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.