2006 Conference General Sessions

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DISTANCE LEARNING: POLICIES AND PRACTICES THAT PROMOTE ACCESSIBLE DESIGN

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D.
Terry Thompson
AccessIT
University of Washington
Box 355670
Seattle, WA 98195
206-543-0622
sherylb@red.cac.washington.edu

The widespread availability of the Internet has led to an explosion of distance learning (or, e-learning, online learning) offerings worldwide. Although some claim online learning will bring education to anyone anywhere at anytime, this goal cannot be realized unless distance learning programs offer courses that are accessible to all potential students, including those with disabilities.

Although specific technical issues must be addressed to make a specific distance learning course accessible to students and instructors with disabilities, system-wide and less technical policy and practice issues need to be addressed as well. A study, in collaboration with postsecondary institutions nationwide, was undertaken to explore program policies and practices related to making distance learning courses accessible to qualified students and instructors with disabilities. The research questions were:
1) What are program-level policies and practices related to delivering courses that are fully accessible to students with disabilities and what are examples of each?
2) What activities might be undertaken to promote greater accessibility of distance learning courses?
A literature review was conducted and the following steps were employed in this exploratory research:
1) Build a draft list of accessibility indicators based on the literature review and prior work,
2) Collect input and examples from distance learning programs to further refine items on the list,
3) Apply the indicators to one distance learning program as a case study, and
4) Summarize results and recommend further research.
Ten indicators of accessibility of distance learning programs were developed. They address the following issues for four stakeholders:
1) Students and potential students: Distance learning programs committed to accessibility assure that students and potential students know of the programs' commitment to accessible design, how to report inaccessible design features they discover, how to request accommodations, and how to obtain alternate formats of printed materials; the distance learning home page is accessible and all online and other course materials of distance learning courses are accessible to individuals with disabilities.
2) Distance learning designers: Distance learning programs that are committed to accessibility assure that course designers understand the program's commitment to accessibility, have access to guidelines and resources; and learn about accessibility in training provided to course designers.
3) Distance learning instructors: In distance learning programs committed to accessibility, publications and Web pages for distance learning instructors include a statement of the distance learning program's commitment to accessibility, guidelines regarding accessibility, and resources; and training for instructors includes accessibility content.
4) Distance learning program evaluators: Distance learning programs committed to accessibility have systems in place to monitor accessibility efforts and make adjustments based on evaluation results.
Results of this exploratory study suggest that incorporating accessibility considerations in policies, procedures, and communications of a program:
* requires efforts related to students, course designers, instructors, and evaluators;
* progresses more quickly with an individual champion of the cause;
* requires approval and implementation at a variety of levels;
* becomes easier once some initial accessibility policies, procedures and communications have been implemented; and
* is an ongoing process that may be implemented in incremental steps.

The ten indicators developed in this study and examples of their applications in distance learning courses nationwide will be presented in this talk. Time will be allowed for discussion, resources will be presented, and useful handouts will be provided.

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