mmu logo
Summer 2002
ISSN 1477-1241

Published by the
Learning + Teaching Unit

Learning and Teaching in Action logo

Issue 2: Information Technology

LTiA home page

Rachel Forsyth

WebCT at MMU: progress and possibilities
Rachel Forsyth

Developing Links Using Online Learning
Rachel Harradine

Of Mice and Pen
John Pal and Mark Stubbs

Using online learning to disseminate disability-related materials to Learning and Teaching Staff
Mike Wray

Independent Online Learning: Enhancing the Student Experience
Mike Cole

Introducing Online Learning in the Curriculum - Ensuring an Inclusive Learning Experience
Kate Kirk

Adding an extra dimension: the experience of using WebCT for the Literature and its Readers unit
Margaret Kendall

WebCT in the Arctic - evaluating the first module for a new university
Bill Johnston

Developments in Lecture Theatre Technology
Robert Ready

MS PowerPoint for Lecture Delivery: Staff and Student Perspectives
Dawn Nicholson

The European Computer Driving Licence Pilot Scheme
Jerry Niman

Report from HSS Faculty Seminar on Online Learning
Philip Lloyd

Faculty Learning and Teaching Reports

| View this article as a .pdf file |

photo of Mike Wray

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
Disability offices of UK universities are under increasing pressure to work with academic staff to disseminate information about disabled students. Due to recent legislative changes and an increase in the number of disabled students, staff developers are seeking more efficient ways of delivering this information. However, until recently the most common model in Higher Education for engaging academic staff in issues relating to this subject is not very effective.

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!).

Working together
It is important that disability offices work together with academic departments if support for disabled students is to improve and there is a need to develop successful models from which to work. Recent signs indicate that the tide is turning. We appear to be at a fortuitous time when legislation is forcing HEIs to examine their policies and a number of initiatives have appeared that will lead to collaborative working between subject specific departments and disability specialists. For me one of the most promising developments is the formation of the Learning and Teaching Support Network and the Generic Learning and Teaching Centre. This seems to be a network that academic staff can trust since it has their subject specialisms at heart and is primarily focused on scholarly activity. There is also a real swell in the amount of information that is being written about supporting disabled students. There have been a number of articles and guides appearing recently such as:

  • the Geography Discipline Network's series of guides1;
  • a number of articles appearing on the members area of the ILT website2;
  • a guide to assessment issues for disabled students available from the LTSN Generic Centre3;
  • a series of guides to disability at the CoWork project's website4;
  • a special edition of PLANET, the LTSN subject centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Science bi-annual publication5.

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.

Situated approaches
Another common principle shared by the above resources is that they represent a 'situated' (Lave & Wenger, 1991) approach to learning through staff development in this area. Academic staff generally work and learn their trade within 'communities of practice' (Wenger, 2000) and disability offices have often failed to break into these structures. However, staff concerned with working with disabled students in the learning situation are now becoming responsible for developing and taking part in their own development process and through hands-on practice. Resources are now being developed by academics alongside disability specialists, written for and delivered through academic networks to academic staff.

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?
Much has been written about the power of the web and of online learning to facilitate learner-centred or constructivist approaches to delivery. The remit for the Demos Project was to explore the usefulness of this approach and whether or not it can be utilised by disability offices and departments to disseminate information about disabled students. Many people are producing information online in the form of web pages that are simply electronic versions of text documents. Very few are being converted for the web or indeed written for the web as a learning experience. Also, little use has been made of online learning to deliver staff development in HE except in the field of training staff to deliver online learning itself. We hope to tap into the swell of concern about disabled students and at the same time provide a unique approach that will capture the interest of academic staff. An unanticipated benefit of the project is that staff who take part get an online learning experience. Even though many are engaged in developing courses of their own, few get such an opportunity.

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:

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:


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.

Web links


A version of this article was published in PLANET, Special Edition 3, April 2002.

Mike Wray
Project Co-ordinator, DEMOS Project
telephone: 0161 247 3377

July 2002
ISSN 1477-1241

top of page