Saturday, 22 March 2008

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.

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