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Mike Wray, Project Co-ordinator, DEMOS Project
Using online learning to disseminate disability-related staff development materials
The four universities in the Greater Manchester area (the University of Manchester, UMIST, the University of Salford and Manchester Metropolitan University) have recently worked together on a HEFCE-funded project (DEMOS) which is investigating the use of online learning to disseminate information about disabled students.
Traditional Staff Development Model
Traditionally, disability offices of universities have worked alongside Staff Development Units (SDUs) to deliver training events. In many cases the disability office is placed within central services and staffed by administrative personnel (McCabe, 2000). This can lead to a 'them and us' situation and poor working relationships (Seyd, 2000) where central services are seen as enforcing increasingly managerialist policies that are a result of the latest government initiative.
In addition to these difficulties Educational Development Units, and more recently Learning and Teaching Units, are usually viewed by academics as the relevant place to go for pedagogical advice than SDUs (Webb 1996). It is therefore easy to see why many events which address the support of disabled students are infrequently attended by academic staff. For instance, the four disability offices of the universities in Manchester in conjunction with staff from the Access Summit Centre have run disability-related training events in recent years and an effort has been made to continue to run this programme through the Staff and Educational Development units in the current academic year. Whilst many of the events have proven popular, some have been cancelled due to lack of attendance. This is despite efforts by the disability offices to deliver the programme in the most attractive way possible (i.e. lunchtime sessions of no more than 2 hours - attendance is also often increased when sandwiches are laid on!).
What these resources have in common is that they address specific pedagogical issues. There has been a lack of research and literature on the pedagogical implications of working with disabled students in higher education and although the resources listed above are beginning to address this problem we have a long way to go before all the gaps are filled.
This is a model that is beginning to be adopted by disability offices in their delivery of staff development. For instance, in another HEFCE-funded disability initiative based at Nottingham University6 and encompassing institutions in the M1/M69 staff development network, disability specialists acting as 'animateurs' are working alongside departments to form a plan to develop initiatives within the department. Staff developers from the disability field are recognising that it is not enough to simply enter the department and deliver a workshop, an approach that stems from a deficit model of staff development (Candy 1996). Academic staff need to feel that it is part of their role to support disabled students and that they are actively engaged in creating the practices, research and literature around this support.
Can online delivery help?
Our early experiences demonstrated the difficulties that disability offices have previously faced in engaging academic staff. The first module was written using a collaborative learning environment and attempted to engage academic staff in a discussion of the issues around implementation of the QAA's Code of Practice on students with disabilities (QAA 2000). It proved very difficult to deliver this module in an effective way. However, as discussed above I feel that this was mainly due to the context (and perhaps the content - the QAA possibly not being everyone's favourite topic of conversation) in which the materials was presented.
We are now developing a series of modules with the concerns of academic staff in mind. These learning modules are enriched with a number of further resources - web links, further reading, a database of student experience from interviews with students and case studies where possible. As the information on the site grows the learner will be able to explore these resources and hopefully find the answers they are looking for. The content is being underpinned by a social model of disability (one that looks at the social construction of disability rather than an individualistic medical model) and also by an appreciation of the impact of the Special Education Needs and Disability Act (2001). We have also tried to interweave some interactivity into the materials with learning activities and hypertext links to external resources. An analysis of need is an ongoing feature of the project and modules have been written for academic staff with academic staff acting as members of each module writing team. The materials are also being independently checked for quality by an external representative who is a regarded academic in the field.
The challenge for the remainder of the project's lifetime and indeed for those interested in utilising the materials developed, is how to embed the tool within a delivery method that has meaning for the academic staff it is intended to reach.
Information about the Demos project is available at our website: http://www.demos.ac.uk
Demos is looking for groups of staff to try out the materials. If you are interested please contact Mike Wray on 0161 247 3377 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Candy, P.C. (1996) Promoting lifelong learning: academic developers and the university as a learning organisation. International Journal of Academic Development. 1(1), 7-18.
Lave, & Wenger (1991) Situated learning. Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.
LTSN Subject Centre PLANET
McCabe, E. (2001) Disability Officers in Higher Education. National Association of Disability Officer, Technical Briefing, 1/2001, University of Lincoln, UK.
Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (1999) Code of Practice on Students with Disabilities. Gloucester: QAA.
Seyd, S. (2000) Breaking down barriers: the administrator and the academic. Perspectives, Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 4, 2, 35-37.
Webb, G. (1996) Understanding Staff Development. The Society for Research into Higher Education and the OU Press, Milton Keynes.
Wenger, E. (2000) Communities of Practice, Learning Meaning and Identity. Cambridge University Press, UK.
A version of this article was published in PLANET, Special Edition 3, April 2002.