Posted by: MandyS | October 5, 2011

Activity 11.1 – advantages and barriers

In this activity we are looking at various resources  in order to identify:

  • the positive attributes of online learning from the point of view of disabled students, and
  • the factors that can prevent these positive attributes from being realised.

Resource 1:  Alert case studies:

These case studies analyse the positive and negative attributes of the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment), which is used to support learning online.

Amongst many other things, it is the means by which students can obtain reading lists, lecture handouts/notes, find out information about their course, interact with other students via discussion boards. Although beneficial to all students, the case studies identify particular benefits for disabled students:

Access to reading lists means that a student doesn’t have to go to the library and carry home heavy books.

Lecture notes are available in advance so that the student can concentrate on the lecture; follow it more easily; only need annotate with own notes; signer knows what is going to be covered.

No need to worry about missing lectures through things associated with disability.

Can work from home, which is adapted to suit the student.  

However, the VLE is only as good as those who use it. Some of the issues raised by the students are: 

‘there is not enough consistency in how staff use the VLE.’

‘enthusiasm for the VLE is essential in not only making best use of the available tools but also in encouraging students to participate.’

‘more should be done institutionally to raise awareness and provide training in VLE use, and suggests that this has impacted on his experience and the extent to which staff in his department use the VLE.’

From my own experience I can relate to these issues. Although there is no requirement for students on W201 to use the online resources (other than checking the noticeboard for amendments to the manuals) they are a means of support, but ones that are greatly underutilised. I think there may be two reasons for this; firstly the VLE for Law has only been introduced within the last couple of years so is a relatively new concept, and secondly, training is very much down to the individual exploring the OU self-help pages.  The forums are particularly underutilised ( interestingly those students who were not as enthusiastic about using the VLE were in fact Law students).  Discussion board’s are ‘a good medium for encouraging extended participation in debate and fostering online support communities.’  As such, they are a lifeline for disabled students; one student says that he was able to use it ‘as a method of communication whilst his cohort were on work placements’.

I think the issues raised here are valid ones; enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm and unless everyone is adequately trained in their use, the positive attributes of VLE’s will struggle to be realised.

ALERT (2006) Accessibility in Learning Environments and Related Technologies: Case Studies [online], alert/ case_studies.htm (accessed 03 October 2011).

Resource 2: Seale (2006) Chapter 5:

The positive attributes of online learning are largely dependent on their accessibility and this resource considers how students perceive access to e-learning.

I think it is fair to say that disabled students are reliant on computers and the internet to enable them to study, hence the need for them to be accessible. On the whole, generic and specialist technology is available and used by disabled students but Seale identifies that there are issues with accessibility:

1. Fitchen et al. (2000) identifies that 41% of disabled students need some type of specialist technology or adaptation to use computers effectively. However, abandonment rates identify that training and support in their use is vital. I agree with Seale that, ideally, this should be the role of the suppliers but it would appear that, in the main, it falls to the university staff who may not have the necessary expertise.

2. Computer systems running inaccessible programmes, using out-of-date technology or being located in inaccessible places.

3. Students being relied upon to research themselves how to access the systems.

4. Online resources being inaccessible, particularly to visually impaired students.

5. The lack of tutor awareness of accessibility issues

6. The lack of specialist equipment or incompatible or outdated specialist equipment available on campus.

7. The bureaucracy of systems for assessing and providing specialist technologies. Despite the fact that students apply well in advance of their course, equipment is rarely available at the start.

I would imagine that some of these issues are linked to funding e.g. provision of training, out-dated equipment.  As a result of my neck problems, I underwent a health and safety assessment of my work station. It was recommended I have a multitude of items including a ‘star treck’ chair (my description) and a corner desk. The chair was provided, together with a person to set it up, but the desk was refused on the basis that it would not ‘integrate aesthetically’ with the rest of the office (the other desks being straight). The transition to ‘hot desking’ in the office created an odd funding issue; if anyone else sat in my chair, the company had to come and check it was still aligned to my requirements. Needless to say, a sign soon went on the chair barring anyone else using it (singled out, labeled, made to feel different…). I hasten to add this was in my other life and not as an AL with the OU.  

One of the students in the case studies I think hits the nail on the head ‘there is clearly a long way to go before the best possible access to a degree course becomes a reality for everyone.’ For it to be a reality, all the stakeholders have to be aware they have a role to play in achieving accessibility.

Seale, J. (2006) E-Learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research and Practice, Abingdon, Routledge; also available online at (accessed 04 October 2011)

Resource 3: Accessible e-learning for teachers and lecturers:

This is essentially a JISC Tech Disc training resource. I completed the Activity:

Selected benefit of eLearning resources Explain briefly how this is done Do you need training in this? What sort of learners or what type of disabilities would benefit from this?
Material online is under user control in terms of where, when and for how long they access it.   No All disabilities but in particular Mobility, fatigue, dyslexia,
Material online can be richer in diagrams and the use of colour.   No Dyslexia, visual
Material online can link to explanatory or extension materials.   No All disabilities but mobility and visual may struggle with links
Material online can be enlarged or reduced at will.    No Visual
Material online can be customised in terms of colours and font style.    No Visual
Text online can – in many cases – be read by appropriate software.   Yes Visual
Material online can be integrated with user’s notes using copy and paste   No All disabilities

It was interesting to see the different ways of producing alternative formats to at least accommodate the majority of disabled students. However, it is clear that even ‘alternative’ formats are not the ‘be all and end all’. The one that stuck out the most for me was that the best way for a visually impaired student was simply a ‘hands-on’ activity; obvious really.

I have bookmarked this resource as it is definitely one I need to look at again.

JISC Techdis (undated) Accessible e-Learning [online], Staff%20Packs/ Accessible%20Learning/ index.xml (accessed 03 October 2011)

Resource 4:  Towards an Adaptable Personal Learning Environment:

What I found interesting about this was the way in which the disabled students were involved in identifying what was accessible and what wasn’t e.g. the password; I thought this was particularly innovative. It is clear that systems are adaptable but I think that it also emphasises the need for developers to work with those using the systems to ensure accessibility.

JISC CETIS (2009) Towards an Adaptable Personal Learning Environment [online], (accessed 03 October 2011)



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