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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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Primary research

The previous section describes the key developments in e-learning and inclusion of disabled students and staff in higher education, with a particular focus on the context within an institution in the Republic of Ireland. This section is concerned with how these developments were investigated empirically in the context of this study. Both the epistemological stance and the research aims of this study have shaped the development of the research design and method selected to conduct this research. This section has been divided into two parts: the first will identify an appropriate methodology for use in this study, and the second will give a more specific outline of how this has been applied to the research design.

Yin (1994) believes that case study is the preferred methodology when questions such as ‘how’ or ‘why’ are posed; the essence of this method is its enquiry into real-life context. Cohen et al. (2000) outline the benefits of case studies in investigating the causes and effects of real situations. The real-life context for this study involves describing, understanding and explaining each of the participants’ interpretations and sense-makings of their experience of working with students and academic staff with disabilities. It is important to seek out and present multiple perspectives of activities and issues in this area, ‘discovering and portraying the different views’ (Stake 1995: 134). This approach is seeking to enhance contextualised understanding for the participants/stakeholders closest to the area within the institution (which are the disability liason officers, the Learning Technology Team and Learning and Teaching Centre tutors). Greene believes that doing so promotes ‘values of pluralism as well as forging direct channels to improvement for students with disabilities’ (1994: 533).

Cohen et al. (2000) furthermore describe the paradigm most suited to case studies as interpretive and subjective. The epistemological stance is significant because the subjects of the research are people who are all individuals and who view the world differently. The research detailed in this study involves six support staff, with a range of prior experience in using learning technology or new pedagogical approaches in their practice to support academic staff and students in the institution; therefore the research method used is ‘soft’ and predominantly qualitative.

It was important that the method chosen was fit for the purpose and methodology of the study. Gaining a rich, human element indicating how the participants feel about using e-learning technology to support an inclusive education for all at the institution was paramount. Isolation in research is a problem because it imposes a ceiling effect on inquiry and learning. Solutions can be limited to the experiences of the individual. Fullan (1993) argues that for complex change you need many people working insightfully on the solution committing themselves to concentrated action together. This author profoundly agrees with Fullan (1993: 9) on this and feels it is up to us to ‘consume, critique and produce knowledge’ about the e-learning and inclusion and ‘engage in discourse and action to improve the conditions, activities and outcomes’ of the learning environment within the institution.

Therefore this small-scale qualitative study describes the interpretations of six key informants to discover their views on e-learning being used effectively towards inclusion of students and staff with disabilities in the institution. The institution’s disability service was invited to participate in the focus group (two disability officers), along with the institute’s e-learning manager, two web designers and a member of the academic development team for academic staff. These people were chosen because they included the voices of those working alongside the author. By facilitating a meaningful discussion with these staff, progress can be made towards achieving the study’s aim. The following questions guided the focus groups:

  • How would these participants feel about this topic?
  • What kinds of questions will produce the kind of discussion I desired?
  • What should the role of the author as moderator of the discussion do or not do to manage the group dynamics?

The short timeline for this study called for a degree of structure to strike a balance between the researcher’s agenda and obtaining the participants’ very valuable insights. The focus group interview was audio taped and the guide and questions are contained in Appendix A. Transcription was used to convert the conversations into analysable data.

As a structure for the focus group interview three areas were set for exploration: key concepts, practices and resources related to inclusion of learners with disabilities. The data types to be collected included a range of facts, attitudes, opinions and perceptions about using e-learning to complement other relevant technologies in the support of students and staff with disabilities within the institution. Lee and Fielding (1995) state that group discussions have a special value for those who want to assess how several people work out a common view, or – as in this case – a range of views about the same topic.

Focus groups can be an appropriate research vehicle when the goal of the investigation is to gain an understanding of the ‘why’ behind an attitude or behaviour (Greenbaum 2000: 6). They are a form of evaluation in which groups of people are assembled to discuss potential changes or shared impressions (Rubin and Rubin 1995). There are a number of key elements integral to the technique: the authority of the moderator, the ability to use both verbal and nonverbal inputs as part of the learning process, the group dynamics in the room, the concentrated attention of the participants, the ability of the participants to be directly involved in the research process, controls over security and the dynamic nature of the process.

It was vital to know how best to use e-learning to complement other relevant assistive technologies in the support of students and staff with disabilities within the institution. As an adjunct to this, understanding how any barriers to inclusion and web accessibility have been constructed so that they can be removed was also useful. It was intended to give due consideration to the use of language of inclusion so that there would be a common discourse between the stakeholders. This is the core of the study related to working towards an understanding of how collectively, key institutional personnel could increase participation of learners in the curricula, culture and community of e-learning growing within the institution.


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