Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Risk management and risk aversion: widening or reducing the digital divide?

I attended the ALT-C 2008 conference at Leeds. See: The theme is re-thinking the digital divide; and whilst this is not a disability specific theme, I am naturally interested in attending those sessions that specifically talk about disabled learners and disadvantaged groups. Here I will reflect on the presentation I attended during day one of the conference (Tuesday).

Roy Smith: How is technology connecting with disadvantaged groups?

Roys' talk was focusing on individuals with little or no I.T skills and microbusinesses with less than 5 staff. Focusing on microbusinesses first he described an EQUAL Project called E-Learn2work, which was looking at reducing barriers in 5 business sectors. I was struck by the finding that "natural networks" played an important role, in that the project learnt to use the natural social networks that individuals within businesses to provide evidence and support for undertaking e-learning in the workplace. This resonates with the LEXDIS project that I am involved with, where disabled learners express a strong preference for getting help and support from friends and family; and also the Concepts of Access Project where access for people with learning disabilities can be facilitated by natural supports (e.g work colleagues). But my ears also pricked up when Roy talked about health and safety issues being a real barrier in terms of where a PC can be located in a small business. Top down risk management or risk aversion policies, which are very often wrapped up in health and safety policy frequently present access barriers that might (and I stress might, because I don't really believe the hype) protect certain people from insurance claims; but it's a kind of protection that acts as a straight-jacket rather than a safety blanket.

David Kay; Seb Schmoller and Kevin Donovan: Is connectivity connecting?

David talked about four e-inclusion projects that he, Seb and Kevin had been evaluators for. He talked about the dilemma for those who work with specialist groups e..g Autism; looked after children. These are specialised fields, required personalised learning. But it means that practitioners working in these fields are isolated. e.g Those working in the field of autishm, don't learn with and from those working with looked after children. They are therefore isolated, and lack the critical mass to get anything done ; solve systemic problems and access value-added funding. David described how the "camel" methodology has been used to therefore bring these specialist groups together. Again; the importance of social networking is reflected in these experiences. Again, my ears pricks up when David described one project working with deeprived teenagers where they were issued with laptops. He talked about how with entitlement, you need to take risks and have trust i.e not assume that the young people would automatically sell their laptop on the bus, if you give them one. In one sense, the demonstration of trust could be as empowering as having access to a laptop.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

BERA 2008: Reflection on TLRP symposium on capacity building

On the Friday of the BERA 2008 conference I attended a really useful symposium convened by Zoe Fowler and chaired by Andrew Pollard entitled: " Capacity Building evaluations, obstacles and initiatives: reflections from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales".

With my role in the National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM) and my new responsibility of chairing the training and capacity building strategy group I was keen to hear how the TLRP conceptualised capacity building in research methods and learn what underpinned their strategy.

There were three key speakers, Zoe Fowler from TLRP; Susan Davies and Jane Salisbury from the Welsh Education Research Network (WERN); Adela Baird and Steve Baron from the Applied Educational Research Scheme (AERS)in Scotland.

Zoe stated that there was 10 years worth of evidence in capacity building in educational research and admitted that understanding "capacity" is problematic. Her key arguments in relation to strategy were:

You need a range of structures aimed at the diversity of the workforce; structures that promote networking; communtity building; identity formation; confidence building and access to a range of resources.

You need on the job and off the job training opportunities that validate practice and build identity, competence and confidence

There is a need for adequate time to engage with resources and this time needs to be strategised.

We also need to strategise for constructive relationships between researchers and key people or "catalysts" who can help researchers make links to relevant networks etc.

This strategy, which emphasises the socio-cultural or community building nature of capacity building; where learning about research methods is viewed as a social practice, was reflected in other talks where strategies included giving bursaries for people to work together (WERN) or were underpinned by a knowledge based approach as opposed to a competency based approach (AERS).

Questions from the audience focused on whether the projects highlighted were focused on building capacity in the traditional or standard areas (e.g qualitative as opposed to quantitative) thus perpetuating skills defecits and were also ingnoring building capacity in new or innovative research areas. A question that is highly relevant to NCRM and one which will focus my mind as I chair the first NCRM training and capacity building strategy group later on this year!

BERA 2008: Reflections on the Inclusion Strand

This week I attended the BERA 2008 conference at Heriot-Watt University. I was presenting two papers at the conference- one was a joint paper with Melanie Nind called "Developing a multiperspective conceptual understanding of access for people with learning difficulties". The other was a paper reflecting on the processes and outcomes of the PAIRS project, that I have described elsewhere- see for example: When we have uploaded the papers to Education Online, I will create a link to the URL's.

I got a good response to the PAIRS paper, which I was pleased about; with several people agreeing with my argument that the participatory approach is a useful alternative to standard student evaluation methods in higher education.

BERA is a huge conference, so I decided to concentrate on the inclusion and social-justice themes. Here are just a few highlights of the presentations I attended.

Kristine Black-Hawkins, Lani Florian and Martyn Rouse gave an interesting talk entitled "Achievement and Inclusion in Schools and Classrooms: Participation and Pedagogy" in which they described research that aimed to explore meanings of achievement and inclusion through the study of inclusive schools. Some key phrases or ideas that struck me and that I wrote down while listening were:

" Inclusion is conditional (i.e passive); participation is a right (and more active)"

" Inclusive practices are the things that teachers do to give meaning to the concepts of inclusion"

"The relationship between a medical diagnosis and an educational intervention is pretty weak; there is no one strategy for a particular "difference" that will work"

"Schools took risks, but also safe-guarded the most vulnerable"

During question time, I raised the issue of "risk" with the presenters and asked something along the lines of: if risk-taking promotes inclusion, how can we encourage or create environments or climates where people are willing to take risks. One response by Kristine was where a School had a supportive Head who gave their staff "permission" take risks.

Picking up on the notion of risk, which is also a strong theme in the "concepts of access" work that I have been doing with Melanie Nind, I was also interested to hear the talk given by Linda Dunne in which she explored discourses of inclusion with a sample of teachers and other key stakeholders. She identifed three discourses: a policy discourse; an othering discourse and a discourse of self. Linda defined the policy discourse as one that focuses on prevailing needs and keeping children safe. I was struck by the diagram that one study participant had drawn in which the child was in the centre of a circle and the word "protection" was written around the circumference of the circle. In my notes I wrote: A circle that encloses rather than connects" and "where is the discourse about potential and children's abilities". This safety or risk-averse discourse views people with disabilities as vulnerable and lacking abilities or resilience.

In giving example sof the discourse of self, Linda talked about the participants who viewed happiness and self-esteem as an educational goal and who judged some children as vulnerable and at risk because they felt they had low self-esteem. Linda commented that this was akin to a therapeutic discourse (my therapist friends might disagree, but I understand what she was trying to say- in that she was questioning whether low self-esteem was a "new" deficiency" that had to be remedied or treated.

Marie Huxtable talked about her role in supporting schools to develop inclusive practices at a time when schools have been encouraged to create what she considered to be devisive lists of gifted and talented youth. Maries' talk stimulated me to think about my daughters experience of being singled out as gifted and talented at Maths. She was made a member of the National Gifted and Talented Academy" and was invited to join online discussion forums etc. She chose to ignore the invitations as they seemed irrelevant and pointless to her. The point being, that whilst she was good at Maths, her passion was art- something her School completely misjudged. Central to my daughters identity was her art- and it meant nothing to her to be listed as gifted in Maths. This experience merely served to distance my daugher from her School and she has since left it to study A levels somewhere else. Something designed to include- served to exclude in a sense.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Participatory approaches to inclusion related staff development: reflections on processes and outcomes

On June 25th I co-presented a paper with Fani Theodorou ( a PAIRS participant) at the Instiutional Research Conference, hosted by Solent University. Fani and I offered our reflections on the success and value of the participatory evaluation project- PAIRS. Our slides can be found at this website:

In terms of my own reflections on the value of participatory projects to evaluate the student learning experience in higher education I offered the following reflections:

1. The identified issues were no surprise
  • Other evaluation methods had picked these up
  • Rather disappointing in a sense that the participatory did not reveal anything new or unexpected

2. What was surprising was the evidence about the impact of identified issues on students:

  • Self-esteem, confidence, identity
  • Academic AND home lives

Finding out more about this IMPACT has made the project worthwhile for me.

The audience responded well to our presentation. Fani did a fantastic job of presenting her material. I also learnt that she had tried to volunteer to take part in other research projects in the university only to be told that they only wanted native English speakers. It got be thinking about how exclusionary exclusion criteria for research projects are, in terms of how they make prospective participants feel when they are barred from participating. This is something I think is underestimated in research. For the LEXDIS project, we thought very carefully about this and tried hard to put recruitment procedures in place that did not make disabled students feel excluded or rejected.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Theorising Inclusion and the dogma of accessibility

On Wednesday 2nd July I attended a seminar hosted by the Southampton University School of Education and the BERA Inclusive Education Special Interest Group. The theme was theorising inclusion and the two speakers were Julie Allan and Roger Slee. Both talks gave me much food for thought in relation to my own research and practice.

Julie Allan's talk developed an argument that four philsophers of difference had the potential to rescue inclusion from the "spot of bother" it was in at the moment. The philsophers she chose to focus on were:

Deleuze & Guatarri- deterritorialization, rhizomic learning and difference
Foucault: practices of the self & transgression
Derrida: aporias & deconstruction

Rhizomic learning is offered as an alternative to the structured aboretal learning borne of rigid spaces. Rhizomic learning is about lines of flight rather than safe spaces. Learning through wandering produces maps rather than knowledge and what is learnt is unseen and unpredicted by us. In terms of inclusion, if such learning is encouraged then there will be less emphasis on marking learners out as different depending on what they do or don't know. Deterritorializing is about smoothing out rigid spaces ( Allan applied this concept to teacher education) by breaking rules. By asking questions that challenge thinking, that make you a foreigner in your own land. Allan gave an example by suggesting that rather than ask " what is inclusion?" we should ask "what does inclusion do?". Allan argues further that we don't need to refer to the groups we work in to gain approval or collective ownership of an idea, we just need to get on and do it (take a risk, be creative).

Aporias are two paths or two ways forward. Arguing against the dogma of inclusion that forces us to choose one path, Allan argues that inclusion is not about either/or; it is about also/and. There are times when it might be useful to hold two things in our mind (e.g deficit and social model re dyslexia). She argues that when we are forced to choose one path we can create injustices (e.g choosing which student to support over another). Derrida argued that we need to practice the art of deconstructing dogma- "reading a text twice"- looking behind a text (e.g inclusion policy) and seeing how it gets itself into trouble. Allan argued that we need to teach trainee teachers to see the undecidabilities of inclusion and how inlcusion texts close them down. Texts construct passive, dull and regulated teachers. This argument has real resonance for me when thinking about how accessibility guidelines closes down practice and how people fail to read the texts of "universal design" twice in order to see that it does not necessarily equate to a "one size fits all" approach to the provision of accessible technologies for disabled learners.

Allan then went on to use Foucault's notion of self practice or ethical work to arge that inclusion starts with ourselves- we are more in control of inclusion than we think we are and we need to make an analysis of where we are. She concluded by arguing that we can invent inclusion as something better than we've had before, but we need to re-frame inclusion as ethical and political. We should not be trying to pin inclusion down, but to open it up and out. This thing called inclusion won't come about through grand revolt, but through tiny ruptures which open up possibilities.

The audience discussion raised some interesting questions and issues:

  1. Is it dangerous to smooth out the spaces (i.e danger of blandness and sameness)? Julie responded by agreeing that difference is interesting and the danger is in fact in re-territorialization or re-inscribing.
  2. Does everyone have the credentials needed to cross the space?
  3. When student support services and others are required to construct a case for inclusion- this inevitably pathologises universities and students.
  4. Inclusion can be viewed as "tethering"- tethering people to particular streams of provision.

Roger Slee started off with an interesting metaphor in relation to "rescuing inclusion": Is it about throwing out the lifeboats of inclusion or draining the pool?

Roger agreed with Julie that inclusion starts with ourselves- examing our discomforts around inclusion.

Roger argued that inclusion was born in a particular moment in time (politicallly, culturally and historically). As it has travelled it has lost its insurrectionary force. Instead of insurrection we now get orhodoxy we now imposed thought and forced adherence. Inclusion has therefore lost its effectiveness. Inclusion therefore, is political. It is about who is in, who is out and who decides. The history of inclusion ought to be the subject of interrogation. When Roger said this, it reminded me of the archeology metaphor I used in my book when I argued that learning technologists needed to dig deeper into the history of accessibility in order to understand where approaches to accessibility were derived.

According to Roger, inclusive education is a series of related "projects" and separating them is dangerous. Inclusion is about policy work, research work and ground work. Separation of these projects allows us to do analytical work, but they are related.

Inclusive education is:

  • not about indicators of inclusion, but about recognising exclusion;
  • a political undertaking;
  • a cultural then technical undertaking;
  • about all students ;
  • straighforward and complex ;
  • a project designed to bother- it therefore is always going to run into resistance .

Finally, Roger concluded: we are not straight about inclusion being complex- it can't be boiled down to specific techniques or tools.

I wish I could say something really clever now about how these talks have influenced by thinking, but the truth is I can't. At the moment all I know is that my thinking has been influenced, but in what way I can't yet say. Watch this space though because I think I might be about to go on a rhizomic learning journey- reflecting on how these ideas might help me develop my thinking about the development of accessibility practices in higher education. I certainly believe the dogma of accessibility needs to be deconstructed.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Research Methods Festival 2008: privilege and control

This week, with my NCRM hat on I attended the Research Methods Festival (see the programme and presentations slides at this website:

It's the first time I've been to the Festival, (which is held every two years) and so I did not know what to expect. I am pleased to report that I learnt a lot, and so I just wanted to share some highlights for you- focusing particularly on my interests in participatory research.

On Thursday I attended a session convened by Caroline Bryson called "Research with children-what are we still overlooking"? I attended the session because I wanted to see how different participatory research with children is, compared to participatory research with adults who have learning disabilities. One person in the audience asked: is research with children so different to any other kind of research? The panel replied yes. I would concur- in that what seemed to preoccupy the audience were issues of confidentiality- particularly what to do if a child revealed something sensitive and whether or not it should be passed on to a statutory agency such as social services. If the session had been about participatory research with people who have learning disabilities I suspect the audience would have been preoccupied with issues surrounding how much control the participants are actually given over the research (and the tensions between participatory and emancipatory research).

Despite the differences I observed, my ears pricked up at the following comments which I think do have resonance for learning disability research:

  1. Talking about the method of encouraging children to participate through creative activities such as drawing and then writing about our interpretations of these drawings Kay Tisdall asked a number of hard to answer questions : Why are we so fixated about translating the non-written into written text? Are we privileging "voice" and articulation and marginalising those who use other communication methods? Kay went on to suggest that perhaps we are getting distracted by the tools of participatory research (e.g. drawings) and losing focus on the participation.
  2. Talking about the role of ethics committees in participatory research, Jo Moran-Ellis an audience member argued that we need to challenge ethics committees who require us to see children as vulnerable with little capacity or resilience. When children are abused, control is taken away from them- when ethics committees make decisions for children- control is also taken away from them.

Research Methods Festival 2008:Where's the revolution?

This week, with my NCRM hat on I attended the Research Methods Festival (see the programme and presentations slides at this website: It's the first time I've been to the Festival, (which is held every two years) and so I did not know what to expect. I am pleased to report that I learnt a lot, and so I just wanted to share some highlights for you- focusing particularly on my interests in participatory research.

On Tuesday I attended a great session convened by Kathy Boxall and Peter Beresford called "How can users be effectively and inclusively involved in health and social care research"? There were three presenters- rather than precis the whole of what they said- I'll just share with you the gems and take home messages that I wrote down while listening to them:

Alison Faulkner- independent mental health service user and consulant:

User-led research will involve difference distress and dissent- Let's not pretend that it doesn't. e.g We can't expect people with distressing experiences not to bring that distress into the project. We need to find ways of negotiating disagreement.

In response to a question about how to ensure that service users were "representative" Alison responded that representation is about making it possible for everyone to take part in research that wants to.

Jennifer Taylor & Maggie Brennan, co-authors of "We are not Stupid" and members of People First Lambeth (an self-advocacy group for people with learning disabilities)
Even with the good support workers, we only have a say up to the point where they disagree with us
Vic Forrest- support worker
It's hard not to take control- even when you are really trying not to. I found I needed strategies for watching how I was feeling.
Roger Steel, PP Manager, UK Clinical Research Network
Relationships between researchers and service users become more difficult the more marginalised the service users are.
It's not about revolution, its about evolution. Large scale change in society attitudes is going to be slow.
Peter Beresford
We do need to think about how we support ourselves and each other in this endeavour.
The best gem was the "We are not stupid" book that I bought from Jennifer and Maggie at the end of the session. It's a great example of an accessible book, but the contents also give testament to a great example of user-led (emancipatory) research. They write:

"We wanted to look into the things we cared about the most and write about them in our book. What we cared about was what was happening in the lives of people with learning difficulties".
For information on how to buy a copy of the book you can go to this website:
So what will I take away from this session?
  1. Some great ideas for approaching the book that I am editing with Melanine Nind on "Concepts of Access", where three different self-advocates or advocay groups are contributing chapters in which they share their experiences of "access" issues. See my other blog here for more details:
  2. Some questions to ponder.. like is the best home for participatory research really universities? Are university researchers part of the problem or part of the solution? For many university researchers the reasons for doing research seem warped- its about funding, promotion, publications etc.and not about making a difference in the lives of the people they are researching. Now of course, I have no evidence to back this claim up, and in some ways I'm being deliberately provocative. But, the flip side of the coin is that the skills required to be an effective participatory researcher are supremely underestimated and undervalued (Jan Walmsley writes very well on this subject).

So where is the revolution then? Well, the revolution for me was in the two articulate presenters Jennfier and Maggie who spoke clearly and confidently to an audience of academics but who also insisted in a professional yet assertive manner that we as academics spoke in plain English, without any jargon. Some of the audience found this very hard to do! Research methods I guess are not just about collecting and analysing data, it is also about communicating and disseminating.

Not always the full text: visions of the future?

On Friday 4th July I attended the second day of a two day conference organised by CLAUD called "Not always the full text: working towards accessible learning resources". See their web site here: The majority of presentations were given by students sharing their knowledge and experience of print impairment and the problems they had accessing print (books, journals etc) for their studies.

Emma Rowlett a PhD student from Nottingham gave an overview of her PhD research in which she had interviewed staff and students from four universities about what reasonable adjustments were made for print impaired students. With my LEXDIS hat on I was more interested in the student experiences that Emma had to report and what she found is prettty similar to LEXDIS and other studies. For example: accessing ebooks etc is easier for print impaired students if it can be web-based, so that students can use the assistive technologies they have at home. But if they do access them in the library, using library PC's, they need to be able to adjust settings (e.g colours). Emma also reported that not all students in her study had problems with the library, but that many did not see libraries as playing a large part in the adjustments made for them. Thinking about our LEXDIS results, pretty much all of our students mentioned how important it was for them to be able to access books, journals and databases online. They too did not particularly mention libraries- and I wonder if this is because they see them as physical spaces rather than digital spaces. That is, that they perhaps don't appreciate the role libraries play in facilitating online access to books, journals etc.

Jane Lovett talked about her experiences of studying English as a student with a visual impairment. She talked about how it was a nightmare not being given reading lists early enough and how it took about two years for her tutors to give her a cut down reading list. What Jane and the other speakers stressed, that most tutors do not appreciate, is that when you are print impaired the time you could be spending reading is spent trying to get the print into an accessible format (e.g scanning, converting to braille). Students therefore simply cannot read everything they are given, and so find they have to be strategic and try to identify the essential texts/chapters/pages to access and read. Jane also had some horror stories to share of study in FE colleges. On one occasion, after help from RNIB and persistence Jane was able to successfully complete a GCSE course, despite being told on first enquiry " We have no facilities for blind people, we are not sure you can come here". On a second occassion, Jane dropped out of a course, because she felt seriously disadvanteged by tutors who did not give her handouts etc in advance. Jane finished by saying " All we are asking for is a fair crack of the whip; tutors do need to be pulled up". Sadly, Jane's experience is echoed by many other students, and like these other students Jane has found herself having to fight her corner and develop a resilient persistence that I imagine must get exhausting after a while.

Janette talked about her experiences of dyslexia (and Irlens syndrome). What was interesting about Janette was that she was studying a course on a subject that she had a supreme amount of practical experience and knowledge of (maritime history) and finding that she was failing. Janette explained that she is a slow reader, but also that due to short term memory problems she can forget what she has read. On her course- where she was expected to read "100 pages a week", she found she couldn't keep up. Her tutors were unhelpful- refusing to give her a cut down reading list and saying " you are reading for a degree; if you can't read, you have to seriously question what you are doing here". (I hope you are all gasping at this BTW!) Talking of scanning, Janette said "scanning is fine, but you can spend your life just scanning and not reading". Two things included on Janette's manifesto for change were: Longer loan periods for library books and getting reading lists in advance.

I was also interested to hear Geraldine Smith, a librarian from the OU, talk of her work in assessing the accessibility of library databases. The advice that she gives to students on the accessibility of these databases is available from this website:

In some senses today was a bit depressing in that the same old accessibility "horror stories" were being shared. However, let me end on a positive note and say that Jane was able to share how her university librarian had been fantastic and really helpful, and also how two IT technicians had gone out of their way (and apparently against the wishes of their boss- can't possibly imagine why, but answers on a postcard please!) to use a newly acquired embosser to convert texts to braille for her. So the moral of the story is, no matter how good the technology is, you still need people who are prepared to go that extra mile, break the rules or take a risk. This makes me smile wryly. Often when we talk of visions of the future, we talk of new, better, quicker, cleverer technology. But perhaps we just need braver and more creative people (i.e staff working in HE)?

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students

This year I am delighted to be acting as a consultant for the Open University helping them to develop a new Masters unit called "Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students". See their website here for more details:

The unit will be offered as part of the Masters in Online and Distance Education and is divided into three main parts. The first part of the course is concerned with the learning experiences of students with disabilities. The second part of the course is concerned with the more technical aspects of accessibility. The final part of the course is concerned with current debates and discussions about disability and accessibility in educational contexts.

I am particularly excited that my 2006 book "E-learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research and Practice" will be a core text for the course. Simon Ball from TechDis is also working with the OU Team to integrate TechDis staff development materials into the course.

Using Participatory Research Methods to Explore the E-learning Experiences of Disabled Students

I am currently involved in a JISC funded project called LEXDIS which aims to explore the e-learning experiences of disabled students in higher education. At the heart of the project is the use of participatory research methods in order to give real "voice" to disabled students and their experiences. I have defined participatory methods in another blog, but the underlying principle is the development of collaborative relationships with research participants, in this case disabled students in higher education.

In a talk that I gave to the Higher Education Research Group at the University of Southampton I provided an overview of the participatory methods and used examples from phase one of the project to illuminate the challenges that arise from undertaking participatory research. Slides available here. In phase 1 of LEXDIS, participatory methods involved consulting with disabled students and seeking their advise on two key aspects: 1) the importance/relevance of our proposed research questions and how well they were phrased or understood 2) preferences for (appropriateness of) the different media or methods that students might be asked to use to record their e-learning experiences in phase 2 of the project. In the talk I highlighted six issues for discussion:
  1. Understanding and meanings
  2. Motivations for participation
  3. Rewards for participation
  4. Recruitment
  5. Gate-keepers
  6. The nature of participation

The conclusion of the talk was that whilst the participants had not initiated the research and were not acting as researchers they were playing an important role in the research in terms of acting as consultants and joint decision-makers. The students were helping to ensure that the research topics and questions were worthy of investigation.

The ideas and issues discussed in this talk have been expanded in a paper which has recently been accepted (subject to amendments) in the Journal of Assistive Technologies. The paper is entitled: "Exploring the technology experiences of disabled learners in higher education: challenges for the use and development of participatory research methods" and it focuses on 3 main challenges to using participatory methods: informed participation; valued participation and empowered participation. The conclusion of the paper is that whilst the principles of participatory research are worthy, the use of participatory methods can reveal certain tensions that need careful managing and that the management of such tensions and potential conflicting pressures, may require “pragmatic compromises”.

Dissemination activities for the LEXDIS project are wide and varied, but look out for us at EdMedia 2008 in Vienna (paper accepted) and ALT-C in Leeds (subject to paper acceptance).

Digital Inclusion in Higher Education: Half the story

On Tuesday 11th March I attended the Sir James Mathews lecture at the University of Southampton. This is an annual lecture, organised by the School of Education and this year the guest speaker was Sheila Riddell from Edinburgh University. Sheila has undertaken a range of studies exploring the experiences of disabled students in higher education and her work has been influential in terms of underpinning the developmentof inclusive teaching in higher education. See her home page here.

In her talk Sheila charted the progress of inclusion in a range of educational sectors and outlined some challenges that still need to be addressed. When she discussed Higher Education, she argued that most if not all the work has been focused on supporting disabled learners once they have gained access to university and that compararively little was being done to encourage and support disabled learners to gain access to universities. This had real resonance for me in terms of digital inclusion.

Thinking of the role of technologies and e-learning in higher education, much of the rhetoric around inclusion has focused on disabled learners who are already accessing or participating in higher education but who are at risk of being excluded from certain learning experiences due to the way learning technology (e-learning) is used or designed. I am unaware of any examples where a university or college has deliberately and proactively sought to use technology to enable disabled learners to access higher education who otherwise might not have done so. Can you think of any examples in higher education where technology has been at the heart of the design of a new programme, course, activity or opportunity aimed specifically at benefiting disabled learners and/or attracting them into higher education?

My concern is that if we are not able to find such examples or develop our own examples then all the talk of technology being a powerful tool for inclusion is pretty hollow. The discourse around the development of accessible e-learning and use of assistive technologies is essentially a discourse focused on avoiding exclusion rather than promoting inclusion and I think we need to change this.

Understanding e-inclusion in the context of disabled learners in Higher Education

On March 6th I gave a seminar for Kings College, London entitled: "Understanding e-inclusion in the context of disabled learners in Higher Education" Slides available here. The seminar is part of an e-inclusion seminar series organised by Chris Abbott designed to underpin the setting up of a new Masters in E-Inclusion, due to start in September. The main objectives of my talk were to:

•Examine different perceptions of inclusion use these to identify and critique common conceptions of e-inclusion (inclusive e-learning)
•Use early results from a current research project (LEXDIS) to present case studies of disabled university students and use these to illustrate and discuss the complex relationship between disabled learners, technologies and their educational experiences
•Discuss implications for developing and strengthening our theorisation of e-inclusion in higher education contexts.

Understanding Inclusive E-Learning

Definitions and conceptualisations of inclusive e-learning tend to be pretty loose and vague in the Higher Education research literature. However the associated discourse has been largely influenced by discourses and arguments surrounding web accessibility, "Digital Divide", social exclusion and barriers to learning. Whilst these discourses have certainly influenced practice and raised awareness, they have tended to simplify matters: Learners either have access or they don't; something is accessible or it is not; a learners is excluded or included. Inclusive e-learning is more complex than these binary or dichotomous relationships suggest. For this reason, I am increasingly drawn to the arguments of Neil Selwyn who talks about the digital divide being not solely about access to technology but about equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. He argues that some people are making digital decisions – whether to use technology or not – even though access is available to them. In effect, they are making empowered choices. Neil's work is mainly in the school and adult community learning sector and I have been keen to explore the applicability of his ideas to Higher Education- particularly the idea that disabled learners are making Digital Decisions.

Digital Decisions

Using a prelimary analysis of case studies from the LEXDIS I explored in my talk the extent to which the participants in the study were making empowered choices- digital decisions. The digital decisions that the LEXDIS participants appeared to be making fell into three main categories:

1. Shall I use technology at all, if so what for?
2. Which technologies shall I use?
–Choosing between different kinds of assistive technologies
–Choosing between technologies for learning and technologies for socialising or playing
3.Is the time it takes to learn to use Assistive Technologies going to save me time in the long run
–Investing time in the sort term to save time in the long term?

Digital Agility

These digital decisions appear to be underpinned by what could be called digital agility. The majority of the participants in the study were confident and competent technology users, who have been using technology for many years at home, at work and at "schoool". Their digital agility means that they were able to develop successful strategies for using technology to support their learning needs; they were willing to take risks and try new things out or problem-solve when things didn't work but resilient enough that if the testing and experimentation did not prove immediately beneficial, it was not taken as a major set-back.

Complex Relationships

Despite the evidence for digital agility, early results from LEXDIS suggest that disabled learners have quite a complex relationship with technologies. Whilst many felt that technology added value to some aspects of their learning experience, they also felt that it "took" away value in other areas. Some participants felt it important to stress that while technology had a role to play in their learning or their lives, it was not as important as the role played by people. Others acknowledged that technology played an important role, but still maintained that they could cope without technology. Finally some learners expressed a desire to use technology, but also a reluctance to seek to make this happen.

Implications for theorising about e-inclusion

I concluded my talk by arguing that it would probably be helpful for us to move away from understanding e-inclusion solely in terms of access and barriers, because this only explains the relationship disabled learners have with people and systems who install or remove barriers. We need theories and concepts that can handle the observed complexities and i) explain relationships disabled learners have with people, systems AND technology ii) expand our understanding of digital decisions and relationships to digital agility. For me, a key aspect of developing a theorisation of e-inclusion in the context of higher education is the exploration of concepts of resilience and risk taking.

A footnote: technology use emphasises our humanity not our differences

On 7th March, I met up with Martyn Cooper from the Open University to discuss a paper we are working on. He was telling me about a book proposal he is working on. The central premise of the book is that the manufacture and use of technology (tools) is often set forward as a defining characteristic of humanity. So the fact that some people use additional or different tools to achieve various tasks, overcoming the impact of their disabilities, should emphasise their humanity, not mark them out as different. This struck me as immensely relevant to the LEXDIS project. I had been slightly puzzled by the complex and contradictory statements that some participants had made about the role of technology in their lives. They would talk about loving technology, how not having it would be like losing an arm, but in the same breath talk about how technology slowed them down in some respects and how they would live or cope without technology if they didn't have it. I wonder if what some of the participants were trying to articulate is the sense that they did not want their technology use to mark them out as different. As some participants said, technology is just a tool- one of many tools that we as humans use in our everyday lives. Whilst technology use might define humans collectively, it doesn't define us individually in terms identity and how we see ourselves as learners.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Participatory approaches to inclusion related staff development

On January 22nd I gave a talk at a "good practice lunch" organised by the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit at the University of Southampton. See Link to Slides

The purpose of my talk was to give an overview of a university funded learning and teaching development Project that I have been working on for the past year. The aims of the project called PAIRS (Participatory Approaches to Inclusion Related Staff Development) are to:

  1. Capture “student voices” regarding their learning experiences within the School of Education: Use these “voices” to explore whether and how our School of Education programmes (undergraduate and postgraduate) include or exclude students with a wide range of learning needs from experiencing positive or high quality learning opportunities.
  2. Involve students in the analysis and exploration of these “student voices”: Develop a collaborative partnership whereby students help to develop materials and methods that can be used to help staff in the work towards meeting learning needs and reducing barriers to inclusion.

The motivation for the project was derived from the University Disability Equality Scheme in which one action listed in the plan was to: involve students in the design and delivery of staff development and CPD opportunities in relation to developing inclusive teaching practices .

The underlying principles for involving students as users/evaluators in this project have their origins in two related fields: Participatory Design (Boyd-Graber et al 2006; Davies et al. 2004;Newell et al. 2007; Seale et al. 2002) and Participatory Research (Burke et al. 2003; French & Swain 2004; Gilbert, 2004). Drawing from these fields, for the purposes of this project, I have defined student participation as reflecting the principle of "Nothing About Me, Without Me" and involving:

  • Working directly with students in the evaluation of their learning experiences and development of staff development materials;
  • Seeking student input throughout the evaluation project;
  • Early and continual participation of intended users (students) to produce improved teaching practices;
  • Engaging participants in the design, conduct and analysis of “research” with the construction of non-hierarchical research relations;
  • Encouraging participants to own the outcome by setting the goals and sharing in decisions about processes.

In addition, the methods used in the PAIRS project are influenced in part by the methods used in the ESCALATE funded "Hearing the student voice" project.

For the PAIRS project, there were two different types or phases of participation. In Phase One the students were asked to contribute descriptions of their learning experiences and how their learning needs had/or had not been met. Students were able to choose the method or media for their contributions, which included:

  • Write or audio-record a one-two page letter to an “imaginary” friend
  • Write a diary describing learning experiences on course, over the period of a “typical” week;
  • Write a reflective journal that describes a “critical incident”
  • Produce a piece of creative writing or art (e.g. poem, picture, sculpture, song)
  • Alternatively, opt to be interviewed face-to-face, by phone or by webcam

In Phase two students formed an advisory group that worked together to decide how we will use the information about student learning experiences to design staff development initiatives in the School. Some preliminary data from the project is outlined in the Online Slides

My initial reflections on the relative success of the project in encouraging meaningful participation by students are:

  • Some students were motivated to take part because they had a "bee in their bonnet" about particular issues (good and bad)
  • Some students were motivated to take part because they were curious about the methods and wanted to learn more about them, sometimes with a view to using them in their own research or practice
  • Some students were motivated to take part because they wanted to have a "voice".

The project was participatory in that students could choose the methods by which they contributed their voice and their experiences ( and this has similarities to the methods being used by two of the current NCRM Nodes in their research activities: Qualti and Real Life Methods) and advise on how to disseminate the information gained on the project to teaching staff. These are two standard practices in participatory research.

The students were also asked to help analyse the data obtained from phase one. This is a less standard practice. Involving users in data analysis is extremely rare and considered quite difficult to do (Richardson, 2000). Certainly in this PAIRS project, the success was limited. This is essentially because little effort was put into helping the students learn how to code and interpret reams of qualitative data (which is the task they were asked to do). Some students coped very well with this minimal guidance, others struggled. The result was that I as project facilitator found myself conducting a meta-analyses of the students analyses in order to try and synthesise findings for students and suggest a way forward in terms of coming to a consensus about what the important findings were. In hindsight, there is a signficant chance that I may have steered the students in a particular direction and that my greater expertise introduced an imbalance into the relationship between myself and the participants, that violated in part the principles of participatory research.

My conclusion then is that the methods used in PAIRS were generally successful in revealing useful, rich and in-depth information about the student learning experience. They are time-consuming and require more commitment on the part of the evaluator in terms of communicating and working with participants. More effort needs to be put into developing successful methods for helping participants gain the skills required to engage in the analysis stages of research and evaluation projects.

I would welcome your comments on the applicability and value of the methods used in this project to your own inclusion related activities.


Boyd-Graber et al (2006) Participatory Design with proxies: developing a Desktop PDA system to support people with Aphasia. In proceedings of CHI 2006, Montreal Canada.

Burke, A et al. (2003) Setting up participatory research: a discussion of the initial stages, British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 31, 65-69

Davies, R., Marcella, S., McGrenere, J., Purves, B. (2004). The ethnographically informed participatory design of a PDA application to support communication. Proceedings of ACM ASSETS 2004, 153-160

French, S. & Swain, J. (2004), "Researching Together: A Participatory Approach," in Physiotherapy: A Psychosocial Approach, 3rd edn, S. French & J. Sim, eds., Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford.

Gilbert, T (2004) Involving people with learning disability in research: issues and possibilities, Health and Social Care in the Community,12,4, 298-308

Newell, A et al. (2007) Methodologies for involving older adults in the design process. In proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Universal Access in HCI:

Richardson, m (2000) How we live: participatory research with six people with learning difficulties Journal of Advanced Nursing 32 (6), 1383–1395.

Seale, J., McCreadie, C., Turner-Smith, A and Tinker, A (2002) Older People as Partners in Assistive Technology Research: The use of focus groups in the design process. Technology and Disability, 14,1,21-29