H810: Off the starting blocks

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Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I have just started studing H810 Accessible Online Learning: Supporting Disabled Students. It’s one of the modules that counts towards my MA in Online Distance Education (MA ODE).  I’ts  particularly poignant that this module is starting with the Paralympics in the background. On the back of a phenomenally success Olympic Games, the withdrawal symptoms I was feeling at its ending, along with the family, is assuaged with the Paralympics. It’s been a joy to watch sportsmen and women achieve with various disabilities (visual, physical, mental) feats that most able-bodied people would never be able to do. I’ve been particularly struck with how matter of fact my children are with watching the Paralympics and how interested they are in the various sports, disability levels and ways in which the sports have evolved to accommodate wheelchairs, restricted movements and loss of limbs. What I haven’t seen with them is pity or sense of being uncomfortable looking at or talking about disability. Growing up in South Africa, my children’s heroes are disabled athletes Oscar Pistorius and Natalie du Toit along with the able bodied Caster Semenya and the Proteas. I hope that the seeming popularity of the Paralympics translates into a longer term attitudinal change as regards the capability of persons with a disability. 

H810 is about promoting accessibility and to improve access to learning for disabled students.The module’s learning outcomes are stated as follows:

  • an understanding of the accessibility issues faced by students, lecturers, tutors, module designers and support staff working in online and distance education
  • insights into educational policy issues that address accessibility and disability
  • an introduction to the research literature underpinning concepts, technical accessibility solutions and student support solutions
  • a framework to assess the accessibility and support needs of learners in relation to particular technologies
  • the opportunity for participants to evaluate and create examples of accessible online learning for their own working contexts.

I’m really looking forward to exploring these issues with other OU students. In the South African context, I have explored access to education through technology for the those in resource constrained environments, looking at concepts such as Open Educational Resources, open content and research and the use of mobile cellular technology as a way of improving the possibilities of access to teaching and learning. The Millennium Development Goals and UNESCO’s Education for All (EFA) programs promote universal access to education as prime development goals for the alleviation of poverty.

Current experience of accessibility and supporting disabled learners

Disability in a developing world context has not really appeared on my radar, and I currently don’t have to support learners with disabilities in my own practice. My practical professional experience has been mainly in making sure that web content and web design is made accessible to those who have to access screen readers, and I am familiar with good practice standards for online content and online writing, which I try to incorporate into my own content development and in guidelines to designers and developers. I hope to develop this into a more holistic and overarching understanding of supporting learners with disabilities to access online learning materials – both through technology  as an enabler (where technology makes the content or delivery possible) and where a technology might restrict access to certain groups (and makes learning/context inaccessible). An example of the former might be screen readers or e-books where it is possible to listen to the text or make the font larger this promoting accessibility, while an example of the latter might be the use of virtual whiteboard where a student may not be able to participate due to visual difficulties or a lack of bandwidth.

Developing a context

The module requires students to develop a particular context, based on an actual or theoretical situation or scenario. I haven’t finalized mine but it’s likely to be in the area of how developing learning materials using multimedia affects accessibility both for those with visual disabilities and in cases where multimedia access for resource constrained communities is limited by a lack of computing infrastructure and where mobile devices are a key delivery mechanism. Another area I am interested in is how learners with learning disabilities such as dyslexia and dispraxia can be helped by use of assistive technologies and how courses and education can be made inclusive for those with such difficulties.

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