Accessibility of Online Higher Education Course Material and Issues of Equity

The established logic of online instruction goes something like this: computers are ubiquitous, so everyone must own one and be able to use it. The claim is that children born late in the twentieth century and those born in this millennium are “digital natives” (Prensky 2001), and thus, all members of this generation are both tech savvy and love to use technology. This being the case, universities must move with the times and use technology to reach this audience. We find some fault with these arguments, namely that the discourse is distributive only and totalising, that some choices made at the level of university management forcibly, albeit perhaps unintentionally, exclude others from competing in the exchange of knowledge, that individual and personalised needs are not met, and that there is a disconnect between the imagined, ideal student and the real student, some of whom are afraid to show their reality.

First, the discourse that sits around ownership and distribution of technology is totalising. This logic suggests that the subject of the discourse is universal and that those who use technology behave in exactly the same way. There are two major problems with this logic. First, no two universities are the same. Guri-Rosenblit (2005) refers to this phenomenon as a paradox whereby those institutions who can afford to use the technology efficiently either need them less or are reluctant to use them in a whole-scale fashion, and those universities that could benefit from the technology are ill-equipped in terms of infrastructure and human capital to maximise their potential. Second, Concannon, Flynn and Campbell (2005) in their study of student reactions to an online university accounting course show that universality does not exist and that individual “student’s acceptance or reflection of using ICT was not as straightforward as may be assumed and, indeed, is not even consistent within individuals” (p. 505).

We therefore prefer instead to ask which of our digital natives are technologically savvy and under what conditions and which of our university courses should be completely online and what content should be accessible in this way. A totalising discourse harks back to the idea that equity is simply a matter of distributing goods and services based on the idea that everyone has similar needs. In this, it is assumed that all university students have computers, can use them well, and are happy to sit in front of them in order to learn. Nozick (2007) continues to teach us—in our view unhelpfully—that the “complete principle of distributive justice would say simply that a distribution is just if everyone is entitled to the holdings they possess under the distribution” (p. 61). That is, everyone is entitled to own a computer and use it. Those who own computers then defend their taste and desire for a computer to others. Nozick further argues that goods must be acquired legitimately and transferred legitimately between holders of property. He is against the redistribution of goods and services especially to those who “steal from others, or defraud them, or enslave them, seizing their product and preventing them from living as they choose, or forcibly exclude others from competing in exchanges” (p. 61). These individuals he sees as a drain on the state and “free riders” on the economy (Nozick 1974).

Applying Nozick’s ideas to the use of e-mediated instruction in higher education, we can begin to see the person that is imagined as being in receipt of a personalised education programme. This person is acceptable because they have rightly purchased a computer and can gain the requisite access to online learning. This person has bought the ticket and is imagined as sitting ready to use that ticket in pursuit of knowledge. This person is also highly computer literate and a digital native. However, this is where Nozick’s idea of justice would stop. Goods have been distributed by fair means either through legitimate acquisition of the goods or through transfer of the goods, and so there is no further need to do anything in terms of justice. In the same vein, the logic is that a university has provided a course that is accessible to anyone with a computer and so distribution is complete!

But students are not exactly the same and do not behave in exactly the same way. They do not even purchase the same computer or have the funds to choose between computers. Some students are Apple nuts, and others are PC fans. Some choose iPads, others choose Samsung, and others have no choice at all. Here, the individual student is encouraged by the market to live out their desires through the choice of the computer they use. They are also then encouraged to share their desire through encouraging others to see their good taste (Kenway and Bullen 2001). The market has encouraged each group of individuals to make their choice and to defend that choice. This is, of course, if the individual can afford the choice (Warschauer and Matuchniak 2010).

The concept of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) to classes is generally seen as a way around problems of the digital divide and the provision of computers in learning, both in terms of cost to the institution (Dixon and Tierney 2012) and in terms of individual taste (Madden et al. 2013). BYOD is now part of the policy landscape in the USA, but Mancilla (2014) argues that there is an issue around digital equity defined by Solomon et al. (2003) to mean “ensuring that every

student [...] has equitable access to advanced technologies, communication and information resources, and the learning experiences they provide” (p. xiii). Simply saying that learning will happen this way does not mean that it will. In this instance, consumer choice, technology, and corporate influence converge in what Kincheloe (1997) terms techno-power (p. 254) designed only to increase consumption. Rather than continuing to talk of distributed universalities, we feel that educators involved in e-mediated instruction that claims to be personal must seek “ever-changing and constantly fluid meanings in relation to what might be termed ‘socially just’” (Goodley 2007, p. 318). It may well be socially just that some individuals do not use a computer.

If we then take the example of the student who declared her hearing impairment too late for the lecturer to do anything about it, it is possible to see another form of individual difference that can have impact on e-mediated personalised instruction. In this discussion, it is important for us to note that we do not use the label of disability as a means to totalise and to see this student as being in any way deficit. On the contrary, we would argue that this student has every right to disclose or not disclose her disability. The issue for us concerns the structures and systems that we have put in place that may have disabled rather than helped this student Connor et al. 2008). In this, we agree with Bensimon (2005) that “inequality in educational outcomes [is] a learning problem of institutional actors—faculty members, administrators, counsellors and others—rather than a learning problem of students”

(p. 100).

Students with a disability in university settings such as this student report both positive and negative learning experiences. First, these students often have positive things to say about learning support services (Brandt 2011) and they claim to appreciate the accommodations that lecturers make for them (Bessant 2012). Secondly, however, Seale (2014) reports on the many challenges students with a disability face in universities that include having to work harder than their peers, having to invest more time, and then having to see that this extra time is not actualised into a commensurate grade. They also find that the effort required to achieve learning is draining (Hanafin et al. 2007; Seale 2014). Students with a disability report that they have few opportunities to interact with their lecturers generally and less so now that courses are provided online. Students in an online environment say that they appreciate the use of technologies, but worry about the costs involved, unwieldy learning platforms (Brandt 2011), and differently valued technology. Stodden and Conway (2003) report on a student who observed the following:

Because of my vision loss, my eyes become extremely fatigued when looking at a computer monitor, even with large print. But because of my hearing loss, I cannot easily hear voice output. The solution for me is to use both enlargement software and the clearest (and most expensive) speech output available. The difficulty arises when I have to explain this to the support provider who wants me to exercise my choice, but the choice is between enlargement and speech because that is what ‘typical’ people with vision loss receive (p. 28).

Here, the simple, perhaps basic navigation tools provided by computers are anything but simple. Here, also this individual is claiming individuality within the categories of disability that she has been ascribed.

More worrying though is the fact that students with a disability are reluctant to disclose their disability. This seems to have been the case with the student who is at the centre of this chapter’s discussion. The neoliberal state requires self-actualised and competitive individuals (Rose 1990) who take responsibility for their lives and are accountable for themselves and others. Goodley (2007) argues that this means that the state desires individuals who are “able” (p. 321). For this reason, many students and also one of our team of writers, by the way, are fearful that disclosure of a disability will be detrimental to their chances of success. This is because the performative nature of the employment market requires that individuals willingly compete and have the skills to do so. Even though Hammer et al.’s (2009) study found that 84 % of surveyed students with a disability report positive outcomes from disclosure, Seale (2014) argues that most students want to control the timing and setting of the disclosure, do not want to appear to be receiving special accommodations, and are worried that nothing would happen after the disclosure. In this one aspect of their lives, all students were aware of the reasons to disclose and the support that could ensue, most were happy to disclose and take their chances with service delivery, but some remained cautious, sceptical, and fearful following the disclosure. Here, there is an “all, most, and some” issue (Foreman 2014; Hyde et al. 2010) that must be addressed. Nozick (1974, 2007) tells us that disclosure rules perform distribution in terms of access, but this distribution does not then equate with participation. Participation is not only a matter of “being involved in a decision making process but also a substantive issue, an educative process [whereby an individual is] learning by collaborating in discussions about it” (Rizvi and Kemmis 1987, p. 339). With the student in question, non-disclosure through the university’s systems meant that the lecturer did not know of the circumstances. Here, this person’s disability was socially and environmentally constructed and made worse (Meekosha 2010). As long as the institution, through the lecturer, continues to provide audio-taped lectures only and not face-to-face lectures, this student will remain disabled. This lecturer’s provision of course material failed to “open up a view of pedagogy that conceives widely of those who are marginalised by normative education contexts” (Goodley 2007, p. 318).

Gale and Densmore (2000) show us that the lecturer now has options. In our view, it is the lecturer—working with the student—who has to make the necessary changes so that this student is not further disabled. Our colleague could redistribute her time to this student and provide close captioning to her online learning materials from this point on. She could also rethink her entire position using recognitive justice and assume that all students will have trouble with one form of resource provision and so make changes accordingly. This she thought she did.

Another issue of justice then arises. This lecturer has already spent 300 h of her time designing her online course. She was allocated 40 h for this purpose and other administrative purposes. These changes will impact on her ability to manage her workload. Unlike Nozick (1974, 2007), we believe that the technical rules

(Habermas 2003) that sit around e-mediated instruction must have a UDL focus that encourages university staff to see students in the light of an “all, most, and some” redistribution. We are also aware of Seale’s (2014) call to not over-rely on such design and are concerned about how to do this with large student cohorts. Universities are not at a stage yet where they can be sure that the needs of all students are met. Even when legislation and compliance standards are in place to ensure that those with diverse needs are catered for, students with a disability continue to lag behind their peers. This chapter now turns to the issue of legislation and standards.

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