|Australasian Journal of Educational Technology
2006, 22(2), 268-288.
In the accessible e-learning community there are very few original metaphors, theories and models that have been developed to try and describe, explain and develop 'best' practice. This paper will explore the extent to which existing accessibility models can help to develop our conceptualisations of accessible e-learning practice, and outline a proposal for a new contextualised model of accessible e-learning practice. The key components of this model are accessibility stakeholders, accessibility drivers, accessibility mediators and stakeholder responses. The value of this model in helping to develop accessible e-learning practice in higher education is that it challenges researchers and practitioners to recognise that focusing solely on the drivers of accessibility (accessibility legislation, guidelines and standards) is not an effective strategy for developing and changing practice. If practice is to develop and e-learning be made optimally accessible we need to understand how stakeholders' responses to accessibility are influenced by the context in which they are operating, a context in which both accessibility drivers and mediators operate.
Conceptualisations of best practice often emerge through the use of metaphors, theories and models to analyse and reflect on current practice. In the accessible e-learning community there are very few original metaphors, theories and models that have been developed to try and describe, explain and develop practice. This paper will explore the extent to which existing accessibility models can help to develop our conceptualisations of accessible e-learning practice, and outline a proposal for a new model of accessibility practice.
The scope of the web accessibility integration model is very limited in that it focuses only upon the various influences on the development of an accessible web site. In doing so the focus is narrowed to just the web site developer and their client. It does however place their interaction within a societal context of policies, laws and guidelines. Leung et al. (1999) developed the composite practice model to describe and explain current practice in regard to assistive technology service delivery in post-secondary educational settings across Australia. Whilst the focus of this model is as narrow as the web accessibility integration model, what it does do effectively is highlight the contribution of a range of stakeholders, including: administrators, student services, lecturers, librarians, IT services and assistive technology specialists. Kelly et al. (2005) propose a holistic model for e-learning accessibility, which laudably places the learner at the centre of the development process. This model focuses predominantly on the context in which accessible e-learning is developed, arguing that local cultural, political and social factors need to be taken into account. In doing so however, it ignores the perspectives of stakeholders other than the student and perhaps the lecturer.
Whilst these three models focus on different stakeholders (eg. developer, AT specialist, student) what they all have in common is that they include the context in which the stakeholders are operating.
Figure 1: A contextualised model of accessible e-learning practice in higher education
The extent to which e-learning material and resources are accessible will be influenced by how all the stakeholders within a higher education institution respond to external drivers for accessibility such as legislation, guidelines and standards. This response will be mediated by stakeholders views and understandings of a range of issues including: disability, accessibility and inclusion; the extent to which they view themselves to have a duty and responsibility to respond; the extent to which they feel their personal autonomy is threatened and the extent to which they feel it is necessary or beneficial to respond as a community or team. The accessible e-learning practices that develop out of these responses will vary depending on the stakeholders and the context in which they are operating but essentially centres on taking ownership and control as well as developing personal meaning.
The theoretical position that underpins this model is that the development of accessible e-learning is a practice or activity that can and will be mediated. This position has been developed by Seale (2004, 2006) and draws heavily upon the theories of communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) and activity theory (Engeström, 1987). Seale (2006) argues that both theories prompt us to think about how rules mediate accessibility practice (drivers) and what the subjects of an activity system or members of a community (stakeholders) need to do in order to respond to those rules. For example, activity theory prompts us to think about 'division of labour' and how different roles and responsibilities for accessible e-learning are decided, while the communities of practice theory prompts us to think about whether accessible e-learning practice is located in several different communities that need to be brought together in order for a fuller and more successful practice to develop. Both theories also prompt us to consider the extent to which different stakeholders develop their own 'personal and collective meanings' through their interpretation of such things as rules, tools, approaches and procedures.
What the contextualised model of accessible e-learning practice stresses is that there is no direct causal relationship or connection between drivers for accessibility and accessible e-learning material and resources. The gap between drivers and outcome needs to be filled by accessible e-learning practices and the stakeholders within a higher education institution help to bridge that gap. Each element of the model: stakeholders, drivers, mediators and stakeholder responses will be explored in more detail.
Seale (2006) argues that accessible e-learning practice will not develop through the actions of individual practitioners or stakeholders alone. Accessible e-learning practice will develop and progress when all the different stakeholders join to work together. She identifies the key stakeholders in the development of accessible e-learning within a higher education institution as: disabled students, lecturers, learning technologists, student support services, staff developers and senior managers. These stakeholders are incorporated into the contextualised model of accessible e-learning practice.
The WCAG-1 have had a huge impact on design process, particularly in relation to setting the benchmarks or perceived standards that designers should aspire to. However, a major criticism of the WCAG-1 is that they are too generic (particularly in relation to technologies). Therefore, despite the impact of the WCAG-1 and the development of a second version, which is attempting to incorporate feedback from WCAG-1 (Caldwell et al. 2004), other more specific guidelines have been developed:
The Learning Federation (2003) Accessibility Specification for Content Development describes accessibility principles, requirements and guidelines for creating accessible online curriculum content for The Learning Federation (an initiative of State and Federal governments of Australia and New Zealand). The specification will be used to assess whether online curriculum content conforms to the principles of legislative compliance; appropriate learning object design; access device independence; flexibility of operation and presentation; communication of accessibility information with content and equitable user system requirements. The Learning Federation has also defined four high level accessibility user profiles for vision impairment; hearing impairment; physical impairment and cognitive impairment. that can be used within content design and development to guide appropriate learning object design.
In Australia, Section 24 of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) makes it unlawful for those providing goods or services to discriminate against another person on the grounds of their disability (Australian Government Attorney-General Department 1992). The Act empowers the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) to issue advisory notes or guidelines. Whilst the Act does not specifically mention online services or websites, HREOC (2002) stress that the provision of information and online services through the web is a service covered by the DDA. The Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs has also been working since the mid-1990s towards Disability Standards for Education to interpret the DDA for the education sector. The effect of the standards, which were tabled in March 2005, will be to give students with disabilities the same right to education and training opportunities as students without disabilities. No specific mention is made however of standards for the provision of online learning.
The main piece of legislation in the UK that can be applied to accessible e-learning is the 2001 amendment to the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, called the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (HMSO 1995, 2001). The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA) made it an offence for educational institutions in the UK to discriminate against a disabled person by treating him or her less favourably than others for a reason relating to their disability. Discrimination will be considered to have occurred if a disabled person is treated less favourably for a reason relating to their disability than a non-disabled person to whom that reason does not apply or if there is a failure to make "reasonable adjustments without which the disabled person is placed at a substantial disadvantage". Whilst SENDA does not make any explicit reference to e-learning or web accessibility, the associated code of practice (Disability Rights Commission, 2002) lists services covered by the Act as including: distance learning; independent learning opportunities such as e-learning; learning equipment and materials such as laboratory equipment, computer facilities, class handouts, etc; libraries, learning centres and information centres and their resources and information and communication technology and resources as services covered by the Act.
Given the impact and influence of guidelines such as WCAG-1, some have questioned how the guidelines have been derived and what their evidence base is. The WC3 does have a well-defined process for building consensus and obtaining comments from a range of stakeholders regarding the appropriateness and workability of their guidelines. However, there are some who consider that this process is not as formal (and perhaps by inference, rigorous) as those used by standards agencies such as the International Standards Organisation (Reed, Gardner-Bonneau & Isensee, 2004). Akoumianakis and Stephanidis (1999) argue that accessibility guidelines are not experimentally valid and that there is a need for the development and maintenance of 'experienced-based accessibility guidelines as an organizational repository of evolutionary design wisdom'. The organisation, service, disability, media and technology specific guidelines described in this paper could perhaps be viewed as examples of more 'experienced-based' guidelines.
To add to the debate and confusion over which guidelines should be used and whether they have any validity, many are interpreting the WCAG as standards that are somehow enforceable (Sampson-Wild & Burmeister, 2001).
In order to create true accessibility across the Internet a common standard needs to be employed. The WCAG are the nearest approximation of such a standard but individual nations have added to or manipulated these guidelines with the result of modifying the definition of 'accessibility'.
Section 508 in the US is the most prominent legislation to create its own standards, or benchmarks. However, eleven of the sixteen 508 Standards are drawn directly from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG-1). Five of the 508 standards do not appear in the WCAG-1 checkpoints and require a higher level of access or give more specific requirements. Paolucci (2004) argues that the emergence of this new standard, while welcome in one sense, also establishes a potentially confusing alternative. Certainly, the W3C has found it necessary to produce of a document that maps the relationship between the two evolving 'standards'.
Neither the UK legislation nor the DRC code of practice actually define what an accessible web site is or give guidance on creating one at the moment. This means that practitioners have to look to external benchmarks. McCarthy (2001), Wilder (2002) and others are therefore pointing to the WCAG-1 as a suitable benchmark, but as yet this has not been tested in the UK courts.
The Australian DDA also does not specify standards for web accessibility. HREOC's advisory note concerning Section 24 of the DDA endorses the W3C's WCAG as the standard for web accessibility in Australia (HREOC 2002). Arch and Burmeister (2003) comment on how the international guidelines and standards have taken precedence over the national guidelines, and contrast this to Section 508 in the US.
Whilst the impact of accessibility drivers on accessibility practice might be influenced to some extent by confusion and inconsistency, there is also a need to consider the extent to which practitioners' responses to accessibility drivers might also be influenced by other factors. The contextualised model prompts us to consider these other factors, by incorporating 'mediators' of accessibility as a component of the model. For example, practitioners' views and concerns regarding how their professional autonomy might be compromised by having to comply with guidelines and standards could motivate them to question the validity of guidelines, the consistency of standards or the clarity of legislation.
Administrative models of disability usually relate to specific areas of life such as education or employment and are used to assess whether or not people are eligible for certain benefits or compensation. The associated definitions of disability are written into legislation with legal implications and are viewed by many to be rigid and dichotomous. The definitions almost always relate to people's impairments rather than their physical or social environments. Health and welfare professions are often required to work within the framework of administrative definitions, but critics of this model argue that disabled people rarely fit into the neat boxes that administrators provide.
The social model of disability, put forward by disability activists, was a move against viewing disabled people as dependent and in need of care (Oliver, 1990). Disability was viewed as stemming from failure of the social and physical environment to take account of disabled peoples needs. The problems of disabled people were therefore not seen as within the individual person, but within society. According to the social model, it is not the individual with a disability who needs to be changed, but society.
In the early years of the social model, impairment as a concept or experience was rejected for fear of weakening the argument that altering the environment would solve the difficulties that disabled people faced. There is now, however, a growing acceptance by disability activists and those working in related fields such as assistive technology, that acknowledging impairment does not necessarily undermine the social model:
When we think of a disability as a personal attribute, it is the person who must be changed. If we put it in a functional context, we have the choice of altering either the person or some feature in the environment. Our choices have been dramatically increased (Coombs, 2000)
The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.Whilst the definition is in one sense quite vague, at the heart of the definition is a crucial concept: access by everyone regardless of their disability. By focusing on access for all, this definition encourages practitioners not to focus exclusively on disability (and hence reflect a medical model approach) but to focus on all users and their needs.
Other definitions of accessibility are more specific about what they mean by access and include additional criteria such as:
Accessible e-learning means courseware and content that is designed to be accessible to the widest possible variety of computer operating systems and specialized applications removing needless barriers for students with disabilities and providing a level playing field to let them work and learn like everyone else. (EASI, n.d)Different views and definitions of accessibility therefore tend to reflect the principles of a social model of disability, in that they highlight the need to remove barriers to participation and engagement in the online experiences, and the degree to which someone should be able to access an online resource regardless of their disability, technology or environment.
A common approach to supporting the e-learning needs of students with disabilities is to set up specialist services such as assistive technology centres. The rationale for setting up such services is linked to the fact that many students with disabilities can only access e-learning through the use of assistive technologies such as screen magnification software or screen readers (Banes & Seale, 2002). The importance of providing specialist equipment for students with disabilities is generally accepted (Owens et al. 1999). There is some evidence to suggest however that the way the provision of assistive technologies is organised varies from institution to institution (Leung et al. 1999; Fichten et al. 2003). Some institutions place this equipment in separate rooms or areas that only disabled students can access, and others place this equipment in general areas that all students have access to.
Jones and Tedd (2003) provide a case study of how three Welsh universities have attempted to cater for the needs of visually impaired students. All three provide specialist areas, but operate them in different ways. For the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, Jones and Tedd report on how in three of the libraries a 'Green card Area' has been set up, where suitable equipment for those with special needs is housed, and students have to access it by the use of 'swipe cards'. At Cardiff University, Jones and Tedd report that specialist equipment has been made available in the Arts and Social Studies Library as part of a large cluster of PCs that is used by all students. When the large monitor workstations are not required by visually impaired students they are available for use by any student. In the central library on the University of Wales, Swansea campus, Jones and Tedd note that there is a lockable 'Special Resources Room' for the visually impaired, which is looked after by the member of the library staff with special responsibility for disabled students.
The examples provided by Jones and Tedd raise interesting issues about whether students with disabilities feel that the way specialist technology is provided and managed unnecessarily 'labels' them as different to other students. Different solutions to the issue of enabling students with disabilities access to specialised equipment do exist. One possible solution, which may become more prominent as universities develop their IT structures and systems, is the provision of wireless local area networks. Marshall & Cunneen (2001) outline the rationale for setting up a wireless LAN at the Eastern Institute of Technology in New Zealand, which focuses on the observation that students often have their own very customised personal computers (usually laptops) set up with this specialised software and equipment, and therefore rather than setting up specialist networked computers on campus which duplicate all these expensive and sometimes restrictive software, it would be easier to allow students to use their own laptops to access the campus network. Such an approach is attractive because it has the potential to benefit all students, not just those with disabilities. It may however require students as one stakeholder group, to argue strongly that other stakeholders need to think differently about disability.
The majority of proponents, however, agree that designing for the majority of people is a more realistic approach than trying to design for everyone (Witt & McDermott, 2004; Bohman, 2003). For example, Vanderheiden (1996) argues that it is not possible to create a product, which is usable by everyone or under all circumstances. Despite this, there are some who feel uncomfortable with the principles of universal design, because they appear to relieve educators of the responsibility of addressing individual student needs. For example Kelly, Phipps and Swift (2004) argue that since accessibility is primarily about people and not about technologies it is inappropriate to seek a universal solution, and that rather than aiming to provide an e-learning resource which is accessible to everyone, there can be advantages in providing resources which are tailored for the student's particular needs. In this instance one stakeholders' (learning technologists) response to accessibility is not only mediated by views of disability and accessibility but also views about the extent to which higher education should be student or learner centred. The extent to which learning technologists and other stakeholders can be truly student centred in their design approaches will be influenced by the extent to which they recognise disabled students as legitmate stakeholders in accessibility practice and genuinely take their views on board.
The Disability Rights Commission (2003) recommend that disability equality training be delivered by a disabled person in order to 'help to challenge entrenched attitudes'. The involvement of disabled people in staff development programs would certainly help to deliver less general and more specific awareness raising activities, which is something that a number of staff have indicated that they would value (Keats, 2003). Disabled students, as a key stakeholder in the development of accessibility practice may wish to consider the extent to which they would wish to be involved in designing and delivering accessibility related staff development opportunities.
The Disability Rights Commission (2003) also recommends that staff developers work with academic staff by involving examples or facilitators from the relevant academic discipline, so that it is more relevant and credible and involving staff in audits of provision or expertise, and they become more aware of their own development needs. There is certainly merit in adopting a staff centred model of staff development. Herrington (2000), for example, proposes an organic model of staff development that involves working with staff to determine the change agenda, shape and make decisions and create ongoing paths of development. Herrington argues that the organic model of staff development provides a mechanism through which groups of staff can identify their own required levels of awareness. The extent to which staff developers adopt organic staff development models such as that proposed by Herrington (2000) may be influenced by how much autonomy key stakeholders such as disabled students and senior managers wish other stakeholders, such as lecturers and learning technologists, to have regarding accessibility and disability related issues.
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|Author: Dr Jane Seale|
Senior Lecturer in Educational Innovation in Higher Education
School of Education, University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton, SO17 1BJ, United Kingdom
Please cite as: Seale, J. (2006). A contextualised model of accessible e-learning practice in higher education institutions. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 22(2), 268-288. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet22/seale.html