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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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Conclusions: personal and professional reflections

The findings of this study have implications for development of inclusive education in higher education. Future implications for myself, my colleagues, the course, the institution and the wider higher education community are explored here through a series of personal and professional reflections.

The main aim of this research was to explore how to make the potential of e-learning work towards inclusivity for students and staff in the institution with physical and learning disabilities. The specific context is in providing support to academic staff in facilitating the learning of students and staff with disabilities. It is vital to reduce their exclusion from the culture, curricula and communities of e-learning that have been developing in this institution over the past few years, and indeed within all higher education in this new millenium of learning. Computer conferencing does seems to hold special potential for communication and education for persons with physical disabilities whether that be hearing, seeing or mobility. The underlying challenge of how to make computer conferencing useful to persons with physical disabilities actually springs from its innermost strength and potential. In an online discussion, participants function on an unusually equal footing. The very anonymity, mentioned earlier, allows persons with physical disabilities to go unnoticed. Once having learned the basic technologies, learners with physical disabilities can participate equally with their disability being invisible.

The research findings show that whilst there are pockets of very useful support established in the institution in the form of Disability Services, the Assistive Technology Room, and the Learning Technology Team, there is room for more cohesion and collaboration. As teachers with a moral purpose will always be key players in any progress made in educational reform (Fullan 1999), further training and piloting of online materials needs to take place.

E-learning appears to be growing rapidly in higher education. There can be few colleges or universities in the UK, Ireland and further afield without some form of online teaching, as most if not all the UK universities are utilising technology to develop what they consider to be e-learning (O’Neill et al. 2004). While there has been considerable interest and investment in the development of online learning materials by the funding councils and individual institutions, the issues surrounding support for e-learning are less well understood and higher education is bounded by a number of assumptions which must now be scrutinised in the light of the learning opportunities offered by technology (Wiles and Core 2004). Current understanding of how to extend this support for inclusion of disabled students and staff is even more opaque. In a traditional face-to-face institution, support for e-learners can be provided exclusively on-campus, but this negates some of the benefits of putting teaching materials online and is increasingly unlikely in the face of initiatives to widen access for learners with disabilities and therein to encourage lifelong learning patterns. This study was one mechanism to ensure that the issues surrounding support for disabled students and staff participating in e-learning are better understood.

The significance of the findings in the research context are that improved development of and access to effective e-learning resources is an issue that all academic developers and, indeed, educators – especially those focused on the learning needs and resources of individuals with disabilities – should address. An increasing array of support resources for such priorities should continue to emerge.

Higher education in Ireland is entering a period of transformation. Participation rates are high and the profile and demands of the student body are rapidly diversifying. In attempting to frame a strategic response, universities and polytechnics recognise that e-learning is a key enabler of change. The status of knowledge and experience of ICT deployment compares favourably with the most highly developed nations. What has been achieved to date is largely the result of the efforts of higher education institutions acting independently. To take the next step will require strategic collaboration, the models for which are currently embryonic and ill-defined. The transformative role of e-learning for teaching and learning in higher education is recognised, but the strategic impact has yet to be realised for all students.

There is little doubt that the development of new forms of e-learning environments and the effective use of new e-learning tools and facilities require us to consider a variety of distinct research challenges; the theme of inclusion and accessibility is one such challenge. It has been argued in a ECRC report (2004) that the UK leads the widespread use of IT in mainstream and special education. It has been very challenging to move beyond research prototypes which encompass well-designed and accessible IT tools and resources, to widespread evaluation and deployment in classrooms or other learning contexts. This study recognises this and is but one currently addressing how we ensure that e-learning facilities are available to all, and that the facilities they provide reflect the diversity of learners. This study further acknowledges that if information technology and e-learning are to have a widespread educational impact then research questions around inclusion and accessibility need to continue to be addressed.

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