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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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Context: identification of institutional issues

The wider context in which this work was conducted is within the relatively newly established Higher Education Academy (HEA). Part of the web-based mission statement sets the scene for this research:

The Higher Education Academy is concerned with every aspect of the student experience. It will provide coherence, added value, inclusivity and a powerful emphasis on the needs of stakeholders.
(Ramsden 2004: Paragraph 1)

Specifically, the author works as one of a team of academic developers in a Learning and Teaching Centre in a Higher Education Institution in the Republic of Ireland, supporting 1,500 full and part-time academic staff, who in turn educate a large number of students (21,414 registered in the academic year 2003–2004).

As the main purpose of this Learning and Teaching Centre is to enhance the quality of the learning experience for all students through provision of on-going professional development opportunities for all academic staff at individual, department, school, faculty and institute levels, ultimately, it is hoped that this study will contribute towards making the Centre a learning organisation that is expert at dealing with change as a normal part of its work. It has been argued that moral purpose needs an engine, and that engine is individual, skilled change agents pushing for changes around them, intersecting with other like-minded individuals and groups to form the critical mass necessary to bring about continuous improvements (Fullan 1993).

Change flourishes in a ‘sandwich’. When there is consensus above, and pressure below, things happen.
(Fullan 1993: 37)

For such change to continue will require a response to the needs of a diverse and changing student population, and, as a result, its academic staff, a rapidly changing learning technology in the educational environment, and demands for excellence from the workplace. Assisting academic colleagues with new learning technologies at the levels of skills development, electronic courseware and materials development, design and delivery of online programmes and strategic aspects of implementing learning technology at institutional level, is becoming an important feature in the work of academic development in Ireland.

For the past five years the author has been involved with the implementation and support of e-learning within the institution, and supporting the institution’s virtual learning environment of choice, WebCT. The specific role within this is to train and support academic staff in planning and delivering e-learning courses for their students, from a variety of subject disciplines. In the context of this study e-learning means delivery of online learning materials, text-based email (asynchronous), chat systems (synchronous) and computer conferencing (asynchronous). Other possibilities are real-time text-based chat systems, text messaging (SMS) via mobile phones and IP-based videoconferencing, but as these have yet to make a significant impact on formal education, they are not included in this current study.

This institution has been most proactive, over the last few years, in encouraging people with disabilities to choose the institute as their higher education option. Consequently, the institute has seen a steady increase in the numbers of students with disabilities registered with the Disability Support Service. The numbers listed in Figure 1 indicate this increase since the academic year 1998–1999.

These numbers include students with a wide range of disabilities, which for the purpose of this study are taken as physical, sensory, medical conditions, mental health difficulties, specific learning disabilities and other neurological conditions. Currently, and surprisingly, the number of staff with disabilities is unknown.

It is significant that the Institute has noted a marked increase in the number of part-time disabled students availing of the service and also an increase in second- and third-year full-time undergraduate students being referred to the service, who have identified with one of the specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia. Judging by these marked trends numbers can be predicted to further increase over the next few years. The e-learning manager in the institute indicated that there is currently no e-learning provision made for students with dyslexia, and has welcomed this study as an opening investigation.

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