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

8. Conclusions

8.1 Sector-wide issues

This study was done just as a new tranche of SENDA provisions came into effect, and shortly after the Disability Rights Commission ran a national campaign about disability in education (DRC 2002). Nonetheless, a quarter of all correspondents reported a lack of awareness in the FE and HE sectors about disability issues in general, about accessible e-learning, and about the implications of SENDA.

Very few respondents suggested general ‘disability awareness training’ as a possible solution. The consensus was more that disability and accessibility issues should be incorporated as a matter of course in web development training, in instructional design training and e-pedagogy. Specialist ‘accessibility courses’ within these fields, it seems, run the risk of only reaching those who are already aware.

There is a not insignificant amount of activity in the area of e-learning accessibility, but it is generated by a relatively small number of knowledgeable researchers and practitioners. Disseminating this knowledge to the mainstream is a considerable challenge, but it is the only way that the experiences of the majority of disabled students will be improved.

Pring has pointed out that the expansion of participation in higher education seems to be taking place without much reference to how people learn, and the quality of the learning experience provided (Pring 2001). Disabled students have specific learning support needs, which need to be addressed if widening participation is to be followed through. However, policies for widening participation are also set against a background of declining funds per student (Pring 2001).

Respondents to this study drew attention to what they saw as insufficient resources, and consequently insufficient time, to address the learning needs of disabled students. Stiles points out that ‘where institutions are committed to widening participation, the cost of supporting the widening participation of learners greatly exceeds additional available funding to support them, and “subsidy” is provided by (unpaid) staff time’ (Stiles 2002).

Several respondents drew attention to the need to share skills and experience regarding accessible e-learning within FE and HE. Bodies such as JISC and Ferl do facilitate this, but it is interesting to note the evidence of duplication of work across the sector revealed even in this small study; a number of respondents to this study had produced their own guidelines to accessibility within VLEs – often the same VLE (See Appendix 6).

8.2 Staff development and training

The issue of staff skills and knowledge figures strongly in general discussions about e-learning implementation, and it is, if anything, more acute where accessibility is concerned.

To produce genuinely accessible VLE courses, institutions need staff with web skills, instructional design skills and e-pedagogy skills. All the skills do not need to be contributed by the same individual, but they do all need to applied at some stage in the production of all e-learning products the institutions create, as is shown in Figure 12’s idealised critical path for accessible e-learning materials at the end of this section.

This situation is currently a long way off. This is perhaps due in part to the current evolutionary stage of the e-learning industry. Since the web took off as a mass medium, it has taken five ‘e-generations’ (about 10 years) for web developers to tear themselves away from ‘bleeding edge’ technology-for-its-own-sake, and recognise the importance of well-edited content, sound information architecture and good usability on the web (Wroblewski 2002). Somehow, ‘old-fashioned’ editorial and communication skills got lost in the early years of the web.

Similarly, many e-learning enthusiasts have been overly focused on complex functionality and technical issues such as interoperability at the expense of simple, basic, learner-focused approaches to producing learning content. The lessons about web usability, good instructional design techniques and good pedagogy (e-based or not) are not new – they have just got left behind in the scramble to get on the e-learning express.

The respondents to this survey and other studies referenced in the literature review are agreed on the problems of skills shortages, but there is less consensus about how to address them. Some respondents to this survey felt that teaching staff, as the primary producers of VLE content, needed to get ‘up to speed’ with all the issues involved in creating usable and accessible content. Others felt that these skills were specialist ones that required considerable training and regular updating, and so deserved recognition as disciplines in their own right.

The idealised critical path in Figure 12 below splits these skills up, suggesting perhaps that teaching staff are supported in gaining skills in e-pedagogy (those outlined by Salmon (2000) for example), and that specialist ICT and ILT staff are supported in developing web and instructional design skills. Needless to say, the concept of inclusive learning needs to be at the heart of all these skills-based development programmes – as a founding principle, not a bolt-on extra.

Initiatives such as the SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) Embedding Learning Technologies Award (29) are beginning to address some of these problems, but unless they are supported by management (see section 8.4 below) they will at best encourage isolated pockets of good practice.

8.3 Standards, specifications and guidelines

A host of standards and guidelines come into play in e-learning. This study has focused on those of specific relevance to accessibility, as outlined in the critical path in Figure 12 below:

  • W3C guidelines for accessible web content (WCAG – for both developers and content authors) and accessible authoring tools (ATAG – for developers only)
  • Section 508 standards (generic ICT standards necessary for the US market)
  • IMS accessibility guidelines (e-learning specific)
  • IMS ACCLIP specification (technical learner profile specification, as yet untried in UK).

However, there are two fundamental issues with all guidelines in e-learning: they are at once overemphasised and under-policed. They are overemphasised because all stakeholders assume being ‘compliant’ or ‘conformant’ means, ipso facto, accessible. This is not the case, as we have seen in this and other studies, because the guidelines:

  • can be flawed (e.g. not working with all user agents)
  • are open to varied interpretation by developers/authors
  • cannot ensure usability, a precondition of accessibility.

In addition, no one is currently checking that standards are complied with, or enforcing any sanctions if they are not. There is therefore no way for institutions to tell whether a VLE complies with the guidelines it claims to without extensive testing. In reality, the technical complexity of the guidelines themselves and their implementation mean that institutions have little choice but to trust and hope.

It is tempting for all parties to reduce e-learning accessibility to a tick-box, a technical standard ‘to be complied with’. But unfortunately it is more complex and irreducible than that, involving a complete incorporation of principles of learner-centred design and inclusive learning and teaching. Rainger (2003b) points out that ‘Standards compliant material does not mean accessible material – and even more than that, it certainly does not mean a good learning experience.’

One respondent in this survey wanted developers to move beyond the grudging language of ‘compliance’ towards seeing accessibility more broadly as a positive selling point. However, the developers take their cue from their customers. And until educational institutions begin to understand the full implications of inclusive e-learning, developers have no reason to change.

8.4 Institutional issues

There are many reasons why institutions have not yet grasped the implications of inclusive e-learning. Traditional organisational structures do not support e-learning implementation, because e-learning cuts across many boundaries. A lack of ‘joined-up-ness’ between disability services, ICT support, ILT support and teaching staff has been noted by several past studies and was again reflected in this one, with lack of internal communication being pinpointed as a problem.

Added to this, in higher education particularly, a tradition of being ‘faculty-driven’ rather than ‘enterprise-driven’ hinders the cohesive implementation of e-learning across the institution. Accessibility standards will be an inevitable casualty of this kind of uncoordinated approach.

More specifically, and as several respondents to this study noted, accessibility is not yet incorporated into institutional quality assessment procedures. While this process will not necessarily ensure that accessible materials are produced, it could at least alert institutions to problems and kick-start the awareness-raising process that many in this study say is needed.

A number of cultural factors within institutions are also seen as perpetuating the ‘skills gap’ noted in section 8.2: lack of recognition of good teaching skills in FE and HE generally; a suspicion that e-learning is de facto less effective than face-to-face teaching, and that it is a competitor rather than a companion to it; and a generally poor history in professional development within academia, summed up by Elton and Johnson thus:

Until management gives adequate time and resources for all academic teachers to engage in the kind of training and continuing professional development which the latter consider essential for every profession except their own – and academics are prepared to engage in it – little of significance will change. (Quoted in Stiles 2002)

8.5 User-centred design

The end-users – the students – seem to be some way down the priority list for both commercial VLE developers and institutions. Some commentators may argue that this is because VLE adoption is driven by politico-economic pressures rather than a desire to improve students’ learning experiences. In one sense, however, the underlying motives are not that important; because, by improving the learner’s experience, user-centred design will ultimately give institutions competitive advantage anyway.

In the first instance, of course, the VLE developers need to adopt a user-centred approach to product development. But commercial developers will always focus on the demands of the paying customer. Until the institutions make the quality of student experience a criterion of equal importance as, say, ease of use for teaching staff and compatibility with management information systems, then developers will not address it.

And indeed why should they, when institutions themselves do not include user-testing by students in their own content development processes? Implementing a user-focused approach requires forward planning, internal co-ordination, and resources - a rare trinity in institutional approaches to e-learning. A number of people in this study pointed out that insufficient allowances are made for the additional development time involved in addressing the technical guidelines of the W3C WAI. Even more time is required to test content with students.

However, it is only by focusing on user testing that accessibility problems, and their solutions, can be understood. Further research into how testing might be resourced and supported with FE and HE would be valuable.

Several respondents in this study noted that some accessibility problems were hard-coded into commercial VLEs. A minority of institutions have adopted either open source approaches to VLEs – either developing their own or using existing open source products. For larger and well-resourced institutions, particularly those with very specific structural requirements (for example in terms of student demographics or institutional structure) this is a viable option, allowing them complete control over the whole VLE system and (hopefully) to build in a user-focus along the whole development process.

8.6 Pedagogically focused e-learning

E-learning does have the potential to meet the needs of diverse learners, including disabled students. But the initial hype surrounding it has not yet materialised into evidence of large-scale effectiveness. One of the reasons for this seems to be a lack of pedagogical focus.

Most learning development and learning technology specialists emphasise the need for the adoption of learner-centred paradigms based on constructivist learning principles (see section 5.1c) But support for self-directed learning should not mean leaving students alone. As Stiles (2002) and others point out, there is a tendency in e-learning to focus on curriculum and content design and delivery mechanisms, rather than the overall design of the learning experience itself. This is important for accessibility specifically, because it focuses on narrow, technical compliance issues at the expense of a more holistic understanding of learning support.

Rather than looking at the accessibility of individual learning materials, the focus needs to be on the accessibility of the overall learning experience. Ultimately, the aim is for disabled students to get the same value out of a learning experience as their non-disabled peers. The means by which they achieve this may very likely be diverse. A genuine learner-centred approach, by acknowledging learner diversity not just on the basis of disabilities, but on personal learning styles as well, will ultimately benefit all students.

Figure 12 is a flow chart showing the ideal critical path of an accessible VLE course, from original developer to the eventual e-learner. The chart indicates that testing with disabled learners is necessary at the development stage and at the content creation stage, that standards for accessibility must be adhered to at both stages and checked by an independent verification body, and that support for web development skills, instructional design skills and e-pedagogy must be supplied for staff in FE/HE

Figure 12.The accessible ideal: e-learning from developer to student

(Click the footnote number to return to the text)
(29) This award grew from the results of the EFFECTS research programme at Plymouth University. See


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