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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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Critical summary of literature

There has been a drive towards inclusive education. From January 2006, a new Disability Equality Partnership in the UK (Action on Access, the Equality Challenge Unit and the HEA) has taken on the responsibility of providing support to higher education institutions in promoting equality of opportunity for students with disabilities. Fraser and Sanders (2006) have described a number of innovations in professional development which have resonance for this study, and which focus on the teaching of students who have a disability. Of particular relevance are changes to the type of communication used by teachers with students with disabilities such as the mode of presentation, taping of lectures, the use of more diagrams and the development of written notes.

There is now a multitude of web sites available providing current guidelines on web accessibility/usability including, in the Irish context, projects such as the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (AHEAD, see http://www.aheadweb.org) and the National Disability Authority (http://www.nda.ie) on behalf of the Irish State which promotes and helps secure the rights of people with disabilities. However, there is a paucity of research exploring the potential of e-learning to support inclusion for students and staff with disabilities in higher education, specifically the evolution of e-learning into a learning communications forum for persons with disabilities.

In recent years there has been a growing awareness that some delivery system technologies can be used to transcend some of the learning difficulties experienced by persons with physical handicaps; this realisation fits in well with concern for the needs of so-called ‘non-traditional learners’. There has been an outpouring of energy and creativity into ways of using information and communications technologies (ICT) and the information society (IS) to create inclusion, as an opportunity to tackle, reduce and even prevent social exclusion. Virtual learning environments, such as WebCT can provide many of the elements of a classroom but because of its asynchronous nature, computer conferencing or online discussions as they are also known, permit scheduling and timetabling flexibility.

This is not seen as replacing human support systems as it is believed that for any system to be successful it must take human factors into account and adequately prepare new users. In his research with students with hearing impairments using computer-mediated conferencing for learning Coombs (1989) found that they had become somewhat dependent on the human support system and this inhibited them in developing the degree of self-direction demanded by some forms of e-learning.

Furthermore, Coombs (1989) argues that therein lies a dilemma for educators. On the one hand, educators want to tailor e-learning to be of maximum use to persons with physical disabilities. On the other hand, the technology permits genuine mainstreaming because physical appearance becomes insignificant. Online learners are judged by their contributions and not by external indications of status or success. Persons with physical disabilities who are equipped and ready to compete in an educational or social setting may become online learners and be unknown to online educators; their disability may also be invisible to other learners. The more such technologies succeed in meeting these special needs, the less we may be aware of their achievements.

Research by Seymour and Lupton (2004) has produced some very interesting questions regarding people with disabilities using technology. Clearly the Internet represents a huge new step in interpersonal communications by offering people with disabilities the possibility of confronting the issues of time, space, communication and the body. But what happens when people with disabilities engage with the computer? Do they use the Internet to develop friendships and intimate relationships? Does online communication enhance self-identity and social being? Do people use the Internet to transcend the vagaries of their frail and vulnerable bodies? Or are they simply ‘holding the line’ online, using the Internet as they would use a letter or a telephone? Is the Internet a chimera, a failed promise, for people with disabilities? These key issues were pertinent for the development of the focus group, alongside what Fuller et al. (2004) report: barriers to learning occurred in lectures and other teaching situations, whilst there were accessibility problems using learning technology facilities and in problems with staff attitudes.

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