2004 Conference Proceedings

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E.A. Draffan
Peter Rainger
TechDis, University Of Sussex
School of Education, The Sussex Institute
Brghton, East Sussex, BN1 9QQ United Kingdom
Email: e.a.draffan@sussex.ac.uk 
Email: p.f.rainger@sussex.ac.uk

The match between suitable assistive technologies and the components of many learning materials fail to support the requirements of all those involved in teaching and learning. Experience gained from working with the National Learning Network and Further Educational Resource library materials in the United Kingdom has illustrated to the presenters how the gap between e-skills and e-accessibility requires bridging to enable those using the resources to accurately understand student needs and learning preferences.

By sharing specialist accessibility and assistive technology knowledge it is possible to create an environment that encourages the development of integrated learning systems which allow for user characteristics to be taken into account with collaboration and encouragement to endorse a diverse learning community.

It is clear that some of the assessments used to discover various learner preferences or learning styles do not appear to take account of aspects relevant to the various e-learning environments often used within educational establishments. Nor do these tests evaluate the skills required to use additional technologies in order to access the materials.

There are also problems occurring with methods of categorisation used for the various assistive technologies and the labels chosen for disability are invariably simplistic. For instance they do not take into account comorbidity, where a person may have a combination of difficulties that impact on their learning skills such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder or Usher's Syndrome (with both hearing and visual difficulties). The general categories do not highlight individual strengths and weaknesses or coping strategies that have been developed over time and these issues rarely fit into neat groupings. It is also true to say that disabled students often find different methods for working with on-line materials when using assistive technologies which may make the label given for the disability an irrelevance.

Coping Strategies reflect a complex interplay of cognition, emotional and physical factors which affect an individual's ability to maximise life and learning. New environments and higher order learning challenge received and tried coping strategies. Assessment processes need to take cognisance of these factors and should include evaluation of any existing strategies whilst also weighing up the merits of identifying new ones.

By using commonly accepted vocabularies, metadata and structured descriptions it should be possible for users to relate their own abilities, learning styles and strategies to the characteristics of technologies and materials in such a way that they can be informed about the accessibility and skills required - The development of a learner profile should also inform teachers, lecturers, tutors as well as facilitators.

It is essential to improve the support offered to those who wish to design accessible learning materials and encourage equal access for all students with a wide range of learning styles and physical, sensory and cognitive skills. It has been noted that over time students adapt and learn new individualised coping strategies that also affect their learning styles so these attributes are not static. Developers producing learning resources need to allow sufficient flexibility within the materials with options to recognise these changes.

Those who understand the complexities of the new e-learning materials need to help to bridge the knowledge gap existing between those who are assessing students (for their specific additional support needs) and the technology developers (who design the assistive technologies). More in-depth training on the use of assistive technologies with e-learning materials is required for both tutors and students in order to ease the use of the materials before the learning experience takes place.

Finally good use of blended learning is the necessary adjunct to pure e-learning. All learners benefit from teaching environments that offer a wide range of multimedia learning materials and there should also be a variety of learning activities that can be taken up within different time scales with the option of using assistive technologies that do not require complex skills.

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