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.