1998 Conference Proceedings

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A Review of Online Education for Students With Print Impairments

Dena Shumila
Adaptive Technology Resource Centre, Information Commons
130 St. George Street
University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
M5S 3H1

Janna Shumila
Room 2035
Hamilton Hall
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada
V5A 1S6


Over the last decade and a half, the use of computers as an educational tool has become increasingly common. Students at all academic levels have grown accustomed to learning course materials with the help of computer-based tutorials, designing spreadsheets and charts to supplement assignments, and creating graphical artwork and other multimedia presentations. Additionally, it has become typical for students to complete essays and reports with word processors and other computer applications.

The growing popularity of the World Wide Web and other Internet related software and services has added a new dimension to the ability of computers to be used as vehicles for the facilitation of learning. The 1990's phenomenon of "going online" allows a world of information to be placed at the fingertips of any student who is able to use, and has access to a personal computer. This enables students to conduct most, if not all, of their research related projects electronically, and in many cases, from the convenience of the students' own classroom or home.

The introduction of computers in the classroom appears to have substantially enhanced the educational experience for many students. However, the fullest potential for the integration of computers into the educational system cannot truly be realized, until their ability to benefit learners with disabilities is recognized and explored. Unfortunately at present, the technology that is available is not being used to its fullest potential. Many students with disabilities, for a variety of reasons, do not have access to or are not provided with instructions about how to take advantage of the technological resources available to them. Such resources would allow these students to participate in the scholastic world at an equal level with their non-disabled peers.

This paper will examine problems faced by students with disabilities who have been integrated into mainstream educational settings.(Emphasis will be placed on the Canadian primary, secondary, and post secondary systems.) Suggestions will also be made with respect to how the provision of online academic environments can improve the quality of education for students with disabilities, and how increasing the availability of such services might provide sensible and cost-effective solutions to many seemingly insurmountable problems.


Internet services such as electronic mail, list serves and news groups, as well as the ability to brows the Web for information about topics of interest are all components of online education. Other school related content, such as university courses and course calendars, and electronic libraries and library catalogs are becoming more and more common.

The content of online courses and resources covers a broad spectrum of topics and levels of academic difficulty. These include courses aimed at students who might not be pursuing conventional forms of education. E.G. Courses related to life and employment skills for persons with disabilities or courses designed to educate professionals responsible for accommodating the needs of special students.


The challenges faced by students with disabilities in the mainstream educational system, begin several weeks or months prior to the commencement of regular classes. In most cases it is difficult or even impossible for many of these students to complete the processes of course selection and registration independently. This is because calendars, timetables, course codes, registration deadlines, and other pertinent information are often not available in accessible formats: forcing students with special needs to seek assistance. Several colleges and universities have provided an acceptable solution to this problem by posting such information on their websites, and allowing students to register via telephone, fax, or online.

However, even if registration materials, course calendars, and timetables are presented in accessible formats, they must also be printed early enough to benefit students requiring special accommodations. This is essential if students with disabilities are to be given the preparation time required to select courses, contact course instructors, and obtain accessible learning materials. If this extra time is not provided to these students, they are unable to organize their upcoming courses and insure their academic success.

The process of locating, collecting, and producing course materials in alternative formats is more complicated than one might guess. Essential steps include:

Unfortunately, even with all of these efforts to prepare for courses in advance, there are several students who routinely do not receive academic materials in formats that they can use. Equally frustrating, is the fact that several students with disabilities feel that they cannot rely on the Disability Services Departments at their various academic institutions for assistance.

Many disabled students are encouraged to be dependent on Disability Services Departments to solve all of their education related problems. Not only is this practice very stressful for students because of the lack of control they have over their academic lives, but it can also be detrimental to their social and psychological development. Therefore, a large number of students attempt to take responsibility for their own special needs. However, they often do not possess the experience, skills and knowledge to accomplish their academic goals independently.

Instead, the role of Disability Services Departments should be to train and encourage students to be as independent as possible. Dependence is dangerous for disabled students, because it does not encourage them to learn how to cope and adapt in society. Excessive dependency also promotes an inability and lack of confidence to self advocate. Consequently, students are unaware of resources, legislation, and supports that are available to them. It is important to recognize that independence in the mainstream educational system translates to disabled persons who have the skills to effectively participate in society as self sufficient adults.

A solution to the problem of obtaining accessible course materials may be to standardize courses that are similar, between schools. Learning materials could then also be standardized. A small number of sample course material packages could be placed online, for instructors to choose from. A second solution might be to develop a system where disabled students could swap the materials that they are able to compile independently via readers, publishing companies, or scanned books. A third strategy could be to establish deadlines for the submission of completed course materials by their instructors.


There are several reasons why online education services are beneficial for students with disabilities.

Education programs offered online would allow anyone, anywhere in the world, with access to a computer to participate and complete school related course work, or obtain skills and support systems that would increase their ability to cope with day-to-day tasks and challenges. The increased availability of web-based instruction would also prove beneficial to parents, relatives, caregivers, and professionals who work closely with children and adults with special needs.


Listed below are the names and descriptions of some of the pilot projects currently underway in the area of accessible online education.


PEBBLES(Providing Education By Bringing Learning Environments to Students) is a remote control robot, that has been equipped with a two-way camera and microphone system which allows the absent student to communicate with his/her classmates and teacher. Additional features of PEBBLES include a game-pad controller, which was adapted and integrated into the system to provide the student with the ability to remotely direct the in-class video camera and video monitor, and a remotely controlled attention light that enables the student to gain the attention of the instructor. This robot facilitates the delivery of courses via video and teleconferencing. This new ability to learn remotely is beneficial to people who would otherwise be isolated due to geographical location, illness, or disability. Before the existence of such technology, all of these personal circumstances acted as barriers to education, and prevented many students from physically attending their classes. PEBBLES is the follow up project to WILMA: her technological predecessor. Other initiatives that incorporate video and teleconferencing technology include research into the employment of auditory and tactile methods for the recognition of facial expressions, and the use of more mainstream computer systems as tools for remote learning.


The following description has been taken directly from the SNOW website. "SNOW (Special Needs Opportunity Windows) is a pilot project aimed at developing ways for children with special needs to electronically access curriculum materials. The project will develop and use innovative teacher education and teacher in service models to support the learning of students with special needs using distance education. Through the project partnership, SNOW will expand the available sources of accessible learning materials, and identify means to expedite the production and delivery of these materials. The SNOW web site has been established to serve as a clearinghouse of resources for the education of special needs students and their instructors." For more information about the numerous partners involved in the SNOW Project, visit the SNOW website, at the University of Toronto. This site also contains numerous resources to accompany the descriptions of the various categories of disability: including the types of adaptive technology, personal support, and educational accommodations required by each.


The following excerpt has been taken directly from a letter that is being used to introduce the LEARN project to potential funding sources. "LEARN(Learning Education Accessible Resource Network) proposes to make accessible, documents required by secondary and post secondary students with special needs. In addition to making available textbooks, supplementary readings, class handouts, administrative documents and other supporting materials, LEARN will host on-line support services for problem-solving, mentoring and peer support. LEARN, through its research partners, will explore and develop approaches to providing access to emerging document formats (e.g., multimedia textbooks on CD ROM, music notation, science and math), formats for which there are presently no satisfactory transcription methods. Thus, LEARN will create a virtual library, textbook store, resource centre and meeting place on the World Wide Web for students with print impairments. Through this service, LEARN will assist in creating a more equitable learning environment for all students by providing a transcription service which is streamlined, reliable and convenient. As students will be introduced to and begin using the service in the more supportive secondary school environment LEARN will also assist in the difficult transition from secondary to post-secondary education."" The intention of LEARN is to provide one point of contact for publishing companies who wish to add their materials to an electronic library. Publishers will be assured of the security of the system with the implementation of an application and professional identification process for students with disabilities, the provision of usernames and passwords, and the inability of the materials to be copied in their entirety.


This paper has provided the reader with some background information on the history and increased prevalence of online and computer-based forms of education. It has defined and described the components of online education, and the content of web-based courses. The benefits of assistive technology combine with online course materials and electronic libraries for learners with disabilities have been identified. Finally problems and gaps in the existing system of educating and providing accessible materials for students with special needs have been discussed, and solutions to these inadequacies have been suggested.

It is hoped that the content of this report has brought about the recognition that online and remote instruction, as well as web-based learning materials and resources not only make sense for people with disabilities and those who are closely associated with them. Many of the changes to the educational system that would result from the increased use of the Internet as an academic tool would benefit all students, and all individuals who wish to learn.

In order for the dream of accessible online education to be realized and implemented a commitment to increase awareness needs to occur. That is, educators, academic institutions, web designers, family members, developers of curriculum and educational software, disability service providers, publishing companies, and students with special needs must receive guidance about how to take full advantage of the technology that is available to them and the doors of opportunity that it opens for them.

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