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Investigating staff perceptions of e-learning development and support for students with disabilities in higher education

Author - Roisin Donnelly

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General access issues

Within the institution currently, the assistive technology officers are not based near the assistive technology rooms. In certain areas there are still poor connection speeds, software availability and training. Physical classroom space and sound availability and quality were distinguished as important; however currently there are limited funds to make improvements where needed. Understanding was acknowledged as an important issue; specifically lecturers must understand the particular needs of disabled students and be willing to react accordingly, utilising the facilities made available to them.

There was concurrence that e-learning does provide the means for creating online communities and these can take many forms and are not limited by geography or time. There certainly can be communities of shared interest or characteristics (Wenger et al. 2003). However, a key factor in e-learning provision within this and many other higher education institutions is its potential to overcome many of the barriers that students face in accessing learning opportunities, in particular those of place, pace and time. This potential will not be realised simply by access alone. It requires many different and inter-related actions to be taken. In particular, it needs structures in place to support and encourage participation. So although technology can assist students with mobility problems overcoming the physical barriers to participating in learning, it is not a solution to all problems. That need for support and improvements in course design that will tailor the learning content to the particular environment is vital.

Content accessibility

In this institution there are brief guidelines currently available on how to make a web site accessible, but these are just the first steps in making all electronically delivered materials in the institute accessible to all end users. They are merely an introduction to some of the issues that should be considered when designing for accessibility and inclusion. This current study aimed to capitalise on these and move further towards ensuring that staff web pages achieve a good standard of accessibility for inclusion of all students using e-learning as part of their higher education. It is widely recognised that quality of learner support is an important determinant of learner success and is likely to impact on issues such as widening access, accessibility, recruitment and retention (Bernath and Szucs 2004). It is widely accepted that the current availability of high quality online learning materials is very limited (Clarke 2002). Improved web-site design efforts within the institution could be of benefit to persons who must function with the following constraints: who may not be able to see, hear, move, or be able to process some types of information easily at all or who may not have or be able to use a keyboard or mouse, or who may have difficulty reading or comprehending text.

To achieve improvement in online learning materials, a number of areas have been recognised. More e-learning training is needed, however, even before this is in place, staff need to want to change their teaching methods to using ICT technologies. The guidelines available in the institute at present have been recognised as vague. It was agreed that the accessibility guidelines themselves should be available on the web, as well as links to other relevant resources regarding disability, and design. Any new materials developed need to be piloted with a cross-section of students, and alongside this there is a need to peer review material to ensure it is clear and concise. It was felt that current online course notes do not contain enough graphics, simulations, resources, links, or glossary links. If better use was made of these, then using online notes could allow all students to reflect first and then find their ‘voice’ in this new medium.

It was accepted that students and staff have differing levels of expertise when using learning technologies and this is also true when considering the use of assistive technologies with learning materials. It has been argued by McNaught (2004) that the widening participation agenda results in a broader cohort of learners whose skill sets, circumstances and levels of motivation may be different from the traditional student. These students may respond better to interactive materials and multimedia than more didactic approaches. He goes on to suggest that the accessibility agenda has highlighted the difficulties certain groups of learners may have with traditional materials. Many students with dyslexia experience difficulties related to the processing of written language information. These problems are sometimes compounded by short-term memory difficulties, a lack of organisational skills and time management issues which all impact on learning within an online system. The clear presentation of materials is vital, with good navigational assistance and a variety of multimedia options to tap into both visual and auditory skills and support developing coping strategies; but if possible, they must not be seen to be changing the learning outcomes.

Student support

Several steps can be put in place in the short term across the Institute which will better support students with visual impairments and physical disabilities. Firstly all materials need to be tried and tested using screen reading software, and awareness needs to be raised that there are some features of WebCT assessment tools which are quite inaccessible to screen readers. (Information on this was indicated as being available on http://www.webct.com/ask_drc/viewpage?name=ask_drc_ce.)

As the Disability Support Unit is seen as essential, and there is no doubt that such personal support is vital to all who participate in e-learning, it was advanced that this support needs to be provided before and during all stages of the learning process and in many different ways. A future area of growth for lecturers with disabilities is the opportunity to be an online tutor. Online tutoring can be defined as teaching, support, management and assessment of individuals or groups on programmes of learning where there is significant use of network technologies such as the World Wide Web, email and conferencing (Higgison 2000).

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