2003 Conference Proceedings

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Caren L. Sax, Ed.D.
San Diego State University Interwork Institute
3590 Camino del Rio North
San Diego, CA 92108
Phone: 619-594-7183
Email: csax@mail.sdsu.edu

Shalamon Duke, M.S.
Mira Costa Community College
One Barnard Drive, Student Services Building, Room #3009
Oceanside, CA 92056
Phone: (760) 757-2121 ext. 6208
Email: sduke@yar.miracosta.cc.ca.us

As distance education becomes a more viable option for today's traditional and non-traditional students, it is imperative that teachers and learners understand how to match the message with the medium. Many learners are unfamiliar with how to evaluate options for distance education and many instructors may not understand how to take best advantage of teaching via the Internet. This paper offers guidelines for learners to assess distance education options and offers strategies for instructors to use a variety of approaches when teaching "virtual" students.

First, distance education is packaged in many different ways. It may be a self-paced course in which students read information online, complete and submit assigned activities, and continue working through modules or other segments at their own pace. This type of course may be offered for no credit, continuing education credit, or academic credit toward attaining a degree. These are often compared to the traditional correspondence courses, as there is no interaction with other students and, typically, limited interaction with the instructor except for specific feedback on an assignment. This can be very effective for learning about a specific topic for personal development or earning credits required for maintaining a license or credential, e.g., CRC (Certified Rehabilitation Counselor), ATP (Assistive Technology Practitioner). Instructors can be more creative in offering online courses than were once available by snail mail correspondence through the use of techniques such as streaming audio or video. They can also incorporate a variety of software tools including webforms and document uploading options to make it easier for students to submit their work.

Another format offered by distance is a college or university-sponsored course run for a specific time period to a group of students who enroll as they would in a traditional course. To be most effective, these courses should provide opportunities for students to interact with each other as well as with the instructor. Students may interact in real time (synchronous) or at their convenience (asynchronous), depending on the geographical diversity of the students. If students live across more than one or two time zones, synchronous interaction becomes very challenging. Using asynchronous discussion boards instead of real time chat rooms are a better option for students who need the flexibility of learning on their own schedules. Chat rooms can provide a useful option for students who are planning projects together or who would like to have a quick discussion about a specific topic, as long as they live in the same (or close) time zones. Instructors must take these parameters into consideration as they plan for student interaction.

Teachers can use the discussion board format as a forum for students to react to specific questions, activities, or required reading materials. They can arrange for students to interact with guest "speakers" who facilitate a discussion for a specified time period. Experts in a given field may provide a web-lecture, present a slide show with streaming audio, or film a video clip to demonstrate a piece of equipment or a specific strategy. This is an effective way to provide access to professionals that students would not otherwise be likely to meet. These discussions can be used as a follow-up to an activity that students have completed on their own. For example, in one distance course on assistive technology, students are required to complete an ADA accessibility survey in a local business. After completing the survey, they submitted a webform giving information about results and recommendations. As a follow-up, they had access to one of the leading experts in universal design for a week on their discussion board. Students had a much clearer idea of the concept and importance of universal design after this series of related activities.

Another important consideration for teachers and learners is the issue of learning styles. Some programs offer a quick quiz to help students identify their best learning style and also to determine if distance education is a good match with that learning mode. For example, learning by distance can be challenging for students who are more comfortable with speaking than writing. On the other hand, for students who are uncomfortable offering their opinions in a large group, expressing themselves via email or on a discussion board enables them to write their opinions, think about and further edit them before hitting the "send" button. As a result, discussions by distance are often more thoughtful than face-to-face discussions and require the participation of all students. Instructors can take advantage of the multiple modes available to present information, making the information accessible to all students, regardless of learning preference or an identified disability. Information should be presented in multiple and redundant modes, using visual and auditory strategies.

General accessibility standards must be followed so that students accessing their computers with screen readers or other alternate access strategies will not be at a disadvantage. Distance education can be for everyone and courses should be designed with accessibility in mind. Though most courses are hosted through Course Management Systems (e.g., Blackboard, Web CT, Etudes), there are still a variety of ways to make materials more accessible via HTML, PDF formatting, and captioning digital media. Most courses list the recommended computer configuration, that is, the minimum requirements for participation. It can be extremely frustrating for students to access a website if they are using a very slow modem connection. At least a 56.6 Modem or better is recommended, along with access for email, Internet/web browser, and course specific plug-ins. Improving the accessibility of a course improves the usability for all learners.

Finally, the opportunity to apply theory to practice must be incorporated into distance education. Research on distance education is still relatively new but much of it indicates that it can be equal to or even better in some cases, than traditional face-to-face education (Berge, 1998; Dringus & Terrell, 1999; Eldredge, McNamara, Stensrud, Gilbride, Hendren, Siegfried, & McFarlane, 1999; Smart, 1999). Questionnaires completed by students who enrolled in one graduate course on assistive technology suggested that they continued to apply what they learned in the course to their jobs as well as continuing to use the resources offered in the course. Activities that were designed to build on their knowledge and expertise while offering them new strategies and skills were best received. Students indicated that they learned to think about their job responsibilities in a new way and that the reflection on their work as required by the course assignments helped to make them more effective professionals when dealing with assistive technology assessments and referrals (Sax & Duke, 2002).

Distance education may not be for everyone; however, identifying effective teaching and learning is necessary to ensure that the quality of online education is held to high standards. Students and instructors using distance education are learning new ways of sharing and discussing information, offering resources, and integrating knowledge in creative approaches. All that limits us is our imagination.


Berge, Z. (1998). Conceptual frameworks in distance training and education. In D. A. Schreiber & Z. L. Berge (Eds.), Distance training: How innovative organizations are using technology to maximize learning and meet business objectives (pp. 19-36). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dringus, L. P., & Terrell, S. (1999). The framework for DIRECTED online learning environments. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(1), 55-67.

Eldredge, G. M., McNamara, S., Stensrud, R., Gilbride, D., Hendren, G., Siegfried, T., & McFarlane, F. (1999). Distance education: A look at five programs. Rehabilitation Education, 13, 231-248.

Sax, C., & Duke, S. (2002). Integration of AT education by rehabilitation professionals. Proceedings of the RESNA 2002 Annual Conference.

Smart, J. (1999). Issues in rehabilitation distance education. Rehabilitation Education, 13, 187-206.Education, 13, 231-248.

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