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Return to SENDA? Implementing accessibility for disabled students in virtual learning environments in UK further and higher education

3. Definitions and scope

This section introduces and contextualises the principal themes and concepts addressed in the study.

3.1 Further education and higher education

In the UK, education is compulsory until the age of 16. The general term for education provided thereafter is ‘post-16 education’ or ‘post-compulsory education’.

Post-16 education includes all vocational and non-vocational courses for school leavers and adults, and is divided into ‘further education’ and ‘higher education’.

Higher education (HE) refers to academic education above A level (and its Scottish equivalent), provided by universities and colleges of higher education, collectively known as higher education institutions (HEIs). The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) latest published figures, for 2000/1, show 152 HEIs in the UK (DfES 2002). The Higher Education Statistics Authority estimates the current figure (September 2003) to be 170 (HESA 2003b).

Further education (FE) consists of all post-16 education other than higher education. FE courses are mostly technical, vocational and professional training. Latest DfES figures, for 2000/1, show 483 FEIs in the UK (including 84 sixth-form colleges) (DfES 2002).

Since the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, which enabled former polytechnics and other colleges of further education to designate themselves universities, many institutions have offered a mixture of HE and FE courses. Policy shifts towards a culture of ‘flexibility’, ‘inclusiveness/widening participation’ and ‘lifelong learning’ have also contributed to the blurring of the previously ‘binary’ system of post-16 education, and a shift towards what educational sociologists term ‘mass higher education’.

The impacts of advances in information and communication technologies (ICTs) generally, and e-learning technologies specifically, are felt across all sectors in education. The interview subjects and survey respondents in this research are drawn from both FE and HE, and the literature survey also covers both areas. There are some differences between further education and higher education in relation to e-learning development, which were revealed in the current study (see section 7) and evidenced in previous work (e.g. Jenkins et al. 2001, and JISC/UCISA 2003).

3.2 Virtual learning environments (VLEs)

Virtual learning environments (VLEs) are a form of e-learning technology. E-learning is an umbrella term referring to the use of new digital technologies, including the internet and worldwide web, to enhance the quality of learning. While e-learning is a seemingly straightforward concept, its implications are various and complex.

E-learning is based on relatively simple information and communications technologies. But it has potentially profound impacts on pedagogy – on the ways people teach and the ways people learn. E-learning is a social process – it involves new forms of collaboration and networking. And the adoption of e-learning also involves organisational change within education institutions.

The rise of networked technologies, in particular the internet and worldwide web, has impacted enormously on e-learning. As Seale and Rius-Riu (2001) point out, until the mid 1990s, many e-learning developers were focusing on software and multimedia programmes. Then the internet and the worldwide web took off, and became the primary focus of e-learning.

There are a number of basic tools that feature in web-based e-learning:

  • teaching materials - for example reading lists, module notes, handouts; also multimedia content such as audio or video
  • communication tools – for example e-mail, newsgroups, mailing lists and bulletin/discussion boards
  • assessment tools – for example electronic submission of assignments, self-tests, assessed tests such as multiple choice, image-matching.

A virtual learning environment (VLE) incorporates all the above tools within one single software environment. A VLE is not an instructional system per se, but a ‘focus for learning activities’ (Stiles 2001). The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) defines a VLE as an environment where ‘online interactions of various kinds take place between learners and tutors’ (JISC 2002).

In addition to the basic tools outlined above, most VLEs also include:

  • shared work group areas – for students to upload and share files
  • student support – for example course information, communication with tutors, FAQs
  • student tools – for example student web pages, diaries and calendars
  • management and tracking of students – for example password protected areas, logging of student usage of VLE
  • a standard interface – customisable to a certain extent by the educational institution and by individual students
  • navigational structure to support the structured delivery of information.
    (O’Leary 2002)

All educational institutions also use information management systems (IMS) to support the teaching of students – these include student records, finance, library systems, administration and course management. A single software environment that supports both the VLE functions and the IMS functions is known in the UK as a managed learning environment (MLE).

Terminology and definitions can be somewhat interchangeable, and indeed confused, in this area. The academic and commercial sectors use different terms, and there are also differences between the UK and other countries. The JISC MLE Steering Group oversees definitions of VLEs and MLEs in the UK FE and HE sectors (see JISC 2002), and also provides a diagrammatic explanation of the relationship and functions of MLEs and VLEs, shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1 is a diagram showing a VLE 'box' incorporating six smaller white boxes indicating the main functions of VLEs: curriculum mapping, delivery, assessment, tutor support, communication and tracking. The VLE box links to external functions of the information management system of the institution: quality process, student record system, registers and business systems.

Figure 1. MLE and VLE sub-system (JISC 2002, reproduced by kind permission of BECTa)

The influence of commercial software developers in further and higher education has increased with the rise of proprietary virtual learning environments (Seale and Rius-Riu 2001). In addition, some academic institutions have developed their own VLEs. Appendix 2 lists the principal UK VLEs.

This research focuses on VLEs rather than MLEs, as it is primarily concerned with the delivery and direct support of learning related content – i.e. the ‘six white boxes’ in Figure 1.

3.3. Accessibility

Accessibility is another term that has some ambiguity within UK education. Accessible education is sometimes understood as part of the current UK government’s policies for ‘widening participation’ in education (DfES 2003b). These recent policies are generally concerned with what is termed ‘fair access’ and address socio-economic issues in student admissions (see section 4.3).

In its narrower, technical sense, however – and the sense in which it is used in this research - accessibility is concerned with making learning, in this case e-learning, barrier-free for disabled people.

New information technologies, including the worldwide web, represent both opportunities and challenges for disabled people. Because the technologies rely on digitising data, the potential to transform the data from one format to another means that disabled users can, in theory, access the information in a format that suits them. There has been a considerable amount of work and research dedicated to making the web accessible to people with a range of disabilities, including those who:

Difficulties in accessing a web site can also be due to a number of reasons not necessarily connected to disability. A user may have a very slow internet connection; they may not be fluent in the language in which the site is written; they may have an unusual browser or operating system, or they may be using a palmtop. Making a site accessible means it is easier for everyone to use, whatever their circumstances.

Many of the processes that can enhance accessibility are not technically complex. For example a person with dyslexia can manipulate font style and size, background colour and other aspects of web-based text to the style that best suits them, using functions within standard web browsers (Draffan 2002). (However, user skills come into play here (see section 7.7i); a certain level of ICT skills is needed to take advantage of these options.)

Other processes require additional technologies – known as assistive technologies (ATs). For example, a person with a visual impairment can, with the use of a speech output system, transform textual input into audio output (Neumann 2002). Or a person with a physical disability who cannot use a conventional mouse can input text through a specialised device (Henderson 2002).

There are a large number of assistive technologies available to help students with all kinds of disabilities. (10) For the web-based e-learning via VLEs under consideration in this research, the principal technologies include:

  • screen magnification systems
  • speech output systems (i.e. text to speech)
  • Braille output systems (i.e. text to Braille)
  • speech recognition systems (i.e. speech to text)
  • predictive text systems
  • alternative input devices such as joystick, trackerball, touchpad

The potential for reducing or eliminating barriers to accessing learning content is immense. However, for this potential to be realised, the ‘raw content’ must be free of accessibility errors. The most common web accessibility errors are:

  • invalid HTML (11) or style sheet coding
  • lack of a site map
  • lack of text alternatives for images
  • structural mark-up used for presentation
  • poorly labelled forms and frames
  • poor presentation and writing
  • use of PDF without alternative outputs
  • Javascript or other programming code with no alternative
  • inaccessible multimedia.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) develops interoperable technologies to ‘lead the web to its full potential’ (W3C 2003). One aspect of this is the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which promotes web usability for people with disabilities. In coordination with organizations around the world, WAI pursues accessibility of the Web through five primary areas of work: technology, guidelines, tools, education and outreach, and research and development.

WAI has produced a set of guidelines for web content accessibility, which have a hierarchical structure with three levels of accessibility:

  • priority 1 is a minimum level that removes the fundamental barriers to accessing web materials, but may still exclude many disabled users
  • priority 2 removes more of the barriers, though will still not be accessible to some users
  • priority 3 ensures that web based material is accessible to the great majority of disabled users. (W3C WAI 1999)

A summary of the Web Content Accessibility guidelines is in Appendix 3. It should be noted that the WAI guidelines are generic guidelines for the web; they do not take into account the particular example of web-based e-learning, and they certainly cannot guarantee an accessible learning experience. TechDis (12) has developed seven ‘precepts of accessibility’ specific to web-based learning:

  • clarity of web site navigation, design and page layout
  • attention to design, colour and presentation issues, including the requirements for user control
  • implementation and appropriate use of various tags or attributes for images
  • use of appropriate mark-up language to achieve accessible elements
  • use of clear and concise, recognisable language conventions and configuration of letters, words, sentence and paragraphs
  • provision of accessible multi-media (e.g. video and audio files) and accessible documents formats (e.g. PowerPoint and PDF document files)
  • provision of contextual help, help in dealing with errors.
    (Rainger 2003a)

There are a number of automated accessibility checkers and validators designed to aid the development of accessible material on the web. The best known is Bobby/Watchfire, (13) an automated programme that checks web pages against the WAI guidelines and produces a report on aspects of the pages that are inaccessible. Another testing programme is LIFT, developed for specific use with web authoring software such as Dreamweaver and Frontpage. (14)

3.4 The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA)

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA) 2001 is an amendment to the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (see section 4.2a). The legislation ‘aims to ensure that disabled people have equal opportunities to benefit from, and contribute to the learning and services available in education institutions’ (DRC 2003b). SENDA requires all education institutions:

  • to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of disabled students
  • not to treat disabled students less favourably
  • to act in an ‘anticipatory capacity’ (i.e. institutions should not wait until a disabled student asks in order to implement good practice).

In sum, it would seem that the technology, the guidelines and the legislation are all in place to ensure accessibility within virtual learning environments. Despite this, all the research, including this study, reveals low levels of accessibility. This study attempts to tease out some of the varied reasons for this, and suggest some possible ways forward.

(Click the footnote number to return to the text)
(9) See Rainger and Draffan’s (2003) papers on dyslexia and related learning difficulties and web development at
(10) An extensive database of assistive technologies used in education is at
(11) See glossary for definitions of technical terms
(12) TechDis is the JISC-funded Technology for Disabilities Information Services at
(13) Bobby/Watchfire (2003) Bobby Online Free Portal
(14) LIFT accessibility testing software supplied by


All pages and content copyright © Sara Dunn 2003, unless otherwise stated.