The way in which school accommodates students with profound physical disabilities has changed over the years. It is currently considered good educational practice to ensure that students living with a physical disability are mainstreamed into classrooms with typical students. In British Columbia, the Ministry of Education has clearly mandated mainstreaming, or integration as it is more commonly called:
With integration, students with special needs are included in educational settings with their peers who do not have special needs, and provided with the necessary accommodations determined on an individual basis, to enable them to be successful there. (2006)
This practice has as its goal the inclusion of disabled students, normalizing their handicaps and including them in a wider circle of their peers (Flagle 2007). While this is a desirable outcome, in some cases the nature and severity of the disability creates very real obstacles for the student being integrated, their peers in the classroom and the instructor. (Stukat 1993) For example, the presence of a motorized wheelchair creates mobility and space issues: the student cannot participate in group activities to the same extent, or inter-act in the same way as other students. The presence of additional personnel, such as a personal care attendant or nurse and an educational assistant further distance the student from his/her peers. Communication may be impeded by equipment such as a respirator or electronic Pathfinder™. Additionally, a disabled student may be required to arrive after the bell to avoid crowded hallways and as a result s/he is always the cause of an interruption to the start of a well-ordered classroom. Teachers may react negatively. (Caffee 1997) In some cases, the student may feel that being in the class is more isolating and problematic than simply taking the course by correspondence. A further consideration is that, while a typical student is able to make friends with other typical students, and use class time as an opportunity to deepen these connections, the nature of a disabled student’s handicap as well as the support infrastructure needed to function (i.e. nurse, educational assistant, breathing apparatus, etc) reduces or eliminates the opportunities for this peer-to-peer relationship building. Can a virtual learning space provide a better option for these students?
There have been tremendous advances in the creation of virtual social networking environments in the past six years. The “Virtual environments” website lists networks such as Active Worlds, Gaia Online, Habbo Hotel, Kaneva, The Sims Online, Whyville, OSGrid and Greenbush among others. There have also been a number of business environments created to bring people together for work-related activities. (ie Forterra Systems, 3DXplorer, and Qwak)
The best-known example of this kind of virtual environment is Second Life. Launched on June 23, 2003, Second Life (known as SL or 2L by participants) is a virtual environment created by Linden Lab that allows users, (also called “residents”), to interact with each other through virtual identities known as avatars. The Wikipedia entry for SL explains that “residents can explore, meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and create and trade virtual property and services with one another, or travel throughout the world, which residents refer to as the grid.” This platform is becoming so popular as a tool for delivering post-secondary content that there are at least 300 universities around the world teaching courses or conducting research in SL. (Michels 2008)
There are many examples in Second Life of people living with disabilities thriving and engaging in active social lives.
Wild Cunningham is the name of an avatar who is actually controlled by, generally nine people who live in a care center in Massachusetts, who –they're all pro-foundly handicapped; there's generally very little physical movement – they're in wheelchairs, a lot of paralysis, actually, and what they do is they interact in Second Life as an avatar named Wild Cunningham, and they go places and they say things based on democratic vote. (Ree 2008)
Niels Schuddeboom (aka Niles Sopor), a paraplegic from Holland is able to walk, run and fly and create films on the grid. David Wallace, a quadriplegic from Australia exhibits his virtual artistic creations “in-world”. Simon Stevens (aka Simon Walsh in SL) from Britain operates a nightclub called Wheelies. (Cassidy 2007) These are just a few examples of disabled adults who have found new and exciting opportunities in Second Life. In an article written for Innovate, an online journal, McKinney et al talk about the tremendous potential for university students and the Second Life environment (2008) McKinney and her co-writers believe that there are many reasons why this kind of virtual space is beneficial for learning disabled university learners. If this social networking site can help adults with handicaps, and university students living with a learning disability, what can it do for teens living with a physical handicap and their education?
This study was created to investigate the satisfaction level of physically disabled students with the learning environment that purports to meet their education needs (the regular classroom) and see whether the advances in virtual social networks such as Second Life could provide a more satisfactory learning space given their disability. While there are many post-secondary instances of using SL in education, this study looks at the experiences of a select number of high school students to see if Second Life provided a better educational experience.
Using a case study approach, ten Grade 11 high school students, five male and five female, were selected from a large metropolitan school-district. Each student had severe physical handicaps (i.e. spinal cord injuries). These participants were surveyed using a thirty question 5-point Likert-type response format to see how satisfied they were with their current face-to-face experience in a typical classroom. Questions focused on such areas as: content acquisition, teacher-student interaction, student-student interaction, comfort level in the classroom and social “connectedness”.
Because students under the age of 18 are not allowed on the regular Second Life grid, the study researcher asked the students to create IDs on the Teen grid of Second Life and arranged for the acquisition of a separate educational space for the study. The teen policy on the Linden Lab wiki explains this requirement:
The only adults allowed on the mainland in Teen Second Life are Linden employees. If you are an educator and want to work with teens in Teen Second Life, there is the opportunity to buy a private island on the Teen Grid and participate, but you will not be able to leave that island and visit the Teen Grid mainland. Teens from the mainland will be able to visit your private island if/when you choose, but they will be automatically informed that there are adults present. Also, if you are planning to use a private island on the Teen Grid to interact with teens from the main-land, we will need to run a background check on you for security and safety reasons. (Kemp 2006)
The disabled students, along with 15 able-bodied Grade 11 students chosen at random from the district, were then enrolled in a mini-course in Teen Second Life (a 6 week long program) that covered an aspect of their existing Grade 11 Socials curriculum. In order to see how this environment affected non-school-related relationships, over the course of the six weeks, non-structured “breaks” and other socializing opportunities were arranged by the instructor. All students were then surveyed at the end of the course to see how “satisfied” they were with the experience. Additionally, in order to collect anecdotal evidence, all students were interviewed one-on-one to see how they compared the SL classroom with a typical learning environment. Students were not told who was disabled or not, and the stated purpose of the mini-course was to ask the students to help the researcher “explore on-line learning”.
The questions that this study seeks to answer are:
1) Do physically disabled students find that Second Life is more “satisfying” than their regular classroom experience?
2) Does Second Life succeed in fostering more non-school-related relationships among the able-bodied and disabled students?
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