24 January 2009

University challenge

The great enabler
Thanks to improved technology, people with disabilities now have access to a much greater range of options at university
Mary Novakovich

Five years ago, the government pulled the plug on its e-university, which was supposed to attract hundreds of thousands of students in pursuit of an online degree. In the end, only 900 people applied, and the £62m project was quietly dropped, as were so many ambitious ideas that bubbled up during the dotcom boom.
But British universities have expanded their own distance learning options since then, and made inroads into new technology, which is excellent news for people with disabilities and learning difficulties.
The Open University (OU) has long been at the forefront of using technology to reach its students, many of whom are physically unable to attend tutorials. In fact, the OU has the highest number of students with a disability or extra educational need than any other higher education institution in Europe. Some of the ways in which it supports students are simple yet make all the difference to the ability to study: digital voice recorders, for example, talking calculators or computers with assistive software such as text-to-speech programs.
Like other universities in Britain, the OU has staked its place in the virtual world. Second Life, the virtual environment that often finds itself in the news for the wrong reasons, nevertheless has become a useful platform for distance learning. Students interact with each other using digital representations of themselves known as avatars, and they can have real-time discussions using instant messaging. Tutors have found that the avatar version of their students can be less inhibited and will takepart more freely in discussions than their human counterpart.
More universities are taking on the challenge of helping students with severely limited mobility to take part fully in their studies. Glyndwr University in Wrexham, north Wales, has the highest percentage (14.1) of students claiming the Disabled Students' Allowance in Wales, making it well placed to come up with creative ways of widening access for disabled students. A recent case was that of an undergraduate, Gareth Stafford, who was studying for a foundation degree in sound studio technology.
No missing out
Stafford's cerebral palsy left him with limited use of one hand and little movement in the arm. Using a conventional computer mouse for any length of time would tire him out, so the university's school of computing and communications technology devised a bespoke keyboard for him. His course is heavily dependent on computers, but this meant Stafford was finally able to do everything his fellow students were doing without feeling marginalised. He also didn't have to miss out on any part of the assessment process. But there are students whose physical disabilities are so profound that they can't use a keyboard. This is where technology has been moving rapidly towards innovations more often seen in science fiction.
For example, the Smartlab Digital Media Institute at the University of East London has been developing assistive technologies that have given an enormous boost to students with severe cerebral palsy. Even people with little mobility are able to use gaze-controlled interfaces to enable them to write. It's technology such as this that is finally allowing disabled students a fuller university experience.

WeblinksOpen University: http://www.open.ac.uk/

Glyndwr University: http://www.glyndwr.ac.uk/

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