group procured a project-based licence for Keatext to support an efficient analysis process. Keatext is an AI-powered text analytics platform that synthesizes large volumes of feedback from multiple channels (such as open-survey questions, online reviews, and social media posts) to produce actionable insights. The software is most typically employed by businesses to analyse large amounts of customer feedback, and the tool proved to be a valuable asset in the analysis process.

The analysis process can be described as follows:

  1. Introduction to and training on Keatext was provided to the Analysis Team.
  2. The Analysis Team met, distributed responsibility for analysis of data from the four pillars across the team (one person per pillar) and agreed a common approach to the analysis across the pillars.
  3. Each member of the team manually analysed the much smaller focus group data set, to get a grounding in the learner priorities from those participating cohorts. Clear themes emerged and actions were crafted under each pillar arising from this analysis, with very frequently cited priorities marked as ‘high priority’, other priorities mentioned often also incorporated without the ‘high priority’ marking, and rarely cited issues left out of the priority actions crafted.
  4. Moving to the survey data analysis, members of the analysis team first sense-checked the grouping of topics and opinions automatically done by Keatext on the data and engaged in manual grouping of topics where necessary (for example grouping the word ‘learner’ and ‘student’ together so they were represented as one single topic in the analysis).
  5. Analysers then manually reviewed the comments inputted by learners under their pillar question, in order of the most regularly cited topics. For example, in the digital environment, the topic most frequently cited by learners and so first reviewed was the Learning Management System (LMS) – which was a grouping of the words LMS, VLE (Virtual Learning Environment),Canvas, Blackboard,Brightspace, Teams and other frequently used platform names. This process was repeated for topics until less than 10 learners had cited them in responses.
  6. Actions arising from the survey data were then crafted under each pillar arising from this analysis, using a similar identifying process as the focus group data, with very frequently cited priorities marked as ‘high priority’, other priorities mentioned often also incorporated without the ‘high priority’ marking, and rarely cited issues left out of the priority actions crafted.
  7. Members of the analysis team, now holding two lists of priorities from the focus group data and the survey data, then conducted an exercise to compare and combine the priorities into a single list of actions. This was done to ensure the focus group candidates and the survey candidates were given equal importance, seen as important by the learner consultation group because the focus group sample was more heavily weighted towards FET participants, while the survey sample was more heavily weighted towards HE respondents.
  8. Once this work was complete, the Analysis Team reviewed each other’s work as a group, tweaking the wording style of the actions for greater consistency of voice, and where duplication occurred across the pillars, agreeing which pillar the action should be listed under. When deciding which pillar to locate an action to, the analysis team discussed which function within institutions would be most likely to take responsibility for progressing the priority and allocated the action accordingly.

Limitations and Important Context for Interpreting the Findings

It should be noted that the purpose of this consultation exercise was not to establish objective truth about the priorities of learners as would be desired in a rigorous, peer-reviewed research project. Rather, the aim was to extract in a relatively short period of time, a wide sample of input from learners across FET and HE to inform the Charter development. While effort was taken to ensure a broad distribution of the survey and focus group opportunities across a wide range of FET and HE institutions, no controls on survey response other than distribution through access and disability services to ensure a strong return from disadvantaged learners, and self-selection based on the criteria of being a current FET/HE learner, were applied.

Equally, while Keatext is utilised by some of the world’s biggest corporations to get actionable insights from large datasets, it is not yet widely used in the field of academic research, and further testing would be advised before using it to attempt to establish objective truths, rather than broadly indicative and actionable insights.

Therefore, appropriate caution is recommended when interpreting this data out of the context of its purpose to inform the development of the Charter and associated toolkit.

Consultation Sample

This section provides information on the data sample collected for the consultation.

Focus Group Participation

80 learners participated in 11 focus groups conducted. 9 of the focus groups (82%) were hosted in FET institutions, 1 (9%) in a higher education institution, with a further focus group (9%) hosted with a mix group of students from a range of FET and HE institutions.

Graph of the Focus group sample, showing 11 focus groups across FET and HE, wil a total of 80 learners participating.Figure 2 - breakdown of the ALTITUDE learner consultation focus group sample by number of focus groups, number of participating learners and the programme type in which learners participating in a focus group were enrolled

Survey Participation

Discounting empty and incomplete survey responses, a total of 1,219 survey responses were received from learners in FET and HE institutions. 953 (78%) of the respondents were enrolled in a higher education programme, while 266 (22%) were enrolled in a FET programme. Breaking the survey cohort down by programme type, 761 (62%) were enrolled on an undergraduate programme, 174 (14%) on a postgraduate programme, 128 (11%) on a non-Post Leaving Certificate (PLC) FET programme, 85 (7%) on a PLC programme, and 71 (6%) on another form of higher education programme.

Graph of the Survey group sample, showing 1,219 learners across FET and HE participating.

Figure 3 - breakdown of the ALTITUDE learner consultation survey sample by number of complete responses, the programme type of participating learners and their part-time/full-time status.

Findings: Priorities of Learners Under the Four Pillars

While the project team considered both the high (very frequently cited) and other (regularly cited) priorities of learners closely in the development of the Charter and associated toolkit, for brevity this article will focus only on sharing the frequently cited high priorities.

These high priorities arising from the analysis are presented in this section under each pillar:

  • Learning, Teaching and Assessment
  • Supports, Services and Social Engagement
  • Physical Environment
  • Digital Environment

Learning, Teaching and Assessment

The volume of input in this pillar was the largest of all, so high priority actions have been grouped below under assessment, and learning and teaching.


The high (very frequently cited) priorities of learners to make assessment more accessible, inclusive, and flexible, as developed by the team in response to the analysis were as follows:

  • Implement more continuous assessment and significantly reduce the number of examinations and the emphasis placed on them in final grading. Where exams are necessary, consider utilising open-book exams with flexible completion times (e.g. over a 24-hour period).
  • Facilitate inclusive assessment practice by offering choice in assessment formats/topics where possible, using a variety of assessment types during the programme (including practical assessments), and providing greater flexibility in assessment deadlines.
  • Provide in-class preparation for assignments, ensuring aims and expectations for the assignment are clear and well understood, and key skills needed to complete them are addressed. Provide meaningful and timely feedback to learners on their work.

Learning and Teaching

The high (very frequently cited) priorities of learners to make learning and teaching more accessible, inclusive, and flexible, as developed by the team in response to the analysis were as follows:

  • Promote hybrid delivery and recording of classes for revision, and to ensure access for learners managing disability or ill health, and those with busy life/caring demands.
  • Utilise a variety of learning materials (slides, podcasts, videos, online quizzes, eBooks), ensuring digital materials chosen are accessible to people with disabilities, and are available on the VLE in advance of relevant classes (ideally all available from the beginning).
  • Communicate with the library to ensure relevant books/ accessible eBooks of core texts for all modules are available and easily accessed, and that digital texts are accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Ensure clear and consistent VLE module page layouts and labelling of information across the programme, ensuring all relevant information is uploaded in advance (digital class materials, schedules, deadlines), easily located, and always available to learners.
  • Manage the in-class cognitive load of students by reducing class sizes where possible, moving through content at a steady pace to allow for information processing, encouraging movement in class (e.g. moving to a flip chart station in groups), scheduling shorter classes, and taking comfort breaks during longer classes.
  • Increase student engagement and understanding by providing an easily accessible schedule of all classes and assessment deadlines as early as possible, setting a friendly and welcoming tone in class, breaking up lectures/classes with group discussion and practical problem-solving work, introducing more interactive elements, and checking in with the group regularly for understanding.

Supports, Services & Social Engagement

The high (very frequently cited) priorities of learners to make supports, services, and social engagement more accessible, inclusive, and flexible, as developed by the team in response to the analysis were as follows:

  • Reduce and manage the information load sent to learners via email and through the VLE, grouping related notices into single periodic newsletters (e.g. Student Union info, campus notices re parking and opening hours). Use segmentation practices to send communications only to students who might be impacted (e.g. info about a particular campus) and prioritise important academic/class notices. Support communication of important notices via screens placed around campus.
  • Promote a single consistent method/approach for communications across the campus (e.g. through the VLE for X, email for Y), with a focus on increasing coherence and facilitating timely responses to important learner queries.
  • Review the provision of counselling services to ensure enough resources exist to meet the rising needs of learners in a timely fashion for the full period they require it, and that the service is delivered by trained counsellors. Ensure counselling services are communicated in an approachable and unintimidating manner, and that services are available to part time learners.
  • Provide access to the library in the evening and at weekends, ensuring access to all core texts or courses are freely available, and barriers to accessing library services caused by low levels of digital literacy are reduced. Make the library a welcoming and unintimidating space and ensure sufficient working spaces are provided to meet the study needs of students.
  • Ensure learning supports in academic skills and study management, as well as subject specific supports, are available to all learners through in-person and online methods. Ensure one to one supports are available to all students, including those without a formal disability diagnosis.

Physical Environment

The high (very frequently cited) priorities of learners to make the physical environment more accessible, inclusive, and flexible, as developed by the team in response to the analysis were as follows:

  • Provide ample comfortable, well-maintained, and accessible indoor and outdoor seating, including covered, sheltered, and heated, outdoor seating.
  • Provide enough clean, spacious, accessible, and well-maintained toilet facilities, including dedicated disabled-access toilets, gender neutral toilets, changing rooms and baby-changing facilities and free period products.
  • Provide sufficient affordable, well sign-posted student parking, including accessible parking, and park and ride facilities.
  • Provide ample disability-aware, high contrast, large print signage with braille, well-designed campus maps and digital wayfinding apps.
  • Provide clean, comfortable, well-ventilated, disability-friendly social spaces, including canteens, gyms, and non-commercial spaces, and segregated outdoor smoking areas with a mix of calm and stimulating social spaces.
  • Accommodate sensory needs by providing quiet/sensory rooms, sensory gardens, softer lighting, and rest spaces, and provide prayer rooms to cater for a variety of religious beliefs.
  • Take an integrated approach to ensuring physical accessibility by providing accessible routes, ramps, lifts and power-assisted entrances, well-lit, wide, barrier-free, level-surfaced walkways, and tactile paving.

Digital Environment

The high (very frequently cited) priorities of learners to make the digital environment more accessible, inclusive, and flexible as developed by the team in response to the analysis were as follows:

  • When selecting and updating/reviewing a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), prioritise digital accessibility, ease of access and navigation, reliability (one that doesn't crash), individualised timetabling functionality, and easy to use mobile access. Involve students in the process of selecting/testing the VLE.
  • Promote and provide training to all staff on the effective use of technology in their roles, with a particular focus on ensuring teachers have adequate support in the effective and consistent use of digital teaching tools and materials.
  • Partner with learners and accessibility experts to review and update the institution website, other key web portals (e.g. the library, social media accounts), and important college forms (e.g. admissions form) to be more user centred. Prioritise information clarity and conciseness, information appeal and relevance, ease of navigation, and digital accessibility.
  • Provide students with universal (on and off site, laptop and mobile) access to the VLE and other learning tech and provide training and guidance for students in their effective use. Ensure relevant learners have access to field-specific technologies in the process.
  • Ensure sufficient IT support services are readily available to learners, including reasonable wait times, out of hours access to supports.

Conclusions and Next Steps for ALTITUDE

The thoughtful and considered input of learners has had a significant impact on the design of the ALTITUDE Charter, and the associated toolkit. While the consultation findings functioned primarily to inform the development of the Charter and toolkit, they also offer significant food for thought for the wider sector.

The high learner priorities give us potential signposts for where staff in the tertiary education sector can focus their immediate energy to make progress within the four pillars and offer maximum impact for students.

The ALTITUDE Charter is set to be launched in March 2024, giving education and training boards and higher education institutions a ‘first look’ at its contents and opening a national conversation about the challenges and opportunities it presents. The launch of the Charter will be accompanied by an associated ALTITUDE Technical Report, outlining the context for the development of the Charter, the evidence base that underpins it, the alignment of the Charter with legislation and policy, and recommendations on its implementation. In the months following the launch, the project team will release a practical toolkit with key guidance, self-assessment tools and case study examples of good practice in action, which support the implementation of the ALTITUDE Charter.

Over the course of 2024, a group of senior nominated representatives from tertiary institutions and senior stakeholders will collaborate to develop a meaningful but manageable process for institutions to formally adopt the Charter, whereby institutions can formally declare their intent to make incremental and sustainable process towards embedding a universal design approach. It’s anticipated that this formal process will open in late 2024 or early 2025. The project group is also exploring the development of a community of practice to share strategies and innovations which support a universal design approach in the 4 pillars.

The cross-sectoral development of the ALTITUDE Charter and its associated outputs represents a landmark moment for the tertiary education sector, signalling its intent to place human diversity at the heart of its design and delivery.

Find out more about the ALTITUDE Project.

Register to attend the AHEAD Conference where the ALTITUDE Charter will be launched.


Burgstahler, S. (2009). Universal Design in Education: Principles and Applications. DO-IT.

CAST (2018). Universal design for learning guidelines version 2.2 [graphic organizer]. Wakefield, MA: Author.

Centre for Excellence in Universal Design. (2022). Universal Design in Education and Training – policy Landscape in Ireland. Retrieved 07/11/2023 from 

Healy, R., Ryder, D., & Banks, J. (2023). Universal Design for Learning Policy in Tertiary Education in Ireland:  Are we Ready to Commit? In L. Dukes & J. Madeus. (Eds.), Handbook on Higher Education and Disability. Elgar Publishing.

Higher Education Authority. (2022). National Access Plan: A Strategic Action Plan for Equity of Access, Participation and Success in Higher Education 2022-2028. Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.

Kelly, A., & Padden, L. (2018). Toolkit for Inclusive Higher Education Institutions: From Vision to Practice.

National Disability Authority. (2020). Centre for Excellence in Universal Design. What is Universal Design: The 7 Principals. Retrieved 14/04/23 from 

SOLAS. (2020). Future FET: Transforming Learning -The National Further Education and Training (FET) Strategy 2020-2024. Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.

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