Disability Awareness Training : An Online Approach. The DEMOS Project.
Presentation to the Fourth International Conference on Higher Education and Disability, Innsbruck, 14th July 2001
30 July 2001
HEFCE Disability Initiative 2000-2002
- Why online?
- Engaging staff groupings
- Analysis of need
- Modules development
- Other Materials
[This report is available for download as ZIP file of MS Word 2000 documents (56Kb), requires Winzip or similar software to extract.]
This is a project funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) under strand three of the disability special initiatives 2000-2002. The HEFCE have previously funded three similar rounds of projects. The focus of current projects is in three key areas:
- Strand one:
29 projects have been supported under strand one to develop base-level provision at institutions that currently have little provision for, or experience in supporting, students with disabilities.
- Strand two:
8 strand two projects will promote and transfer existing disability-related expertise.
- Strand three:
13 strand three collaborative projects will allow institutions to plan complementary provision to make best use of existing resources.
The four universities in the Manchester area (University of Manchester, the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), the University of Salford and the University of Manchester Institute for Science and Technology (UMIST)) have a firm base of collaboration on which to build. Amongst the Disability Services of the four universities this is exemplified through the work of the Access Summit Centre; a joint universities resource centre which was set up through the support of the HEFCE disability special initiative funding 1996-1999.
Other links have been formed between the four universities such as the Consortium for Continuing Education and Training (CONTACT) initiative and the Consortium of Academic Libraries in Manchester (CALIM) group.
Higher education in England is undergoing a period of continuing change. Developments of significance in the area of disability are the widening participation initiative, the Quality Assurance Agency's Code of Practice which includes a section specifically dealing with disabled students and the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act which forms part IV of the Disability Discrimination Act.
Other recent developments initiated by the HEFCE have significance in the area of teaching and learning and should lead to an increase in scholarship in subject areas and an increasing emphasis on the quality of teaching within higher education institutions (HEIs). These initiatives include the formation of a Learning and Teaching Support Network along with its Generic Centre and Technologies Centre and the establishment of a complementary professional body - the Institute for Learning and Teaching.
Within the 4 DEMOS universities quality of teaching and learning is supported by a number of staff and educational development programmes which include:
- Developing Effective Teaching and Learning Programme at MMU
- Postgraduate Diploma in Teaching and Learning at Salford
- Teaching and Learning Course for New Academic Staff at Manchester
- Certificate in Academic Practice at UMIST
Essentially the DEMOS Project seeks to increase the accessibility of the university environment for disabled students through the development of an online resource of staff development materials.
The project aims were reformulated after the initial bid was approved and are now stated in four key areas:
- We will enhance the learning experience for disabled students studying at the 4 HEIs in the Manchester area.
- We aim to help academic staff to understand the issues relating to the development of an accessible learning environment.
- We aim to increase the competence and confidence of academic staff in understanding the needs of disabled students.
- We aim to underpin the project with an inclusive approach.
It was realised within the DEMOS HEIs that few academic staff attended staff development events relating to disability. This is also true with other centrally organised staff and educational development programmes.
With increases in demand being placed on the time of academic staff (e.g. increases in the student-staff ratio and an increase in monitoring of the quality of higher education) and on disability offices (e.g. increases in the number of disabled students, changes in legislation) the need for a cost effective and efficient means of staff development delivery is all the more sought after.
Online learning affords it users an increase in the flexibility of access across time and location.
Online learning also increases the responsibility of the learner in directing and designing their own learning.
This constructivist standpoint is in line with much innovative teaching and learning pedagogy initiatives currently expounded within the HE community.
Academic staff can access an online environment from the comfort of their own workplaces at a time that is convenient to them and on their own terms as adult learners.
Engaging staff groupings
The main thrust of the original plan focused on the piloting of materials in four departments across the four universities. It was planned that we would identify two champion departments to begin our investigations and that the second half of the project would be based within 2 departments without such a good reputation. Criteria were drawn up and the Disability Offices were asked to identify departments from their universities that had relevant experience in the support of disabled students and a good track record in the delivery of this support.
Consequently the Department of Drama at the University of Manchester and the Department of Computation at UMIST were identified. Work began through discussions with a group of four staff in each department to discuss issues around staff development and specifically in relation to disability. Further groups of staff were identified to trial the materials and were asked to log onto the QAA code of practice module.
However, the feedback obtained has been disappointing and reflects the initial raison d'etre of the project - namely that academic staff have very little time to attend staff development activities relating to disability and that it doesn't come very high on their list of priorities.
Strategies used to ensure participation have included writing to staff in the pilot groups, regular email reminders, face-to-face visits to offices and recently a half-day session organised to coincide with gaps in participants' diaries when the project coordinator visited one of the groups and sat with them while they logged in.
It is recognised that participation is the key to the project and that we need a significant number of participants to trial the materials and provide feedback on their quality. We will therefore seek to pilot material through more informal contacts and groupings of staff with an aim of creating a resource that is usable by the disability offices at the end of the project and ultimately by the sector as a whole.
Analysis of need
Part of the process of developing the project materials involves an analysis of need. Although a need has been assumed implicitly in the funding and establishment of the project it is necessary to investigate this assumption in more detail.
An online questionnaire was posted onto the website and publicised to staff throughout the four universities using electronic means. We received a total of 133 responses to the questionnaire. The graph below shows the responses to the question:
"If you are interested in attending events in the future what areas would you like to see covered?".
Most topics received favourable support. The DEMOS materials almost maps the pattern of responses although there are no plans currently to devise learning modules relating specifically to supporting deaf students or assistive technology.
We must also take account the high number of respondents who requested 'general disability awareness training'. Such a topic has not been chosen for module development and further investigation of what such an area would cover needs completing.
The second graph shows responses to the question:
"If disability information was made available in the following ways, which would you be likely to use?"
The current approaches utilised by staff development initiatives in the DEMOS institutions are vindicated. Most sessions currently undertaken are delivered in afternoon or morning sessions. There are also a series of booklets produced by the Access Summit Consortium. The current project will develop a web based resource and will back up attempts by the Disability Offices to develop their websites.
The only delivery method not fully utilised is the use of lunchtime briefings. Similar initiatives have used this method successfully and found that if you offer sandwiches and a drink that participation in increased. We wondered how we could replicate this in an online environment, but the only thing we could come up with was to offer 'cookies' when you visited our website!
Interestingly, few academic staff would prefer to attend lectures; a format that is still the primary method for delivery of academic courses to undergraduate students.
Topics for development were identified through feedback from the Disability Officers in the 4 HEIs, through a review of the current programme of disability staff development programme and through analysis of need activities. 6 modules were identified for further development from an initial list of 12. They are:
- Models and definitions of disability.
- Dyslexia in higher education.
- The QAA Code of Practice Section 3: Students with Disabilities.
- Teaching Strategies.
- Assessment and examination regulations.
Materials writing has been progressed through the formation of writing teams that comprise of experts from the three areas of the DEMOS Project namely - Staff and Educational Development, Disability and Online Learning Technology.
As well as the internal testing that will take place on groups of staff, the materials will be subjected to external validation by respected academic staff in the field. This process should add currency to the materials for external dissemination.
Alongside the module development, a series of student interviews will take place that will look at the experiences of disabled students through the narrative of the student life cycle from pre-entry information through to issues relating to choice of career and employment. It is hoped that this resource can be 'front-ended' by a database search design.
A similar exercise relating to a database of teaching approaches will be investigated. A catalogue of internal resources may also be included.
We are also investigating the use of a 'wrap-around' approach to online learning with a module on accessibility of websites and an end of project conference. This design encompasses the use of the www in liaison with face-to-face workshop design.
The presentation lasted for 30 minutes and was followed by 15 minutes of questions and discussion.
Question: Have you thought of offering some kind of certification?
This is one possibility we looked into. We are certainly considering having the materials accredited by an organisation such as the Staff and Educational Development Agency here in the UK but we have gone down that track just yet.
Another possibility is to embed the modules within an existing course such as those offered by the Staff and Educational Development Units of each of the universities (these are mentioned in the 'Background' section above).
I'm not totally convinced of the relevance of offering a certificate to academic staff when they have worked through the modules. It may prove valuable if some proof is needed for career advancement, but at the moment this isn't an overriding model within the four DEMOS universities.
Question: Are the material freely available on the WWW?
Information relating to the project is available at the website. Other resources such as the student interviews that we are undertaken will be available freely. However, the material in the DEMOS modules is not yet available because we are still in the testing phase for this resource. However, we do intend the make the resource available to the sector upon completion of the project if not before.
Question: Is the material on the intranet at Manchester?
No, the primary means of delivery for the project resources is through the website.
Question: Do the materials lend themselves to just-in-time interaction, e.g. if I am expecting a blind student in my class next term can I go and find out what I want to know from the website?
I wouldn't say so, no. At the moment we are developing modules, which will tend to raise the general level of awareness, although they cover specific topics. I think my stance on this, is that we are about staff development and I suppose the modules idea is a more traditional approach similar to face-to-face workshops.
I'm not totally convinced by the quick fix idea that you can go along to a website and just tap in 'blind' as a search term and get all the answers you require. The materials are all about learning and even the most radical constructivists would say that the learners need some sort of scaffolding to facilitate this.
However, once we get the student interviews online, and if we develop a local resource directory and a teaching strategies resource we should end up will a fairly comprehensive set of resources. You will be able to go along to the website and get answers to most questions even if it means going off to another website. I don't think we have the time nor was it within the scope of the project to provide an 'encyclopaedia' of disability information.