Technology enhanced learning: a new digital divide is Chapter 7 in the Future of Higher Education: Policy, Pedagogy and the Student Experience; just published by Continuum – see future_of_higher_education_flyer
It’s been over a year since I wrote this chapter; and what a long time a year is in terms of educational technology. If I was writing today, how different some of it would be – and yet other aspects haven’t changed. The technology may move on but the concept of the digital divide remains with us – if anything the more the technology develops and becomes integrated into mainstream higher education, the greater the divide between those who are digitally confident and competent and those trying to attach a file or feeling perplexed at the mystery of zipping and unzipping folders.
In the next book, Teaching in Public, I was calling my chapter Doing the Duty; accessible learning – even though the word accessible is being superceded by inclusive – that’s another blog – even another chapter. I may challenge the unpopularity of the ‘A’ Word and simply title it Barriers to Access – because no matter what language you use – educational technology is both enabler and disabler. In the enthusiasm for what it can do, it’s all too easy to dimiss the inherent problems it bestows.
On the BBC blog The Editors Peter Horrocks (19 Feb) tells how he asked TV news presenters ‘if they would please spell out URLs, e-mail addresses and phone numbers ….[as] a significant number of blind people use television news’. Commentators, and one reported “BBC insider”, have said: “This is political correctness gone mad.” Peter responds with ‘It is not. This issue is not about avoiding causing offence. It’s about information and how to access it.’
Here’s a selection of ensuing comments:
• How would a blind person be able to turn on a computer, open up a web browser find the navigation bar and type in bbc.co.uk or some other web address?
• How can blind people surf the internet anyway? If they can’t read the URL on the page, how are they supposed to read the page once it had loaded?
• Someone please tell me, how a blind person can navigate a mouse around a webpage when they can’t see where the mouse is and can’t see where they want to place the mouse cursor. If they could achieve that, then they surely could drive a car from one town to another! Not sure the Police would be too happy about it.
• while accessibility is indeed a noble cause, making things less convenient for the overwhelming majority of people to make things slightly easy for a very small few is not sensible.
• How useful is a website going to be to a blind person if they can’t even see the website in the first place!! So what value is there in reading out aloud the web URL to blind people if they can’t even access the website!
• Disabled people need to be given OPTIONS like subtitles, which they have already; we don’t need the concessions made to them to be imposed on the rest of us.
Some days the words disability and equality seem further apart than ever.
Using Viso I’ve created a visual map of the work on my desk, a review of 2008 and plan for 2009. In the corner, marked up as needing more attention, is an area called Web 2.0 which covers the Web 2.0 Community on Blackboard (last contributed to a year ago), my Web 2.0 website (hidden somewhere in a corner of my H drive), Second Life (last visited for the literature conference six months ago) and this blog (originally set up to support my expeditions into Web 2.0 worlds and much neglected of late).
For a while I had felt I was up to date; I’d read the JISC reports into the student experience regarding Web 2.0 and had rss’d all my useful social networking and blog sites into Netvibes.
Today, apart from an occasional sorty into Facebook, my Web 2.0 interest is relegated to a corner of my annual review sheet and I’m still pondering on this change from Web 2.0 savvy to Web 2.0 bored. Was it the plethora of passwords and the need for some system to memorise them all? Was it the additional time it took to keep up at the expense of more important work like supporting Blackboard? Or was it concern about the number of places across the internet where I’d posted my name and email address? Was I putting my legitimate Internet use at risk; online banking, shopping at Amazon, collecting with Ebay, communicating with family and friends – was I jeopardising the virtual opportunities I valued the most simply by increasing the number of times I was entering my personal details online?
Or did I just have more interesting things to do instead?
My web 2.0 activity (as in self publishing) seems to have diminished; one week I’m blogging, twittering and yammering with anyone who is likewise bitten by the bug and the next week, apart from some occasional facebook activity, it’s all stopped. I’ve waited to get re-bitten but it hasnt happened.
Being a reflective sort of person I’ve been wondering what’s changed and my conclusion is…… nothing.
And therein lies the answer. I haven’t blogged, twittered or yammered and it hasn’t made any difference.
I’m still over-working, under-studying, spending my weekends walking, seeing family and friends; my life is just as busy, just as much fun – nothing has changed. I haven’t lost or gained. Whether I divulge innanities online or keep the daily minutae to myself, I’m still living exactly the same life. It doesn’t seem to have made any difference at all.
Within 24 hours I’ve had not one but two encounters with accessibility issues. Both demonstrated negativity towards the concepts of reasonable adjustment and alternative versions in relation to teaching and learning resources. This is my resulting rant and reflection – please check out the links at the end. You just never know, one day the thread of your reality may be cut without warning!
Some background: ten years ago I worked in community education and set up a number of computer training rooms for people with disabilities; the work was funded with short term project grants – which is indicative of the reality for the socially disabled – where support and training is dependent on charities and the kindness of strangers. I am continually reminded that the situation with regard to respect and consideration cannot be said to have significantly improved over the past decade.
Over a year ago the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) was subsumed into the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). There is growing debate over whether this has been in the best interests of people who struggle with seeing, hearing, mobility or cognitive impairments (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7643844.stm)
Why is this relevant here? Well, as a public institution, the University of Lincoln has a duty to ensure it can demonstrate proactivity in anticipating barriers to access. However, a recognised need to be inclusive is not enough to ensure institutional change. Across the HE sector, disability support units are rarely integrated into teaching and learning units and the locus of disability awareness continues to exist on the periphery. For me accessibility is about removing barriers to participation and engagement. That means a holistic attitude towards the creation of accessible content. It’s not something that can be bolted on either as an afterthought or because someone has had to request an alternative version.
Staff should also visit Accessibility in Learning produced by JISC and TechDis in conjuction with the Quality Improvement Agency (QIA). This new online resource looks at eight categories of users; those who have difficulty seeing, hearing, understanding, concentrating, manipulating things, communicating with others, accessing text and who are dyslexic – and provides practical guidelines practical guidelines for making learning materials more accessible.
The information is out there; the responsiblity for acting on it is down to the individual.
If you still need convincing read some of these accounts from students accessing higher education. Go to ALERT (University of Bournemouth) and DART (Loughborough University) and the most recent JISC funded research at LExDis (University of Southampton) to sample the student experience first hand.
The defection from Twitter to Yammer has been interesting; a few weeks ago we were twittering away then along came Yammer. It not only attracted a greater number of UL employees but those with dual status seem to have gradually moved across and deserted Twitter in favour of Yammer. There’s a noticeable decline in Facebook contributions too. It seems that one is enough. Two is too many. Is this the nature of Web 2.0 tools? The flavour of the month is easily replaced by a new taste. What will take over from Yammer? There must be something equally new and addictive just waiting in the wings.
Is the Facebook bubble bursting? Or does social software always contain its end in its beginning (to paraphrase T S Eliot). Designed for ‘social’ purposes, a hidden agenda is being identified. Among all the hype and the proliferation of ‘friends’ it’s refreshing to hear the other side of the Facebook story from those who no longer use it – and some of the reasons why.
I like the word cloud effect at Wordle. It’s great fun and useful for highlighting key issues in a document. But beware – the back browser button will take you to the home page and the forward button the create page. If you see a word cloud you like then save it quickly – or do a screen grab like I did here (click onto the image for a closer view). These are my Delicious tags – as you can see, I use You Tube quite a lot!
The message I took from Rethinking the Digital Divide is that the divide is increasing rather than getting smaller. It’s no longer just about access to the technology, its about what you do with it when it’s in your hands. Research may show that the majority of learners own mobile phones – but that their owners are confident with using them is still largely an assumption. Also some of the sessions I attended showed that access to education remains problematic for many, including people with disabilities, those in prison, in the workplace, in communities. In prison the technology disables rather than enables; the OU now delivers content via the internet. The majority of prisoners do not have the internet; education is the bedrock of rehabilitation and they are denied access.
The debate over accessibility of online resources and the use of assistive technology continues – yet there were no exhibitors at ALT-C from any screen reading or text to speech software companies,or organisations such as Ability Net or the British Dyslexia Association. I was disappointed that a conference on digital divisions appeared to have so little on inclusive design or holistic approaches to accessibility and the debate around alternative versions of multimedia and animation. It would have been good to have daily workshops on practicalities such as adding captions to video, demonstrations of assistive technology or what the open source movement is doing to support accessibility.
I wonder how much the learning technologists themselves are responsible for creating a digital divide; do we forget that those whose learning we believe we are enhancing are in a different place. They may not share the same level of access to the technical gadgets and wizardry, or the skills to use them to their full potential. Again, having the technology is not the same as being confident and skilled with using it and I do sometimes wonder if herein lies the roots of our digital divisions.