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Accessible Online Learning:
Building an Online Centre for Technology Enabled Learning

Yannis Karaliotas
PGCertODE(Open), MA in ODE Student, OU/UK
April 1999

This is the first in a series of papers, part of a project for the design and implementation of a Centre for Accessible Online Learning. The purpose of this paper is to outline the general educational environment within which the Centre will be functioning, define the Centre's basic functions and identify the profiles of its potential learners.

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The Education System

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Even though the right to education and the Hellenic State's responsibility for providing it are guaranteed by the constitution, private provision has been the key element in post war (1950-) hellenic education. Exam-centred curricula and the numerus clausus regulation in the tertiary entrance system resulted in the need for consolidative and supportive para-educational provision which became a lucrative domain for private enterprise.

Furthermore, there had been little state provision of mainstream education and training opportunities for Open Learning until the 1980s, due to the numerus clausus regime in all F.E. and H.E. institutions and courses and the absence of part-time or block-release state provision. This, again, had resulted in the thriving of private sector providers offering vocational and technical full-time courses, mostly at basic, non-degree level.

Such private provision, which is still going strong (1999), has been aiming at where the demand is greater and, hence, it has almost exclusively been catering for the needs of school leavers who have finished with compulsory schooling (9 -10 years) and/or failed the state F.E. and H.E. entrance exams and they are in need of vocational training in pursue of a career opening (EU "CITIZENS FIRST" FACTSHEETS, 1996 ).

Since the beginning of the previous decade (1980's), there has been a change in National policy, and opportunities in the area of vocational and technical training and re-training are now being offered to adults by Human Resources and Productivity state organisations (OAED, ELKEPA) under the Ministry of Labour (YPER) through programmes, most of which are partly funded by the EU. Moreover, there are private sector schemes for re-training and in-service training, which are also partly funded by the EU, and European programmes (presently the Leonardo and Socrates programmes) which are supposed to provide one more gateway to open learning opportunities in the field ( Citizens of Europe Guide, 1996 ). Overall, vocational education and training seems to have been heavily invested in with quantitative, but not necessarily qualitative results in both provision and participation.

None of these, of course, apply to Special Needs Learners as the absence of appropriate infrastructure hinders access for - and in most cases, entirely excludes - most disabled individuals.

On the other hand, in the field of Special Education, all disabled learners' learning drives and motivations suffer from the fact that, despite the numerus clausus regime which governs the entrance to FE and HE courses, they are propitiously exempted, and the treatment they receive when assessed in mainstream educational institutions is generally eleemosynary. An example might be the case of the blind that are assessed orally in all subjects as there is no provision, from secondary level and beyond, for Braille recognition or computer use. As for grades ... they are usually uniformal and they reflect blindness rather than ability.


State of Learning at a Distance

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There is presently very limited practice or experience in Open and Distance Learning, despite the fact that, historically, Hellenic Distance Learning has had very strong roots which have been connected to religious and political (patriotic) education.

From early Christianity's Epistles written in the hellenic language by the Apostle and disseminated, in the commencing years of the first millennium, to the four corners of the then known world, to the 18th and early 19th century patriotic manuscripts, pamphlets and books of Rigas Fereos/Velestinlis ( Slapsak, 1998 ) and the Philiki Etairia distributed in the vast area of the Ottoman empire and beyond, Hellenic distance learning was associated with self-instructive materials and occasional face to face meetings with the originators or their trusted disciples.

As such, hellenic distance educational delivery had been characterised by its transnational nature as it catered for Hellenism and Hellenic speaking individuals scattered across many states and empires of the day, and went well beyond any conceivable boundaries of a Hellenic national state.

Since the end of the war for independence and the formation of the modern Hellenic State (1832) which altered learning drives and placed firm boundaries to educational settings, hellenic education has little, if anything, to show in terms of distance delivery.

Recent applications of tele-lectures and video conferencing used for in-service training and being offered by major Higher Education Institutions (AUTH) to primary and secondary staff working for the hellenic diaspora within the EU (1997-), might be seen as the marking of a new Hellenic Open and Distance Education era.


Special Needs Learning in the wider context of Hellenic educational provision.

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Officially, according to the Hellenic Ministry of Education and Religion (YPEPTH), Special Education in Hellas is regarded as a complementary element attached to mainstream education. It caters for the needs of physically or mentally impaired learners in the form of special pre-school centres , special primary school , after-school special support facilities at secondary level and library adaptation facilities at tertiary level (EU "CITIZENS FIRST" FACTSHEETS, 1996 ). Presently, there is an attempt, under the new Educational Reform Act (1998), to integrate primary special learners into mainstream schools with the use of special classes and visiting special tutors, and pilot schemes are already in progress.

On the other hand, in practice, Special Needs learning still depends mostly on institutes situated in the two major hellenic cities (Athens, Thessaloniki)which were, until recently(1970s), run by charity organisations or the church, are still functioning under the Ministry of Social Welfare and have the official status of asyla rather than educational institutions ( Case in point ). Once again, Really Useful Learning and the acquisition / construction of "knowledge calculated to make you free" ( Johnson, 1988 ) usually takes place after school.

Those are the institutes which provide learners with after-school tutoring, library facilities, extra-curricular activities (music, languages, PE, orientation and mobility training, games) and such supportive mechanisms and infrastructure that are non existent in mainstream institutions. These institutes are now on a decline due to changes in national policy, budget cuts and the demographics of impairment (more cases of multi-impairment) urging for integration into the main body of educational provision and for redistribution of services through decentralisation initiatives and the creation of intermediating Access/Resource Centres ( Educational Reform Act (1998) and Proposed Social Welfare Act due for Parliamentary approval later this year ).


Online Access / Resource Centre - the concept

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The need for an Online Centre for Special Needs Learning follows the introduction of New Technologies to learning within the realm of the aforesaid supportive institutions. In line with the new policies, the Online Access / Resource Centre is deemed to better serve the purposes of co-ordination and decentralisation offering direct and open access to programmes and resources by anyone, anywhere and anytime.

In particular, enabling devices that open access to the Internet and to asynchronous learning networks (computers, screen readers and other input and output alternatives) gave birth to a vision of an outreaching special education provision capable of meeting the needs of impaired individuals who, mostly out of necessity but also of choice, wish to learn at a distance ( Vincent 1995 ).

The envisaged Centre for Special Online Education, which may draw its resources from either public or private funds, will attempt to meet learning needs of disadvantaged learners from all educational levels, as well as of parents, volunteers, teachers, trainers and supporting personnel, by facilitating access to Hellenic and other online learning modules. It will be offering its services on three levels:


Learner / User Profile

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According to the taxonomy proposed by Rowntree (1999) , learners/users of the proposed system are expected to be individuals with Special Abilities from both sexes and all educational, professional and social/cultural backgrounds. Age groups from pre-school to senior citizen will be accommodated, and learning is expected to occur wherever the hellenic language is spoken (within the hellenic national boundaries and in distant hellenic communities worldwide).

Some learners (especially blind school children and young adults) are keyboard/input competent and computer literate, and a growing number of them already own personal IT systems and have online access.

The learning needs of the four individuals in the above vignette are common among disable and non-disable peers. Adult learners are likely to arrive from different educational and professional backgrounds and all special ability learners will, according to their specific handicap, have diverse and, sometimes, competing needs in accessing learning material.
The proposed option is that mixed groups could be formed around uniformed needs and topic related scenarios would help contextualise useful knowledge.


Meeting Special Learning Needs

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Motivation and Accessibility become the two major concerns when ODL is to be implemented within the Hellenic Special Needs domain - although there is much evidence that the situation is not very different elsewhere in the world ( International Blind Listserv discussions ).

There is, presently, a strong drive among the disabled to acquire, develop or master the use of new technologies since CMC has rightly been seen and met by many as their window to the world.

Nevertheless, people with disabilities have communication so highly prioritised that when they get the feeling it is either broken or about to break, they are very likely to drop out despite their previously held strong intrinsic or extrinsic motivation and expectations.

Thus, there is no room in the proposed Technology Enabled Learning system for lecture-driven, teacher-centred pedagogic approaches. Apart from strong learner support aiming at motivating and informing expectations, eliminating fears and preparing for the realities of CMC and ODL "reassuring and offering guidance on approaches to learning", there is definite need for a constructivist learning environment with recorded, pre-discussed and possibly co-decided learning objectives, and with plenty of social communication opportunities and carefully planned and timed collaborative activities.

Accessibility is obviously a must within this particular ODL context. Accessibility which has to cater for specific needs of individuals and their particular impairment ( Vincent 1995, p.96 ). Accessibility which has to meet with Flexibility for openness and to satisfy the needs and requirements of such diverse audience ( Valcke & Vuist 1995 )


REFERENCES

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EU "CITIZENS FIRST" FACTSHEETS (1996) GREECE, National education systems, EU publication.

Johnson, R. 1988 - 'Really useful knowledge', 1790-1850 - in Cultures and Processes of Adult Learning: A Reader, Thorpe M., Edwards R., Hanson A. (Ed.), Routledge 1995

Rowntree, D. 1999 - Knowing Our Learners in ODL. Milton Keynes: H804 Course Guide, Block 1 Overview Essay, Open University, UK.1999.

Valcke, M.M.A. & Vuist, G. P.W. 1995 - A Model-Based Design Approach for the Flexibilisation of Courses - Ch. 18 in Open & Distance Learning Today (ed.) Fred Lockwood, Routledge 1995.

Vincent, T. 1995 - IT and Disabled Students: Overcoming barriers to learning - Ch.9 in Open & Distance Learning Today (ed.) Fred Lockwood, Routledge 1995.


Online References

Helios School for the Blind of Northern Hellas - http://www.forthnet.gr/ipt/ipt_en.html

The Lighthouse for the Blind of Greece - http://143.233.240.100/socialwork/blind_people/faros.html

International Blind Listserv discussions - Online source: http://www.hicom.net/~oedipus/blist.html

Philiki Etairia - Online source: http://www.hri.org/GAFS/history.html#hetairia

Slapsak, S. 1998 - The Legacy of Rigas Velestinlis: The Balkan School for Delicate Lovers - Prof. at ISH, Ljubljana Postgraduate School in Humanities, Director of Anthropology of the Ancient Worlds Programme, Director of Anthropology of Gender Programme. Online source: http://www.mpa.gr/gr/other/conference/slapsak.html

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Copyright 1999 Yannis Karaliotas