A couple of days ago I completed the last few pieces of work for a module called H810 accessible online learning. It used to be an important piece of a MA programme in online and distance education (MAODE for short) that was run from a part of the OU called the Institute of Educational Technology. These last few bits of work, which involved agreeing scores on a few EMA modules, represented the end of ten years of work. This ending represents, to some degree, a bit of a milestone.
I applied to tutor on H810 whilst I was working on an accessibility research project; the aim of the project was to explore how to create VLE systems that were more usability for people who have disabilities. I came to work on that project after having tutored a module in interaction design and having had a job developing a learning management system. H810 seemed like a perfect fit.
I remember the interview; it took place in the OU offices in Camden, which probably meant a trip from Sussex, where I was living at the time. I can’t remember what I was asked but I remembered talking about what is meant by the term ‘reasonable adjustments’ and saying something about how I supported my students. I must have said the right things, since I was given a job.
I was one of four tutors who were appointed to the first presentation of the module. There was myself, Clive, Simon and Michelle. The numbers of students on the module changed throughout its presentation. Towards the end of the module, there were only two tutors, myself and Clive, but we were sometimes asked to take on larger groups. Simon, a tutor who I understand had a hand in the original design and development of the module returned during its final presentation.
Structure of the module
H810 was an interesting module, since it consists of two main aspects: a practical aspect and a big theoretical aspect. When I started, I have confess that the theory bit (which I’ll come onto in a few minutes) was entirely new to me. Being more of technologist, my strengths lie in the more technical aspects; I understood some of the issues that accompanied the design of accessible web pages. I was able to apply this understandings to appreciate how someone working in higher education might begin to create accessible materials.
A really important aspect of the module was its emphasis on personal reflection; students were encouraged to continually write about their own background and relate things that they learnt on the module to their own experiences.
The module had two TMAs (tutor marked assignments), and one large six thousand word EMA (end of module assessment). The first assignment was more of an introduction; it asked students to write about their own context and think about some of the issues and challenges that exist within it, whilst connecting to concepts that were introduced within the module such as the importance of the student voice and national legislation. It offered tutors an opportunity to steer students towards important reading.
The second TMA had different focus; it was a lot more practical: it asked students to create and evaluate an accessible learning resource. The resources itself could be about anything. What really mattered was that students gained the experience of building something and working with different tools. Through the module materials students were able to learn about and consult different resources and guidelines; students creating PowerPoints consulted documents that were produced by an organisation called TechDis; students creating web pages or blogs were able to consult W3C WCAG guidelines.
The process of building something helped students to think about how their learning designs could be used by different groups of students. They considered, for example, whether learners could easily adjust the font sizes of text and change the background. This implicitly reflected another important issue that was exposed within the module: the importance of accessibility training and how this might be provided through the institution in which they studied.
One of the interesting elements of the module was that it make extensive use of discussion forums. The module was split into three sections, or blocks. There was an introductory section, a section that related to the use of assistive technology and a block about wider issues and debates (which I’ll come onto later).
Each section was divided into a number of weeks, and weeks contained topics. Each topic has two bits: a set of pages that students needed to read and links to accompanying resources, and a topic discussion forum. The topic pages contained a series of activities. These activities could either be completed by the student themselves, or be completed by participating in an online discussion through the topic discussion forum. One of my activities as a tutor was to ‘seed’ the discussions, ready for the students for when they arrive at that point in the module. Another thing that I did as a tutor was encourage students to subscribe to each of the forums.
The aims of all these forums were simple: it was to share practices and experiences between students. One of the good things about H810 is that it sometimes attracted students from different countries. This meant that is was possible to compare and contrast practices and experiences.
In my experience, there were some students who were enthusiastic users of the discussion forums, and there were some who barely touched them. By way of an incentive, students were awarded 10% of the overall module score for online participation.
Set book, theory and the EMA
As well as the module materials, a set text accompanied the module: E-Learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research and Practice by Jane Seale, who is now a professor at the OU.
During the life of the module, Jane’s book changed; her second edition was very different to the first edition. I personally found the first edition a difficult read and I sensed that this was a view that was shared by some students. Despite its difficulty, it had a lot to say: it encouraged students to think about accessibility from three different perspectives; an individual perspective, an institutional perspective and a community perspective. These perspectives were connected to three different frameworks (or ‘theoretical lenses’, as I came to view them) that can be applied (through critical reflection) to help understand how accessibility is provided within the student’s own institution.
Through the application of these ‘lenses’ students could also begin to see what changes and potential enhancements could be made. Accessibility doesn’t just begin and end by considering the technical dimension; it is a sociotechnical issue: technology can help, but people need to know what technology can be chosen and applied.
The first edition of Seale’s book introduced institutional change theory, activity theory and something called ‘communities of practice’. Coming from more of a technical tradition (as opposed to sociotechnical, or even educational position), I found all these pretty confusing. Initially, I didn’t know what to make of all these tools. A personal challenge was that the end of module assessment was all about using these tools to understand and make sense of their own institutional context.
I soon began to see how students creatively unpicked their situations and environments using the different frameworks. By thinking about concepts such as communities of practice, for instance, students could understand the extent to which people in their own institutions talk about accessibility and share experiences. This helped students to ask themselves questions, such as: how do teachers learn about accessibility, and how do disabled students begin to gain access to assistive technologies and accompanying training.
One thing that surprised me at the start of the module is that it didn’t (initially) have any recommended or scheduled tutorials; my line manager didn’t offering me a clear or a direct steer about this. By the second or third presentation, I had made a unilateral decision that tutorials were probably needed. I introduced three tutorials: one for each TMA and another one for the EMA. By the time the university moved towards sharing of tutorials through the group tuition policy, the tutors were already working collaboratively with each other to delivery online tutorials.
Thinking back to my experience of tutoring on H810, one of the biggest things that surprised me was its approach to marking: students had access to exactly the same marking guidelines that were available to the tutors; everything was totally transparent.
This was very different to the marking approach that I had ‘grown up with’ whilst tutoring on a computing and IT module; tutors were given extensive instruction and guidance about how to mark each individual question section, and were even provided with sample answers. H810 was different: it was entirely up to us, and this surprised me. In some respects, as tutors we were given a lot more scope and freedom to teach, but the downside was that it took a bit of time to uncover the best way to present feedback to students.
Fast forward around seven years, and things had changed: the first edition of the module set text had been replaced with a second edition. A big difference between the first edition and the second edition of Seale’s book is that the second edition no longer contained the chapters that introduced the three different frameworks that were fundamental to the EMA. This created a problem for the module team: they could either rewrite the module, use another reference, or create some other form of resource to fill the gap. They chose the latter approach: they worked with the publisher to create a special edition of the set text; the second edition with three extra chapters from the first edition.
From what I understand, the introduction of the second edition gave way to a module refresh. By and large, the shelf life of an OU module is around 6 years; H810 had ten presentations. As well having to make way for a new set text, sections of the module materials had to be updated; there were external changes that affected the presentation of the module, such as the availability of an organisation called TechDis, which offered accessibility support to the university sector and the emergence of new accessibility standards and equality legislation. The refresh also represented an opportunity to draw on new research and publications; I was very surprised to learn that a conference paper that I had written had been explicitly used within the module materials. There is an important point here, which is that modules should be connected to and use research.
The end of module assessment was, in many ways, the hardest part of the module for both students and for tutors. As an EMA marker, I have always been aware of how much time and effort went into each piece of writing, and I was continually impressed by the level of writing that was submitted. In the run up to the EMA, my own guidance to students had changed and developed. I emphasised the importance of demonstrating reading beyond the boundaries of the module (which is something that is required from a postgraduate module), and spoke about the importance of tone; although some people fundamentally disagree, I recommended that it was okay for students to write in the first person, as long as students adopted a relatively formal approach.
Towards the end of tutoring on H810 I started to tutor on a Computing and IT project module that had the module code TM470. In some respects, working on H810 was the perfect training for the world of TM470 where students are required to write substantial end of project reports that were even longer than the EMAs that students were required to submit in H810. There was another difference: TM470 also had a transparent marking guide like H810.
Final words: summing up
I know this can be said about all OU modules, but I felt that being a tutor on H810 was a very worthwhile thing to do. I write this because I have seen students come through the process of writing the EMA with a set of practical recommendations that could make a real difference to the experience of students with disabilities in their own institution. It was especially interesting to read about the ways that the frameworks are used to uncover accessibility practice within the OU.
A couple of words to summarise the experience: challenging, interesting and hard work. There’s also a touch of sadness that it has all finished. I’ll miss H810 and I’ll also miss its tutors. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that some of the topics that it exposes finds its ways into a replacement module, whatever that might be.
If you’re interested, bits of H810 can be found in the following Open Learn course: Accessibility of eLearning.