Elearning and Minority Groups

Posted on Posted in OU VLE

Tulliallan CastleSome issues come up frequently in my travels around the Open University regions and nations. On Saturday I spoke to a lively bunch of tutors at Tulliallan Castle, North of the Border. The debate got fairly heated at one point when we strayed onto the topic of Scottish Independence and matters reserved for the Westminster Parliament, but apart from that the issues were similar to those raised by tutors all over the UK. Four of the questions related to different groups of users and the problems they have with courses which require increasing amounts of Internet access:

1. There are parts of the country which will never have broadband access – what are students (and tutors) in those areas supposed to do?
There are three possible solutions to this: 1. We lobby the relevant authorities and telecoms companies hard to connect these areas; 2. We provide alternatives for those with poor Internet access; 3. We ignore those who can’t get broadband because they’re a small part of our market.

The third alternative is unacceptable to most in the OU given our tradition of inclusivity. The OU should use its lobbying power, combined with that of other interest groups, to push for continued connection of remote areas, though there are many houses I can think of for example in the Highlands and Islands which will clearly never be connected to broadband.

In the meantime we have to look at the option of providing alternatives. Can we assume that all OU students and tutors have a telephone connection? If so Moodle on a stick provides one potential way forward for those with dialup access only.

2. What about disabled students?
There is an infinite variety of disabilities so this is a not a simple question to answer. Around 10,000 of our students annually declare a disability. Many students, particularly those with visual and auditory impairments, can benefit considerably from computer-based materials – assuming they are properly designed with screen readers, fonts, colour schemes etc in mind. Our accessibility team in the Institute for Educational Technology has spent a lot of time working to ensure the VLE is accessible, specifying a large number of accessibility enhancements to Moodle.

Far more of our students however declare issues with fatigue/pain, mobility and manual skills. Many of them have problems working at a screen for long periods of time and we have a moral and legal responsibility to cater for them by providing alternatives where possible.

3. What about prisoners?
There are ongoing attempts to solve this. I have covered some potential ways forward in my posting: Offender Learners and the Digital Divide Some latest news on this is that one high security prison has just installed Moodle on its intranet and we are sending them all our OpenLearn materials on a CD-ROM (containing absolutely no details of anyone or their bank accounts!)

4. Will Mac users be able to access the OU VLE?
While I thrash away at the keyboard of my battered old PC laptop there is a noticeable increase in the numbers of MacBooks appearing at every event I attend these days. One has even made a recent appearance in my home, forcing me to expand my home networking skills. They’re clearly an increasingly necessary accessory for the fashion conscious technorati.

But Macs are extremely well designed machines and as their take up increases we run the risk of losing potential students who do not want to fork out for a PC in order to take an OU course. The University does not support Macs currently but that doesn’t mean to say it isn’t possible to study most of our courses if you use one. Moodle is accessed through a Web browser, and the VLE should work equally well on Windows, Linux and Mac platforms. Moodle guru, Martin Dougiamas himself uses a Mac.