Using online learning to disseminate disability-related staff development materials
HEFCE Disability Initiative 2000-2002
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This article appeared in a special edition of PLANET, the newsletter of the Learning and Teaching Support Network Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences. The complete newsletter can be downloaded in PDF format at http://www.gees.ac.uk/planet/index.htm#PSE3.
The four universities in the Greater Manchester area have recently worked together on a HEFCE-funded project (DEMOS) which is investigating the use of online learning to disseminate information about disabled students. Mike Wray the Project Coordinator explains here some of the issues behind this pedagogical approach to staff development.
Traditional Staff Development Model
Disability offices of UK universities are under increasing pressure to work with academic staff to disseminate information about disabled students. Due to recent legislative changes and an increase in the number of disabled students, staff developers are seeking more efficient ways of delivering this information.
However, until recently the model most frequently evident in Higher Education for engaging academic staff in issues relating to this subject has been poorly conceived. Traditionally, disability offices of universities have worked alongside Staff Development Units (SDUs) to deliver training events. Also, in many cases the disability office is placed within central services and staffed by administrative personnel (McCabe, 2000). This can lead to a 'them and us' situation and poor working relationships (Seyd 2000) where central services are seen as feeding down policies from increasingly managerialist organisations and the latest government initiatives.
In addition to these difficulties Educational Development Units are more usually defined by academics than SDUs as the relevant place to go for pedagogical advice (Webb 1996). It is therefore easy to see why many events about the support of disabled students are infrequently attended by academic staff.
For instance, the four disability offices of the universities in Manchester in conjunction with staff from the Access Summit Centre have run disability-related training events in recent years and an effort has been made to continue to run this programme through the Staff and Educational Development units in the current academic year. Whilst many of the events have proved popular some have been cancelled due to lack of attendance. This is despite efforts by the disability offices to deliver the programme in the most efficient method possible (i.e. lunchtime sessions of no more than 2 hours - attendance is also often increased when sandwiches are laid on!).
It is important that disability offices work together with academic departments if support for disabled students is to improve and there is a need to develop successful models from which to work. Recent signs indicate that the tide is turning.
We appear to be at a fortuitous time when national policy is forcing HEIs to examine their policies and a number of initiatives have appeared that will lead to collaborative working between subject specific departments and disability specialists.
For me one of the most promising developments is the formation of the LTSN and the GLTC. This seems to be a network that academic staff can trust since it has their subject specialisms and research issues at heart.
There is also a real swell in the amount of information that is being written about supporting disabled students. The current issue of PLANET is a good example and it appears alongside a number of articles that have emerged across several staff networks.
Resources of note include:
- the Geography Discipline Network's series of guides1;
- a number of articles appearing on the members area of the ILT website2;
- a guide to assessment issues for disabled students available from the LTSN Generic Centre3;
- a series of guides to disability at the CoWork project's website4.
What these resources have in common is that they address specific pedagogical issues. There has been a lack of research and literature on the pedagogical implications of working with disabled students in higher education and although the resources listed above are beginning to address this problem we have a long way to go before all the gaps are filled.
Another common principle shared by the above resources is that they represent a 'situated' (Lave & Wenger 1991) approach to learning through staff development in this area. In this approach staff concerned with working with disabled students in the learning situation are responsible for developing and taking part in their own development process and through hands-on practice. Resources are now being developed by academics alongside disability specialists, written for and delivered through academic networks to academic staff.
This is a model that is beginning to be adopted by disability offices in their delivery of staff development. For instance, in another HEFCE-funded disability initiative based at Nottingham University5 and encompassing institutions in the M1/M69 staff development network, disability specialists acting as 'animateurs' are working alongside departments to form a plan to develop initiatives within the department.
Staff developers from the disability field are recognising that it is not enough to simply enter the department and deliver a workshop, an approach that stems from a deficit model of staff development (Candy 1996). Academic staff need to feel that it is part of their role to support disabled students and that they are actively engaged in creating the practices, research and literature around this support.
Can online delivery help?
Much has been written about the power of the web and of online learning to facilitate learner-centred or constructivist approaches to delivery. The remit for the Demos Project was to explore the usefulness of this approach and whether or not it can be utilised by disability offices and departments to disseminate information about disabled students.
Many people are producing information online in the form of web pages that are simply electronic versions of text documents. Very few are being converted for the web or indeed written for the web as a learning experience. Also, little use has been made of online learning to deliver staff development in HE except in the field of training staff to deliver online learning itself.
We hope to tap into the swell of concern about disabled students and at the same time provide a unique approach that will hopefully capture the interest of academic staff. An unanticipated benefit of the project is that staff who take part get an online learning experience. Even though many are engaged in developing courses of their own, few get such an opportunity.
Our early experiences demonstrated the difficulties that disability offices have previously faced in engaging academic staff. The first module was written using a collaborative learning environment and attempted to engage academic staff in a discussion of the issues around implementation of the QAA's Code of Practice on students with disabilities (QAA 2000). It proved very difficult to deliver this module in an effective way. However, as discussed above we feel that this is mainly due to the context (and perhaps the content - QAA possibly not being everyone's favourite topic of conversation) in which the materials was presented.
We are now developing a series of modules with the concerns of academic staff in mind. These learning modules are enriched with a number of further resources - web links, further reading, a database of student experience from interviews with students and case studies where possible. As the information on the site grows the learner will be able to explore these resources and hopefully find the answers they are looking for. The content is being underpinned by a social model of disability (one that looks at the social construction of disability rather than an individualistic medical model) and also by an appreciation of the impact of the Special Education Needs and Disability Act (2001).
We have also tried to interweave some interactivity into the materials with learning activities and hypertext links to external resources. An analysis of need is an ongoing feature of the project and modules have been written for academic staff with academic staff acting as members of each module writing team. The materials are also being independently checked for quality by an external representative who is a regarded academic in the field.
The challenge for the remainder of the project's lifetime and indeed for those interested in utilising the materials developed, is how to embed the tool within a delivery method that has meaning for the academic staff it is intended to reach.
Information about the Demos project is available at our website: http://jarmin.com/demos/
The modules will be used on a large audience at a one-day conference in liaison with TechDis6 in Birmingham on the 17th of March.
Demos is looking for groups of staff to try out the materials. If you are interested please contact Mike Wray.
Candy, P.C. (1996) Promoting lifelong learning: academic developers and the university as a learning organisation. International Journal of Academic Development. 1(1), 7-18.
Lave, & Wenger (1991) Situated learning. Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.
McCabe, E. (2001) Disability Officers in Higher Education. National Association of Disability Officer, Technical Briefing, 1/2001, University of Lincoln, UK.
Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (1999) Code of Practice on Students with Disabilities. Gloucester: QAA.
Seyd, S. (2000) Breaking down barriers: the administrator and the academic. Perspectives, Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 4, 2, 35-37.
Webb, G. (1996) Understanding Staff Development. The Society for Research into Higher Education and the OU Press, Milton Keynes.