Whether you agree with the sentiment behind this, most educators in universities and colleges spend their time thinking about teaching and learning
- not teaching and training
. If learning is perceived as a higher-status activity, with its connotations of fluid independence, flair and freewill, we may wonder why the learning environments we offer students are so rigid.
We refer here not to the virtual
learning environments (VLEs) that many students access to follow their courses, but to the real physical environments of machines and networks that are provided by institutions. The environment is usually configured in a certain way and this is replicated on all equipment. To what extent does this one size fit all? If the student cannot use the environment as provided (for example, they are unable to see the screen clearly, or need to control the computer without using a mouse), then this is evidence that there is something wrong with the student, right?
Emphatically, wrong! In recent years, a fundamental shift has taken place in educational theory in relation to how disability is defined and viewed. Whereas the traditional view locates the individual as the ‘problem’, the social model argues that the problem lies in the ways that physical and social environments are organised, usually unwittingly, to exclude disabled people. The problem is exacerbated through inaccessible learning, information and communication systems (Barnes 2004).
A solution is needed which can deal with the problems inherent in the social environment model. Such a solution would touch on ideas about e-inclusion, a term which is increasingly used to refer to the use of digital technologies to break down barriers of gender, race and disability (Abbot 2007).
Most universities and colleges are comfortable with the idea of making ‘reasonable adjustments’, as called for in the legislation (Disability Discrimination Act 1995). Their attitude to providing an even playing field for all learners often goes well beyond explanation in terms of legal enforcement. But how good is that provision when it’s really needed? How ubiquitous or immediate is it? Many invaluable software tools already exist that suit some students’ personal situations, but are they always there at a time and place where they are needed? While their peers speed ahead with their coursework, are some students sometimes faced with inconvenient or embarrassing delays while IT support comes to their rescue?
In the spirit of current ideas about what makes effective, independent learning, it is valid to think more about how to enable learners to configure the features of their own required learning environment. How about a tool that could be put directly into the hands of learners, that would enable them to have the assistive software that they need, no fuss, no bother, at any time, day or night on any pc? And what if that tool was also free?
Craig Mill, e-Learning Advisor for Accessibility and Inclusion at the JISC Regional Support Centre Scotland North & East (RSC) has been entertaining such radical thoughts for several years. In the early days, he was distributing open source and free software on CD to all colleges in Scotland, making himself highly popular with learners and lecturers, though somewhat less so with established software vendors who, in the wake of more and more free and online services, are feeling the challenge to develop new business models.
In the ten years that have followed, the technology has moved on, but the idea to provide the learner with the means to create the learning environment that suits them is more valid and attainable than ever. Old CDs may be recycled now as devices to keep the birds off the cabbage patch, or as coasters or even candle-stick holders, but more modern and reliable forms of portable storage devices are genuinely pocket-sized. None is more versatile and convenient than the USB stick.
Further refinement of such ideas led Craig and colleagues at the RSC to develop AccessApps
, a collection of around 60 portable open source and freeware applications all running on Windows computers and easily downloadable from the RSC’s website. All are ideal for education and in many instances provide identical functions to expensive commercial alternatives. The apps are bunched together into easy-to-understand generic categories (like presentation, planning, office, and multimedia tools). They are accompanied by guides, onscreen tutorials and backed up by online support, seeded by Craig and his colleagues but propagated and extended by the larger user community. When learners want to take a break, there are even a few games thrown into the mix.
Running directly from a USB stick (removing the need to have admin privileges to install software), learners can thereby access the software tools they need anytime, anyplace, anywhere. AccessApps
enables such tools to be always to hand, independent of what may or may not be installed on institution-provided machines. In this sense, the learning environment is plastic, portable, and peripatetic: it goes with the learner wherever they go. From an initiative that began in Scotland North & East, AccessApps
has now gone UK-wide in terms of its support and dissemination through the activities of JISC RSCs in all 12 other UK regions, and of the JISC educational advisory services for accessibility & inclusion, and open source respectively: TechDis and OSS-Watch.
In the RSC’s evaluations of the experiences of AccessApps users, it soon became apparent that there was a desire for open source and free educational software from all kinds of people, regardless of need for any assistive tools. From an institutional perspective as well, the AccessApps
model has been found to be very attractive: in these financially challenging times where more and more economies are sought, it is difficult to find a software solution that is cheaper than free.
This realisation inspired the creation of the EduApps
‘family’ of software collections, leading to the development of two new AccessApps
. As their names imply, the new bundles are suitable for anyone who is a learner and anyone who is a teacher, respectively.
Many students are discovering the EduApps
family for themselves and freely downloading it from the RSC’s website (www.eduapps.org). Others are signposted to it by their universities or colleges. In some instances, institutions are taking the initiative to distribute it to large numbers of their students, sometimes also adding institution-specific learning material. In other cases,
institutions are interested in using EduApps
as a marketing tool,
distributed to potential students along with a digital prospectus. After evaluation, the RSC plans to write up these case studies in future submissions to ALT.
Craig Mill and colleagues at the RSC Scotland North & East remain pleased that the popularity of EduApps (which has recently won awards from the Guardian, IMS Global Learning Consortium, and Scottish Open Source Software) is helping the message finally to be understood in universities and colleges in the UK - and even worldwide - that open source and freeware applications can challenge the old adage that ‘you get what you pay for’. EduApps proves that a new wisdom is emerging: excellent educational apps, meeting the needs of learners, both can be found for free in the open source and freeware domains.
Martin Hawksey, Kenji Lamb, Craig Mill, Sarah Price
JISC Regional Support Centre Scotland North & East
EduApps - www.eduapps.org
Abbot, C. (2007) E-inclusion: Learning Difficulties and Digital Technologies. Report 15: Futurelab series.
Barnes, C. (2004) What a difference a decade makes, reflections on doing ‘emancipatory’ disability research. In Sheehy, K. et al.,(2005), Ethics and Research in Inclusive Education, Values into Practice, Oxon, Routledge Falmer.