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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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Ethical considerations

There may be a great deal of sensitivity around this issue and the different participants need to be taken into account. An ethics statement was written as a reference at the various stages of the study, and a copy was given to the participants in the focus group interview. The participants were assured that their opinions would be valued and that they had a say in how e-learning should be made inclusive for all students and staff in the institution. Voluntary informed consent was distributed as the condition in which the participants understood and agreed to their participation without any duress, prior to the research getting underway.

Discussion of problematics

This study is small-scale and limited to the observations of a small number of key staff from one higher education institution in the Republic of Ireland. Widening the study to include several focus group interviews would have allowed for cross-analysis and further understanding of the perspectives of the target groups. This study did not seek participation from students with disabilities; however, this is planned for a follow-up stage of the research as obtaining the students’ view is considered important to the continuing investigation.

Data analysis

The study used an inductive approach to analysing the qualitative data to reveal collective beliefs, values and descriptions about using e-learning to complement other relevant technologies in the support of students and staff with disabilities within the institution.

The method of analysis used on the transcript was based on key aspects of the literature to code the data and to assist with interpretations and discussion. Factors/themes were a focus to the extent that they causally influenced implementation, i.e. the practices and beliefs around using e-learning to complement other relevant technologies in the support of students and staff with disabilities within the institution. Five main categories were used to structure the focus group discussion: target group, organisational issues, accessing types of e-learning, content accessibility, and student support.

Recognition was present for the need to be accurate in measuring the responses and logical in interpreting the meaning of those measurements. Member checking was used and the participants were requested to examine the interpretations drawn, featuring their own words. They reviewed the material for accuracy and palatability (Stake 1995). The participants were encouraged to provide alternative language or interpretation and some of that feedback was worthy of inclusion in the final interpretation. The method used is reported so that it is accessible to others, and the results of the study are reported in terms of theoretically meaningful variables (Kirk and Miller 1986).

Discussion of findings

Interpretations were drawn from the analysed focus group data, and a set of findings formed which will help inform the e-learning strategy within the institution with regards to e-learning development and inclusion of students and staff with disabilities. See Figure 2 for a schematic representation.

Target group

The main target groups identified in the focus group where different forms of e-learning could support disabilities are: hearing impaired students (benefiting from getting lecture notes online), students with visual impairment, dyslexia, depression illnesses and mobility problems. The potential for effective and innovative learning experiences is immense. According to a TechDis report (2003), e-learning has the promise to enable learners with particular needs to engage in learning on a level playing field. However, it is arguable that this promise will remain unfulfilled until both accessibility and usability issues are resolved, and visually impaired learners will continue to be disadvantaged in terms of cognitive overload and time and energy input, resulting in a poorer learning experience than otherwise.

Within this target group, three main findings emerged. Firstly it was agreed that students with visual impairment and dyslexia should be able to download documents and use read-back software. Whereas many people with vision problems can learn to touch-type, they usually have problems in reading the screen. According to Salmon (2000) electronic screen readers are valuable when long sections of text are onscreen, but are considered useless when there is a diagram. However, spelling and grammar checkers can be very helpful to users with dyslexia.

Secondly, by using a VLE to access course notes, there was consensus that students with depression illnesses and mobility problems may not need to attend face-to-face classes; however, something to bear in mind is the fact that users who cannot freely move their hands and arms find that they cannot use the keyboard at a reasonable speed for communicating online using synchronous systems, even when the stiffness of the keys has been varied to suit (Salmon 2000). Speech recognition software may be better or perhaps semi-intelligent software that enables the selection of whole words after the first few letters have been typed in.

Thirdly it was believed that e-learning can be used to lessen some communication barriers for persons with physical disabilities. For example, appropriate technologies can permit a teacher who is blind to communicate written material with seeing students and facilitate interactions with the hearing impaired without requiring the services of an interpreter. Modems and phone lines can benefit mobility impaired learners also.

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