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

6. The challenges facing VLEs

6.1 Getting e-learning to work

Some of the ‘hype’ that greeted the arrival of e-learning in the mid-late 1990s has given way, replaced by a more measured understanding of the scale of the task involved in getting e-learning to live up to its potential. The challenge is daunting:

E-learning has to offer a pedagogical experience equivalent to that of an individual tutorial with a sympathetic and well-equipped teacher to large numbers of learners in geographically dispersed and socially diverse settings. (Mayes 2001, p.17)

Achieving this poses challenges at sector-wide, institutional and individual levels. Across the FE and HE sectors in England, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) is charged with leading the innovative use of technology. In addition to funding the JANET academic network, JISC is also addressing pedagogical issues in e-learning, and work on technical standards and interoperability, contributing to the development of international standards. The seamless movement of both administrative information and learning content between e-learning systems is a major challenge, and of crucial importance if the goal of learner-centred education is to be achieved. (Standards are addressed in more detail in section 6.2)

Another sector-wide issue is the support of best practice in instructional design. Instructional design involves the systematic development of instructional systems. It incorporates the entire development process, from analysis of learning needs and goals through to the development of a delivery system to meet those goals; it is based on a sound knowledge of learning and instructional theory.

As Whitlock (2001) points out, instructional design has been neglected in the UK; there is a ‘crisis in supply’, and it is an unrecognised profession, with no nationally recognised accreditation. There is a general tendency in education to emphasise the technology-related aspects at the expense of the learning design process, and pedagogical researchers do not help themselves in this regard, because:

They have tended to focus on general descriptive theoretical models, rather than goal-directed models of immediate use to practitioners… What is required is a plain language designer’s practicum using an up-to-date model of instructional design. (Whitlock 2001)

Hanson has highlighted this problem from the other end, pointing out that ‘academic faculty complain of a lack of understanding of pedagogical principles on the part of educational designers, who focus on transmission rather than a constructivist approach’ (Hanson 2003). This issue is of particular import with regard to the creation of content for VLEs, as this study shows (see section 7).

At institutional level, the problems with e-learning implementation are summed up by Hase and Ellis as ‘systemic rather than technical’. What is required is ‘alignment’ between the three major stakeholders in e-learning: learners, lecturers and administrators (Hase and Ellis 2001).

But this is rarely happening at the moment. There is a tendency for e-learning to ‘fall between the stools’ of IT and teaching/learning support. As one example of this, Goodison and Lewis report that in a 1999 HEFCE survey:

We received a number of responses from institutions that had given relatively little thought to the provision of C&IT for teaching and learning, beyond provision of hardware for basic student applications. (Goodison & Lewis 2003)

HEFCE subsequently (2002) surveyed teaching and learning strategies at 101 universities. Only 43 had a strategy that was available to external scrutiny on their web site. Of these 24 had a rationale for ICT in teaching in learning, and 12 addressed the issue of staff training. A number of institutional issues are highlighted by Goodison and Lewis’ ongoing research, including:

  • lack of clarity about the relationship of ICT to more traditional teaching and learning styles
  • the mixture of ad hoc and centrally driven strategies in e-learning implementation
  • varying approaches to staff training
  • the ‘not invented here’ syndrome
  • limitations (and benefits) of computer-based assessments
  • student perceptions of the value of ICTs.
    (Goodison & Lewis 2003)

The general direction of travel does appear to be towards more aligned e-learning, however; recent research for JISC points to ‘a significant move towards more strategic developments shaped by institutional policies and sector-wide initiatives’ (JISC/UCISA 2003).

Hart and colleagues reported on organisational approaches to e-learning implementation at Queensland University of Technology. For them, the key lessons learned were:

  • the visible and energetic support of senior management is critical
  • unless management ‘forced the issue’ on uniting academic and technology support units, there would continue to be a ‘dichotomy between the “techos” and the teachers’
  • publicising successes and failures of initiatives avoids ad hoc unsustainable projects
  • universities are fiercely territorial, and senior management need to devote time and sensitivity to negotiations when trying to implement e-learning.
    (Hart et al. 1999)

Conole points out that the rise of e-learning has precipitated changing roles for academic and support staff, the need for cross-institutional activities, and an increased need for staff development (Conole 2003).

Individual teachers are expected to shift - in a much-used metaphor – from being ‘the sage on the stage to the guide on the side’. The new academic, the ‘e-learning pedagogue’, needs a broad skill-set:

  • conventional pedagogy
  • online pedagogy – to understand how different people learn online
  • the ability to plan and manage online events and places
  • the ability to exploit technology and solve technical problems
  • the ability to interweave technology into learning design.
    (Good 2001 p. 173)

Some work on good practice has been done in this area, led by practitioners such as Salmon (2000) and Mason (1999). Once again, however, as this and other studies show, the gap between good practice and mainstream reality is large (see section 7).

Some practitioners are understandably sceptical about the impact on the quality of teaching of these new approaches. The doubts over the validity of research claiming benefits for e-learning has already been mentioned (BECTa 2003a). Jackson and Anagnostopoulou point out that many improvements ascribed to technology are actually due to the teachers anyway:

Improvements in learning through online technology, when observed, are generally the product of reflective teachers who have conceptions that encourage them to develop effective teaching interventions regardless of technology, rather than features of the particular online pedagogy. Conversely, arguments claiming that pedagogical improvements inherently follow from the use of online technologies are dangerously misleading. (Jackson and Anagnostopoulou 2001, p.62)

There is an ad hoc approach to staff training, with some institutions providing little in the way of recognition or support for online teaching skills. Indeed, as one respondent for this research noted:

There’s no recognition given to online materials. You can go away and write a book and that goes down on your CV, as does a research paper. But if you go away and produce an online course you don’t get any credit for it at all - either amongst your peers or the academic world as a whole. And online courses take as much work, if not more. (i01)

Implementation problems apart, some critics have detected technological determinism at work in e-learning, with the techno-political tail wagging the pedagogical dog:

Collaboration is a problem for networked learning, not an outcome of the new technology or its associated pedagogy. The role of the tutor and the emphasis on learner-centred education is shown to be a cloak for a new managerialist agenda that places additional burdens on the student, and masks the increasing audit culture in higher education. (Jones 2001, p.1)

Stiles makes a similar argument:

Political, economic and commercial pressures, are leading to a process of selection and adoption of [e-learning] systems that seriously underestimates the pedagogic challenges, and which may lead to [HEIs] becoming constrained by their adopted technologies. (Stiles 2002)

Whatever the motivating forces, what is certain is that e-learning – though its forms and foci may shift – is here to stay in UK education. What of the specific challenges currently facing VLEs?

6.1a. Pedagogical problems with VLEs

As discussed in section 5.2, some studies seem to indicate distinct pedagogical advantages in using VLEs. However, others point to less successful pedagogical outcomes (e.g. Littlejohn 2002, JM Consulting 2002, Stiles 2002), the principal problems being:

  • failure to engage the learner
  • mistaking interactivity for engagement
  • focusing on content rather than outcomes
  • mirroring traditional approaches on the technology
  • failure to recognise the social nature of learning
  • seeing discourse as the prime collaborative form.
    (Stiles 2002)

VLEs are not pedagogically neutral; their design assumes certain pedagogical theories, even if they are not explicit. Teachers are more likely to engage with a VLE if they feel it embodies conceptions of teaching that are similar to their own (Hanson 2003, Traxler 2003a). Relatively early during the phase of VLE uptake in the UK, Britain and Liber (1999) developed an extensive framework for the pedagogical evaluation of virtual leaning environments, based on Laurillard’s conversational model and an organisational systems model.

However, despite this focus on pedagogy, commercial VLE products, which form the vast majority of VLEs in use in UK FE and HE, are generally characterised as ‘content-centred’, rather than being aimed at encouraging the active learning embodied in constructivist pedagogies. (18) This apparent contradiction may just be the gap between aspiration and reality. As Traxler points out, teaching behaviour has a number of influences that may override pedagogical theory:

Lecturers’ teaching behaviour was not based on specific known conceptions of teaching… but governed by a number of other considerations such as the expectations of their students, resource constraints and the vocational nature of their courses. (Traxler 2003a)

6.1b. Management issues and VLE implementation

A VLE cannot be implemented effectively in an institution without addressing a number of management issues, and the complexity of organisational structure within further and higher education is impacting on VLE uptake.

In essence, the VLE needs to be ‘embedded’ across the institution, which involves an understanding of the impact of the VLE on staff roles and responsibilities, the realigning of some traditional disciplinary boundaries (which are an impediment to implementation) and a proper appreciation of the time and resources needed to make these changes.

The lack of integration of ICT policy and learning and teaching strategies cited by Goodison and Lewis (2003) is an indication that, ‘on the ground’, these strategic changes are slow in coming. Reports by Boys (2002), Condron and Sutherland (2002) and others confirm the rarity of holistic strategies for the implementation of VLEs.

A 2001 study found some identifiable differences in implementation between ‘post-92’ and ‘pre-92’ universities. Post-92 institutions have a longer history of engagement, and tend to have more centralised strategic, technical and administrative support. There is a discernable trend across FE and HE towards greater centralisation (Jenkins et al. 2001).

Specific points raised in research include quality assurance processes, systems administration and support, learner support (from academics and IT), and, critically, staff development (Stiles 2003, Traxler 2003a). These issues are all raised by survey respondents in this research (see section 7).

6.1c. Staff skills for VLE use

The advent of VLEs has created a need for new skill mixes and new ways of working. Good (2001), quoted in section 5.1d, has outlined the hybrid skills the e-pedagogue’ requires. New professionals such as learning technologists and instructional designers are also finding a place in educational institutions.

However, a common issue across numerous reports is the lack of time and resources devoted to staff training and development for using VLEs (Jenkins et al. 2001, Stiles 2002, Conole 2003, Hanson 2003, Traxler 2003a), and it is also sharply in evidence in this study (see section 7).

Everett Rogers’ diffusion of innovation theory provides a useful perspective on VLE uptake and staff development issues, and has been used by several researchers (Hanson 2003, Traxler 2003a). Rogers characterises individuals’ differing attitudes to new technologies as those of innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards (Rogers 1995). Hanson (2003) questions whether institutions ‘are only supporting the 10% of early adopters, who have different needs to the more cautious majority’.

6.1d. VLE product development

The advance of VLEs is also affected by the characteristics of the industry producing them. Several commentators have suggested that the development process for VLEs needs to accommodate the demands of learners rather than just the educational institutions (Teece 2003, Traxler 2003b).

The institutions themselves, as Jenkins and colleagues point out, tend to measure VLEs in terms of the impact on staff rather than students. Our own survey revealed low levels of user testing for VLE courses (see section 7.3), and this lack of end-user focus is also reflected in the generally poor provision for student support in use of the VLEs (Jenkins et al. 2001).

Some non-commercial VLE developments, such as the University of Staffordshire’s COSE and Traxler’s ‘rural VLE’ (Traxler 2003b) are employing user-centred design processes - but they are the exceptions. As long as the educational institutions, who are the paying customers, are failing to support the needs of learners, it is unlikely that commercial developers will take the lead.

6.2 E-learning standards

While there may only be faint murmurings about user-centred design in VLEs, there is a positive cacophony about standards and specifications across the whole of e-learning.

In brief, e-learning standards are intended to ensure that:

  • learning technology platforms such as VLEs are interoperable with other management information systems – so that, for example, student records can be moved from one system to another
  • content developed for a particular learning technology system can be re-used and re-assembled on another system
  • vendors cannot ‘lock-in’ institutions to only one proprietary system
  • computer-based learning materials can be catalogued, searched and retrieved, allowing content to be mixed and matched from multiple sources
  • there is an open, market in which smaller vendors are able to compete and educational institutions have an expanded choice of suppliers.

A number of organisations are involved in developing e-learning standards. Chief among them are Advanced Distributed Learning, which is responsible for SCORM, and the IMS Global Learning Consortium. (19)

Advanced Distributed Learning is a US government initiative begun in 1997 and designed to meet the training needs of the US military. The Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) is part of this, and defines a specification for reusing ‘learning objects’. Learning objects are stand-alone pieces of learning or performance-support material, typically addressing a single learning objective or supporting a discrete learning activity.

There has been some criticism of SCORM as too focused on infrastructure at the expense of good pedagogy - of directing the e-learning industry towards ‘shovelware’ (Welsch 2002, CETIS 2002c). This somewhat pejorative terms refers to a kind of mass-produced learning, where repositories of reusable learning objects are presented, from which a course creator – or indeed a learner themselves – can ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ to create a course. (20)

However, the concept of re-usable learning objects does not, per se, imply a ‘reductionist pedagogy’. On the contrary, as Mason argues, certain aspects of a student-centred pedagogy in FE/HE are strongly supported by the learning objects approach:

  • the accommodation of learner diversity – for example providing objects aimed at specific sectors of the learner audience
  • enhancing learner choice and selection – by actively encouraging students to decide for themselves which objects to complete in depth
  • activity-based learning – for example by creating a shared database to which students can contribute their own objects
  • collaborative work – for example the use of bulletin boards as a focus to present individual learning assignments.
    (Mason 2003)

The IMS Global Learning Consortium has recently released specifications for simple sequencing and learning design, so that the pedagogic intent of learning objects can be preserved and they do not become a series of disaggregated components. These developments are intended to shift the current standards focus away from the single self-paced learner:

[IMS] Learning Design provides the capability of designing units of learning that simultaneously include several roles, each of which can be played by several actors. It enables their activities to be specified in coordinated ‘learning flows’ that are analogous to groupware workflows. (IMS 2003a)

The IMS Simple Sequencing Specification defines a method for representing the intended behaviour of an authored learning experience such that any learning technology system can sequence discrete learning activities in a consistent way. (IMS 2003b)

6.5a. Guidelines and specifications on accessibility

The IMS has also produced a set of accessibility guidelines for e-learning developers (IMS 2002). The guidelines cover the use of XML for accessibility (see section 7.3 for discussion of XML), producing accessible text, audio, images and multimedia, and also address accessibility in synchronous and asynchronous communication tools, and online assessment. They are predicated on a set of ‘accessibility principles for developers of online learning’:

[These] six principles address accessibility for people who have sensory or mobility disabilities. These principles also address accessibility issues faced by people with cognitive disabilities, though often to a lesser extent.

  1. Allow for customization based on user preference.
  2. Provide equivalent access to auditory and visual content based on user preference.
  3. Provide compatibility with assistive technologies and include complete keyboard access.
  4. Provide context and orientation information.
  5. Follow IMS specifications and other relevant specifications, standards, and/or guidelines.
  6. Consider the use of XML.
    (IMS 2002)

The IMS has more recently released ACCLIP, a set of specifications for developers on implementing accessibility elements within its learner information package (LIP). These are quite separate from the 2002 accessibility guidelines, because they introduce a new code element <accessforall> to allow learners to set extensive preferences for how information is seen and controlled (IMS 2003c).

The intention is to allow the learner to specify their accessibility preferences, allowing them to define how they want to interact with the computer. Preferences within <accessforall> are grouped into <display>, <control> and <content> elements. The <display> element allows the user to specify how they prefer information displayed – for example, text size, background colour, audio only. The <control> element means the user can describe how they control the device – for example details of cursor control, specialist input devices. The <content> element gives the user the chance to state what alternative content they require (IMS 2003c, 1.1)

The IMS describe the intended use of the ACCLIP specifications:

A preference file will be created using information gathered from a learner, perhaps in the form of an online questionnaire or at registration time. Learners will be asked to specify their preferences regarding the user interface including the assistive technology they use, the format they require for different types of information, and any auxiliary or alternative content they need. The preference file can then be used to tailor the user interface and the retrieval and presentation of different types of content to suit the learner's needs. Once the preference file has been created it can be transferred to other compliant learning environments.

Examples may include:

  • A student working at a public workstation could set <systemSounds> to "desktop, required" in order to receive visual alternatives (desktop flashes) in place of audio system alert sounds.
  • A student with a learning disability could set the <contentDensity> to "bigPicture", in order to avoid an overload of information from a content-rich lesson.
    (IMS 2003c, 3.2)

These specifications are a recent introduction and there is no data yet from UK developers attempting to implement them. (21) Colwell points to some possible ambiguities in the intention of the specifications:

The intention is to encourage developers to provide customisable interfaces, to support different learning styles and learning abilities. It is not necessarily clear in the specifications which bits can be held at the server, which bits by the individual learner, and which bits need to be addressed to the author of the content. (Colwell 2003)

Until developers begin to implement the specifications, it will remain unclear how they work in practice. (22)

Finally, it is worth noting also that there are no compliance tests for e-learning specifications. (Because they have the status of specifications rather than standards, strictly they are ‘complied’ with rather then ‘conformed’ with.) SCORM offers developers self-testing software, but there is currently no cast-iron guarantee for the purchaser that the standards are adhered to. The UK government’s e-government interoperability framework (e-GIF) version 5 incorporates e-learning standards, including IMS, SCORM and IEEE (Office of the E-Envoy 2003). But while all public bodies are encouraged to comply, there is as yet no sanction to ensure this.

(Click the footnote number to return to the text)
(18) COSE and Colloquia are two VLEs aimed explicitly at supporting active learning paradigms. See Appendix 5.
(19) Also involved in e-learning standards are the Aviation Industry CBT Committee (AICC), the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Learning and Technology Standards Committee (LTSC), Centre de European Normalisation/Information Society Standardisation System (CEN/ISSS) and the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative.
(20) It is worth remembering that a 'pick 'n' mix' approach to online learning is appropriate for many of the situations in which e-learning technologies are used.
(21) CETIS called in August 2003 for feedback from UK developers attempting to implement the ACCLIP specifications (CETIS 2003b).
(22) Some significant work on accessibility metadata is being undertaken by the TechDis Metadata Project (, which has designed a set of accessibility metadata to be included in the digital learning materials repository at JORUM+ ( The aim is to enable teachers and learners to share knowledge about the accessibility of materials, and be aware of what skills or technologies students need to access those materials (Rainger 2003b).


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