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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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The issue of accessibility of e-learning formats for individuals with various disabilities is an important one as use of online courses and programmes continues to increase in higher education. The gains students with disabilities have made in accessing post-secondary opportunities must not be slowed by the growing use of technology-mediated instruction, both for distributed education on campus and distance education at remote sites. This paper considers an important area of working practice within academic development in higher education, the inclusion of all students and staff with disabilities within the context of e-learning development and support. The context for this study is within a higher education institution in the Republic of Ireland.

At one time, technology was considered marginal to learning and teaching practice in higher education, now however, most institutions talk about e-learning, which ranges from utilising an online learning environment (OLE) for providing online course information to blended learning where technology is used to support face-to-face teaching, to distance learning where entire courses are online. Indeed, it has been argued that any consideration of the growing role of academic development in higher education, in which this study is situated, has to be set against the continuously dynamic state of technological development (Land 2004).

There is a growing use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education settings to provide quality learning and assessment in education and training. Many of these systems provide substantial challenges to those with disabilities beyond the more everyday difficulties of using and coping with new technology. Professional associations, awarding bodies, educational institutions, training providers and employers are all responding to the challenges of the new e-learning tools, the demands and expectations of the individuals with disabilities and the implications of new legislation. Furthermore, to some, making curricula content accessible for all students is a complex issue but in fact the most often used medium for teaching and learning – that of printed textbooks – could be considered the most inaccessible.

How best to promote student learning during online instruction is a priority everywhere. Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web (WWW) has said ‘The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect’. (http://www.w3.org/WAI, Paragraph 1). This is especially important when seeking to accommodate the unique learning needs of individuals with disabilities (Brown 2002). Far too little emphasis has been focused on helping all learners interact with the new technologies and the information sources to which they offer access (Djoudi and Harouos 2001). This study aims to address the lack of emphasis on this aspect of inclusion.

Research Aim

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.

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