Saturday, 22 March 2008

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.

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