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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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Scope of e-learning in higher education

During the last two decades, ICTs have been developing at an unprecedented and increasingly rapid pace. The use of the Internet, the WWW and increasingly, virtual learning environments (VLEs) has revolutionised communications and is causing radical developments in the ways universities and colleges enable their staff and students to find and create knowledge and interact with each other (Land and Bayne 2004). The growth of the higher education sector in Ireland during the period of rapid expansion in the 1980s and 1990s came about in a climate where demand for places far outstripped the capacity of the system to provide them. A side effect of the laissez-faire approach has been the absence until a few years ago (January 2003) at national level of any strategic planning or strategic enabling initiatives in the field of e-learning for teaching and learning. Individual institutions have responded in a strategic manner to a greater or lesser extent. Experimentation with web-based support platforms is universal, although in a majority of cases it is targeted at campus-based students as a ‘value-added’ support. VLE platforms are used to manage the learning environment, (e.g., to provide essential course materials [largely text-based or PowerPoint presentations]), bulletin board facilities and a modicum of class discussion opportunities. Staff and students must have convenient and reliable access to a robust ICT infrastructure, preferably supporting broadband, nationally and locally. Ireland fares reasonably well at this time, at least at the level between the major university and polytechnic campuses. However, a survey conducted by the Union of Students in Ireland (2003) highlights the difficulties often experienced by students seeking to access basic computing facilities in the crowded computer laboratories and libraries of their respective institutions. And while many students and academic staff now enjoy remote access to campus networks, access from home still tends to be at low access speeds.

A strategic review carried out by Skilbeck (2001) identifies the major challenges facing the university sector in Ireland, which by extension may also be applied to the institutes of technology. Among these he includes: ‘a progressive shift from formal, institution bound teaching to technology facilitated learning’ (p. 25). He goes on to assert that: ‘Unless the established, public sector institutions are able to achieve greater openness and flexibility they will be challenged by a variety of alternatives … including for-profit private universities taking advantage of … the technology driven “virtual universities”’ (p. 76).

Skilbeck’s views, which have been influential in shaping strategic debate, are highly cautionary in relation to the university led initiatives in deploying ICT for teaching and learning. He recognises ‘new opportunities for creative and innovative teaching and new relationships both with students and the shifting world of knowledge’ (Skilbeck 2001: 89). Since then, published strategic plans of all major higher education institutions address learning technologies and e-learning. Strategic planning for organisational change is already taking place at the national level within the university and polytechnic sectors and e-learning is recognised as an important element in a changing educational landscape. However, Skilbeck then asks ‘Are staff motivated and adequately prepared to take advantage of the opportunities?’ (p. 89). Thus, one point on which there has been unanimous agreement is the need for improved staff academic development opportunities focused on the academic as teacher, facilitator and mentor.

The organisational culture within the institution in which this study is located both encourages and supports academic developers and inquirers into what is presently required to support academic staff and how to do it better in the future. There is movement towards educators being empowered to participate authentically in pedagogical matters of fundamental importance within the institution – what the institution is for and how learning and teaching can be aligned with this vision. A Strategic Plan for the institution for 2001–2015 has been developed and provides the Institute with a number of strategic themes each underpinned by specific strategic objectives and goals; these emanate from the institution’s response to the OECD Review of Higher Education in Ireland. Institutionally, support for this initiative is present.

socially inclusive equality of access must also be a high priority for social and equity reasons but is also as an economic imperative if the personnel needs of a higher skilled economy are to be met. Benchmarks for socially inclusive access and disabled student enrolment should be set out in the Policy Framework.

…more flexible delivery modes, web-based e-learning course delivery mechanisms, and support and guidance for students accessing information through the web.
(OECD 2004: 4)

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