The Impact Of Assistive Technology In South Africa Education Essay

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Abstract.

This study proposes to determine the impact of Assistive Technology (AT) on South African disabled students in higher education institutions (University Of Pretoria, Tshwane University of Technology and University Of Witwatersrand). In the modern world we live in today technology is the backbone of business and Industry.

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 a related objective which is to develop user-centred methodologies for understanding the impact of AT on disabled students and to document these findings widely with an attempt to promote a participatory approach to designing and evaluating the use of AT in higher education 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:

Disabled people in South Africa account for 5% (2 255 982) of the total population (Statistics South Africa. 2001) (please find out how many of these are students before you hand it in and just include the number). 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 (Howel, 1996). A number of AT devices and software are available that, with careful planning and guidance, can benefit disable students (Duhaney & Duhaney, 2000). In South Africa, the Ministry of Education improvise that South African schools have to provide AT services and equipment for a student with a disability to ensure a "free and appropriate" public education.

Majority of students who enter higher education in South Africa are required to use online learning resources or activities to supplement their formal or informal learning in some way e.g. (a) virtual learning environments, (b) discussion lists, (c) e-mail, (d) podcasts and (e) library information databases. Literature by Prensky (2001) and Oblinger (2003) argued that the students of today were sophisticated "digital natives" of the "net generation" who would expect sophisticated use of technology as an integral part of their education environment. Oblinger (2003) argues that this would require institutions to inquire how well they know and understand the needs and requirements of these "new" students.

The little information there is about the impact of ICT on students in South African higher institutions comes from three main sources:

Case studies developed from publicly funded learning and teaching projects;

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

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

What is not clear from these studies however is whether these conclusions are true for all students, particularly disabled students who may need to use AT to enable them to access educational materials that are provided digitally or online?

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.

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, there is growing recognition of the need to develop methods that enable the "student voice" to be a more central focus of AT studies (Levin & Scharffenberger, 1990). Efforts to include students in studies about the impact of AT in their education environment may require new methods and processes. New, that is, to AT researchers. There is however two related field methods that AT researchers could draw on when developing their learner-centred research methods that analyzes the impacts of AT on of disabled students in South Africa, 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 can be defined as the active involvement of AT users (disabled students) throughout the entire research and development process (Hanson et al. 2007) and is generally understood to involve: (a) working directly with participants (disabled students) early and continual participation of these participants; (b) engaging with real participants (disabled students) in their real contexts; (c) iterative cycles of development and evaluation until an agreed solution is reached and (d) collaborative partnerships between participants (disabled students) and designers. Participatory design methods are varied but have a strong ethnographic tradition with regards to conducting intensive observations of the user and how they use technologies in their everyday lives (Davies et al. 2004). The strong narrative and in-depth analysis offered by such methods appear to be highly applicable to research studies focusing on hearing the "student voice" in relation to the impact of AT in their education environment.

The use of Participatory methods avail great potential in enabling the voice of disabled students to be a more central focus of AT studies. 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

Because this study is focusing on the methods that can be used to give a real and meaningful voice to disabled students in South African Higher Education institutions, where this study will quote the contributions (written or verbal) of a research participant (disabled student), we will quote them verbatim. According to this study. It means that the researcher will not correct the grammar, or phrasing of the participants. This study may on occasions edit contributions for spelling or 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:

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 technology to help you learn?

How do you use technologies for social networking and are they sometimes linked to your learning?

How do you feel about the support you have received?

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 is so, in order to increase understanding of the many complex issues and interactions introduced by disabled students' requirements for accessible and compatible ATs and effective learning support.

Using participatory research and design, this study will conduct an exploratory study to determine the impact that ATs have on disabled students in South Africa. This goal 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 summary report detailing how the research questions have been addressed and drawing out lessons learned from the particular institutional context;

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

Recommendations and guidance for practitioners, support staff, institutional managers, learners, content providers, instructional designers 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 parties, after which the different types of learning disabilities in South Africa are identified and defined. The different types of AT in relation to these disabilities are then tackled, the impact or relevance that these AT have had on these students is then discussed and then some of the barriers to access to these technologies is discussed.

3.1. Analysis of Research Studies

In the past decade, there has been a steady growth in the research focusing on the topic of AT and education for disabled individuals. With a vast majority of the research that has been conducted focused on the usefulness of AT in special education (Howell, 1996), inclusive classroom (Merbler, Hadadian, & Ulman, 1999), separate disability categories (Bryant & Erin, 1998), and faculty development and needs assessment (Bryan, Taylor & Hinojosa, 2002).

Mirenda (2001) summarized and analyzed the extent research literature on aided autism and AT for students with autism across a variety of dimensions. She urged for collaborative efforts across disciplines: education, speech-language pathology and applied behaviour analysis. Others have reported that AT devices and services have major implications for individuals with learning disabilities. Faculty members in higher education must take responsibility for designing teacher preparation and practice to better prepare teachers to work with students who use AT devices to compensate for their specific learning disabilities (Bryant & Erin, 1998). Results gathered from Weikle & Hadadian (2003) indicated that the inability to communicate has been a principal factor in the lack of success in inclusive school, work, and social settings for persons with severe disabilities. Communication abilities such as asking questions, making comments, and retelling stories appear to strongly correlate with later success with written language. Although there is excellent evidence for the efficacy of using various technologies to enhance emergent literacy skills in young children with disabilities, society has been slow in acknowledging 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, they will be e-mailed to participants for correction and additions. 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

Drawing from the fields of participatory design and participatory research, for the purposes of this study, we have defined disabled students' participation as:

Involving disabled learners as consultants and partners and not just as research subjects. Where disabled learners help to identify and (re)frame the research questions; work with the researchers to achieve a collective analysis of the research issues and bring the results to the attention of each of the constituencies that they represent.

This definition reflects the principle of "nothing about me, without me" (Nightingale, 2006; Nelson et al. 1998) and involves:

Working directly with disabled students (research participants) in the evaluation of the impact of AT on their learning environments;

Early and continual participation of learners in order to produce improved teaching and support practices;

Engaging disabled students in the design, conduct and analysis of "research"

Encouraging disabled students to own the outcome by setting the goals and sharing in decisions about processes.

In conceptualising the participatory nature of a research in this way, this study has mapped its approach against a framework offered by Radermacher (2006) which identifies six categories of participant involvement that range from non-involvement to participant-initiated, shared decisions with researcher. This study's' methodology appears to fall into a category defined by Radermacher as "researcher-initiated, shared decisions with participants" where the researchers have the initial idea for the research, but participants are involved in every step of the planning and implementation.

5.2 Overview of the participatory phases of this study

With regards to the participation of disabled students in this study, there were three key phases of participation:

Phase One (Jan): In the first phase of this study participants (disabled students) will be consulted regarding the relevance of the proposed research questions and the appropriateness of proposed data collection methods.

Phase Two (Feb.): In the second phase of the study participants will be allowed to contribute their own experiences of using AT through an interview and the provision of additional information (e.g. artefact) in a form and media of their choosing.

Phase Three (march): In the third phase of this study participants will be invited to advise on the analysis of the experiences obtained through phase two and what key implications needed to be drawn out 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 Witswaterand, this study will also employ a range of approaches that will enable the participation of a wider group of stakeholders. These included:

Involvement of Student Support Services (SSS) in recruitment of participants (these will mostly be the Disability department of each respective University);

The setting up of a project 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;

Involvement of professional experts as evaluators of the project (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. What is obvious about the use of these data collection tools in this study is that participation (disabled students) will influence the nature and focus of each tool:

The participation of an advisory group, key university stakeholders and a "pilot" student will influence the design or wordings of the email that was sent to prospective participants (disabled students);

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

The participation 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 students registered as disabled within 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 (Appendix C). 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 is to share with them this study's initial interpretations of the data that it has collected.

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 group whether they reflected their own personal experiences and views and whether thus study was misrepresenting the findings or missing something important from the results.

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. See Appendix 5.

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