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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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Organisational issues

A number of organisational issues emerged:

  • Good planning needs to be in place before materials are put on the web, and there is a strong need for documents to be readily downloadable.
  • There is still room for improvement across the Institute in increasing awareness amongst staff of the assistive technologies available. To assist with this, a number of training initiatives could be introduced.
  • Firstly special training sessions could be organised for both staff and students in order to support them in learning about key areas. As part of this one suggestion was to introduce lecturers to individuals with disabilities, perhaps at student induction sessions.
  • Secondly one-to-one tutorials could be held on how to use appropriate accessibility software.
  • In the area of quality assurance, standards for uploading material to the web need to be set and adhered to.
  • Funding needs to be examined, specifically schemes and grants to allow disabled students to purchase software/hardware for home use.
  • Adequate facilities are needed on all the institution’s campuses with easy access to these facilities for all disabled students/staff.
  • From a technical perspective, assistive technology software needs to be compatible with the e-learning technologies, and technical help in the form of a helpdesk type service is needed when staff and students are using software and hardware in the assistive technology rooms.

Accessing types of e-learning

There were many advantages identified to downloading a learning package and working with it interactively. It facilitates working at one’s own pace and physically outside of the college where physical access might be an issue; it also allows for self-paced instruction and revision, and for delivery of concise and accessible course content. However, there is an acknowledged downside, as students might be made to feel more isolated than they perhaps already do, and ambiguous instructions and technical problems could be present.

Placing lecture notes and visual aids on the Internet was seen as a useful supplement to lectures. For example, if for some reason a student has to miss class they will still have access to the lecture notes and visual aids. This also allows students to further explore material in more accessible formats. However, there are technical limitations to software which staff need to be aware of.

Using the Internet as a library of resources provides access to a wide range of materials, both national and international; but for this to be successful, it is seen as important to develop strong links with library services and, in addition, all staff and students need to be skilled at locating, selecting and evaluating information.

Establishing clear online communication links between students and their tutor was regarded as most useful when any student may be shy, or may not be able to attend a class. One of the intriguing benefits of an online discussion is that because of its relative anonymity, many learners feel freer to share personal issues. According to Kassop (2003) many online tutors have observed that the relative ‘anonymity’ of online discussions helps create a level playing field for women, homosexuals, students with physical disabilities, and members of other potentially marginalised groups, as they can participate in class activities without being stigmatised. In addition, using online discussion boards can facilitate direct instruction and communication between the teacher and the learner, and is therefore not dependent on the traditional support services provided by interpreters, note-takers or special tutors.

Employing the communication features of a VLE to ensure that students receive feedback/support outside class times was a generally acknowledged principle. Ultimately, research makes a case that this may help retain students on the course (Berge and Huang 2004); clearly, however, other factors are involved. Chat rooms are regarded as potentially problematic, but with a few redeeming features. They may be useful for private support of disabled students and, depending on the type of disability, may be practical in offering students with physical difficulties an alternative to trying to get into campus to see their tutors, or their peers on the course.

Online communication links between learners and tutors were seen as providing mutual support in that both can learn much from each other. For example, they can answer each other’s problems/queries, students can identify common misunderstandings to be clarified with their tutor, and it may also build confidence among students. All users are on an equal footing, and they can spread awareness and exchange ideas about particular issues, alongside sharing resources/teaching materials. Ideally, they can build up a community of their own and support each other. Helping persons with disabilities to learn course content is one benefit of these communication systems; another is increasing their independence and self-reliance. The potential for increased independence and a fuller participation in the higher education learning community is certainly exciting, but moving towards this inclusion of many more persons needs to take certain factors into account. Independence itself can be intimidating. If more extensive use of computer conferencing with learners with disabilities is to occur, there has to be a support system to nurture and encourage many of them to overcome any resistance. An extension of this debate is how e-learning could affect positively the sense of self confidence of a person with a physical disability. However, a note of caution emerged. The electronic delivery of higher education instruction appears to have both positive and negative consequences even if the situation is evolving rapidly. While the Internet and e-learning technology is said to be the great equaliser, at the same time it can exacerabate inequality through fuelling unrealisable expectations.

Databases of ‘frequently asked questions’ (FAQs) were identified as useful for clarifying accessibility issues amongst students, and for providing support for students without tutors having to constantly answer the same questions time and time again; it could also be used to raise the issue of disability with non-disabled students.

Virtual seminars, conferences and video/audio conferencing were noted as useful in situations where students are unable to attend a seminar or conference so they do not have to miss out on the experience, or for students with dyslexia so that they do not have to rely solely on text-based communication. However, as identified earlier, this could be problematic because of the scarcity and expense of a broadband connection from home. It was felt that it may be better to concentrate on ‘simple’ technology so as not to overburden students and tutors.

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