TIME TO INTERACT: A EUROPEAN TELEGUIDANCE PROJECT FOR ADULTS WITH PHYSICAL AND MENTAL DISABILITY
To achieve a comparative economic advantage for businesses, people and communities of Birmingham so that everyone has an opportunity to share in its benefits.'
When the prevocational and vocational training activities were evaluated it was identified that many individuals were moving between training providers and had been doing so for some years. There was a need to provide a solution to the training circuit.
A planning team of Statutory and Voluntary organisations looked to Europe to provide a solution to unemployment for people with disabilities and people with mental health problems. Barriers to employment for this client group were identified as being that some people did not have a work history, others were no longer confident in their work environment and others needed to develop skills and practices. In a previous Birmingham project funded by the European Social Fund, titled 'Focus', it was evident that the employment expectations of people with mental health disabilities were high and this could be supported by more flexible opportunities to access education and training, What else emerged from the Focus project was the essential elements required in vocational guidance in helping people with disabilities to make realistic choices; these elements were not generally to be found in the mainstream employment sectors. Thus the TIME project emerged in September 1995 and completed in December 1997.
TIME was a European funded project, under the Horizon strand, and in Birmingham it was co-ordinated and financially supported by Birmingham City Council and involved a number of agencies from the voluntary and statutory sectors. The vision of TIME was of creating new opportunities for disadvantaged groups, these opportunities being facilitated by the removal of physical barriers; meeting individual needs; providing equal opportunities; providing a supportive environment; making best use of telematics and, finally; making best use of software.
There were 3 aspects to this project on three different levels. Teleguidance (vocational guidance) was the focus of the partners in the UK (Birmingham, and a group of agencies in the South of England), Models of Teletraining (vocational training) was the focus of partners in Greece, Italy and Spain, and Teleworking (employment) was the focus of the Finnish partner. The collective aim was the development of a European telematics model for guidance, training and employment for people with disabilities.
This paper is only concerned with the Birmingham project.
THE BIRMINGHAM PROJECT (1995 to 1997)
The ultimate aim of the project was to help people, at a distance, to make realistic choices about future training and employment and, through the use of Mentorship and an employment placement worker, to assist students to access mainstream opportunities.
A range of pilot sites and organisations were identified in Birmingham and they were chosen for the range of specialist skills and knowledge that each could bring to the project. The range of pilot sites also enabled potential students to access guidance where they felt most comfortable; the essential element of choice was introduced at this level.
Initially we trialed 'off the shelf' software packages to assist the guidance process but found this a great disappointment because much of the software available did not meet the needs of the disabled person. Msc. Students of Wolverhampton University were invited to write 2 software packages in self-awareness and decision making and these were found to be very useful in supporting the programme. The video-conferencing equipment was used to little effect but allowed communication between sites and training agencies.
Volunteer mentors were trained to support the students and a job coach was employed to find jobs and help students to into employment.
By December 1996, when we took a serious look at the TIME programme, we found that what had been developed was a face-to-face programme with technology inserts. Whilst the steering group found this very disappointing because they had been aiming for a remote programme, all the feedback from the students and tutors of TIME indicated that they thought the TIME programme was very effective, was needed and should be kept as a face-to-face delivery. Consequently this programme, in a face-to-face format, has been successfully adopted by some statutory agencies as a funded programme.
In January 1997 the steering group decided to try to achieve their aim of a distance learning programme and a small working party, consisting of representatives from South Birmingham Mental Health NHS Trust, Bournville College of Further Education, Adult Education and Birmingham City Council, was set up. We set ourselves a considerable challenge because there was only 11 months to develop a new framework, adapt the curriculum, train the trainers, access the hardware, configure software and pilot a 15 week remote programme.
It was decided that the framework for the distributed learning should be Computer Mediated Communication, combining electronic mail and computer conferencing.
Similarly, equipment issues for students had to be addressed and laptops and printers were purchased for use in their own homes, and a 24 hour learning centre set up in a hospital where patients were legally detained under sections of the mental health act.
The Tutors had to rewrite the TIME curriculum into a CMC format, deciding on the virtual environments that would best suite the programme, and supporting material/resources had to be produced The databases had to be created and software installed on relevant equipment prior to the start of the programme in September 1997. Technology staff had to be found locally to support the hardware.
This cohort size reduced to 8 because 4 withdrew through ill health. These 8 remaining students were equally split between mental health users and people with physical disability. Students were required to be between 16 and 58 years of age, have a basic standard of literacy, be unemployed but with a desire to work and, finally, be 'work ready' for employment or training. Students were not expected to have any prior learning or experience in Information Technology.
ENVIRONMENT DESIGN AND CURRICULUM DEVELOPMENT
The campus was made up of a Mail Room for the delivery of electronic mail, a Skills Workshop for the delivery of personal development modules, a Job Club for the acquisition of career and job search skills, a TIME Zone away from tutors which acted as a common room with the support of a virtual mentor, and finally, a Resource room which held supporting materials for the Skills Works Shop and Job Club. The Skills Workshop, Job Club and TIME Zone were all discussion databases.
Furthermore, the Tutors had their own room in which to plan the programme, discuss areas of concern, identify evaluation issues and record the development process.
Within this VILE model, the tutors had the role of developing the existing vocational guidance programme into a CMC environment. This was not an easy task as many of the modules were of a psycho social nature and would normally include role play and guided practice etc.. It was identified that some requirements of the programme would need to be addressed in the face to face induction, such as time management, and some would have to be addressed in the closing face to face week, such as interview skills/role play.
COMPUTER MEDIATED COMMUNICATION
'computer networks as communication tools by people who are collaborating with each other to achieve a shared goal'.
In effect, Kaye is primarily describing the use of computer conferencing for asynchronous and text based communication. The positive features of CMC include asynchronicity, lack of time and place constraints, the permanent recording which enables reflection to take place and, the many-to-many conferencing. These are all features which positively support the development of programmes in this medium for Adult learners with disabilities, or from disadvantaged groups.
During the programme, two students write:
'I think by now that everyone on this course has realised the potential it (CMC) has provided us. Not only are we on a learning curve but we are communicating with each other in a way we might not do in a face to face situation. This piece of technology is allowing each one of us to put his or her point of view or just sit and listen to others. You may be the type that needs a little time to think about a question. You may be shy or hesitant. Normally, in a classroom situation, you are the one whose questions remain unanswered because others are already asking theirs. Now, with Lotus Notes, you can read the question and answer it in your own time, thereby taking an active part in the discussion. On this network we are 'collective'. Each of us has something to contribute.'
The asynchronous nature of CMC is not only valuable in the opportunity it gives to students in reflection, but also in its potential for students to access the programme on a 24 hour basis. The flexibility in access over a 24 hour period, seven days a week, allows students to attend hospital appointments, accommodate family life and activities of daily living, continue leisure activities and reduce disruption in attendance caused by possible fluctuations in physical or mental health. In relation to physical disability, one student with difficulties in walking writes:
'The way round transport problems is telematics. If I can't travel to a class then perhaps the class can travel to me by the magic CMC or teleconferencing.
It has been identified that, in CMC, the loss of paralinguistic communication is a possible weakness of the system although Harism (Mason and Kaye, 1989: 50-62) believes that this helps in reducing discriminatory communication patterns based on physical and social cues and these include gender, race, socio-economic status, physical features etc.. Thus the focus of the communication is on the message rather than the sender.
Students on the TIME programme had a lot to say in the self-awareness module about prejudices and negative personal experiences in relation to gender, culture, disability etc.,. The face to face induction had been in two groups at different sites and consequently not all students new each other. Because of this, the students were aware of making assumptions about each other and one student writes:
'I think we are all wondering what kind of people each of us are. It all comes down to assumptions. We might have a picture or image in our heads of what each other looks like so we might be tense or nervous on meeting for the first time...actually meeting face to face.'
This was obviously a concern because another student writes:
'I think that we are probably being a lot more open via CMC than we would be face to face. For that reason I think that if we do ever meet face to face, many of us will be feeling very vulnerable.'
The same student responds to another by saying that one of the drawbacks of CMC is that you can forget who is listening. Consequently, a small number of students disclosed personal information in the self-awareness, stress management and assertiveness modules that, they claimed, they later regretted. Hence their perceived vulnerability.
The students did, however, generally form good relationships with one another in the CMC environment. One student writes:
'I reckon that there is only so much you can glean of a persons' character from meeting them in the flesh. Words are very powerful things and I feel that in this environment there is much we can learn from each other.'
model for information and knowledge, that is, it allows users to access information as and when they need it. Within this model, the student has freedom of choice regarding what discussions he/she wants to enter into, or ignore. One student entered a main topic about Poverty in the common room and ended by saying
'My apologies if I have placed too serious a topic but.....I have done it to show a part of my personality and also to demonstrate that we can converse through CMC in our common room on any topic. We can choose to join or ignore it.'
For hardware problems, a tutor was on hand to visit the students in there own home as soon as a problem was reported. Another help line number was given in order for students to access help with Lotus Notes. It was rare to have a problem sufficiently difficult to warrant contacting the System Administrator.
One problem was quite significant, repetitive, and affected all the cohort and tutors alike. One student had a replication problem and students and staff continually found her past entries replicated as new and unread. No cause could be found and the student was visited and observed during the replication process. Again no cause could be found. As the student became reportedly more and more frustrated by this problem, we reinstalled Lotus Notes on her computer and gave her an external modem. The problem appeared to be solved until a couple of weeks later it reappeared.
In reviewing the replication problem it was noted that each time this students past entries came up as unread it coincided with a difficult period that the student was going through (such as dealing with a difficult piece of personal learning, misunderstanding with a tutor or difficulty in another part of her life). This led us to consider if this replication problem was indeed student generated and/or an attention seeking issue and this was further reinforced by finding her giving advice to another student on how to adjust the settings in Lotus Notes.
All the tutors felt exposed in this medium, never having delivered a programme under such close scrutiny but also having their responses placed in black and white for the duration of the programme (and beyond for research purposes). One tutor writes:
'..you are up for public scrutiny and it feels a little uncomfortable.'
Tutors also found difficulty in delivering to students that they had not met on a face-to-face basis and this became very time consuming because of the caution they experienced in responding to the 'unknown'. Whatever tutors felt, there was an abundance of support expressed within the tutors room.
Another tutor spoke of the sensitivity required in such subjects as stress management where one couldn't see the body language when disclosures were being made, and how the use of e-mail was vital in supporting students during difficult times. Tutors were aware that students were sometimes reporting deeply personal stuff and exposing themselves a little too much. It was felt that the next time this programme was delivered that issues of confidentiality and disclosure were to be discussed in-depth during induction so that students were made aware of what was wise to say publicly and what should be said in the privacy of e-mail; and only then in relation to future employment and training.
Tutors were surprised, and commented on, the high standard of student entries and good student peer support that was evident. They also noted that some students performed much better in a CMC environment. A tutor wrote of one student in the CMC environment:
'She is articulate, confident, supportive and enthusiastic. However, in a face-to-face scenario she is totally the opposite.'
These observations in general did give rise to concerns that the transition from the CMC environment to further training and employment may be more problematic because of the potential problems of generalising the skills demonstrated in Lotus Notes.
The way the programme was organised meant that the students were working on 4 modules by week 7, involving 4 different tutors. It was felt that we were making life a little difficult for the students and should simplify any further programmes by reducing the number of tutors in total and the number of concurrent modules. All the modules overran and students showed some reluctance when moving into new modules. This was heightened when we asked them to move from the Skills workshop to the Job Club; one was about personal development and the next was about the harsh realities of competing in the labour market!
All in all the tutors were positive about the programme, as were the verifiers from the Open College Network, and were in agreement to continue the development of the programme under new funding. 7 students demonstrated competency in all of the modules and one student demonstrated competencies in 7 modules.
The programme will be embedded in Birmingham City and, therefore, the skills and knowledge around CMC will be locally developed and inform the City strategy on distributed learning. This programme will be developed within the same City framework as other new CMC programmes for people with disabilities and from disadvantaged groups, existing and emerging social firms, or Youth programmes etc..
The team teaching between the various agencies involved has appeared to be very successful in delivering a seamless service to the students. The combination of skills and knowledge from different backgrounds, and the willingness to collaborate, has enabled the development of a programme which starts to address the wide ranging personal needs of people from disadvantaged groups. Although the cohort size was very small and, therefore, the learning points cannot be generalised, the indications are that CMC is a methodology which should be further explored with this client group. The students attitudes to CMC were certainly positive and the students felt that this learning tool enabled the equalising of opportunity.
It is clear from the project that we have to explore progression
routes for those students who have performed well, and/or have
enjoyed working/socialising, within a CMC environment. Whilst the JOB
project is exploring teletraining and teleworking routes and
developments, this will clearly not be done within the short term.
We, therefore, have to identify ways in which these students can
access their own computer in their own homes in order for them to
continue to use emailing and computer conferencing systems on
completion of the programme.
Katchoff, B., Ryan, M., (1997) 'Computer Mediated Communication - a curriculum tool for continuing professional development.' in Merton J. et al. (Eds) Open and Distance Learning: A bridge from the 90's to the year 2000 and beyond: achievements and Perspectives. The Sixth EDEN International Conference Proceedings. Budapest, Hungary, June 1997.
Kaye, A.R., (1991) Collaborative Learning through computer conferencing. Springer Valeg.
Lotus Notes (1995) Groupware - communication, collaboration, co-ordination Lotus Notes Homepage. http://www.lotus.com
Mason R., Kaye, A., eds (1989) Mindweave: communication, computers and distance education. Pergamon Press. Oxford.
Milo, N., (1986) 'Telematics in the future of health care delivery: implications for nursing.' Journal of Professional Nursing. Jan/Feb:39 to 50.
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