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Course Rationale

Alistair Knock

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Disability awareness and equality training is an important process for many, if not all, University staff to undergo. Legislation requires employees not to discriminate against disabled people, and to actively work to improve their provision so that disabled people are not disadvantaged or unable to access courses or services.

Due to the size of the institution (around 8,000 members of staff), however, it is difficult to ensure that everyone who wishes or needs to be trained has access to this aspect of their staff development. This online-only course has been created to offer an alternative route to receiving the training, without needing to physically attend training sessions or needing to organize a specific training meeting for a particular area of work.

While the content, aims, and structure of the course are largely the same as for disability awareness sessions provided physically, this course is very part time, spread over approximately six weeks, with typically 1-2 hours per week required of student's time (although participants are members of staff, they are referred to here as students on this course). This course could, in time, form part of a larger induction programme, including for example, the existing course on e-learning accessibility run by Information Services.


The approach taken in designing this course is largely based around the socially-critical and experiential approaches identified by Toohey (1999). While there is much guidance around disability issues and studies, awareness is very much focused on the disabled individual and their requirements, rather than a definite set of prescribed rules for how to act. For this reason the course asks the student to draw on experiential feedback, both from previous experiences and also through an iterative process by self-reflecting as the course progresses, identifying if and when their opinions change as a result of the course material and discussions. For example, the assessed work in week 3 begins with a 'blind' quiz, where the student has to make personal judgments on language without having seen the course materials. Their decisions here will vary depending on their previous experience of communicating with and about disabled people; following the quiz, the student can review the course materials and take the quiz again. They are then given immediate feedback comparing the two sets of results, providing an indicator as to whether their position has changed. In doing so the student is effectively evaluating their own knowledge and learning, with the first results serving as a diagnostic tool with which to gauge change - a form of self-assessment which 'gives learners the opportunity to reflect on their own learning´┐Ż a great way to uncover the internal journey of each learner' (Hanna, Glowacki-Dudka and Conceicao-Runlee, 2000). This process closely follows the learning models explored by Kolb (1984), who summarises that 'learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.'

There is precedent for the importance of experiential learning in this field as demonstrated by the Experiential Learning module which forms half of the postgraduate Disability Equality Practitioners course being run at Anglia Ruskin University. While this course is only for disabled people, it shows the importance of the personal relevance of the subject matter to fully appreciating how it impacts on society.

Closely related to this is the fact that disability awareness and equality is an increasingly visible and important issue which most societies are dealing with at some level. As with other equality legislation, there is a risk that the real issues can be concealed under the negative banner of 'political correctness', and so it is important for the course to stimulate and provoke reactions and discussions within the group. In a sense, disability awareness training is a microcosm of a wider movement of the oppressed, requiring a sea change in mentality and the subsequent shift in the reality of practice. It is essential for students here to be active drivers of the transformation, rather than just the implementers of someone else's 'politically correct' rules. As Freire notes,

'Functionally, oppression is domesticating. To no longer be prey to its force, one must emerge from it and turn upon it. This can be done only by means of the praxis: reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.'

Frerie's application of praxis as liberation is important as the field of disability is constantly evolving and language, attitudes, and expectations are changing. For this reason the course aims to not be prescriptive in identifying right and wrong answers in each section. Instead, each component of the course intends to set a framework for discussion, and the students themselves, with guidance from the tutor, develop their own understanding of what the language and action currently preferred by society may be. While the tutor will steer discussions, it is intended for their involvement to be relatively low and inconspicuous to allow a natural and organic student development of dialogue.


To support the experiential aspects and the aim for self-reflection, and to be as inclusive as possible to the wide range of abilities among learners who may be taking this course, much of the course consists of activities and materials which are not dominated by textual content. Taking specific sections as examples:

Section 1: What is disability?

This section introduces several of the key concepts through definitions and discussion, then elucidates on these by using the case studies developed in the Open Doors study, which gives some examples of people with different impairments, and how actions in different parts of the University might mean that barriers are created (or removed) for each person. This set of examples is teamed with an invitation to reflect on students' previous experience of disability, and optionally, share this with the group.

Section 3: Language and models

This section includes one of the pieces of assessed work, which centres around the quiz-reflection-quiz activity described earlier. The quizzes are simple and interactive, while the content explaining the different models is provided both in text and in clear graphical form.

Section 4: Making adjustments

This section encourages students to watch a 15 minute video, Sophie's Story, which describes the process disabled students go through at the University of Edinburgh in order to be assessed and have adjustments made for them. Narrated by a former student, the video follows her entire progress from applying through to graduation and serves as a practical explanation of ways students can be supported by the institution.

Section 6: Auditing and impact assessment

This section includes another piece of assessment where students contemplate their own area of work and think about barriers which may exist and how to remove them. Optionally, students can login to the SLATE (Second Life Accessibility Training Environment) area on the Virtual University of Edinburgh's islands in Second Life. This use of a virtual 3D world gives students the chance to be taken through a set of practical, common examples of accessibility issues. The intention is that these examples - and how to resolve them - serve as a starting point for the self-audit assignment.

Assessment and Evaluation

As the content of the course is based on social situations which are constantly evolving and which are often subjective and depend on circumstance, the assessment of this course does not seek to offer an absolute pass/fail mark. Students are instead encouraged to assess themselves, through their own feelings around their progress, through feedback from the course activities and quizzes, and through feeding off the performance of the group as a whole. While it is then difficult or impossible for the tutor to certify the student at a certain level of attainment, the basis of such staff development is often to allow exposure to a field of thought and a broadening of understanding, rather than to develop a particular level of expertise.

Specifically, the end of section quizzes serve as a simple fact-check for students to ensure that they have acquired information correctly. If difficulties are encountered answering the questions or concern raised about whether answers are correct/incorrect, this feedback through either discussion boards or through email to the tutor will help by providing an opportunity for further explanation to the student, and by prompting the tutor to evaluate the effectiveness of this specific part of the course.

The assessment in section 3, as previously discussed, is one mostly of self-assessment and is intentionally a more involved exercise as the content which it covers - the social model of disability - is perhaps the most important part of disability awareness training and the key message to be conveyed. Finally, the assessment in section 6 concludes the course, by switching the focus outwards into the student's area of work. This again draws on Kolb's circle of experiential learning, derived from Kurt Lewin's writings, where students have spent several weeks exploring the stage of 'Forming abstract concepts' and are now asked to test these concepts in new situations, in order to gain more practical experiences which can then be re-used outwith the course.

The evaluation of the course happens in two strands: firstly by observation on students' progress, discussion and questions about the course content, which at times can be difficult to dissect and understand. Secondly, a standard online course questionnaire will ascertain more general points about the learning environment, the involvement of the course tutor, and the relevance of the information presented.


Although not strictly a self-paced course due to the need for tutor as overseer, the course structure is flexible and the student has some say in how/when to tackle different sections. As well as engaging with Garrison and Anderson's community of inquiry model (2000), it is useful to apply Hannafin's (1989) functional views to the design of the course as a guide for how it is expected to run, for future comparison based on the direct and observed evaluation of student participation. The notions of pacing and navigation on this course are relatively loose, with students have some authority as to the manner and speed which with they cover the course content, although they should be aware that in adopting a different approach to the rest of the group, they may miss out on valuable group discussion and collaboration. Confirmation is partly achieved through direct feedback from the quizzes, but as previously noted, this subject area is one of subjective experience as opposed to absolute factual knowledge. Finally, elaboration and inquiry are key areas where group discussion and the two self-assessment activities become significant. For this type of learning to be transformative, as Freire highlights, the student must turn to both reflection and to action. The final activity specifically focuses the student on their area of work and asks them to evaluate and synthesise new ideas and enhancements using the knowledge they have recently acquired on the course - a transition from the lower cognitive levels of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives to the higher levels. Ultimately the aim is for this level of inquiry to remain after the completion of the course, so that it informs the student's practice in other fields.

The course essentially seeks to replicate the positive aspects of existing face-to-face staff development exercises, while providing additional flexibility and accessibility by facilitating it in a virtual space within a less rigid time framework. The lack of formal assessment means that the effectiveness of delivery will need to be closely monitored in order to reach a suitable assurance that learners are developing the expected skills and attitudes; however this is also a known issue for non-certified staff development activities conducted in a face-to-face group environment. If the online setting and design of the course is found to be effective in influencing student's understanding and awareness of disability and accessibility, and particularly if take-up of the course shows promise, the provision of this training alongside traditional methods, and the ability to make such training mandatory and available to all staff, could prove an important tool in enhancing institutional provision for disabled people as a whole.


Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Harmondsworth, Penguin): p.51

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000) Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3): pp.87-105

Garrison, D. R & Anderson, T. (2003) E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Framework for Research and Practice (Routledge): p.42

Hanna, D., Glowacki-Dudka, M., and Conceicao-Runlee, S. (2000) 147 practical tips for teaching online groups (Atwood Publishing); quoted in Roberts, T.S. (2006) Self, Peer and Group Assessment in E-learning (Idea Group)

Hannafin, M.J. (1989) Interaction strategies and emerging instructional technologies psychological perspectives. Canadian Journal of Educational Communication 18: pp.167-179.

Kolb, D.A. (1984) Experiential Learning (Prentice-Hall)