Monday, May 19, 2008

So what sort of help is there to help learners access flexible learning equitably?

Thank you Pam for a very interesting presentation last week about the Disabilities Service. There was a small but very interested group at the Elluminate session and the discussion which followed covered a range of things about flexible learning. The disabilities Service supports people with a range of health issues as well as people who are visually impaired, deaf, or have physical immobility.

It turns out there is lots of support students can obtain to help them access learning opportunities. As well as note-takers, peer tutoring and arrangements for taking exams, students may also need support to access online materials and use computers.

For example, Dragon Voice Recognition software is useful for people to use to create electronic documents, if they are unable type on a computer for long periods, or even if they want to work more efficiently. It does take a while to train yourself to use this software but there are some very skilled trainers offering this service e.g. Brian Treanor at otago Polytechnic.

JAWS (Job Access With Speech) is a screen reader software which people who are visually impaired can use to have an online page read to them (Wikipedia, 2008.) I know my father-in-law uses something like this for his emails and searching on the Net. He does a lot of work on his computer and is for official purposes rated as blind. Being a Veteran in the USA means he gets lots and lots of government support, and special training to use the products he is supplied with.....off the track here, but I do wonder if there is a similar service in NZ which is just as comprehensive - special Veteran hospitals etc. Anyway the support he has had for computing means he has been able to record the family history and write books.

There is a raft of products available to help people who are visually impaired with their computing needs. You might like to take a look at some of them on the Freedom Scientific website.

Training can be organised in different types of software by the Disabilities Service. One thing Pam has asked is that lecturers provide easier access to documents for people who are visually impaired. For example, make sure documents are in Word-like formats (we prefer Rich Text Format) as well as pdf because the font can more easily be increased for printing.

Staff at the Disabilities Service are available to give advice to teachers as well so they can find out how to better support their students. One thing I think that lecturers at the polytechnic do quite well is providing extensions for assignments for students with or without health problems - sometimes life just gets too busy. However, the Disabilities Service is available to negotiate extensions on behalf of students.

This leads me to the idea of flexibility for assessments - how important is it that students have to submit assignments under strict deadlines? My belief is that due dates should be a guide only, and throughout my years of study I have been very lucky to have flexibility with my studies. I would never have been able to complete anything otherwise. Due to flexibility and being treated as an autonomous learner, I have completed a Diploma of Teaching (Tertiary), a Certificate in Clinical Teaching, and nine Doctoral courses and a pilot research study. No flexibility, no completion. :(

Is inflexibility in assessment conducive to learning?

I think we need to design assessments that enable learners to document what they are learning rather than encourage rote learning. Exams have long been a thorn in my side and yet there are people who believe that some subjects can only be tested through exams. For example, bioscience which is very fact-based. However, I have used "open book" formative quizzes and learning portfolios very successfully for this subject. The students preferred these types of assessment to exams because it took the stress off them, and they were really able to think about how the bioscience facts they were learning could be applied in real, clinical situations. Their learning was more holistic, and the formative self-tests enabled them to work through facts step-by-step as well.

However some NZQA assessments for unit standards encourage the use of Mastery learning - I am not a fan of this method as you may have guessed. Repetitive practice for certain skills is necessary for safety, e.g driving and flying, but critical thinking skills are much more important in the long term. When the crunch comes and you have to decide for example, how to land the plane which has gone out of control or has been hijacked.

Do you agree with me? And I ask the following questions as well and hope some of you can continue this discussion on here.
  • Is the structure of deadlines inhibiting or is it necessary to provide structure in a course?
  • Is it unfair to others if some get extensions?