Accessibility and Learning Theories

I am writing a paper for Computers and Education with Jane Seale of Southampton University.  The title is:

E-learning, Accessibility & Pedagogy: In search of the missing tools of practice

The paper seeks to review the interrelation between accessibility and learning theory as it relates to eLearning.  Here I give some key points from the paper for comment if you wish.

Broadly speaking, accessibility in relation to eLearning is understood as ensuring that learners are not prevented from accessing technologies or the content and experiences offered by technologies on the grounds of their disability.

The IMS Accessibility SIG defined Accessibility, in an eLearning context, as the ability of the learning environment to adjust to the needs of all learners [IMS 2002, Guidelines for Developing Accessible Learning Applications]. Accessibility is thus determined by the flexibility of the eLearning system or learning resource to meet the needs and preferences of all users. These needs and preferences may arise from:

– their environment (e.g. working in a noisy environment)

– the tools they use (e.g. assistive technologies such as screen-readers, voice recognition tools, or alternative keyboards, etc.)
– or, a disability in the conventional sense.

Accessibility and different theories of learning
Different learning theories are chosen by different educators to underpin their teaching. A brief survey of high profile learning theories classified according to Mayes & DeFreitas is offered here and their accessibility implications discussed. There are numerous models of learning; this fact reflects that reflect the complexity of what is being modelled. Learning involves perceptual, cognitive, communicative and memory aspects of psychology and these are areas we only currently have a partial understanding of. The models selected for consideration here are principally the ones that in the authors’ experience have received some prominence within teaching at a higher education level. Further they are models that have an implication for then use of technology in mediating the teaching and learning.

A range of learning theories are reviewed and their accessibility implications discussed.  These include:

Behaviourism is the School of Psychology that relates to behaviour as a central component of learning. It began with central findings of Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) about the ‘conditioning reflex’. Pavlov provided the basis of behaviourism highlighting the importance of stimulus for learning. Later John Watson, an American Psychologist (1878-1958), building on the work of Pavlov outlined a whole new branch of psychology know as behaviourism, denying Freudianism and heredity and instead explaining behaviour and learning as part of nervous ‘wiring’. B. F. Skinner, an American psychologist (1904-1990) extended the behaviourist approach, describing the learning process as beginning when we are babies, then we are a black box upon which experience and conditioning are written. He developed ideas about the ‘operant conditioning’ and ‘shaping behaviour’.

Accessibility and Behaviourism
The essential implication of the behaviourist model of learning is the importance of stimulus. Now this has particular implications especially for people with sensory disabilities. How would Pavlov’s dogs learnt that food was neigh if they could not hear the bell? Now extending this to eLearning highlights the importance of providing stimuli for learning in different modalities.

Constructivism is a theory based upon the thinking of John Dewey, an American philosopher (1859-1952), who questioned traditional epistemology, Dewey instead came to believe that:

“…the theory of knowledge must begin with a consideration of the development of knowledge as an adaptive human response to environing conditions aimed at an active restructuring of these conditions.”

Unlike traditional approaches in the theory of knowledge, which saw thought as a subjective primitive out of which knowledge was composed?

Further reference is made to the work of Seymour Papert, Piaget and Vygotsky here.

Accessibility and Constructivism
The key point here is that a student with disability needs full access to the environmental context of the learning.

The Laurillard conversational model
Contemporary accounts of student learning accept that it is an active process and depends on interaction. Laurillard offers a model of student / tutor / courseware interaction, and this is outlined briefly here.

Laurillard offers a classification of educational media based on a conversational framework (after Pask and with due deference to Socrates), which identifies the activities necessary to complete the learning process. She considers the learning process as a kind of conversation, and asserts that this process ‘must be constituted as a dialogue between teacher and student (or student and student), operating at the level of description of actions in the world’. Her classification system is based on the type of interaction between instructor and student when a particular medium is used. She classifies educational media as discursive, adaptive, interactive and reflective, and raises issues about the nature of feedback, goals and control of student learning. Her review of media asserts that currently only tutoring systems and a combination of tutorials and simulations can claim to address the entire learning process as specified in her model. However her conclusion is not that these are the only worthwhile media, but that educators should consider media combinations to construct learning packages that combine complementary features. Summative and formative assessment can form one aspect of the interaction referred to in the model (although the first author has predominantly used it when analysing practical work in science and engineering education, which of course in itself can be assessed). The teacher constructs the assessment, the student interacts with it and there is feedback via the marking and review

In book introducing her ideas [Laurillard, D. (1993) Rethinking university teaching, Routledge, London], Laurillard highlights how different modes of learning map onto the conversational model. For example “Learning through acquisition” (teacher as storyteller or lecturer) maps to a teacher to student arrow in Laurillard’s diagram from the teachers conceptual knowledge to that of the students. In assessment teacher can implement a wide range of leaning modes depending on the types of examination and question chosen. This could include “Guided discovery” that requires all the conversational components.

Accessibility and the Laurillard Model
Key in the Laurillard Model are the various conversations it embodies. Laurillard uses these to analyse the use of media in learning. However this can be further extended to analyse the accessibility of all the media used to support these different conversations. One aspect of the Laurillard model points to practical forms of assessment where the teacher sets up something in the “real” world for the student to examine, interact and reflect upon. Practical exams are not specifically a topic of this paper however there is a growing trend to make practical available as part of an eLearning context. The second author led a major EU funded project PEARL that argued such remote controlled labs could increase access to practical work, particularly in science and engineering subjects, for disabled students.

Cognitive Learning Theory

Cognitive learning theory closely relates to how cognitive skills develop. This set of theories is underpinned by cognitive science and the development of psychology. While social cognitive theory owes its heritage to social learning theory founded in the1800s; Albert Bandura in 1986 wrote his seminal book: Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory, which ignited social cognitive learning theory.

Computational Theories of Learning
Computational theories of learning: derive from artificial intelligence and metaphors of computer science rather than from psychology, cognitivism, or philosophy. Starting from Alan Matheson Turing the computer has been used as a metaphor for the human brain and its functioning.

A cybernetic model of learning
Cybernetics was a term coined by Norbert Wiener in his seminal book on systems theory. It is dependent on the concept of feedback which is of course central to the idea of assessment of learning.

Typically a learning activity is followed by an assessment of some form. The results of the assessment are feedback to the student who compares this with their own perception of their learning and they move through the system again either retaking the same learning object and assessment or moving onto a new learning object. The diagram is only shown simplistically with any conditional branching based on the assessment to alternative learning objects or activities omitted.

Inclusion and the Cybernetic Model

The essential implication of the cybernetic model for accessibility is that not only should any learning activity and assessment be accessible but the form of any feedback needs also to be accessible to the student.

Other Models of Learning
There are many models of learning stemming from different schools of thought. In this paper a diverse but limited selection has been made but it makes no pretence at being comprehensive. Other models of learning that are more briefly considered include:

  • Situated Learning
  • Action learning
  • Andragogy
  • Communities of practice
  • Instructionism or instructivism
  • Learning styles
  • Motivation
  • Problem-based learning
  • Socially-mediated learning

Discussion and Conclusions
The conclusions to the paper are still being developed and discussed but cover:

  • Many accessibility related tools exist, but they do not seem to be having much impact on teachers and teaching practice in further and higher education-, evidence by the fact that the accessibility of e-learning in colleges and universities is still incredibly variable;
  • This variability in accessibility suggests that a different set of tools may be needed to help teachers develop their accessibility practice further;
  • It is widely agreed that there is a link between effective pedagogy and effective use of technology. There may also be therefore, a link between pedagogy and accessibility. Whilst the link may be complex, it would seem to be worth exploring further, particularly with a view to ascertaining whether pedagogical tools have a role to play in the development of accessible e-learning and accessibility practices;
  • Pedagogical tools are tools that mediate a teachers’ action, offering clear and detailed principles regarding learning that can be easily and readily translated into teaching practice.
  • Two sets of pedagogical tools that are worth exploring further are models and theories of learning and learning design tools
  • Having explored and discussed these two tool sets we conclude that they maybe useful in changing/developing the accessibility practices of teachers in further and higher education.


5 Responses to “Accessibility and Learning Theories”

  1. 1 peter jones 9 March 2009 at 7:51 pm

    Hello Martyn,

    I would be interested in your paper. Have you factored in ‘sociotechnical’ perspectives? Perhaps this approach to IS design is lost in terms of your paper but should be considered in terms of what it might offer. I’ve a paper on ST structures as relates to hodges’ model which is introduced through the following website and the blog –

    Hodges’ Health Career – Care Domains – Model [h2cm]

    – can help map health, social care and OTHER issues, problems and
    solutions. The model takes a situated and multi-contextual view across
    four knowledge domains:

    * Interpersonal;
    * Sociological;
    * Empirical;
    * Political.

    Our links pages cover each care (knowledge) domain e.g. Intrapersonal:


    Thank you for your time,

    Best regards,

    Peter Jones
    RMN, RGN, CPN(Cert), PGCE, PG(Dip) COPE, BA (Hons.).
    Community Mental Health Nurse,
    Independent Scholar & Informatics Specialist

    website: Hodges’ Health Career – Care Domains – Model
    blog: Welcome to the QUAD
    h2cm: help 2C more – help 2 listen – help 2 care

  2. 2 Martyn Cooper 10 March 2009 at 1:19 pm


    We are aiming to complete the paper by Easter and then submit it for publication. I will send you a full copy as soon as it is available.

    “Socio-technical’ perspectives are only included as far as they are represented in the learning theories.



  3. 3 David Hopkins 19 March 2009 at 11:12 am

    I am also interested in reading the paper and, if you want, to help out if I can. Being in Bournemouth means I’m only a short bike ride away if you wnted to meet up?

  4. 4 Martyn Cooper 12 March 2010 at 12:25 am

    The eventual paper which slightly changed direction and was retitled “Seale, Jane and Cooper, Martyn (2010). E-learning and accessibility: An exploration of the potential role of generic pedagogical tools. Computers and Education, 54(4), pp. 1107–1116.” is available at:

    • 5 Martyn Cooper 11 October 2012 at 12:45 am

      The full text of the Computers and Education Article is freely availible via the Open University’s Research Repository:

      Citation: Seale, Jane and Cooper, Martyn (2010). E-learning and accessibility: An exploration of the potential role of generic pedagogical tools. Computers and Education, 54(4), pp. 1107–1116

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