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Online learning to deliver staff development materials about disabled students

Mike Wray, DEMOS Project, Manchester Metropolitan University


New legislation (the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA) 2001), which takes effect in the UK from September 2002, means that teaching staff are under increasing pressure to ensure their courses are accessible to disabled students. However, a recent analysis of need (Wray, 2002) which questioned teaching staff about disability showed that many staff, although willing, are unable to attend face-to-face sessions which explore these issues in any depth. The Demos Project, which is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) under its disability initiatives, has explored online learning as a delivery method to provide just-in-time information for teaching staff about disabled students. The success of Demos like any staff development project depends on a number of factors, some of which are contextual, such as the time available for staff to attend events, and others which are better understood using current psychological theories of learning.  Demos has sought to situate the materials within the communities of practice (Wenger, 2000) that teaching staff find themselves. It was not possible in the confines of this project to utilise the networked features of online learning. However, there is growing interest in the academic community in the support of disabled students and future projects may examine the potential for networked technology in facilitating this growth.

Traditional Staff Development Model

Until recently, the methods used in Higher Education for engaging academic staff in issues relating to disability have been largely unsuccessful. Events are organised centrally with disability offices working alongside Staff Development Units (SDUs):  that is those historically associated with Personnel departments and staff training.  Sometimes, these events are planned with little reflection on the mechanisms by which teaching staff learn, for example, they might be timetabled during the start of term when teaching demands are high. Also, in many cases, the disability office is placed within central services and staffed by administrative personnel (McCabe, 2000).  This can lead to a ‘them and us’ situation and poor working relationships (Seyd, 2000) where central services are seen as enforcing increasingly managerialist policies that are a result of the latest government initiative.  In addition to these difficulties, Educational Development Units and more recently Learning and Teaching Units, are viewed by academics as the relevant place to go for pedagogical advice rather than SDUs (Webb 1996).  It is therefore understandable why many events about the support of disabled students are infrequently attended by academic staff.

SENDA and behaviourist approaches

Although higher education was mentioned in previous legislation (the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995), university staff had very few obligations to ensure that learning environments were accessible to disabled students. However, SENDA places legal responsibilities on all staff in the university to ensure that disabled students are not discriminated against. Clearly, this could have profound effects on the way universities deal with the issues of support for disabled students. A recent newspaper story in the UK regarding a deaf student rejected from Oxford University illustrates just how keen the press are to vilify HEIs if they fail to meet the needs of their disabled students. Such legislation could lead to some universities introducing a staff development methodology which follows some of the principles of behaviourist theories of learning and which has been described in the organisational context by Candy (1996) as an industrial approach.  This approach focuses on deficits in the skills of the workforce and on 'training' rather than the 'learning' that is more commonly emphasised in a knowledge-based organisation.

Resulting policies may lead to compulsory attendance at staff development events in order to avoid the institution being held responsible for individual staff behaviour. Compulsion could be used to encourage compliance and failure to attend may result in punishment for individuals since they could end up in a court of law. Although motivation may be increased along with some behavioural change in staff, it does not encourage understanding which is the result of 'meaningful learning' (Shuell, 1992).  Such an approach could also lead to resentment and does little to encourage the inclusive teaching methods (Silver et al.1998) that disability professionals hope teaching staff will adopt, or the positive impact and rewards that inclusion can lead to. 

Situated approaches

The Demos project has some of the hallmarks of the approaches mentioned above e.g. it is placed within a central service and is underpinned by some of the implications of SENDA.  However, it was realised early on that success of the materials would require adopting a situationist approach wherever possible. Proponents of this approach emphasise that knowledge must be set in a genuine context in order for learning to take place and that teaching should not take place through abstraction.

Therefore, we have attempted to apply this principle through various approaches - teaching staff have been involved in writing the materials, examples of policies and procedures from HEIs are included, questionnaires are available for download, real life case studies are included in the materials and teaching staff have been interviewed to gain an understanding of their development needs.

We have also worked under the assumption that academic staff 'learn their trade' within ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger, 2000). Communities of practice (CoP) are   groups of people who share a common enterprise. They are often formed outside the boundaries of formal organisational structures and share their own common language, means of communicating and ways of doing things.  Learning takes place in a CoP through active participation in the group and is primarily a social process.

In an attempt to utilise communities of practice in which academic staff engage, Demos has sought to use existing networks to disseminate the materials - presentations have been made at academic conferences and at Faculty Learning and Teaching days, newsletters have been sent to Learning and Teaching Units, information about the website is circulated at departmental meetings and is being advertised on departmental websites.  

The role of online learning

Much has been written about the power of the online learning to facilitate learner-centred or constructivist approaches to delivery (see Goodyear, 2001, for example).  The remit for the Demos Project was to explore the usefulness of this approach and whether or not it can be utilised by disability offices to disseminate information about disabled students. 

In many areas of the WWW information is being produced online in the form of web pages that are too often, simply electronic versions of text documents.  These efforts fail to take note on the specific access issues that the web throws up such as how users scan the page (Nielsen, 1995) and the pedagogical importance of hypertext links (McKnight et al, 1993). Very few documents are being converted for the web or indeed written for the web as adding to the learning experience.  Interestingly, despite the burgeoning of online learning in the delivery of HE courses, little use has been made of this approach to deliver staff development except in the field of training staff to deliver online learning itself (see Oliver & Dempster and  Lewis this issue). An unanticipated benefit of the project is that staff who take part get an online learning experience. Even though many are engaged in developing courses of their own, few get such an opportunity to experience the student perspective.

Our early experiences demonstrated the difficulties that disability offices have previously faced in engaging academic staff with new policy and practices.  The first module was published within a virtual learning environment (VLE) and attempted to engage staff in a discussion of the issues around implementation of the Quality Assurance Agency’s Code of Practice on students with disabilities (QAA 2000).  Despite the apparent efficacy of technology to mediate collaborative learning, it proved very difficult to deliver this module in an effective way. This was due to a variety of reasons; some related to context (the QAA being disdained by some staff), some technological (inability of staff to login to the VLE) and others related to our misunderstanding of the communities of practice which exist in the two departments targeted.

Eventually, the project decided to drop the virtual learning environment due to other practical problems such as accessibility, usability and transferability of the resources developed. Our attention then turned to developing a series of modules which are published on the Web using accessible coding that conforms to W3C standards and uses basic HTML wherever possible. As well as offering a model of good practice this ensures that educational developers can utilise the materials without the technical problems mentioned above.

These learning modules are enriched with a number of further resources - web links, further reading, a database of student experience from interviews with students and case studies where possible.  The modules now require individuals learning without networking through the technology and any benefits that might have arisen from using a networked approach have been lost.  However, what has become apparent is that they can be utilised as a tool within the staff developer's toolkit. Our experience has shown that the materials can be used within a hybrid approach i.e. one that uses a mixture of technology and traditional methods to deliver learning. The materials are being used as precursors to face-to-face workshops or as back up materials for staff who may be undergoing a programme of staff development. Also, for the materials to work fully, it is felt that they need to be used in conjunction with other activities.  Although the materials allow just-in-time answers, which busy staff say they often need, there is a limit to the extent to which they can truly change behaviour and understanding on their own. 


Traditionally, disability staff and teaching staff have not shared a community of practice. For example, disability professionals attend conferences organised by disability organisations such as Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, and academic staff attend subject specific conferences. On the whole, supporting disabled students has been viewed as the role of the disability office. However, at the same time as the project has progressed teaching staff have increasingly engaged in constructing understanding about how disabled students can be supported in the classroom. (For an example look at the Geography Discipline Network's materials about disabled students).

Disability offices are also beginning to adopt a model of staff development that takes into account situationist approaches and communities of practice. For instance, in another HEFCE-funded disability initiative based at Nottingham University and encompassing institutions in the M1/M69 staff development network, disability specialists acting as ‘animateurs’ are working alongside departments to form a plan for developing support strategies. Such initiatives are facilitating academic staff to take on board the role of supporting disabled students and actively engaging them in creating the practices, research and literature around this support.

As mentioned above, positive changes have occurred in the way disability staff are working with academic staff and the way in which academic staff are dealing with disabled students. Also, some attempts are being made to facilitate an understanding within the academic community about disabled students through electronic means (e.g. the Demos project). Networked technology can lead to greater understanding within such communities but it remains a challenge for this particular area of higher education to utilise the technology to its full potential.

Further information about the Demos project is available at the Demos project website.

Mike Wray
Project Co-ordinator
DEMOS Project
Manchester Metropolitan University
Tel: 0161 247 3377


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Goodyear, P. (2001) Effective networked learning in higher education: notes and guidelines. Networked Learning in Higher Education Project (JISC/CALT) Deliverable 4. Available at

Lave,  & Wenger (1991) Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge University Press.

McCabe, E. (2001) Disability Officers in Higher Education. National Association of Disability Officer, Technical Briefing, 1/2001, University of Lincoln, UK.

McKnight, C., Dillon, A.P. and Richardson, J.H. (eds.) (1993) Hypertext: A Psychological Perspective , Ellis Horwood, Chichester.

Oliver, M. (1996) Understanding Disability, from Theory to Practice. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press.

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Webb, G. (1996) Understanding Staff Development. The Society for Research into Higher Education and the OU Press, Milton Keynes.

Wenger, E. (2000) Communities of Practice, Learning Meaning and Identity. Cambridge University Press, UK.

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