2000 Conference Proceedings

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DISTANCE LEARNING AND STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES: EASY TIPS FOR TEACHERS

Norman Coombs, Ph.D.
Chair of EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information)
Professor Emeritus, Rochester Institute of Technology
Email: nrcgsh@rit.edu 
Website 1: http://www.rit.edu/~nrcgsh 
Website 2: http://www.rit.edu/~easi 

Richard Banks
EASI Electronic Resource Manager
Website: http://www.rit.edu/~easi/banks.html

Distance learning has become a popular topic on college campuses in recent years. It frequently spawns heated debates between advocates and adversaries. Because it relies on modern technology, distance learning is an important educational feature for students with disabilities. If the distance learning technologies are used in ways to promote accessibility by this population, it can create a more level playing field. If, to the contrary, the technologies are used with no concern for these learners, distance learning can needlessly throw up new barriers to their education.

This presentation will look at the diverse nature of distance learning technologies, look at the possible barriers they pose for different disability groups, and point to ways to use distance learning to transcend the problems provided by both distances and disabilities.

Even the term 'distance learning' is a questionable term. Significant numbers of students who take such classes live in driving distance of the campus with which they are connected. Sometimes students who live on campus take some courses from the distance learning department. Other students may live half-way around the world. Even more, these technologies are being used as one component of some on-campus courses. One favorite term to replace 'distance learning' is 'distributed learning'. Personally, I find this more confusing. If I had to pick a new term, I'd vote for 'technologically-mediated learning'.

Teaching, whether face-to-face or at a distance, is communication, and we are essentially talking about special barriers to communication. Clear communication is essential to good teaching, and clear communication is the most important factor in opening learning to students with disabilities. Even without dealing with special communication problems of special students, clear communication overcomes all kinds of barriers. Below are sixteen points for teachers to better teach students with disabilities. Several of them are actually tips for good communication using distance learning technologies and are not disability--related.

It's about people and not technology

When a teacher moves from the classroom to delivering content through technology, there is a temptation to focus on the technology. Obviously, the teacher has to know something about the technology to use it effectively. The danger is to lean on the technology and to want to show off its potential and to lose sight of the fact that it is the means to an end and not the end in itself. The point isn't to use technology well; the point is to teach students well. Yes, using the technology helps, but the focus must stay on the student. In my more than fifteen years of teaching at a distance, the times my courses have stumbled or failed was when I lost sight of the students.

Technology, no matter how wonderful, cannot do the job itself. It depends on the user for its effectiveness even more than the user depends on the technology. In teaching, we use technology to enhance our teaching, but the goal is always about people and not about technology.

Do NOT replicate the classroom

When teachers first take the plunge into distance learning, they feel most secure replicating what they do in the classroom. This is understandable. However, if you think about it, teachers use the classroom in different ways. If I walk into a small room with a dozen students, I will teach differently than if I walk into a large lecture hall with theater seating and some 300 students staring down at me. The setting makes a difference in how I teach. Similarly, teaching at a distance requires adapting the presentation to the setting. If you have one-way video, you will teach more like a large lecture hall. If you are using computer conferencing, you have a technology that facilitates interaction, and you will want to take advantage of it.

There is another reason not to automatically replicate the classroom. Doing that assumes that classroom teaching is an ideal to be copied. Classrooms are frequently boring; the teaching can be opaque and sometimes not all that good.

Be a virtual host

When students walk into a classroom, they see you at the front of the room. You need to project some presence in "virtual space". They also don't know what to expect, and you need to make the feel welcomed. Virtual space is mostly shapeless. A classroom or your living room has a shape, has furniture and projects an atmosphere. In a classroom, the arrangement of desks makes a statement about how social relations will take place. I have a colleague whose office is arranged so when you walk in the door, you are faced with his desk and him sitting on its opposite side. Another friend has his desk facing the wall and his chair and yours have you sitting knee to knee. These two offices make power and status statements. Think about how to make a virtual setting that creates the atmosphere you want to project.

4. Be interactive

The uniqueness of the internet is the potential for EASI, rapid interactions between people. Make the most of it. Many teachers report having more interactions with students over the internet than in the classroom. Granted, putting a non-interactive teacher on a computer won't make him interactive, but you need to exploit the strengths of the technology.

5. Keep it simple (KISS)

Because you are not REALLY present, the message needs to be made as clear as possible. Interaction is easy but not immediate. If students misunderstand something, you and they may take time till you realize it. The more you think through the possible ways a statement can be interpreted and try to make it very clear, the more you can avoid needless confusion and frustration.

6. Modularize

Break your material into small units with good opportunities for interaction after each. If you have a study unit covering many topics, the student response may also cover many topics. It can be confusing carrying on a discussion that ranges over several topics simultaneously. If you present small topics, then discussion is more likely to be focused.

7. Beware of techies

Don't get seduced by technology, and teach your students ONLY as much technology is needed. Do not let a techie try to teach ALL the features of the software. I don't want to bash technologists; I have even been accused of becoming one! The technology person will want to teach your students all the features of the software. The students will be overwhelmed. Supposedly, 20 percent of the software commands are used 80 percent of the time, and 80 percent used only 20 percent of the time. You know what the students need for interacting with you. If you don't write the manual, you need to be in charge of what it covers.

8. Remember e-mail

E-mail is still the best and most simple and most universal interactive tool on the Internet. When you hear commercials on television, you hear about checking out the company at "www" this and "www that. Rarely do they provide the company e-mail address. The truth is that most people still use e-mail the most. The web tends to be a means of browsing information. E-mail brings people together.

9. Design for universal access

Design your materials to meet a wide variety of learning styles including meeting the needs of students with disabilities. If you design your materials for students with disabilities, it will provide unexpected benefits. This is frequently called "electronic curbcuts." Sidewalk curbcuts were designed for wheelchair users, but they are used mostly by mothers with strollers, people on bikes and kids on skateboards. The design features you will use to help students with disabilities will make the materials more useful for people with different learning styles.

10. Understand the problems of students with disabilities

If you understand the difficulties that exist for students who are blind, low vision, deaf/hard-of-hearing, motor impaired or learning disabled in accessing your distance technologies such as audio, video or computer-based delivery, then you can have the background to design to better accommodate them. Merely learning a list of tips to do or items to avoid is not enough. Try to grasp the way your materials is being accessed by these students.

Video, for example, creates one set of problems for students who are deaf and a different set for those who are blind. Deaf students need captioning to give them access to what is being spoken. The blind will not see any visuals you use. Perhaps if the video is primarily your "talking head", they may not miss much. If you are showing charts, maps or other objects, they will need help. Sometimes the teacher can provide a verbalization as part of the teaching that is adequate. Other times, you may need to add an audio description of certain items. Students with low vision and with learning disabilities will have trouble if you have a lot of confusing visual material showing at once. Motor impaired students will probably not have problems.

A class provided over the web will require providing web pages that are accessible. The World Wide Web Consortium Web Access Initiative has developed guidelines to help designing accessible web pages. EASI and others provide training that includes these guidelines: http://www.rit.edu 

11. Make it a team project

Enlist the student with a disability in a team project to find mechanisms to transcend special learning barriers. Frequently we use "experts" to fix people's problems. People with disabilities are used to being patronized and treated as objects. If you enlist them in solving communication problems, you may be surprised at their insights. It's better to have them on your sides than to have them as adversaries. Also enlist other faculty and staff from departments such as information technology and disabled student services. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a campus-wide team to adequately meet the technology needs of students with disabilities.

12. Provide redundant communication modes

Where possible use both audio/text and graphics/text to accommodate both visual and auditory learners. Modern technology makes it easier than ever before to provide much content in both visual and auditory sensory modes. Not only does this make a communication to include both the blind and the deaf, dual sensory communication increases the learning level of all students.

13. Understand adaptive technologies

Students with disabilities frequently use special technology to access information. Learn how this may effect their perception of your content. You do not have to understand screen reading software or voice recognition software in more than a superficial way. Knowing something about major features of these products will help you in understanding the problems and solutions for these students.

14. Special problems

Some information--technological information, math and science--do not lend themselves well to electronic communication and may require providing hard copy. This is often true when provided for blind students. Have a plan for how to provide Braille and tactile graphs and drawings if required. Some schools will have the ability to have their own on-campus production facilities for these materials. Others may need to outsource the project. However, you need to have a system in place before the student appears in your class.

15. Be accessible

Students with disabilities often fear rejection by a professor when requesting special help. Convey the message you will help. I frequently have a note at the bottom of my syllabus directed to students who are deaf because our campus has so many of them. In some way let students know that you will not embarrass them if they talk to you about their problems. You should also make it clear that you may give special help but will not lower standards.

16. Set boundaries

Some students with disabilities may try to exploit you. Remember you are the teacher and not a social worker. You may feel sorry for some students, but your job is to teach your subject matter and to prepare them to function in a competitive employment situation. Some may try to appeal to your sympathy, but pity does not meet any of their real needs. Along with being a host and accessible, you need to know how and where to draw a boundary and stick to it.

Conclusion Teachers who have had students with disabilities in their classes have frequently faced it with skepticism. Frequently, they can't understand how someone without all their abilities can learn something. They believe the student must learn and function just as they do. They also report that the learn that many students with disabilities use different learning and study techniques to assimilate the information. They discover that different people really do learn differently.

One teacher said that when he taught blind students, his main accommodation was to keep his hands in his pocket so he could not point at the board and had to verbalize everything. Instead of point to 'this' and 'that', he read the material out loud. Non-disabled students at the back confessed that they had not always seen what he had been pointing at. Accommodations sometimes are simple.

Teachers say that their having to learn to transcend special communication barriers to teach students with disabilities resulted in their improving their communication skills. Learning better communication skills, they report, made them better teachers.


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