Impact Of Assistive Technology On Disabled Students Education Essay


The underlying principle of involving participants (disabled students) in this study has its origin from two fields ;( a) participatory design and (b) participatory research. The data collection tools that will be used in this study consist of (a) an interview plus, (b) questionnaire and (c) focus groups. Linked with the aim of understanding the impact of AT on disabled students, this study has an objective to develop a user-centred methodology that is used for understanding the impact of AT on disabled students in South African higher institutions. These methodologies are then documented widely with an objective to further understand and promote the use of participatory research approach while evaluating and designing ATs for disabled students in South Africa.

This study will recruit 30 participants (disabled students) from Higher learning institutions in Gauteng (University of Pretoria, Tshwane University of Technology) who will participate in all phases of this study. The results from this study will then be analyzed in order to understand both the individual and collective impacts of using AT as a disabled student in South Africa. The expected contributions of this study are; (a) to determine the impact of AT on South African disabled students; (b) to compare the performance the of disabled students with their non-disabled peers; (c) to determine the user-friendliness of these technologies; (d) to determine different types of AT available south African students with disabilities.

Keywords: Assistive Technology, disabilities, South Africa, disabled students.

1. Introduction:

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Disabled people in South Africa account for 5% (2 255 982) of the total population (Statistics South Africa. 2001). With the vast growth of Internet Computer Technology (ICT) in South Africa and the government initiative to have more disabled South Africans obtaining education, there has been need for Assistive Technologies to be implemented in these educational institutions. Assistive Technology (AT) is defined as "any device or items that can be used to increase maintain or improve the capabilities of individuals with disabilities" (IDEA, 1990). With careful planning and guidance, the vast number of AT devices and softwares can be beneficial to disable students (Duhaney & Duhaney, 2000). In South Africa, the Ministry of Education improvise that South African schools have to provide AT services and equipments for a disabled student to enable a "free and appropriate (balanced)" public education.

Majority of universities in South Africa use online learning such as; (a) virtual learning environments, (b) discussion lists, (c) e-mail, (d) podcasts and (e) library information databases to provide information to their students. Students of today are being classified as "digital native" of the "net generation," Oblinger (2003), so they expect technology to be integrated into their learning environments. Prensky (2001) argues that, this would need fir the universities to analyse just how well they know about the new students that are being enrolled into their universities.

Most of the literature that is available about the impact of ATs on disabled students in Universities comes from three sources;

Literature and Case Studies that have been developed from publicly funded studies;

Research studies that have explored the general education experiences of disabled students ;

Research studies that have explored the specific ICT (e-learning) experiences of disabled students.

What the conclusions from the studies have made clear though, are whether their findings are true for all students, especially the disabled students who may need AT to enable them access learning materials that may be provided online or digitally?

The impacts of use of AT on students with disabilities in South Africa are enormous. Not only is AT beneficial in classroom environments, disabled students' social lives have also changed as well as improved with better communication between the disabled students and their non-disabled peers. Life is all about communicating and interacting with one's environment. However, many issues and barriers impact on the successful use of AT such as lack of AT knowledge, training, funding, poor coordination between service providers, technology developers and fear/avoidance of these technologies.

With the use of AT, opportunities for disabled students are better enhanced.

Some of the most significant change in the education of students with disabilities in South Africa has been the initiative to adapt the "inclusive education" theory into their education system (Patton, 1992). This form of initiative is mainly a collaborative setting which includes a content specialist paired with a learning specialist and then leads to sharing of the teaching responsibilities which will later benefit the education of both general and disabled students. The use of inclusive education may change from institution to institution but it clearly indicates that it is extremely important in enabling those students archive their educational goals.

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The emergence of developments in the ICT sector particularly in the field of AT enkindles the hope for those who have so long been deprived of opportunities with which life has burdened them: visual impairment, physical disability, hearing impairment and Communication impairments (Levin & Scharffenberger, 1990). More importantly, disability is being recognized as "a social construct created by ability-oriented and ability-dominated environments."

AT is showing what is possible for the people who are suffering from a wide range of natural disabilities. These technologies are being used at home, schools, work places and also in communities as a whole by disabled people (Howell, 1996). The use of Assistive Technologies (AT) is allowing people with disabilities to be more independent, productive, and self-confident and also enable them to be easily absorbed into mainstream society.

These technologies, for example, would enable a student with physically impaired hands or arms to still be able to operate a computer with a switch or an onscreen keyboard, a mute student to communicate using a device that speaks and a student who cannot gain access to bathroom facilities to be lifted to and from them using specialised mechanical devices (Mirenda, 2001). All these wonders are a result of the use of AT and the endless possibilities that are afforded by them.

Traditional methods for studying the impacts of AT on disabled students in South African higher education include; (a) interviews,(b) questionnaire surveys and (c) focus groups. However, in recent time, there has been a need to develop methods and practices that enable the "student voice" to be more of the focus of AT studies (Levin & Scharffenberger, 1990). However, it should be clarified that efforts to include disabled students in studies of impact of AT in the learning environments may need new alternative methods besides the traditional methods. Researcher can draw their learner-centred AT research studies from two related filed methods to analyse the impact of AT on disabled students in universities, these include; (a) participatory design and (b) participatory research.

These methods are commonly used for designing ATs and incorporate the related fields of user-centred design, co-design and inclusive design (Hanson et al. 2007). Participatory design according to this study is defined as the involvement of disabled students throughout the entire phases of this study (Hanson et al. 2007). This study involves; (a) working directly with the disabled students (participants) from phase one throughout to last phase of this study; (b) involving the real disabled students in their real contexts; (c) a continuous cycle of phases (development and evaluation) until both the researcher and research participant reach an agreed solution (d) dual participation between participants (disabled students) and designers in development of key AT methodologies.

The benefits of Participatory design methods are obvious when researching intensive study of the user (disabled students) and how they use these technologies in daily activities (Davies et al. 2004). The strong in-depth analysis offered by such methods appears to be highly applicable to research studies focusing on hearing the "student voice."

Participatory methods will be used to explore the impact of AT on disabled students in three higher education institution in South Africa: (a) University Of Pretoria, (b) University Of Witwatersrand and (c) Tshwane University of Technology.

1.1. The use of verbatim, uncorrected quotes

Since this study is focusing on the research methods that can be used to give a real voice to disabled students in South African Higher Education institutions. Where this study will quote the written or verbal contributions of a research participant (disabled student), this study will quote them verbatim. It means that this study will not correct the grammar, or phrasing of the participants. This study may on some parts edit phrases by participants (disabled students) for spelling and length; on such occasions where words or sentences have been edited out, this will usually be indicated by the use of the symbol: […]

2. Overview of this study

[…] The first is voice as a say in any form of decision-making, planning or evaluation. This can refer both to the power of the individual in relation to others, and also the voice in a collective sense, that is democratic voice […] The second concept of voice refers to people telling their own stories of themselves and their experiences. Voice in this sense bridges the individual and the collective as it speaks to both to the common threads […] and to differences and diversity in the lived experience. (Swain & French, 1998:40)

2.1 Problem statement:

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The greatest challenge today South African students living with disabilities is integrating into a normal society and participating in an already competitive educational system, as well as being fully equipped for the professional economic world. One way to ensure best outcomes for disabled students would be to assess and analyze the impact of AT on these students. To do this, different types of AT would have to be identified and may level the playing ground and offer equal opportunities for disabled students as those available for their able bodied colleagues.

A number of technologies (Assistive/adaptive Technology) have been developed to deal with the phenomenon of disabled students in South Africa. But very little literature has been written about these types of technology and their impacts to the end-users from the disabled students' perspective. Even with some of the literature that has been written, most of it hasn't been written as a voice of the disabled students in South Africa but as review of other literature. This study deduces that there is need for research to be written from the disabled students' perspective, that's why participatory research is a far more eligible research method for this study. Although most of the educators in south Africa are trying to make sure that the disabled students use the same technology as their counterpart (non-disabled), it's been hard for the disabled students to deal with the fact that most of the software being made do not accommodate the aspect of inclusive education and design for all (Fischer, 1995).

Thus further participatory research is necessary to determine the impact of AT on South African disabled students.

2.2. Research Questions

The following research questions are raised from the problem statement. These include the following:

What are the different types of Assistive Technologies available to students with disabilities?

How user friendly are these Assistive Technologies( that is do students experience any difficulties in utilising these Technologies)

Does the use of AT improve student's learning capabilities?

How does the performance of these disabled students compared to their non-disabled peers.

Does AT integrate disabled students with non-disabled students?

How do you feel about using Assistive Technology to help you in your learning environment?

How do you use Assistive Technologies for social networking and are they linked to your education environment?

How do you related to the support you have received from the general public or education stakeholders?

Are there particular moments or events that have changed the way you have used technology in your learning?

2.3. Goals and Objectives of study

The overarching aim of this study is to understand the impact of AT on disabled students in South African higher institutions (Tshwane University of Technology, University of Technology and University Of Witwatersrand). This would help to increase the knowledge about the unresolved issues introduced by disabled students on what's the impact of AT in their learning environments.

This study will conduct an exploratory research using Participatory research and design to determine the impact that ATs have on disabled students in South Africa. This can be accomplished by implementing the following primary objectives:

To determine different types of AT available south African students with disabilities;

To determine whether the use of the ATs improve learning capabilities;

To compare the performance the of disabled students with their non-disabled peers;

To determine the user-friendliness of these technologies

To determine whether the AT integrates disabled students with non-disabled students.

Make recommendations for those involved in designing learning systems and developing support services for disabled students based on our understanding of their diverse needs, experiences and preferences.

Investigate the strategies, beliefs and intentions of disabled learners who are effective in learning in technology-rich environments and identity factors that enable or inhibit effective e-learning;

2.4. Deliverables and outcomes of this project

By addressing the aims, objectives and research questions outlined in the previous section, this project aimed to produce the following:

30 personal accounts of disabled learners' different experiences of learning and the role e-learning and other technologies plays in those experiences;

A summarized report detailing how the research questions(in later section) have been addressed and developing out lessons learned from the particular institutional context;

A methodological report outlining the tools and techniques used and critiquing the chosen methodology;

Recommendations for practitioners, support staff, institutional managers, students and program developers.

3. Literature Review

According to Conford and Smithson (2006: 109), the purpose of a literature review is to examine what other have discovered about a certain topic so that one can use their insights and contributions in one's own research. The literature review in this paper is divided into two sections. Firstly, this study will highlight some of the past research that have been discussed and researched by other rsearchers.This study will then critics these past literatures written about ATs.

3.1. Analysis of Research Studies

There is a lot of literature written focusing on the topic of AT and education for disabled students. With a vast majority of the research that has been conducted focused on the usefulness of AT on special education (Howell, 1996), inclusive design and classroom (Merbler, Hadadian, & Ulman, 1999), different disability categories (Bryant & Erin, 1998).

Mirenda (2001) analyzed and summarized the extent such research literature on aided autism. She urged for a collaborative efforts across the various disciplines of: education, pathology, applied behaviour analysis and speech-language. Others have reported that AT devices have major implications for disabled students in their learning environments. Faculty members in universities must take responsibility for designing and contributing to teacher preparation and practice to better prepare teachers to work with disabled students who use AT devices to compensate for their specific disability (Bryant & Erin, 1998). Findings gathered from Weikle & Hadadian (2003) conclude that the inability for better communication has been a principal factor in the low success in social settings, work and inclusive school for persons with severe disabilities. Communication preferences such as asking a question, making a comment, and retelling stories appear to strongly correlate with later success of written language. Although there various evidence for the efficiency of using various ATs to enhance emerging literacy skills in young disabled children, the current society has been slow in accepting these positive findings.

Woodward and Reith (1997) provide a historical perspective on past research conducted under this field of educations and technology for students with disabilities. Though research in this field has been going on for many years, mush of that research was not specific on persons with disabilities; instead, it focused on educational impact of technology specific to their non-disabled peers. Woodward and Reith (1997) exposed some of fundamental weaknesses with past research in this field. Woodward and Reith (1997) further on go to say that there was also a prejudice that one surrounds the idea that past research focuses on educational performance of students using the technology in more of an immediate impact mindset.

A second weakness to early research is that "much of the research has looked at the way that technology could monitor progress towards Individual Education Plan goals, assess students to determine eligibility for special education services, or document how technology is used under naturalistic conditions..." (Woodward and Reith (1997), as opposed to how technology has assisted the student directly access content or improve academic performance. More recent research has focused on students' interaction with the technology.

Wimberley, Reed and Morris (2004), conducted a studying focusing on barriers to educations and the impact of introducing Assistive Technologies as an intervention. After their study, barriers specifically included items such as poor sound quality, inability to login into specific applications and environmental restrictions based on policies such as inability to listen to audio files within the school's public computer labs. However, even with these barriers the students still felt that the use of AT had helped remove some of the barriers that had impeded their education success (Wimberley et al, 2004). Qualitative response supporting this position provided by Wimberley et al., include "I find the [screen reading] software very helpful. It has allowed me to complete my assignment faster than I had ever been able to" and "It allowed me to process the info that I was reading much faster. I only wish I had it as an undergraduate."

Another study that supports the idea that AT helps students perform educational tasks much better is conducted by Fichten, Asuncion, Barile, Fossey and De Simone (2001). Fichten et al, (2001) conducted 3 studies focusing on technology needs for more than 800 students. A summary of all the studies showed that students were more on par with their non-disabled peers and teachers had better understanding and how to deal with the disabled students.

In all the studies mentioned above, two important issues are noted: (a) the impact of using AT is enormous; (b) there are vast ATs that are available for disabled students to use in their learning experiences. The uniqueness of this proposed study is immediately obvious. All the existing literature that has been written about this topic has been re-written from other people's literature. What this study intends to provide is to act as a voice for the disabled students, the findings and life of this study shall entirely involve the research participants themselves(disabled students).With this form of research, not only are we providing first hand information, the deliverables are entirely recommendations of what they want and would like to have.

4. Research Findings & Data Analysis

The data from phase one interview plus will be collected and analysed using Excel. For question one, where participants will be asked to tick the research questions that they felt were important, a tick will be captured by recording a "1" in the column relating to each question. Open comments made regarding responses will be copied and pasted into an adjacent column in the spreadsheet. For question two, where participants will be asked to tick the methods that they would be happy to use to share their experiences with the project, the total tally of ticks will be recorded against proposed method.

In the phase two of this study; interviews and an Olympus recorder will be used to record the interviews with the participants. The resulting Windows Media Video (WMA) files will be transcribed into Word documents. For some of the interviews, speech recognition software will be used to assist transcription (e.g. a researcher plays the audio files into their head phones and verbally repeats what they hear from the files so that a speech recognition application can capture their words and convert it into written text). Once these transcripts are typed, this study will email the participants to read through and find out if there any corrections or additions that should be noted. These transcripts will then provide the basis from which issues are noted and strategies developed into artefacts.

In the phase three focus group, an Olympus recorder will be used to record the discussion. The resulting WMA file will be transcribed into a Word document.

5. Research Design & Methodology

In this section we will define participatory research in the context of this study; provide an overview of the participatory phases of this study and of the data collection tools; describe the recruitment process and the data collection and analysis process.

5.1. Defining participatory research in the context of this study

For the purpose of this study, we have defined students' participation with relation to participatory design and participatory research as:

Using disabled students (participants) as the partners and consultants and not just as subjects of this study. Where disabled students help to identify and contribute towards the research questions in this study; work with the researchers in all the phases to arrive at a generalized analysis and understanding of the research goals, objectives and problem statements so as to bring the results to the attention of the stakeholders involved in developing ATs.

This definition of students' participation relates to the principle of "nothing about me, without me" (Nelson et al. 1998) and includes:

Engaging directly with disabled students (research participants) in all phases of the study in the evaluation of the impact of AT on their learning environments;

Early and continual participation of disabled students in all phases of study in order to contribute results that will produce better support and teaching practices;

Engaging disabled students in the conduct, analysis and design of this study in all participatory phases;

Engaging with disabled students to decide the outcome of this study by setting the goals and sharing in decisions processes.

By viewing the participatory nature of a research in this way, a framework offered by Radermacher (2006) has been used to map this study's approach. This study's methodology falls under the category defined as "researcher-initiated, but shared decisions with participants (disabled students)" Radermacher (2006), meaning, the researcher has the is the first contributor of the idea for the problem statement, but participants (disabled students) are involved in every phase of the planning and implementation of the study methodology.

5.2 Overview of the participatory phases of this study

With regards to the participation of disabled students in this study, there will be three phases of students' participation:

Phase One (May - July): In this phase of this study, participants (disabled students) will be contacted with regards to the relevance of the research questions and the appropriateness data collection methods that this study proposes to use.

Phase Two (July - September): In this phase of the study, participants (disabled students) will be allowed to contribute their own experiences of using AT using the data collection tools discussed in this study (interview plus, questionnaire and focus groups).

Phase Three (September- November): In this phase of the study, participants (disabled students) will be invited to advise on the data obtained through phase two and what key conclusions needed to be obtained from them.

This study will describe and evaluate more about each of these phases in the methodology report (Seale, Draffan & Wald, 2008).

In addition to developing participatory approaches that enabled the participation of disabled students within the University of Pretoria; Tshwane University Of technology and University of Witwatersrand, this study will also employ a range of approaches that will enable the involvement different stakeholders, these are:

Involvement of the different university Student Support Services (SSS) in recruitment of participants (disabled students);

Forming a study advisory group, which will consist of member of the SSS,the research and other senior members of the community;

Involvement of senior members of the proposed universities;

Engaging of professional experts as critics and evaluators of this study (the research co-ordinator, members from Disability Department of South Africa).

5.3. Overview of data collection tools

The data collection tools that will be used in this study consist of (a) interview plus (b) questionnaire and (c) focus groups. Most research studies that employ a participatory approach use these tools. Research studies that focus on disabled students in higher education have employed these methods. The obvious benefit of using these data collection tools in this study is that participants (disabled students) will influence the nature and focus of each tool that will be used:

The involvement of an key university stakeholders, and study advisory group in this study will influence the format, design or wordings of the email that was sent to prospective participants (disabled students);

The participation of disabled students after being recruited will determine and influence research methods and the design of the Interview plus ;

The participation and involvement of disabled students in the Interview Plus will influence the design of the focus group.

5.3.1. Email

An email will be used during phase one of this study as a tool for consulting disabled students about the relevance and validity of this study's' proposed research questions. With the help of SSS, a recruitment email will be sent out to all registered disabled students in the respective Universities. The email will have information and the survey questions that the disabled students should answer to. 

Those disabled students who will decide to participate in this study will respond to two main questions. The first question will ask them to tick (or rate) how important the proposed research questions are to them. The second question will ask them to tick (or rate) preferred methods/media for sharing their technology experiences with this study.

5.3.2. The interview plus tool

In phase two of this study an interview plus tool will be used (See Appendix 1). The interview consisted of 8 learner profile questions (questions 1-7) that all phase two projects included in their data collection and 8 questions specific to this study problem questions (questions 8 to 16).

5.3.3. The focus group

A focus group will be held in phase three to which all the participants will be invited. During these focus group meetings, the researcher will explain to the participants the purpose of the focus group, which is to share with the participants (disabled students) in this study the initial interpretations of the data that has been collected in earlier phases of participation.

The main findings in phase one and two will be summarised and presented to the participants. For each of the findings, this study will ask the participants (disabled students) whether they expressed their own views and personal experiences and if this study misrepresented the findings or leaving out important contributions that they made in earlier phases of this study.

5.3.4. Recruitment

After receipt of ethical approval from the respective Universities SSS, Disability Department of South Africa, this study will sough to contact the disabled students in their database. After this study has received the emails of the disabled students in those respective universities, an email will be sent to those students.