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Jurij Marinko, BA Open University: Rules, Competitive Advantage and Community Responses to Accessibility in Higher Education in Slovenia

natisni E-pošta

Abstract

This paper is discusses and evaluates the relevance of the legislation, accessibility as competitive advantage and community responses to the development of accessible online learning of disabled students in Slovenia.

The concept and significance of each of the three issues is first introduced from the theoretical point of view and then described within Slovenia and within higher education institutions in Slovenia. The paper points out differences between concepts and actual practice in Slovenia and describes how accessibility issues have been introduced in a young private college in Slovenia.

Key words: accessibility in higher education, rules, competitive advantage, community responses

 

1 Relevance of Rules to the Provision of Accessible Online Learning

Seale says that accessibility of learning in a general sense is about removing barriers to participation and engagement in the online experiences and the degree to which someone can access an online resource regardless of their disability, technology or environment (Seale, 2006, 29). When speaking about legislation and its realization in practice, Seale mainly describes the influence of legislation in Anglo-Saxon countries, e.g. in U.K., United States and Australia and claims that educational institutions might wait for a legal precedence to be set or case law to be created which defines what "reasonable adjustments" are supposed to be in practice (Seale, 2006, 141).

Seale deals with the accessibility issues within North's institutional change framework which can help to explore how rules influence institutional response to accessibility. North, who was an economic historian and explored long-term institutional change, assumed that economic and political choices were mainly results of constraints, including competition, conflict and friction. This was introduced also in the educational context by Konur who used North's framework to explain why it is so difficult to initiate appropriate changes in higher education institutions.

North claimed that it was formal and informal rules (norms of behaviour, conventions, codes of conduct) that had great relevance for the changes in institutions. Among rules there are (Seale, 2006, 142) legislative documents such as statute, judicial changes stemming from court decisions, regulatory and constitutional rule changes. Seale discusses the formal and informal rules of accessibility, and asks if accessibility practices are influenced by differences between formal and informal rules of accessibility, how these rules are regulated within a higher education institution, if rules represent opportunity for institutions to invest in accessibility etc.

External rules include legislation, guidelines and standards (Seale, 2006, 143). Seale mentions that organizations wait for case law to clarify certain aspects of the rules. It also happens that people develop their own guidelines and standards but these are instable. Internal formal accessibility rules are those accepted in institutions. Organizational accessibility policies differ among themselves. Some stress deadline for compliance, others consequences for failure; some organizations actively implement the rules, and others consider them mainly as principles.

Seale lists some general informal accessibility rules that seem to be very important in the research literature (Seale, 2006, 144):

  •  accessibility should be considered at the beginning of the design process,
  •  accessibility requires a user-centred approach,
  •  accessibility will benefit all students, not just the disabled.

There are also more specific informal rules like guidelines for learning technologists, different ways in which student support services should be structured, different strategies and models that staff development services should adopt.

If educational organizations have inaccessible online material, it is possible that they are faced with case law, penalizations, and the strategy of publicly "naming and shaming". Seale mentions that there is no record of anyone in higher education being fired or reprimanded for failing to follow the rules and that e. g. the Royal National Institute for the Blind does not dare to launch a high profile legal case against some older higher - ranked universities (Seale, 2006, 145).

There are several different stakeholders that can contribute to accessibility rules: rule implementers (lecturers, learning technologists, student support services), senior managers, staff developers, students, legal organizations (like judges, attorney-generals, lawyers), advisory teams, disability rights commissions, accessibility consultants, accessibility researchers (Seale, 2006, 148-152).

Slovenia has a different system of legislation than Anglo-Saxon countries. In the latter, the focus is on precedence and/or on judicial decisions. In Slovenia precedence is less important than actual laws and sublegal rules. If disabled students (and others) want to achieve their rights, a bill must first be passed by the Parliament, then more detailed sublegal rules are accepted by the Ministry of Higher Education and then these rules must be introduced and accepted in individual higher education institutions (in their statutes, organizational rules, acts on quality evaluation etc.). Only if there is legislation and exact rules disabled students can hope that the judge could make a favourable decision. If there are no detailed sublegal rules the judge will most probably decide that it is not possible to require from an institution to provide reasonable adaptations of the usually rather abstract laws.

The Constitution of the Republic of Slovenia ensures equal rights to disabled people. Slovene Parliament accepted the Law on Ratification of the UN Convention on the rights of disabled people. Slovene programme for the disabled 2007 - 2023 states that the disabled should be ensured education on all levels. According to the Act on Equalizing Possibilities of Disabled People disabled students have the right for appropriate adaptations when entering the education and the right for appropriate adaptations of the study programmes (Zakon o izenacevanju moznosti invalidov, 2010). This legislation was confirmed in 2010 and should in the future be further specified by acts for different levels of education. In the present Acts on Higher Education there are no stipulations about disabled students while the Act on Post-Secondary Education (Zakon o visjem strokovnem izobraževanju, 2010) contains only the stipulation which allows that disabled students can study one year more than other students. In the UK, the legislation places a duty on institutions to anticipate the needs of all potential students with any impairment (Seale, 2010). In Slovenia it is expected that sublegal rules will define what exactly should be introduced to meet the needs of disabled students. In the case that ministry regulations mention only the possibility of entrance for students with mobility impairment, only this will be provided for. If sublegal rules determine that higher education institutions should provide for accessible online learning, the higher education institutions might start to think what this means. Besides, there is also the problem of penalization. If rules define exact sanctions for the case of not providing for different kinds of impairment the rules might not be obeyed. It is also possible that higher education institutions might not follow the rules if there is no control whether the educational institutions anticipate the needs of potentials students.

When looking for internal rules regarding disabled students we found that in 2010 only the University of Maribor had an act on the study process of the disabled students (Pravilnik o studijskem procesu studentov invalidov Univerze v Mariboru, 2008). The act contains some general and rather abstract rules which were copied from the UN Convention on the rights of disabled people and from Slovene programme for the disabled. It mentions accessibility of the building, accessibility of communication, adaptation of lectures and seminars, of examinations in adaptation of study materials. The University of Maribor prepares (in cooperation with disabled students) a yearly plan of action and a yearly report on the realization. The act requires that disabled students must have status of a disabled person and must prove it by decisions of governmental bodies. Students who have mobility impairment or dyslexia will not have special problems to obtain medical certificate and then appropriate decision of governmental bodies. However, it is rather doubtful that status could be obtained also by those who have Crohn's disease and it is not believable that students with mental diseases will want to ask for such a status. Women expecting babies would not be able to acquire such a status although accessibility of communication, of study materials, adaptation of lectures and examinations would be very useful for them, too. The rules of the University of Maribor contain rather precise adaptation of examinations which really tries to include different types of disabled students:

  •  possibility to sit for examinations beyond deadlines
  •  passing an oral examination instead of the written one
  •  adaptation of the examination paper forms
  •  more time for written examinations
  •  use of magnifying tools and special pencils
  •  writing examinations on computer or by some other appropriate tool
  •  making examinations with the help of the third person who writes for the examinee
  •  using interpreter during examination
  •  adaptation of the space and equipment
  •  shorter breaks between examinations
  •  reasonably longer time for study obligations
  •  possibility to perform certain study duties in pair with a non-disabled student
  •  adaptation of practical exercises and study literature
  •  other reasonable adaptations necessary to examine the knowledge of disabled students.

Similarly as in other countries, also Slovenia has no record of anyone in higher education being reprimanded for failing to follow the rules concerning the disabled.

This description shows that Slovenia has just started to work on disabled people. The Act on Equalizing Possibilities of Disabled People passed in November 2010 and in the next years Slovene Ministry for Higher Education will have to introduce concrete rules/instructions about the necessary help that must be offered to disabled students. We hope that these rules will motivate higher education institutions to do something for disabled students in practice.

 

2 Accessibility as Competitive Advantage of Higher Education Institutions

According to North an organization will engage in acquiring skills and knowledge that will enhance its survival possibilities in the context of competitions (Seale, 2006, 142). The greater the competition among higher education institutions, the greater will be the efforts that schools will invest in skills and knowledge to enhance the organization's survival opportunities and this will cause numerous necessary changes. The competition can be one of the strongest forces which will cause that higher education institutions will actively implement the rules and not just find them as overarching principles. If these rules are actively implanted in the everyday practice, schools will address accessibility needs at the beginning of the planning process, will adopt a student-centred approach and accessibility will benefit all students (Seale, 2006, 144). Seale claims that the potential increase in market share might be an even more powerful reason for an organization to change its practices than the fact that legislation about the disability rights (Seale, 2006, 146). Organizations like Microsoft developed many tools just on the basis of the evidence that there are many potential clients among the disabled. There are millions of disabled people who could be potential customers.

According to Konur (Seale, 2006, 147) competitive objectives may be achieved only through team effort. Konur mentions four teams:

  •  Rule implementation teams
  •  Rule enforcement teams
  •  Rule advocating teams
  •  Rule making teams

It is important that  rule implementation teams like lecturers, learning technologists, student support services, constitute the providers and users of disability-related services in higher education  institutions, that senior managers as rule enforcers detect the rule breakers and resolve conflicts, that staff developers and student support services insist in acquainting lecturers with the latest issues on accessibility and that students as rule making teams complain, negotiate or litigate about putting accessibility rules in practice. All these teams should be made known about the necessary competitive advantages and included in the process of investing skills and knowledge in a greater accessibility.

All the organizations are rational in the economic sense and tend to optimal functioning. Therefore it should not be difficult to increase their effectiveness by introduction of new technologies, work techniques or work organization. However in practice this is not so and management often faces revolt. Each organization is a group of people employed in it. The employees do not bring into the organization just their competences but also values, basic convictions/beliefs, personal history, personal characteristics etc. All these elements together can either increase or decrease the changes.

It is usually managers who introduce changes (Waldersee and Griffiths, 1997 in Bovey and Hede, 2001) and face revolt of the employees. For managers it is often easier to change technological problems than change peoples' beliefs. If managers are enough powerful they can introduce changes but this causes conflicts. To solve them managers must be aware of the reasons for conflicts, good communication and relationships among the involved. They must offer psychological safety to their employees, must change their standpoints gradually, and strive to enforce new behaviour.

In Slovenia there are state universities and private higher education institutions. Slovenia has powerful traditional universities with a number of departments and some recently established new public and private colleges that started to develop about 2000. The traditional state universities and public colleges in Slovenia receive state finances while private colleges depend upon the fees of the students and other sources, e. g. from research projects. In comparison with the capacities of the traditional state universities the new colleges do not perform so many programmes and have much less students. In 2009/10 the traditional universities had 98.279 students and private colleges only 9.198 students (Statisticni urad RS, 2010). Both the state and private universities/colleges have study programmes in similar areas, e.g. finances, business, organization, law, public administration, European studies, information technology, applied social studies, humanities, entrepreneurship, design, economics, environmental studies, technology and health care. Many colleges tried to add a new quality and thus achieve a competitive advantage, e. g. by new courses, interdisciplinary programmes (combination of business courses and foreign languages, engineering and economics, business and sustainable development etc.), new teaching methods, individual approach to students, foreign lecturers etc.

At present it is hard to speak about the competition between the state- and the private higher education institutions in Slovenia. Among the main competitive advantages of the traditional universities are their finances which they receive from the state and their own premises with spacious classrooms, big libraries and good equipment (especially computers). The first fact is very important because the majority of students prefer to enrol in a programme for which it is not necessary to pay (actually they have to pay just for study materials). The situation of private higher education institutions is much worse because their students have to pay tuition and they usually do not have their own (but hired) premises. Therefore private colleges will be the ones that will have to find more competitive advantages.

At least those institutions of higher education that educate business or economy students would certainly understand North's institutional change framework. If presented in the appropriate way (namely that using economic approach to introduce changes will help a school to gain advantage towards its competition) some institutions of higher education might accept the changes. Among them there would be especially private schools that do not receive state finances and are forced to introduce something that will attract students. They should be interested in the new politics towards disabled students and should introduce accessibility issues in their statutes, acts of organization, internal rules on quality of education and provide for realization in practice. On the other side, in state universities it might happen that students' organization within the institution could be rather strong and would require from the management to do something for the disabled.

The main problem in Slovenia which will prevent considering accessibility as competitive advantage is the fact that accessibility requires a student-centred approach. In Slovenia which had up to 1996 had only state higher education institutions (that were also financed only by the state) there is almost no student-centred approach. State institutions of higher education get the money for students and students are aware that the cheapest way to get their degree (or just the status of a student that ensures their social security) is on a state university so this gives state universities a very powerful position and many teachers look at their students just as the necessary evil that they have to deal with if they want to make more prominent work, e.g. their research. It is quite possible that they will accept appropriate sublegal rules but the realization in practice is questionable.

IBS International Business School Ljubljana exists for just a couple of years. It is a private educational institution, accredited by the State and accepts mainly adult students. At present we have less than 100 students and about 30 employees. Our College started to develop the student-centred approach at the very beginning and we still work on it. An important part of these efforts has been also relationship towards disabled students which was formed on the basis of the social model about disability. Our School was among the first to announce that disabled students were welcome and that they should speak about the necessary arrangements with the director. But also our director has not been well acquainted with different kinds of impairment. She first faced disability problems in the area of mobility. The college got a student with muscular dystrophy that could enter the building just by a wheelchair. Then there were several problems with visual disability. The teachers were told to magnify the letters on the screen and the students were offered stronger lights on their desks. Today the technology developed and it is possible to provide better support by numerous programmes and online resources and study materials which greatly improve the learning experience. The College also had a problem with another (temporarily disabled) student who broke her pelvis and was forced to stay in bed for several months. This student was sent materials and made her examination by e-mail. The College pays special attention to students with Crohn's disease and to mothers who are often employed and have children at home as well as to those who expects babies. They have the possibility to study and pass examinations by Internet and to sit for examinations at practically any time so they can adjust their lack of energy and their lack of time with the study requirements.

Up to now we have not had any students with dyslexia, no deaf or blind students. However after being informed about the possibilities to equip the lectures with aids for dyslexia, with written materials for the deaf students etc. we will try to provide some more changes. At present the School has not enough money to pay the interpreter for the deaf students and is also not well acquainted with mental illnesses so both problems remain to be solved in the future.

All the changes which IBS has already introduced because of our student-centred approach and because of our work with disabled students have had influences on our treatment of regular students. These are satisfied with our work and this brings new students after they have been informed that our School offers individual approach. At present all our students are offered study materials by mail or online and all the students can make examinations also via world web. In this way we got some Slovene students who work in Switzerland, in Belgium and in other countries of the European Union but want to graduate from a Slovene educational institution. All our students have also profited from the individual examinations which were first offered just to disabled students and to employed mothers with babies. We started to prepare individual study plans for disabled students but now we developed individual study plans for all the students. In these study plans which are completed by students and the tutor at the beginning of their studies there is information us about their knowledge in all the study areas, about the exams they had passed on other universities (which can often be recognized), about their troubles and successes and on this basis we make plans how students should select courses and thus follow the studies without break. Some even finish their studies before the planned time.

Even if the theory says that there are difficulties with introduction of changes among people, our School has not had bigger problems. Our teachers do not oppose if we ask them to give a consultation by e-mail or evaluate an examination beyond the usual time and work. Besides the teachers have a strong support in the administrative team so they can really devote just to their teaching and research tasks. In our School there are very good relations among the employees and management and this is felt also among the students. There are problems from time to time but the management strives to prevent them and to convince both teachers as students that it is possible to solve conflicts in a constructive and peaceful way. But it is also true that we do not have many teachers (as we do not have many students) and perhaps this also contributes that everything is solved individually.

 

3 Community Responses to Accessibility

According to Seale the concept of community (Seale, 2006, 176) is used to refer to both users and providers of online material, as well as the context in which that material is delivered. It is important that technologists like software developers, hardware manufacturers and those who use their online products talk to each other and try to overcome problems together. Through such cooperation they can bring about new knowledge and new development.

Seale suggests that we use Wenger's theory of communities of practice to understand the accessibility practice (Seale, 2006, 178). According to Wenger communities of practice are groups of people who share a common goal, purpose or enterprise. They are often formed outside the boundaries of formal organisational structures. Wenger states that practice means experience which joins competences of several communities, which negotiates about the conditions, resources and demands and which includes routines, words, tools, ways of doing things, stories, symbols, actions, concepts etc. According to Wenger, communities of practice cannot be considered without connections which are either boundary objects or brokering. Boundary objects are (Seale, 2006, 180) artefacts, documents, terms etc. and brokers are those who can introduce elements of one practice into another.

Seale identifies six stakeholders in accessible e-learning practice (Seale, 2006, 182): students, lecturers, learning technologists, student support services, staff developers and senior managers. Each could be viewed as a separate community of practice but they all perform certain tasks in developing accessible e-learning material, share legislation and guidelines and may have members in common. The accessible e-learning community is engaged in reification because they contribute to documents like anti-discrimination legislation, to accessibility guidelines, accessibility specifications and standards, to accessibility procedures, accessibility design, procurement, audit tools and policies (Seale, 2006, 184). It seems that in the pursuit of an accessibility enterprise the negotiation of meaning for the e-learning community might be more occupied with reification than participation. There is evidence that the accessible e-learning community deals with reification through more local processes so that generic accessibility guidelines suit more specific or local purposes and contexts, procedures for evaluating the accessibility of an end-product are developed that involve manual as well as automatic tools and by developing procedures and tools for evaluating accessibility of a service (Seale, 2006, 185). This re-appropriation may help to overcome the problem that reification might become more important than action.

There is not very much evidence that different stakeholders have been mutually engaged in developing accessible online learning material. Not everyone within the community uses the tools, procedures, agrees with the best or acceptable ways etc. Links between the different stakeholder communities are being made by boundary objects such as accessibility related legislation and by brokers that can create connections. Brokers can act especially through facilitating meetings between disabled students and computer services, involving academic staff in technology assessment and collaborating with faculty and administration to introduce new technology initiatives (Seale, 2006, 187).

Also students, lecturers, learning technologists, student support services, staff developers and senior managers in Slovenia should join competences and negotiate about the conditions, resources and demands and include routines, words, tools, ways of doing things, stories, symbols, actions, concepts etc. and thus bring about better final products and services for disabled students and for all of the other participants.

Since Slovenia is a very small country we do not have all the above mentioned communities. The main communities are students and lecturers, there are also some senior managers and a few staff developers. Even large traditional universities do not have special personnel for staff development - this task is usually performed by the Dean or by the Secretary. Every college or university also has student support service.

Important providers of accessible e-learning material, legislation and guidelines are associations of students which function as student support service. Their efforts are quite powerful and one can read several articles on the web about what they do to ensure accessibility to the disabled students. The Student Organization of the University of Ljubljana organized a round table and discussion in 2009. Association of disabled students have made a special project that tries to do something for a better accessibility (Toplak, 2011). On the basis of the results they offered education for university teachers (led by Alan Hurst from U.K.). The findings of the research are that there are problems especially with deaf students because they have to pay for the interpreter and that there are also big problems with other types of impairment, e. g. dyslexia, depression, schizophrenia, and other diseases which influence concentration or memorisation.

In Slovenia there are some individual lecturers and senior managers and deans who either understand the problems of disabled students or are trying to acquire a competitive advantage through better services which include also accessibility. The majority of people who are prepared to do something for disabled students are those who have had problems in their University or in their family and can thus understand the human side of the problem.

If we look at the community of lecturers the situation is difficult. It is lecturers who should introduce practical changes concerning accessibility. They usually do not know much about the problems of the disabled and quite some of them would be of the opinion that disabled students cannot study because they cannot achieve the determined standards of knowledge. Many lecturers are convinced that this is how things are and that it is not possible to change them. They would not recognize that they belong to those who actually contribute to discrimination of disabled students.

Since there are only a few staff developers, the main tasks to provide for accessibility issues remain in the hands of the managers of higher institutions. It is managers of universities and its departments, and managers of colleges who should first acquaint their staff that it is necessary to help disabled students and about the ways of making the studies available. This will not be an easy task because they will have to convince their employees that it is possible to do something and that they should acquire new knowledge to make their lectures accessible for the disabled. However, the managers will be able to support their demands on the arguments of the competitive advantage, and besides they will be able to say that the quality evaluation committee will give a better evaluation if the institution provides the necessary arrangements also for disabled students.

We can be sure that in Slovenia the pursuit of an accessibility enterprise the negotiation of meaning for the e-learning community will be more occupied with reification than participation, at least in the beginning. It will take some years before accessibility will become a question of participation and will go hand in hand with the development of the student-centred approach.

The first procedures for accessibility will probably involve more manual and less automatic tools and accessibility will also be ensured as a service because Slovene higher education institutions are very small (especially private colleges some of which will be most eager to help the disabled and thus reach the competitive advantage).

IBS intends to do something for disabled students this year. After accepting the rules in 2011 we will acquaint with them all our students and teachers. Our College considers technology as very important for disabled students. However, technology is a double-aged blade: it can empower or it can disable (Seale Chapter 3, online). There are numerous technologies and teachers use different ones. Since students cannot cope with so many systems we will have to be careful about a unified approach. Our personal approach to students is a supplement to online learning because it makes learning student-friendly and this is good for all the students. So we strive to combine online learning and personal approach. Accessibility challenges are not considered only in the sense of online experiences but include also personal contacts with disabled students (e. g. personal visits of the students who cannot move), helping them in the classroom (e. g. by providing technology for visually impaired), and personally encouraging students without energy (Crohn's disease) etc. The examinations in our College are possible once a week so that we do not force students to stick to deadlines and we try to be as friendly and understanding as possible. We try to develop better contacts between teachers and students and ask teachers to use a different approach than traditional Slovene schools. This is possible in a small organization like ours but it might be a problem in a university with several thousands of students.

Seale does not mention media as an important contributor to accessibility rules and to their realization in practice. However, journalists of newspapers and of other media could do a lot if they were informed and ready to write about accessibility problems. However, while there is a lot of writing about politicians and film stars, it is difficult to find ten articles about disabled students.

I would like to point out that in Slovenia (and in many other countries as well) a big problem of accessibility is in the fact that students come from social surroundings where the education is not appreciated, therefore they are not properly encouraged to study and they are supposed to be less capable than others. Encouraging such potential students who need help to increase their self-confidence is also a problem of accessibility in the educational context. Accessibility is a concern also because of the aging of the population who need to continue with education because these people have more medical problems. 

 

4 Conclusions

The paper shows that Slovenia has a different legal system than Anglo-Saxon countries and that it has only started to deal with disability issues. The Act on Equalizing Possibilities of Disabled People passed towards the end of 2010 and gave the legal basis which now forces the Ministry of Higher Education to incorporate suitable stipulations also in the Act of Higher Education. Only after this has been provided for, individual institutions of higher education in Slovenia will feel their duty to introduce more elaborated provisions in their statutes and acts or the organization of studies. The paper discusses community responses to accessibility and comes to the conclusion that managers of higher education institutions will have a difficult work to convince lecturers that they should introduce appropriate changes in their teaching.

People with disabilities can bring a lot to the development of the society because they have a unique perspective. In the past they might have been looked upon as hindering the development but in the future they will be viewed as different people who make our society better and stronger. Programmes for speech to text were first developed with the intention of helping disabled people, but they now appear in everyday life because they make things easier for all. This and other similar examples prove that disability issues should be viewed as challenges and not as barriers.

 

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