Ethics, Learning Analytics and Disability

Today I have been writing a contribution for a paper requested by the Open University’s Ethics Committee about ethics in Learning Analytics.  This blog post is adapted from that.

There are two broad use case scenarios where learning analytics approaches may benefit disabled students:

  1. Targeting support to disabled students or their tutors (Support)
  2. Identifying online activities that seem to be problematic for some disabled students (Accessibility)

As far as we are aware these approaches are yet to be deployed anywhere world-wide but we are actively researching them here at the Open University where we have approximately 20,000 disabled students.  We envisage that if the early promise of this research holds up, deployment on about a 3 year horizon.  These approaches, especially the accessibility one, are reported in more detail in Section 5. of Cooper et. al. 2012.

Firstly, a few definitions:

IMS Global Learning Consortium offered education-specific definitions of both disability and accessibility when introducing its work on the development of technical standards for accessibility in e-learning:

[…] the term disability has been re-defined as a mismatch between the needs of the learner and the education offered. It is therefore not a personal trait but an artifact of the relationship between the learner and the learning environment or education delivery. Accessibility, given this re-definition, is the ability of the learning environment to adjust to the needs of all learners. Accessibility is determined by the flexibility of the education environment (with respect to presentation, control methods, access modality, and learner supports) and the availability of adequate alternative-but-equivalent content and activities. The needs and preferences of a user may arise from the context or environment the user is in, the tools available (e.g., mobile devices, assistive technologies such as Braille devices, voice recognition systems, or alternative keyboards, etc.), their background, or a disability in the traditional sense. Accessible systems adjust the user interface of the learning environment, locate needed resources and adjust the properties of the resources to match the needs and preferences of the user. (IMS Global 2004)

Thus disability is not an attribute of a person, but an attribute of the relationship between that person and the tools they are using to meet their goals; in this case online learning.  And, accessibility is a property of the learning resources that makes is usable by all, including those traditionally labelled as disabled.

The principle ethical dilemma when approaching learning analytics and learners who might experience a disability in the context of online learning is:

  • For what purpose has the individual students declared their disability to the university or other educational establishment, and is this consistent with how that information is to be used in the learning analytics approaches?

No other literature has been found explicitly addressing this issue.  So this blog post might represent the first public statement of the problem.

At the Open University students who declare a disability so that they can be provided with support in their studies.  This is consistent with the first use case scenario (Support).  It is a moot point if it is consistent with the second use case scenario (Accessibility).  More critically at this stage of development of these approaches it is not obvious that it is consistent with research into these approaches.  Is it ethical to use historic or current data relating to students with disabilities to undertake research into future approaches of applying learning analytics?


Cooper, M,Sloan, D., Kelly, B.,  and Laithwaite, S. (2012) A Challenge to Web Accessibility Metrics and Guidelines: Putting People and Processes First, Proc. W4A2012, April 16-17, 2012, Lyon, France. Co-Located with the 21st International World Wide Web Conference.

IMS Global Learning Consortium (2004), IMS AccessForAll Meta-data Overview. Available online at: (accessed 17/02/14)

The future of accessible ICT – Notes

[These are just rough notes ahead of a proper blog post on this event.]

These are notes from an event hosted by the Institution of Engineering and Technology on the future of accessibility in ICT on 22 Jan 2013. Event of an EU project CARDIAC. A near live blog.

Presentation 1 – Research Actions to Facilitate Inclusion

Results of the CARDIAC project – main result a research agenda roadmap.

See project website:

To advise the EC where to direct future research funding.

Used a process called Structured Dialogic Design Process (SDDP) to gather collective wisdom of a wide variety of stakeholders.

Triggering questions:
What mechanisms would ensure successful technology transfer?
What type of research is missing?
Another question?

Roadmap produced from 90-100 Reseach Ideas.

Research Actions organised in 14 Research Lines that are time distributed.

Comment – a broad research roadmap covering human factors and social issues as well as technological ones.

Trends on Inclusive Network Based Applications

Based on the model of ambient intelligence

Web 2.0 / Semantic Web

Use of social media to reduce isolation

Do people understand ambient technology, do they want it?

Inclusive user interaction

Example of research line of ambient technologies accessing ubiquitous environments.

Technology Transfer

How can users be integrated into technology transfer process?

Market and business theme.

Public procurement

Internet for All

Mike Short, IET President

Going trend for mobile and tablets.

Mobile is a key factor on accessibility to the Internet.

Social Networks

Growth of Apps

Mobile OSs have “rules” for developers that could influence accessibility.

Taking accessibility from a sense perspective

6th sense – e.g. Location based services.

Infrastructure challenge – e.g. better online customer care and support.

Networks now about speed, ease of use, and support.

A human/user centred view required.

Research Challenges:

Global standards / user inputs – accessibility community not effectively inputting to standards.

Better understanding of data protection.

mapping Interoperability Requirements in Assisted Living

Graham Worsley – UK Technology Strategy Board

Assisted Living Innovation Platform (ALIP)

Challenges in assisted living – interoperability

4 successful projects funded 2012 on with a total of 169,000 users across the 4 projects.

Problem of non conformance with Medical Devices Directive when seeking to use customer’s own devices to deliver telecare.

The biggest challenges are organisational not technical.

What makes systems accessible?

Grunela Astbrink

What makes systems accessible is people!

E.g. Champions, Researchers, Company Designers, ….

Hardware and Software working seamlessly with network based services accessed by accessible interfaces.

WCAG 2.0, Equality Act 2010, Inclusive Design, Industrial Products – there are people behind all these.

Measuring Progress of eAccessibility in Europe (MeAC) – EU project:
Deficit Gap and Patchwork

Latest Study on telecoms, broadcasting and Internet
URL on slide see CARDIAC website

Examples of accessibility challenges:

– railway ticketing machine and people with intellectual disability (and all of us!)

– person with CP using a mobile phone (speech and dexterity problems)

Positive aspects:

Business Taskforce on Accessible Technology (BTAT)

– accessibility maturity model
– Accessibility Technology Charter

Investment in accessible ICT met a range of business goals.

Examples of easy to use mobile phones marketed for older people – initially a challenge to get business to see the opportunity.

Public Procurement:

Increased industry awareness.

EU Mandate 376

US and EU working towards harmonisation but challenges because of different perspectives.

Knowledge Sharing – a global community – need to include developing countries

“Nothing about us without us” including disabled people across research, standards development, etc.

Listening and heeding the lived experience of disability

Training and Mentoring.

Realistic end user focus.

Looking forward to research that will have a positive impact on making systems accessible!

Research Priorities for Accessible Smart Living

Peter Ball, Building Research Institute

Not noted because not relevant to my current role on access to education and the web.

How Fond Hopes Became Reality

Alan Newell, University of Dundee

Not a democrat – anything he has ever achieved has been done against popular support!

We need to improve our communications.

Book: Design at the Digital Divide

Mainstream technologists over-estimate the problems and underestimate the benefits of inclusive design

Data and guidelines are necessary but not sufficient – an empathy with potential users is required

How do we make mainstream designers to be a little bit more committed to inclusive design?

(c.f. Our paper on a challenge to web accessibility guidelines – for W4A – putting people and processes first)

Simple messages we put together forcibly – data and statistics are not that powerful at changing minds – what we need is stories! Data informs a good story changes minds. C.f literature and theatre. Appreciate disabled people as people not as statistics and stereotypes.

“The excellent is an enemy of the good”

Need rewards not guilt.

Inclusive design is:

– achievable with modest effort
– scientifically and technically challenging

Design for everyone is not a good design brief!!!

How to deliver the message?

Need narratives to build around our data – c.f. Scenario based design

Reality can be far too complex but fictional stories based on reality can help.

A good story is safe context for design.

Enlist the help of good communicators – film makers, advertisers, marketeers etc.

E.g. Dundee’s use of professional theatre in user based research.

(Note to self – how to employ in LA requirement capture work?)

Scriptwriters and actors are ethnographers.

Focus on the people rather than the technology.

A pragmatic solution is to offer trained actors as surrogates for disabled people. More easily available, can present particular combination of characters, skilled in think allowed – most general public are not, removes ethical problems, suspension of disbelief – therefor work with early prototypes before huge design effort has been invested.

The use of professional actors and scriptwriters needs to be budgeted into projects as much as other professionals e.g. developers and psychologists.

Note – Alan inspired me when I first started working in accessibility and still does!

A path forward

Greg Vanderheiden

There is a widening digital divide.

But many can’t use the modern interfaces for various reasons.

Access solutions are so complex that people who need then can’t use them.

Vendors of AT can’t serve all platforms and all devices. Many are in crisis.

We are currently loosing ground – only 3 – 15% of people in developed countries who need access technology are needing it.

Decreasing social resources – never been good at serving the tails.

We need something that is simpler, costs less per person,works across ICT, …

What if we have access on any device, anywhere? The GPII vision. Cloud based and using the power of everyday devices.

Cloud for all project EU funded

US funding for needs and preferences work (check out relation to IMS AfA)

Engineering Policy

Brian Collins

Note – engineering policy is ambiguous in English but both meanings are relevant.

Very little engineering policy as opposed to science policy in the UK.

Misalignment between accountability, authority and responsibility.

Digital Economies Programme of the UK research council.

Guido Gybels ICT Innovation Expert formally of RNID

Mainstream for most, specialised where needed – sometimes a tension here.

Many advantages of using mainstream technologies.

AT needs to be allowed to evolve.

AT as extension of the mainstream.

The technology is not the objective!

It is about citizenship/participation in society. This is not for a parallel society but for our society.

What are current technology drivers.

– social networking
– content is king
– connectivity + networking -> smart solutions
– cloud based storage and processing
– alternative input solutions e.g. Wii, Connetic

Get beyond requirements and pilots

Research Topics:

– battery technology
– ubiquitous user preference and ability profiling
– true smart (connected) solutions
– AI
– IPv6
– spectrum sharing, co-existence, new wireless technologies


– open standards, part of mainstream track
– insist on real-world business plans
– actively share and adopt best practice

Panel Discussion:

Not noted

Learning Analytics for STEM – disabled student support/accessibility LA4STEM (#la4stem)

Today I submitted and internal Open University project bid to a programme called eSTEeM.

I post here the project description.  N.B. at this stage this is just a proposal. However we should hear by 31 October 2012 if this has been supported as an eSTEeM project and funded. If so I might be blogging much more about this work and its findings.

May I remind readers I set up a LinkedIn Group to try and tease out if there was anyone worldwide doing anything in the area of Learning Analytics and Accessibility. There has been some interest (the group currently has 75 members) but no one has yet shared that they are doing substantive work.  So you never know LA4STEM but in the future be seen as seminal. 😉

If you are interested in this field may I commend to you SoLAR – The Society of Learning Analytics Research:

I will be giving a 30 min presentation about this work at this event  – it’s a long way to travel for me 😉 – it’s OU main campus where I work :

SoLAR Flare UK (19 Nov 2012) #flareUK

Mon 19 Nov 2012, The Open University
Jennie Lee Building, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA [

Feel free to post comments or questions!

LA4STEM Project Description

The LA4STEM project will review the potential of Learning Analytics in higher education, specifically in STEM, and with an emphasis on supporting disabled students and facilitating accessibility enhancements.

Learning Analytics is defined as the measurement, collection, analysis, and reporting of data about learners and their contexts, for purposes of understanding and optimising learning and the environments in which it occurs. Learning analytics is a “hot topic” in eLearning and was the second headline topic in the 2-3 year time to adoption section in the 2012 NMC Horizon Report on Higher Education[1]:

“The larger promise of learning analytics, however, is that when correctly applied and interpreted, it will enable faculty to more precisely understand students’ learning needs and to tailor instruction appropriately far more accurately and far sooner than is possible today.”

The LA4STEM project will specifically explore the following STEM application areas for Learning Analytics:

  • Student support (with an emphasis on support for disabled students)
  • Tutor support (facilitating their support of disabled learners)
  • Module review (identifying accessibility enhancements)
  • Retention and attainment (focussing on where disabled students appear disadvantaged)
  • Learning analytics in remote labs (because of their potential for enhancing access to STEM)
  • Recommender systems (the timely direction of disabled students to support and study skills aids; including scaffolding of STEM specific learning activities)

A key output of the project will be an external funding bid for a larger-scale collaborative project.  The work of LA4ALL will inform pilots in this project. Provide envisaged benefits are confirmed, this should lead to enterprise level implementation within the OU and across HE.

The findings of the LA4STEM project will be disseminated, firstly throughout the Science and MCT faculties, then to the wider university. External dissemination will highlight the OU’s lead in this field.

[1] Johnson, L., Adams, S. and Cummins, M. (2012) The NMC Horizon Report: 2012 Higher Education Edition. The New Media Consortium, Austin, Texas:

Models of disability and their relation to accessibility

This week I have been writing an introductory section for a paper on models of disability and accessibility.  This has led me to think again about the relationship between the two.

The Medical Model of Disability

Disabilities have traditionally been described with reference to medical conditions that they were seen to arise from.  This is known as the medical model of disability and was encapsulated in the 1980 World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International classification of impairments, disabilities, and handicaps [1] which included the following definitions:

  • Impairment = a loss or abnormality of physical bodily structure or function, of logic-psychic origin, or physiological or anatomical origin
  • Disability = any limitation or function loss deriving from impairment that prevents the performance of an activity in the time-lapse considered normal for a human being
  • Handicap = the disadvantaged condition deriving from impairment or disability limiting a person performing a role considered normal in respect of their age, sex and social and cultural factors

The Social Model of Disability

The main alternative to the medical model of disability is the social model.  This has been highly influential, over the last 30 years, in shaping policy, practice and attitudes to disabled people.  The social model stemmed from the publication of Fundamental Principles of Disability in 1976. [2] This revolutionised the understanding of disability arguing that it was not mainly caused by impairments but by the way society was organised and responded to disabled people.

In the social model, disability is caused by society and is not the ‘fault’ of an individual disabled person, or an inevitable consequence of their limitations. Disability is the product of the physical, organisational and attitudinal barriers present within society.  The social model takes account of disabled people as part of the economic, environmental and cultural society.

The WHO revised its definitions of disability, in part as a response to this social model, and from the realisation that the medical model was of very limited use in defining effective responses in meeting the needs of disabled people.  In 2001 WHO published the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) [3].  In the ICF disability is described as:

… the outcome or result of a complex relationship between an individual’s health condition and personal factors, and of the external factors that represent the circumstances in which the individual lives.

Building on the social model the IMS Global Learning Consortium, introducing its work developing technical standards for accessibility in e-learning, offered a more education specific definition of both disability and accessibility [4]:

… the term disability has been re-defined as a mismatch between the needs of the learner and the education offered. It is therefore not a personal trait but an artifact of the relationship between the learner and the learning environment or education delivery. Accessibility, given this re-definition, is the ability of the learning environment to adjust to the needs of all learners. Accessibility is determined by the flexibility of the education environment (with respect to presentation, control methods, access modality, and learner supports) and the availability of adequate alternative-but-equivalent content and activities. The needs and preferences of a user may arise from the context or environment the user is in, the tools available (e.g., mobile devices, assistive technologies such as Braille devices, voice recognition systems, or alternative keyboards, etc.), their background, or a disability in the traditional sense. Accessible systems adjust the user interface of the learning environment, locate needed resources and adjust the properties of the resources to match the needs and preferences of the user.

Post Social Models of Disability

The social model of disability has been criticised and various moves instigated to move beyond it. For an example see Torn Shakespeare and Nicholas Watson (2001) [5].  They argue instead for an Embodied Ontology: “we are our body, with all of its imperfections and impairments”.  Further, they assert that “there is no qualitative difference between disabled and non-disabled people because we are all impaired in some form, some more than others”. They consider the idea of a normal/perfect person as mythical. However, this discussions has been more within the academic world of disability studies and I would contest has yet to have widespread impact beyond this, and particularly relevant to this post, on accessibility.  That being said one direct relation to accessibility is that accessibility accommodations have benefits for many who do not consider themselves disabled. An example of this is the feature present in most modern browsers to enlarge the display of web pages in response to a short cut key, usually Ctrl +.  This was originally introduced for those with a visual impairment but at times is useful to all.  A major piece of research undertaken by Forrester for Microsoft in 2003 [6] supports this case of the wider benefit of accessibility accommodations.  It found that 57% of working-age computer users are likely to benefit from accessible technology (where accessible technology is understood as technical responses to promote access for disabled people to computer hardware and software).

Functional Models of Disability

The term accessibility is widely used in the context of web design. The W3C describes web accessibility thus:

Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web. [7]

This is in essence based on a functional model of disability.  Generally in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) a functional approach is most useful. What is important in the design of web-based applications or content is how the diversity of users access the computer. This design can be said to be accessible if it facilitates full interaction by all users irrespective of assistive technologies or access approaches that may be adopted by some.

The AccessForAll 3.0 Personal Needs and Preferences (PNP) provides a specification that enables comprehensive profiles of individuals’ access approaches and assistive technologies to be stored based on a functional model. This specification is being developed within the IMS Global Learning Consortium and went to public draft in September 2012 [8]. These functional profiles could be generated by disabled people themselves, possibly with the help of advisors, inputting their specific access approaches and requirements to a web-form. Such profiles have great potential in personalisation approaches to accessibility and in analytics based approaches to identifying accessibility issues, as discussed elsewhere in this blog.

A Note on WCAG and Models of Disability

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 [9], a formal recommendation of the web standards body the W3C, are the de facto international standard on web accessibility.  These are targeted at web developers and cover what is normally referred to as technical accessibility. They are organised according to four top-level principles of web accessibility: that web pages should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. WCAG are focussed at the properties of a web page and in so doing might be considered to be based on a functional model.  However, the user is deliberately subsumed in their formulation; their concern is the functional properties of the web page not the person accessing them.  This ignores the consequences of the social model of disability of the importance of context and the relational nature of accessibility.

The development of web assets or applications is a process. Accessibility considerations need to be built into the everyday practices across the web product life-cycle from conception and specification through development to delivery and maintenance. Recognising this, the British Standards Institute developed BS 8878: 2010 Web Accessibility Code of Practice [10]. This facilitates a pragmatic application of WCAG 2.0 within a process based approach and reasserts a user focus.


Our models of disability are important, they shape our attitudes and impact on how effectively the needs and preferences  of disabled people are met in design. The medical model is now widely seen as outmoded and a perpetuator of  discriminatory attitudes. The social model has had widespread influence. It is important in accessibility considerations because it recognises the importance of the context of the users and supports the view of accessibility as a relationship property; in the case of web accessibility the relationship being between the diversity of users and the web resource or application. Functional models have been asserted as the most useful in design and development and the potential of these for personalisation and analytics highlighted.


(All web-links checked 10 October 2012)

[1] World Health Organization, (1980) International classification of impairments, disabilities, and handicaps. A manual of classification relating to the consequences of disease. Geneva, WHO

[2]        UPIAS, (1976) Fundamental Principles of Disability, London: Union of Physically Impaired against Segregation, available on-line at:

[3]        World Health Organization. (2001) International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health. Geneva, WHO, Searchable online versions available at:

[4]        IMS Global Learning Consortium (2004) IMS AccessForAll Meta-data Overview.

[5]        Torn Shakespeare, Nicholas Watson, (2001) The social model of disability: An outdated ideology?, in Sharon N. Barnartt and Barbara M. Altman (ed.)Exploring Theories and Expanding Methodologies: Where we are and where we need to go (Research in Social Science and Disability, Volume 2), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.9-28. Availible on-line at:

[6]       Microsoft (2004) The wide range of abilities and its impact on computer technology. Available on-line at:

[7]       World Wide Web Consortium (2005). Introduction to Web Accessibility, available at:

[8]        IMS Global Learning Consortium (2012) Access for All (AfA), Version 3.0 Specification, Public Draft 1.0. Primer and specification documents available from:

[9]        W3C (2008), Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0), available at:

[10]         British Standards International (2010). BS 8878:2010 Web Accessibility – Code of Practice, (charged for publication available through and by subscription through BSOL