2002 Conference Proceedings

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Beyond Access: Determining Accommodations for Students with Learning Disabilities in Distance Education

Manju Banerjee, M.A., M.S.
Loring Brinckerhoff, Ph.D.
Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic

Emerging trends in post-secondary education are changing how educational institutions operate and how students learn and function within these new environments. One trend which has already transformed educational thinking and continues to influence change, is Distance Education. We now have a new generation of college-age students who have grown up with technology, and for whom this is no longer a "---curiosity but an essential tool for daily life." ( The Virtual Campus- Transforming Education, 2001). Distance education meets the challenges of this new generation of technologically savvy students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Statistical Analysis Report, December 1999 (NCES Report), 33% of all 2-year and 4-year institutions of higher education offered one form or another of distance education to its student in 1995. This number jumped to 44% in 1997, with over 1.5 million students taking distance education courses. There is no doubt that the "virtual campus" is here to stay.

Distance education poses an interesting challenge to service providers of college students with learning disabilities (LD). The campus-based disability service office no longer exits for students taking distance education. Similarly, on-site reading-writing labs, tutorial/learning centers, and computers labs are not available, in the traditional sense, to students enrolled in these courses. While colleges have moved to meet the challenge of providing student services on-line, most of this initiative has focused on non-disability related services such as, admissions, college orientation, course registration, student affairs services and extra-curricular activities.. Attention from the disability services office on distance education has been on accessibility and whether content delivery is in a format that students with disabilities can retrieve and use. The question of accommodations for students with learning disabilities in distance education courses has largely been ignored.

Interestingly enough, distance education is not a new concept. Students have been learning while separated by time and space, through correspondences courses for decades. What is different in distance education today is "the immediacy with which it can occur and the types of interactions now possible over such great distances." (Parrish, D.M., & Wells Parrish, A., 2000). "Distance learning" is a generic term that describes an educational environment where the teacher and the learner/s are separated by physical distance and the delivery of instruction is mediated electronically. The United States Distance Learning Association, (1998), defines distance learning as ""the acquisition of knowledge and skills through mediated information and instruction, encompassing all technologies and other forms of learning at a distance"

The novelty in distance education is that it is not a replication of the traditional classroom experience in a different setting. Rather, it is a different learning prototype where space and time are learning continuums, and not discrete entities. It allows for choices in access to information, delivery of information, as well as, assessment of knowledge. Students can decide to access the information to be learned at their own time, and often on their location of convenience. Furthermore, since teaching and learning are based on a digital exchange of information, three options become possible, (i) information can be transformed from one format into another, (ii) information can be manipulate with significant ease and efficiency, and (iii) vast amounts of information can be assessed from a single site almost instantaneously. As a result, the process by which accommodations are identified and instituted, must be revised.

The purpose of this presentation is to review how distance education is different from traditional classroom based education in terms of its impact on students with learning disabilities (LD). How should traditional accommodations for learning disability and attention deficit disorder be adapted for the virtual classroom? Should students with LD be encouraged to take distance learning courses or not? Of particular concern for service providers is identifying, and arranging for accommodations when (i) the disability documentation contains little or no information on technical skills and competencies of the student, (ii) the course delivery is technologically mediated, (iii) student assessment is modified by technical parameters, and (iv) instruction and communication is technically diverse. The situation is further complicated by lack of clarity of legal mandates for accommodations in distance education courses.

Based on responses from a national survey of post-secondary service providers, this session will identify current practices that look beyond equity in access, to reasonableness in accommodations for students with learning disabilities in distance learning courses. It will also describe guidelines for identifying LD accommodations for a variety of technologically mediated courses.

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