Using photo diaries as an inclusive method to explore information experiences in higher education

Ben Watson and Jennifer Leigh


In this chapter we describe the use of a multi-method solicited diary approach that we call diary-photograph: diary-interview. It was used with an aim of comparing the information experiences of students with and without print disabilities in higher education (HE). We asked participants to create a log of their learning activities over the course of a ‘typical week’, and supplement the written log with photographs that highlighted particular issues when accessing information. The students then had the opportunity to discuss their entries in detail with researchers in an interview. They' reflected on their entries and explained the context and feelings behind the events that impacted either positively' or negatively on their learning experiences.

We use this study to highlight the way's in which diary methods, and in particular this variation of a diary' method, can challenge the researcher in HE and provide unexpected insight. For example, what was perceived as straightforward accessibility' of print materials through information services actually' impinged on larger issues of identity and belonging.

In addition to critically' appraising the methodology', we share some of our findings, as they highlight some criticism often directed at diary methods. The first issue is variation in quality and quantity' of entries. The nature of participant responses can leave the method open to standard criticisms levelled at qualitative research methods. However, diaries, particularly when the structure and format is left open as here, can result in a huge variety of types and richness of data depending on the level of engagement, involvement and situation of the individual respondent. This can be a strength, as the data may reach beyond that gathered using a more structured or rigid technique. Our study showed how using an open diary-photograph: diary-interview method led to the data encompassing a range of areas of HE that were not originally anticipated.

Connected to this, the second issue might be a lack of control from the perspective of the researcher. They' are in control of neither content nor nature of the data, and it could easily go beyond what would be manageable and relevant. We choose to see this as a creative opportunity (Brown & Leigh, 2019), bringing in possibilities ofgenuine discovery', and creation of knowledge. However, there is a tension between keeping the brief absolutely clear to all participants at the beginning of the study to minimise the risk, and allowing it to be open to new connections.

A third issue is the selectivity' of participant responses, which is in turn connected to the final issue of inequity' of the form. Diary' research may be a form that encourages engaged students to provide more information than respondents who are not so confidant or whose personal circumstances do not elicit the same level of emotional involvement in the study. In this chapter, we will discuss, using examples from our data, how some of these issues seemed to us to be positive benefits, all the while aware of Alaszewski’s (2006, p. 80) constant dilemma of diaries ‘attaining relevant data without restricting the diarists’ writing flow unnecessarily’.

Information, print and accessibility in HE

The nature of modern university education requires the smooth flow of large amounts of information. Technological and cultural barriers may mean that students (or staff) with a print disability' are not always enabled to access information as fluidly' as their non-disabled counterparts. Print disability' is defined by' the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) as ‘a visual, cognitive or physical disability [that] hinders the ability' to read print’ (CLA, 2016).

A person with a print disability' may' have a number of different impairments. They' might have a visual impairment, so they cannot access text visually or at the same size as those without a disability. They' may have dyslexia, or a similar specific learning disability'. They may' have a physical disability that prevents them from being able to handle a physical copy of a print publication. Any' type of print disability' may have negative implications for academic outcomes, as it would affect the ability' they' would have to access and process information. A typical barrier to accessing information is when a source is not available in a format that is accessible to their requirements. For example, this might be a visually impaired person being unable to access module reading because the resource does not work with their screen reading software, or a person with a hearing impairment finding multimedia content difficult due to a lack of captions or transcripts. Beyene (2018, p. 126) highlights the potential impact this could have:

Users with print disability' who rely' on screen reader technologies could effectively' be excluded from digital services if the search interfaces are not easily navigable, or if resources such as ebooks cannot be ‘read’ by screen readers.

There has been a welcome shift towards a more mainstream and inclusive approach to supporting students with disabilities in HE. The adoption of the social model of disability' seeks to embed inclusive design in an effort to deliver accessible by design services at the point of need without any retrospective adaptation. The traditional medical (individual) model of disability' would posit that itis the ‘functional limitations’ of disabled people that are the reason for exclusion rather than institutional oversight:

Firstly, it locates the ‘problem’ of disability' within the individual and secondly it sees the causes of this problem as stemming from the functional limitations or psychological losses which are assumed to arise from disability. These two points are underpinned by' what might be called ‘the personal tragedy theory' of disability'’ which suggests that disability is some terrible chance event which occurs at random to unfortunate individuals.

(Oliver, 1990, n.p.)

The social model of disability demands a fundamental overhaul of thinking around how the preeminent culture has developed:

The genesis, development and articulation of the social model of disability’ by disabled people themselves is a rejection of all of these fundamentals. It does not deny the problem of disability but locates it squarely within society'. It is not individual limitations, of whatever kind, which are the cause of the problem but society's failure to provide appropriate services and adequately' ensure the needs of disabled people are fully taken into account in its social organisation. Further, the consequences of this failure does not simply' and randomly fall on individuals but systematically' upon disabled people as a group who experience this failure as discrimination institutionalised throughout society

(Oliver, 1990, n.p.)

This is reinforced by' the Disabled Students Sector Leadership Group (DSSLG, 2017, p. 12) which calls for the implementation of an inclusive, and technologically advanced practice to support students with disabilities:

HE providers could embrace and adopt this approach as it supports and guides the ways in which pedagogy; curricula and assessment are designed and delivered to engage students in learning that is meaningfill, relevant and accessible to all. It embraces a view of the individual and individual difference as the source of diversity' that can enrich the lives and learning of others.

It is imperative that a university looking to change their practice and ensure it is inclusive seeks feedback from people with disabilities to understand the barriers from the user perspective (DSSLG, 2017). This helps to identify' and address the patterns of difficulties experienced by all students (Newman et al., 2018). Solicited narrative diary research is a good option for the ‘methodological and theoretical flexibility’ (Mackrill, 2008, p. 12) it offers and the facility to capture the everyday' lives of participants’ experiences, practices, habits, and actions in order to gain an authentic insight into ‘their inner world’ (Milligan & Bartlett, 2019, p. 1450) in a more holistic way than the ‘snapshot views’ of social practice (Mackrill, 2008, p. 9).

At Kent, the university has sought to embed inclusive approaches to the delivery of information and the use of assistive technologies for all; and take a holistic approach to the mainstreaming of adjustments as an approach to learning, teaching, research and support as a key strategy to benefit from the new opportunities to improve access for everyone. The aim is for the general information services to be as accessible as possible.1 Beyene (2018, p. 122) notes that the ‘advent of digital technology' and the production of information in electronic formats, coupled with the introduction of accessibility' guidelines, have created a favorable ground for pursuing the ideals of all-inclusive information sendees’. In order to achieve this, it is important to know where the barriers are for students with print disabilities, so that work can be put in place to eliminate them. We as authors undertook this diary-photograph: diary-interview study' to help understand the different ways that students access information in order to shed light on:

  • • barriers that print disabled students experience (with a view to removing those barriers); and
  • • how positive or negative information experiences make people feel about their place within the institution.

The diary' method provides a very' effective means of ‘shadowing’ the student to reveal differentiated or inequitable experiences to inform strategies to improve educational opportunities. A particular benefit of the diary-photograph: diary interview format was the richness and feeling of the responses it enabled us to document, and the potential to ‘access data that subjects otherwise conceal’ (Milligan et al., 2005, p. 1892). This is reiterated by Harvery who recommends diary method ‘particularly' in research that seeks to track changes and differences’ (Harvery', 2011, p. 66).

We were very' aware that while the definition of print disability' is encompassing, the nature of a profound physical impairment is not the same as dyslexia or a visual or hearing impairment. While there are many' things an HE institution can put into place in order to increase accessibility', there will always be individuals with specific requirements or needs that have not been anticipated. By' acting to increase accessibility' in way's that we know affect many students we would be able to indicate to rite university' where it was possible to free up specialist time to support those with additional requirements. Where possible we did not want to assume and negate the experiences of our students, and instead, we wanted to capture their voices and learn from them.

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