2000 Conference Proceedings
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DISTANCE LEARNING AND STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES: EASY TIPS
Norman Coombs, Ph.D.
Chair of EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information)
Professor Emeritus, Rochester Institute of Technology
Website 1: http://www.rit.edu/~nrcgsh
Website 2: http://www.rit.edu/~easi
EASI Electronic Resource Manager
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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