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?

References

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: http://www.imsglobal.org/accessibility/accmdv1p0/imsaccmd_oviewv1p0.html (accessed 17/02/14)

UK Government cancels Code of Practice for Higher Education on Equality Act 2010

Today I have been writing a section on Disability and Accessibility for a paper for LAK13 entitled “What Can Learning Analytics Contribute to Disabled Students’ Learning and to Accessibility in e-Learning Systems?”.  In doing so I had cause to check on the status of the long promised Code of Practice for Higher Education covering the UK’s Equality Act 2010 .  I discovered this on the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s web site:

Other Codes of Practice

We were intending to produce further statutory codes of practice on the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED), which came into force on 5 April 2011, and codes for the Further and Higher Education (FEHE) sector and schools.

Unfortunately, we are no longer able to proceed with these plans. The Government is keen to reduce bureaucracy around the Equality Act 2010, and feels that further statutory guidance may place too much of a burden on public bodies. Although the Commission has powers to issue codes, it cannot do so without the approval of the Secretary of State, as we are reliant upon government to lay codes before parliament, in order for them to be statutory.

It is the Commission’s view that, rather than creating a regulatory burden, statutory codes have a valuable role to play in making clearer to everyone what is and is not needed in order to comply with the Equality Act. However, as this is no longer an option, we feel the best solution is to issue our draft codes as non statutory codes instead. These non statutory codes will still give a formal, authoritative, and comprehensive legal interpretation of the PSED and education sections of the Act and will make it clear to everyone what the requirements of the legislation are.

Source: http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/legal-and-policy/equality-act/equality-act-codes-of-practice/

These now non-statutory codes do not seem to be published yet and with the further discouragement from Government who knows when they will be.  I and many others had been eagerly hoping that among other things the statutory codes would have provided clear legal guidance on “reasonable adjustments” generally and web accessibility specifically.  It was hoped that they would include reference to the key external accessibility standards: WCAG 2.0 and BS8878.

To my view this is a very retrograde step.  The old CoP relating to the previous legislation, the Disability Discrimination Act (1995 as amended 2005) is still available but now has no statutory basis and is outdated in terms of educational practice, web accessibility standards, technology and the law.  Available at: http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/uploaded_files/code_of_practice__revised__for_providers_of_post-16_education_and_related_services__dda_.pdf

I am now chairing the newly formed Open University Web Accessibility Standards Working Group defining a common web accessibility standard for the OU and developing associated support documentation for managers and developers.  This is part of a overall Web Governance Review.  This work needs a secure legal underpinning which I had hoped would come from the CoP. It would be helpful is we could authoritatively point to a statutory statement of what is considered as the appropriate level of web accessibility under the term “reasonable adjustment”.  That being said it is probably optimistic to think the CoP would have given that.

As commented elsewhere in this blog defining levels of accessibility is problematic. This follows from the fact that accessibility is a property of the relationship between the user and the web resource and depends on the circumstances in which and technology they use to access it. More generally it is a summation of these relationships for the full diversity of potential users. Web accessibility is not, as usually inferred from WACG2.0 and in most work on accessibility metrics, a property of the resource alone. However, organisations in education, commerce and the public sector are longing for a way of authoritatively asserting that they have sufficiently addressed accessibility in terms of their legal obligations.