ATHEN E-Journal Issue #3 (2007)
Skill: National Bureau for Students with Disabilities
In 2005, the UK government published a new highly ambitious e-Strategy: 'Harnessing Technology: Transforming learning and children's services'. The aim is to encourage better use of digital and interactive technologies to achieve a more personalised approach to learning. The strategy looks to future development through establishing a baseline and transforming teaching and learning. Whilst e-learning has the potential to transform education and remove barriers for disabled people, one of the major barriers that disabled people will continue to face is access to the appropriate technology to ensure that their needs are met. This has not been fully addressed in the government’s strategy, so there is still a long way to go, and more investment is much needed.
E-learning; Education; ICT
In 2005, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) of the UK government published a new e-Strategy entitled 'Harnessing Technology: Transforming learning and children's services'. This is a highly ambitious strategy covering all sectors of education and children’s services over the next five to ten years in the UK, to encourage better use of digital and interactive technologies to achieve a more personalised approach to learning.
E-learning has the potential to transform the way that education providers teach their students and it can raise standards and widen participation. E-learning may also help remove the barriers that disabled learners may face, and improvements in e-learning for disabled learners (e.g. audio versions of materials) will improve choice for all. It is important that the government recognises that targeting funding for those experiencing barriers to learning and participation will empower those who are least able to access e-learning. E-learning has the real potential to reduce isolation and link learners to each other to share experiences. Therefore, a unified e-learning strategy is to be welcomed as it has the potential to ensure that individual learners can access the appropriate learning and support according to their needs.
It is now well recognised that digital technology is already changing businesses and lives. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is increasingly being used by teachers and lecturers to improve knowledge and transform lessons and lectures to ensure they are interactive and engaging in many different ways. The evidence suggests that where ICT is used effectively, lessons are better taught and students get better results. Therefore, the government strategy looks to future development through establishing a baseline for effective technology, transforming teaching and learning, and opening up education to harder-to-reach groups.
One of the major barriers that disabled people face is access to the appropriate technology to ensure that their needs are met, and this has not been fully addressed in the government’s strategy. There are huge variations in the different technologies available for people with impairments and expert advice is needed to ensure that each disabled person receives the support that is most appropriate to their needs. Improving everyone's access to online information, transactions and advice services is essential and it is all too often that the most hard to reach groups, including disabled learners, are the ones who have the least access to the very technology that would enable them to engage further in education and learning. Whilst the government is committed to encouraging schools and universities to use their online networks to provide more information and to collaborate with other organisations to enable everyone’s needs to be met, there is little in the strategy about further capital investment.
ICT also opens up more avenues for personalised support to learners, helping with all stages of education, and with progression to the next stage. The government’s aim is that all learners over 14 will have access to flexible, co-ordinated courses, with the opportunity to learn at home, in work, in college or in other community settings. Therefore, over the next five to ten years, every institution will be encouraged to offer a personal online learning space to store coursework, course resources, results, and achievements. Over time it is hoped that a personal identifier for each learner will enable organisations to carry forward a record of their achievements. The ultimate aim is for all learners to have an e-portfolio, building a record of achievement throughout their lifelong learning. In addition, the government wants to address e-learning in the workforce and encouarge business to share e-learning resources and support opportunities, so that the workforce as a whole can improve basic and higher level skills throughout life.
However, the growth of ICT and e-learning developments in the UK so far has been relatively unchecked and adhoc, with the result that each organisation and educational institution tends to have its own systems and supports, meaning that students or workers moving from one environment to another do not always use the same technologies. Therefore, for the e-learning strategy to fully work, it is clear that there must be an infrastructure in place to support all the government’s goals and this will mean moving towards an integrated network in both compulsory and post-16 education. This may be relatively hard to achieve. In the Further Education sector, for example, the baseline for technological provision has traditionally been much lower than in the Higher Education sector. Advice may be given to an institution that a piece of software should be networked to provide for disabled students, but a chronic lack of investment in the IT infrastructure in the college means that the network could not support such specialist software. In order for there to be a fully-functioning integrated network, a baseline in institutions must be established and not at the level of the lowest common denominator. This is a laudable vision, which will rely on the development of common standards for ICT and e-learning systems as well as substantial investment.
Universities are relatively well advanced in developing the use of online provision to reach out to schools, colleges and the workplace to help more people progress to higher education, as well as sharing much research online. This has a real benefit to the wider community, enabling those who were previously unable to attend a course to access education in a variety of different ways.
Many teaching staff are also taking advantage of online facilities and information in order to be more innovative in their teaching, but there is still a long way to go. Better digital resources and more flexible learning packages have to be made more widely available and, particularly in HE, there needs to be much more investment in staff development to ensure that lecturers adapt better to their learners' needs. There are still too many lecturers who struggle to use an OHP (overhead projector) effectively, let alone new Whiteboard or Blackboard technologies. And, whilst technology is improving all the time and the curriculum needs to take advantage of new accessible methods, knowledge of this needs to be constantly updated.
It is also clear that the strategy will require the right systems of governance and accountability and the impact of the various ICT and e-learning initiatives will have to be carefully measured and monitored. All too often when initiatives are implemented, governance and monitoring issues are not allocated sufficient resources and existing staff are expected to absorb the latest developments into their current workloads. A unifying strategy for e-learning developments will need clear governance and guidance and, if implemented properly, will enable the UK to become world-class in its innovative approach to e-learning.
However, we do need to be cautious in the approach to e-learning for disabled people. Despite the obvious advantages, there are still those who may assume that e-learning will be the most appropriate form of education and training for all disabled people. It will be important to avoid seeing e-learning as the solution for all disabled students. Assessments of needs are done at various stages in a learner’s educational progression and it is important that these assessments are not lost in the shift towards e-portfolios and assessments. For example, students often need different types of support and strategies to enable them to study effectively at the higher education level and this needs to be recognised within the strategy. Those who do not have access to the appropriate enabling technologies within e-learning will still be disadvantaged despite progress in e-learning initiatives. Students’ needs may change within the course of an educational programme of study, and assessments of needs may need to be revisited and revised to respond to these changing needs and also any changes in technology.
Further and higher education institutions, and other learning providers, have duties to disabled students and the introduction of e-learning will not absolve them of these duties. Indeed, e-learning is covered by current UK disability discrimination legislation, no matter where in the world a student is.
Whilst Skill welcomes the government’s recognition of the importance of e-learning and of having an effective ICT strategy for education across the UK, we also recognise that there still needs to be better sharing of the benefits of specific ICT solutions for disabled people to faciliate development of e-learning in all educational institutions.