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Accessibility and e-learning


English: A collection of pictograms. Three of ...

English: A collection of pictograms. Three of them used by the United States National Park Service. A package containing those three and all NPS symbols is available at the Open Icon Library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(These notes have been prepared and considered as part of the Open University postgraduate module on e-learning H810: Accessible Online Learning – supporting disabled students as past of their MA in Open and Distance Education)

Accessible examinations and assessments

  1. Are the particular assessments or examinations are core to the course?
  2. What adjustments are permissible within particular assessments or examinations without compromise to academic, or other prescribed, standards, such as competences required by professional bodies?
  3. Is the successful achievement of the highest grades and awards, based on performance in examinations and other assessments, equally attainable by disabled students?

These three questions are universal.

Offered in a table, as part of a questionnaire they should be answered by a variety of people up and down the chain of command – from assessors and tutors, through courseware designers to subject matters and the dean of faculty.

I gave this some thought in four different contexts:

  1. teaching swimming coaches as the Amateur Swimming Association’s Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3 Teaching Aquatics levels;
  2. admissions policy at a collegiate university such as Oxford
  3. for corporate Learning & Development departments via their e-learning provider
  4. for a learning institutions in the creative industries and media.

I’d ask various further questions:

  • What kind of adjustments should we reasonably be expected to make to accommodate students with disabilities?
  • What does our research say about the attraction of certain courses or the problems that have been encountered. What have we addressed and fixed? Where do the current problems lie?
  • Do we meet the criteria of the DDA? If so, is this enough? Is the bar too low? How much do we wish to achieve?
  • Are we communicating policy at all stages from advertising courses, faculties and colleges – to the assessment process and examinations, the results experted and how these will be achieved?
  • (Oxford) Are we or should we proactively seek to attract students with disabilities ?
  • Should we seek to attain a certain % in the student population of students with representative disabilities?
  • Are there colleges or faculties or individual champions which have a vision that is either more for or against such accommodation?
  • What student bodies exist, university funded or student organised, around support for disabled students?

Putting content online, or simply the universal digitization of resources, immediately creates opportunities for students with disabilities who can then apply technology to enhance or adjust the may the content is communicated, shared or discussed in keeping with their needs, expectations, experiences and ambitions. Improving opportunities has to be a two way process, working with the students who have or have not found ways around or through barriers whilst seeking to offer, suggest and provide services, whether software, assistive technologies or other interventions (assistants, scribes, parking, physical access to building, facilities).

In relation to disabled students who needs to know what? After an audit of awareness who then needs to improve their knowledge and awareness?

If there is a blank requirement for basic awareness, at what levels and to what degree can further training be provided to that understanding is fully integrated horizontally and vertically.

  • Do we need ethical and moral guidance?
  • Should the university vision or mission statement be adjusted?
  • Where are we taking legal advice from? Is the legal position fully understood by those who need to know?

A  student using Dragon speech software in an exam for the first time was revealing:

  • He had been using it for two months previous to the exam (like learning the piano, I would have got far further along the learning curve so that as I suer I felt I could make the technology sing – for some the right pen or pencil is crucial to exam preparation.)
  • Allowing for the idiosyncracies of the programme
  • Started the exam much the same as anyone else – with fear and trepidation

‘My exam results proved that although I may not be able to express myself with the technical aptitude of most people my age and intelligence using this equipment I was at least able to demonstrate that I had been working and learning’.

Making adjustments to or accommodating students for different exams will be tricky. Various questions have to be answered:

  1. Is the assessment or examination is core to the course?
  2. What adjustments are permissible without compromise to academic, or other prescribed standards or competencies?
  3. Are the highest grades and awards, based on performance in examinations and other assessments, equally attainable by disabled students?

It strikes me that greater transparency and collaboration is necessary. This would be beneficial, but is also apt in the modern paradigm of e-learning. See it as an opportunity to review course content in a different way.

Excellent, broad, clear communication is required. Faculties need to go out of their way to be sure students have understood when they apply for the course and as the course plays out.

Assessment strategies should be:

  1. properly designed and kept under review
  2. rigorous, consistent and at an appropriate level
  3. effective measures of student attainment
  4. able to guarantee the validity, equity and reliability of assessments.

On the basis the QAA standards have already been followed, further improvements to satisfy a range or disabilities ought to be possible. Broadening the reach would be recommended across visual, hearing, mobility and cognitive impairments.

Assessment is a pedagogical tool

These milestones, these hurdles are key to embedding learning and to starting the process of making it stick. Repetition of testing on the same subject improves the chances of it being remembered – a test in the real world, applied to a problem or task that is repeated is similar to an assessment, and as in the real world, repeated assessments, like a challenge, need to be different each time in scope, scale, context and outcomes.

The examination is one thing, marking is another. It isn’t simply guidelines on how the exam will be set and assessed, but the desires of the student, their goals and the expectations and ambitions of their peer group, college, profession and family.

Learning from the way in which the Paralympics take place – an ulimate test, I wonder if students with disabilities might also achieve a classification related to their disability. In this way, if, for example, awarded a 2.2 a letter or code might be affixed to it.

Fairness is debatable and it would have to be transparent, which in turn expects comment and criticism so therefore requires both the mechanisms and people to respond and to take action. This is therefore an additional cost, technically to provide the means of transparency, feedback and communication, but also in recruiting, retaining and supervising full-time or part-time personnel to undertake these tasks.

It strikes me that an institution or department, through an individual champion and with some credible followers, need to embrace accessibility and then follow through on a case by case basis, writing up and sharing experiences so that knowledge can be shared and where found barriers removed, reduced or circumvented. As a swimming club, proximity of special needs schools, practitioners and a flexible pool operator means that we have many disabled swimmers with a variety of needs. The club has become a regional hub for best practice. The lessons learnt, the expertise and the development of helpers, assistant teachers and coaches all contribute to the knowledge pool. Similar hubs are required within organisations – educational institutions or companies, if the diversity of possibilities for people with disabilities are to be met.

If only it were as simple as considering dietary needs in a restaurant, whether vegetarian or vegan, or allergies to certain foods.

Pointless second guessing the detail if once in a blue moon someone appears on a course or module with one of these disabilities.

Again from sport, and following on from insights from the Paralympics:

I wonder if there would be value in a log book and portfolio, more than just a blog and e-portfolio, but a detailed transferable record, including medical record, exam attainment, accommodations made in the past (successful and failures)  …  meeting certain criteria so at various times a students progress can be monitored and where assessments take place a judgement taken accordingly. In swimming athletes keep a log-book of training and test sets, as well as galas and land training … as times achieved over various distances swimming different strokes are constantly monitored it matters that they include periods of ill health and absence, even physical growth or weight gain.

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