Book Review: E-learning and Disability in Higher Education
E-Learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility research and practice. By Jane Seale, Routledge, 2006, 240 pages, ISBN 978-0415383103
Jane Seale begins her book by explaining the reticence of e-learning practitioners to embrace accessibility concepts as if they were waiting 'for the magic fairy to miraculously transform all e-learning material with one wave of her magic wand'. It is probably human nature that we would mostly prefer to be handed a ready-made meal than a lesson in farming, but we all know deep down that only the latter will lead to long-term success. Seale sets about providing a very effective lesson in farming - not a finished meal. She then takes on this modified 'magic fairy' role by providing an engaging and easy-to-grasp discussion of the context of disability, accessibility and e-learning; a useful resource for e-learning practitioners in addressing the issues pertinent to their own context; and an overview of the political overtones and strategic efforts that are required if individual practitioners are to be successful in modifying their practice in the longer term.
Part 1: Contextualising the Scene
In the first of the book's three major sections, Seale provides a background to the relationship between disability and Higher Education and, subsequently, e-learning. While the legislative driver for accessibility is discussed, the feel of this section is more personal and role-oriented, including a section on technical guidelines that will be valuable to the more technically minded, but which does not spill over into other areas so as to deter the non-specialist. This section also focuses upon the needs of the learner and the practitioner as partners in the process of creating an accessible e-learning experience.
Importantly, the author acknowledges very early on that 'just as technology on its own is not a panacea, neither is e-learning'. Giving brief introductory reference to some of the aspects of e-learning that need to be accessible, she outlines that attention needs to be paid to courseware, library resources, text documents, presentations and multimedia. Every teacher and lecturer in Higher Education will find at least some of their activities covered by this introduction, and by the encouraging tone of the text will feel compelled to read on, to find the lessons and tools needed to make their teaching more accessible.
As a further enticement, before leaving this section for the second and most voluminous section, Seale gives the reader an overview of existing guidelines relevant to accessible e-learning. There is much debate about the questionable applicability of the widely known 'Web Content Accessibility Guidelines'  to e-learning practice, although Seale does not dwell upon this, instead highlighting contexts in which they may still have the most usefulness. She then introduces guidelines in other arenas that e-learning practitioners might draw upon in a variety of contexts, including disability, technology or media-specific guidelines, and those drawn up by individual organisations, companies or services, whose remit may in fact bear close resemblance to the situation of many an e-learning practitioner (including the standards and guidelines produced by BBC New Media to support its commitment to making its output as accessible as possible).
Part 2: Surveying the Scene
For most readers this section will be both the most interesting and the most useful. With the background and justification for accessibility having been covered in the earlier section, Seale gets to the heart of the matter from the off in Part 2, launching directly into a frequently omitted but most vital area of accessibility, namely 'The student's perspective'. The provision of IT equipment and of assistive technology is discussed almost entirely through the voices of students in case studies before the somewhat controversial topic of 'non-electronic alternatives' is introduced; (i.e. if a student requires a hard copy text rather than reading from the screen is it still e-learning?). This then leads into possibly the most critical argument at present raging in the accessible e-learning arena, and one which resurfaces at intervals throughout the book: the tension between the desire to provide one single learning experience that is accessible to all learners, and to produce a range of materials and pathways, many of which present barriers to specific individuals but which, taken as a whole, allow all learners to seek a pathway that best fits their individual needs and learning style.
Entirely appropriately, this argument is at the forefront again in the following chapter subtitled 'The lecturer's perspective'. Seale introduces the various sides of the debate as:
- Inclusive design: designing curricula that aim to include disabilities from the outset.
- Universal instructional design: seven key principles that if observed allow access to all users, sometimes perceived as encouraging a 'one size fits all' approach, and sometimes as reflecting the need for a 'varied and flexible approach to teaching, exactly because no single method can support or provide appropriate challenges for all students'.
- Holistic design: providing accessible learning experiences rather than necessarily accessible e-learning experiences.
She then trumps all three with 'proactive and flexible design' which 'involves thinking about the needs of students with disabilities at the beginning of the design process' and 'thinking of appropriate ways to offer equivalent and alternative access to the curriculum... which may or may not involve e-learning'. This hybrid is designed to avoid frightening off academics who may be so concerned about doing the wrong thing that they take the perceived safer path of not doing anything at all. Judging by the accessibility (in the non-disability-related sense of the word) of this book, I would argue she achieves this with considerable success.
'The learning technologist's perspective' discusses another hotly debated issue, this time the very fine and flexible lines between 'Universal design', 'Usability' and 'User-centred design'. The chapter's real focus arrives subsequent to this, in the form of an overview of the use and relevance to the learning technologist of the plethora of freely available evaluation and repair tools. If I have a single criticism of this book it would be the amount of space devoted to this topic which can best be summed up in the phrase 'there are many tools out there - use them as part of a suite of testing but they are never a substitute for real user testing and relying entirely on the output of tools alone will land you in big trouble'. By giving it so much prominence, Seale will perpetuate the importance given to such tools by a large (but thankfully decreasing) proportion of learning technologists, whereas they could be more usefully directed to other techniques for evaluating a resource's accessibility and perhaps a discussion of best practice in user testing.
By including a section devoted to 'The student support service perspective' Seale rightly acknowledges the vital role these staff play in the creation of accessible (e-)learning experiences. Learning technologists and lecturers rarely have the expertise (or the time to devote to developing the expertise) in assistive technologies to understand fully the role they play in the learning experiences of the students who use them. Emphasising the knowledge contained in these units (knowledge rarely given sufficient opportunity to become embedded across institutional practice) in terms of assessing the needs of learners for technological support or adaptation, making appropriate specialist equipment available, negotiating its interface with existing networks, virtual learning environments, library catalogues and so on, is a commendable feature of Seale's book that sets it apart from many others that have tried to cover similar ground. If, after reading this book, one lecturer seeks timely input from the student support service at the stage of course design instead of expecting them to run around afterwards hurriedly designing and implementing adaptations, then Seale's effort will have been worthwhile for that alone.
Seale strikes another blow for the under-acknowledged by including a chapter examining 'The staff developer's perspective'. Staff developers have possibly the most intriguing role in the creation of an accessible e-learning experience, because they rarely deal directly with students, and yet can have a major influence on the approach lecturers take in creating course materials. In reminding staff developers of their responsibilities towards the creation of an accessible e-learning experience, Seale signposts a huge range of ready-made resources to aid them in their task. This is the closest the 'magic fairy' gets to preparing a finished meal for her audience, but in this instance it can be justified by enticing diners into a restaurant they may otherwise not consider of relevance to them. Seale describes how strategic partnerships need to be formed between staff developers, disability services and academic staff, and the 'development of partnerships with disabled advocates' - a key feature of the Disability Equality Duty . In the final paragraph of this chapter Seale says succinctly: 'Staff developers have a great deal of potential to make a positive impact on the accessibility practices of different stakeholders within an institution; they tend, however, not to be targeted by accessibility related literature... it is time, however, that their perspectives and needs were taken into account'. This is a need that TechDis , the service I work for, has been trying to fulfil for a number of years, and as we are possibly the only major organisation supporting the accessibility-related needs of staff developers in UK Higher Education, I applaud Seale's attempt to bring this issue to a wider audience.
The second part of the book is concluded with a section that is arguably the most vital, although possibly the one whose intended audience, namely senior managers, are least likely to read the book. The author covers issues that any institution's senior management will need to grapple with over the coming months and years, namely the development of accessibility procurement procedures and the development of an institutional accessibility policy (now of course a legal requirement under the Disability Equality Duty). Seale strips it down to basics, answering first 'what do we mean by an accessibility policy' and then 'what should be included in an accessibility policy' before offering guidance on 'developing and implementing accessibility policies'. In many senses this is the most direct chapter of the book, with the least discussion and rationale and a sharp focus upon tasks and requirements. However, given that the intended audience for this chapter is unlikely to read the book directly (if they do they need a 'quick hit' with the key information, which is exactly what this chapter delivers) this information may in fact be taken up by others to influence policy makers, and therefore the simple straightforward approach will be invaluable.
Part 3: Conceptualising the Scene
The final of the book's main sections could also be subtitled 'First Steps to Effecting Change'. The first chapter spotlights 'Institutional responses to accessibility' and introduces framework suggestions to guide institutional change. While avoiding getting bogged down in legislative requirements, the author provides a sprinkling of appropriate international case law while discussing the roles of various contributors to the process of change, including students, learning technologists, accessibility consultants, disability advocates and researchers. This chapter is perhaps disappointing in its overtly theoretical stance; however, when taken in conjunction with the subsequent chapter, the two halves make a satisfactory whole.
The focus of the second chapter 'Individual responses to accessibility' is much more oriented to practicality and pragmatism than its predecessor. A discussion of Activity Theory leads into an application of its concepts to accessibility and e-learning. Seale acknowledges that 'auditing e-learning is one of the most difficult actions', but dives headlong into attempting to make sense of the process for the reader to undertake. By acknowledging the myriad contradictions in the process, Seale legitimises the reader in undertaking a task that can never be faultless and seamless, and gives credibility to efforts towards achieving accessibility in this way, however imperfectly achieved. Once again, the book is worth its production costs for this alone.
The penultimate section of the book is perhaps the most wildly hopeful, in that it postulates the result of an idealistic partnership between all of the key players in the process of creating accessible e-learning. Achieving any kind of valuable dialogue between, for example, senior managers, staff developers, support services, learning technologists, lecturers and students is going to be a very tall order for any reader to achieve. However, as an aspiration it is vital, and there are certainly institutions in the UK which have achieved these dialogues and moved great strides forward in their quest for accessible (e-)learning. Seale does indeed recognise the magnitude of this task, and provides an overview of boundaries and brokers, before introducing the author's own concept of 'boundary practices' as a potentially useful tool to facilitate these discussions.
Seale's conclusion is a vehicle by which the 'Rainbow Bridge' metaphor is introduced. This is a metaphor by which the various stakeholder groups in the process of creating accessible e-learning provide linkages between partial and optimal levels of accessibility, between the real world and the ideal world, between 'earth' and 'heaven', if you will. This metaphor is a commendable platform on which to build the interweaving facets of an optimally accessible e-learning experience, extending perfectly as it does into the different 'colours' of the intermediaries in the process, and the 'pot of gold' of optimal accessibility. The author then moves on to discuss useful models that may be applied to this arena, before drawing her own conclusions. As she rightly states, practitioners have been drawn by the focus on standards and guidelines into 'thinking that their objective is to comply with rules', whereas their objective should of course 'be to address the needs of students'. Seale hopes this book will 'expand thinking beyond that of how to comply with rules, towards how to meet the needs of students with disabilities, within context'. She also hopes that the book will 'facilitate interaction and discussion between the different stakeholders of accessible e-learning' to develop and progress beyond the actions of individual practitioners or stakeholders alone.
It is my opinion that this book, if read by the right people in the right positions across the UK Higher Education sector, will not only help to achieve those goals, but, further, will move us wholesale towards a learning experience that is more optimally accessible for everyone who wishes to access it, and built upon a foundation of research-supported best practice in teaching and learning. If you are a member of any of the stakeholder groups mentioned in this review, I would urge you to acquire a copy of this book. It could be a life-changing decision, if not for you directly, then for the lives of those students whose learning experiences will become more accessible as a result of changes in your approach.
In my role helping the UK Higher Education sector uncover, develop and build upon best practice in inclusive learning and teaching, Jane Seale's book has provided a potent and indispensable manual for which I am very grateful.
- W3C (1999) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Version 1.
http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG10/ accessed 14 February 2007
- Disability Equality Duty (2006)
http://www.dotheduty.org accessed 14 February 2007
- TechDis, a JISC Advisory Service
http://www.techdis.ac.uk accessed 14 February 2007