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Resource Room Home > Older Students>Distance Education and Accommodations for Students with Learning Disabilities

Distance Education and Accommodations for Students with learning disabilities: implications for postsecondary service providers


by Manju Banerjee

Reprinted with permission from the International Dyslexia Association quarterly newsletter, Perspectives, Spring, 2002, vol. 28, no. 2, pages 30-34. This issue of Perspectives features many excellent articles about postsecondary education and learning disabilities. The IDA website is

Recent trends in postsecondary education attest to an explosion in distance education course offerings by colleges and universities. Although not a new concept, distance education in its present form is a phenomenon where technological innovations have surpassed educational policies and practices regarding students with disabilities, particularly students with learning disabilities. Yet the push towards more distance education courses is on-going. Increasing demand for distance education is evidenced by the growth in number of postsecondary institutions offering such courses. Between 1995 and 1997 the number of distance education courses offered by two-year and four-year colleges grew from 33% to 44% (NCES report, 1999). It is predicted that in 2002, 2.2 million students will be enrolled in distance education courses, and 85% of two and four year colleges will offer distance education courses along with their menu of traditional courses (Massey- Garret, Shumaker, Brown & Smith, 2000).

The popularity of distance education as we know it today started with the proliferation of personal computers into homes and schools in the 1970s, and the advent of the Internet into the public domain. Many institutions felt that distance education courses were a cost effective way to attract non-traditional students and students from remote areas, who because of geographic barriers would otherwise be unable to access college courses (Sherron & Boettcher as cited in Denton, 2001; Noon, 1996). Students with disabilities were attracted by the possibilities of universal access inherent in a technology mediated environment. Burgstahier (1995) states that, "People equipped with appropriate technology, including individuals with disabilities, can gain access to unlimited opportunities for interaction and learning without leaving their homes or offices." (p.l). Although, data that describes the distribution of students by disability category in distance education courses is not readily available, it can be assumed that increasing numbers of students with disabilities, including students with learning disabilities, are considering the distance education option.

This article explores the hypothesis that learning demands in distance education courses are different from traditional classroom courses, and that students need to adjust to alternate ways of accessing and processing information for distance education. It is yet to be determined whether distance education presents more possibilities or pitfalls for students with learning disabilities; however, it is clear that traditional notions of learning disability accommodations need re-thinking. The specific issues discussed here include:

a. Is the process of determining accommodations for students with learning disabilities in distance education courses different from traditional courses?

b. In what ways are traditional accommodations altered, or made unnecessary, by the technology of distance education?

Defining Distance Education

Although the term distance education is often used as a single concept, in reality it is an umbrella term that describes a continuum of technologically mediated environments. Distance education courses can be categorized broadly into three instructional models: traditional, transitional, and distance (Keegan, 1996). In the traditional model (also known as Internet-supported courses), all of the features of a campus-based course, such as fixed meeting times and places and traditional classroom instruction, are maintained. The Internet is used only as an additional resource for students. Such a model may use electronic mail, listservs, newsgroups, or bulletin board services to supplement information and instruction. Other more passive forms of course delivery used in such a model include I audio tapes, slides, videos, instructional radio and TV.

The transitional model (also known as Internet-based courses) maintains many traditional elements such as fixed meeting times and places, but classes are typically conducted in classrooms that are entirely computerized. Many more Intemet-based sources of information are used during :lass time, and the Internet is incorporated not only as a supplemental resource, but, in alternate delivery mode for instruction and collaboration. Specifically, this means students have access to the syllabus and other instructional materials, class notes, and directions for assignments online. In many instances, such a delivery model requires students to frequently check into a listserv and collaborate with each other through synchronous conferencing software.

The purest form of the distance education model (also known as fully Internet-based courses) is completely free of time and space. Instruction is often self-paced and individualized, and delivered through a hybrid of technologies including the Internet and the world wide we. Students

participate from different locations and at different times, making interaction with the instructor and other "classmates" either synchronous or asynchronous.

This article will focus primarily on Internet-based online courses since the majority of postsecondary institutions (58%) offer online, asynchronous, computer-based instruction, making that technology the most commonly employed in distance education (NCES report, 1999).

Learning Demands in Distance Education Courses

Some researchers see technology in distance education as merely a repository or a medium for transmitting information, while others see technology as the centerpiece of the paradigm shift in teaching and learning at a distance (Schrum, 2000; Cobb, 1997). The latter view suggests that students in distance education courses need to adjust to new ways of accessing information, of participating in learning activities (such as .class discussions), and demonstrating performance on technology mediated assessment measures.

The primary distinctions between distance education courses and traditional classroom based courses are: a) an educational environment where the teacher and the learner(s) are separated by physical distance, at least during some duration of the instructional process; b) an electronically mediated delivery of instruction, often through satellite, video and/or audio transmission, computer technology and/or multimedia, and c) instruction occurs either synchronously, i.e., in real time, or asynchronously, i.e., not necessarily at the moment of delivery (University of Idaho, Engineering Outreach, 2001).

Virtual Learning Community

Online distance education creates a virtual learning community where face-to- face contact with classmates and faculty member(s) is either limited or non-existent. Interactions between members of the virtual community are through e- mails, postings on list serve and bulletin boards, all of which are primarily written communication. For students who are better at expressing themselves orally, this is an adjustment. Frequency of feedback in a virtual learning community is greater than classroom based interactions because exchanges are not restricted by time and space. Students have to learn to manage this increased flow of electronic messaging. Siegle (2002) reports that the optimal number of students in a virtual classroom is 8-12 students. More students than this makes it difficult to manage, while fewer students is not conducive to meaningful dialogue. Students also have to develop an understanding of the "etiquette" inherent in electronic messages. Unless faculty members provide specific guidelines for communication in a virtual environment, many students, particularly students with learning disabilities, may find this to be frustrating. An oft cited example, is expecting e-mail inquiries to be answered instantaneously.

Interestingly, the belief that one is completely anonymous in a virtual learning environment is quickly exposed when students have to share all relevant communication in written form. Students have to learn to be comfortable exchanging personal information in writing, knowing that this becomes a documented record for the entire class to see (Illinois Online Network, 2002). Most importantly, students have to learn to actively post questions and inquiries in the appropriate dialogue box because without non-verbal cues and other tacit communications, faculty are unable to react to those students who may be feeling lost or overwhelmed.

Medium of Delivery

In delivering distance education courses, most institutions choose from a menu of delivery technologies that are used in varying combinations (Boaz et al., 1999). The categories of instructional delivery include: a) video technologies such as, video tapes, satellite video conferencing, microwave video conferencing, cable and

Students in distance

education courses need to

adjust to new ways of

accessing information,

participating in learning

activities and demonstrating



broadcast television, and Internet video conferencing; b) audio technologies, such as-- voice mail, audio tapes, and audio conferencing; c) print technologies, such as-- required textbooks, print manuscripts and journal articles, and d) computer technologies, such as-- e-mail, Internet and chat conferencing online, and web-based communications (Florida Center for Instructional Technologies Report, 1999). It is essential that students learn to integrate and access information from traditional and non-traditional sources.

More often than not, institutions use commercial course authoring packages such as WebCT, Blackboard and Convene. com. for Internet based courses. These are software packages with design templates for course instruction, student assessment, communication, and content delivery (Mehrotra , Hollister & McGahey, 2001). In order to communicate efficiently in a distance education environment, students must have a working knowledge of basic technologies such as word processing on MAC and/or PC platforms including dial-in procedures, familiarity with online tools such as FTP Telnet, e- mail and web browsers, digital library searches, download routines and the operating software for these systems. As Martin (1997) points out, very often, there is no equivalent to an "English 101" course that teaches students these technical prerequisites. Knowing how to maneuver and access digital information is an essential learning skill in distance education courses.

Digitalization of information

The medium of delivery in online distance education courses uses digital exchange of information. Digitalization changes information in three significant ways: First, digital information can be easily transformed from one format into another. For example, pages from a book can be scanned using optical character recognition (OCR) software and a scanner for viewing on a computer screen. Then, using speech support software, students can listen to the information in audio form while reading it off the screen. Second, digital information can be manipulated with great ease and efficiency. Digital technology makes it possible to integrate sound, graphics, and images into written text (Trindade, Carmo & Biddara, 2000). Information can be displayed in varying print sizes, fonts, backgrounds, colors, and on-screen viewing areas. Discussion group interactions can be recorded as scripted dialogues (e.g., script from net thread conversations or chats) that a student can access at any time. In a fully Internet integrated distance education course, it is not necessary to take class-notes. Finally, vast amounts of information can be accessed from a single site almost instantaneously. Most college libraries now have electronic databases that students can access from remote sites.

Students need to know ways to capitalize on the options made possible by digitalization of information. Specifically, this means students have to learn how to follow multi-step directions, be able to integrate and synthesize information that is available in several different formats (print, video, electronic), know ways to navigate the vast information sources of the Internet, and learn study skills that are specific to working with digital information. For students with learning disabilities this may mean a longer learning curve than other students.

Asynchronous and
Synchronous Learning

Another feature of distance education courses that requires students to rethink traditional ways of information processing, is asynchronous and synchronous learning. Asynchronous learning networks (ALNs) use computer conferencing software and a modem or network connections to facilitate multiple interactions between several participants. An advantage of asynchronous learning is that it removes the pressure of instant information processing, and affords students additional time to read and review the information before responding to class discussions. ALNs interactions are not serial, but follow a "discursive" (Laurillard, 1993) pattern where "messages on one or many topics may be received and read in any order, and it is up to the interactants to piece together, the meaning of these non-sequential messages." (Winiecki & Chyung, 1998. p. 452.) The course of ALN discussions can follow a very circuitous path depending how it is-or is not-moderated. Smith & Dillon (1999) cite the ability to interface seamlessly with several sources of information to be both an advantage and a source of confusion for some learners.

Synchronous or real time learning requires yet another skill set. Students have to be able to follow and participate in a dialogue that is occurring at the pace of oral conversation, but presented in written format. Siegle et al.(2002) point out that while synchronous chat conversations offer the promise of greater interactivity, they are difficult to manage especially if five or more students are "talking" at the same time. The difficulty is that questions and responses do not follow an orderly sequence, but appear at the rate at which they are posted by different participants.

Determining Learning Disability Accommodations in Distance Education Courses

While it is evident that student participation in the learning process is altered by specific elements of online courses, the impact of distance education on traditional accommodations is still being explored. The virtual learning environment calls for a rethinking of traditional approaches to identifying accommodations for students with learning disabilities. Best alternatives are yet to be identified, but general considerations in determining accommodations for distance education courses can be recognized.

First, conventional sources of student information have reduced usefulness or become untenable in such environments. Currently, documentation of a disability contains little or no recommendations for accommodating students with LD in distance education courses. Lack of awareness of the technological and learning demands of different distance education models make it difficult for evaluators to comment on reasonable accommodations for distance education. More often than not, there is no record and no past history of such accommodations to draw upon.

An intake interview with the student is typically used by service providers to complete the profile of strengths and weaknesses identified through the disability documentation. In distance education settings, on-site student interviews have to be discarded in lieu of virtual arrangements. Phone intakes are used as an alternative. Many course web sites post self-scoring student surveys which can be used as intake information to gauge the level of students' preparedness for the course, and other accommodations that may be necessary. One such survey used by Lesley University for its on-line courses asks students to report on their skill readiness, technical readiness and disposition readiness for the course.

Second, additional attributes now become a part of the accommodation determination formula. These include instructional design and delivery technologies, new role of faculty, dynamic nature of course content, and existence or lack of a technical facilitator. Figure 1 describes the various influences that need to be considered in determining student accommodations in distance education courses.

Instructional design influences accommodation decisions by establishing the channels of interaction and communication within the course, as well as the degree of accessibility of information, and the options for technical adaptations. Also, faculty members are no longer the sole purveyors of information, but take on the role of coach or facilitator. This shift toward a more student-centric learning environment suggests increased student involvement in the learning process, and therefore, the need for accommodations that facilitate this move.

Another consideration is characteristics of course content. In distance education, course content is dynamic and is defined by its own technical parameters (Robertson, 1999). For instance, if the content requires delivery of high resolution visual images, then the technology needed to transmit, display, and access such images has to be incorporated into the design of the system. Service providers need to have a basic understanding of the characteristics of course content to be able to identify appropriate accommodations for such courses.

In determining accommodations for distance education courses, a key ingredient is the need for partnerships and collaboration between various members of the distance education team before the course design is established. This includes the technical facilitator. The technical facilitator coordinates the various technical elements of the instructional design of the course, ensures that the course is accessible, and is available to problem solve when equipment and other technical difficulties arise. From the perspective of the service provider, the technical facilitator is the person who can best describe the technological capabilities (limits) of the system, and the feasibility of technical adaptations to incorporate specific accommodations. One example is video taping of a live transmission so that a student at an off-campus site has the opportunity to view the course content over again, if necessary. The overall implication is that identifying reasonable accommodations and ensuring universal access is a campus-wide responsibility with many players, and not the sole liability of the disability services office.

Differences in Traditional and Distance Education Accommodations

New influences on the process by which accommodations are determined in distance education also extend to specifics of the accommodations themselves. Certain traditional learning disability accommodations become obsolete, and others have to be modified.

Certain traditional learning
disability accommodations
become obsolete, and others
have to be modified.  

In campus-based courses, the focus is on classroom accommodations such as a note-taker, preferential seating and readers. In , distance education courses the, accommodation emphasis is on alternatives to course delivery and adaptations to the mode of communication. For example, students with LD may need accommodations to participate in synchronous chat room exchanges.

Test accommodations such as extended time and tests in alternate formats are commonly requested accommodations in traditional courses. Typically, students are granted time-and-a-half or double time for tests spanning 30 minutes to a couple of hours of test time. In many distance education models, the test format used is group and individual projects, essays, and portfolio assessments, all of which are completed in asynchronous time. The extended time rule of thumb of traditional courses not does translate adequately for such an environment, especially when extended time may be necessary not just to compensate for the disability, but for technical hurdles and barriers faced by the student. Guidelines have yet to be developed regarding what constitutes an appropriate extended time accommodation for asynchronous tests accessed and submitted online.

Another broad category of traditional accommodations is technical aids such as calculator, spell checker, portable word processor, and audio tapes. Many of these accommodations become irrelevant in a technology mediated environment where these aids are no longer external adjustments that need to be added, but become an integral part of the course design.

The following is a list of suggested accommodations and strategies for students with learning disabilities in distance education courses:

  • Availability of selected course content on CD, diskette, videotape or audiotape, in addition to online delivery.

  • Adjustments to communication guidelines for email, bulletin board, and chat room discussions.

  • Additional contact with on-site technical support for problem solving and trouble-shooting.

  • Contact with faculty via phone rather than through synchronous electronic office hours.

  • Opportunity to participate in pre- course training session on how to use the technical medium and related equipment.

  • Reduction in "environment duress" factors at remote sites, such as having camera too close to face or having to operate "push-to-talk" microphones in communicating.

The distance education phenomenon is continuing to change the postsecondary landscape. While colleges and universities have moved quickly to meet the challenge of providing online student services, 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 primarily been on accessibility of course materials and technical compatibilities. The question of accommodations for students with learning disabilities in distance education courses has largely been ignored. Distance education poses an interesting challenge to service providers of college students with LD because there is no single model of distance education. Most importantly, research on ways students learn and access information in technology mediated environments is lacking. In the interim, there is clearly a need to rethink learning disability accommodations, particularly new ways to identify accommodations and determine the appropriateness of traditional accommodations in a virtual environment. The long term view however, suggests that the concept of accommodations, as an externally manipulated attribute, may become unnecessary in a technology mediated environment where options for multiple modes of access and multiple options for demonstrating student competencies are integral to the educational environment.

That issue of Perspectives also includes:
Effective Transition Planning Through Student Empowerment (Pages 8-10),
Transition to College: Practice Doesn't Always Make Perfect (pages 11-14),
Building the Bridge Between Community College and Work for Students with LD (Pages 16-20)
Customizing Technology Solutions for College Students With LD (Pages 24-26)
Universal Design for Instruction: A Promising New Paradigm for Higher Education (Pages 27-29),
Medical Students at Risk: Multidisciplinary Approach to Service Delivery (pages 35-38), and
How Do You Improve and Grow Your Program When There Is a Line of Students at Your Door? (pages 39-41)



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Manju Banerjee, M.A., M.S. is a research and education consultant with Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D). Prior to this she was Director of Disability Services and an adjunct faculty member at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. Her areas of specialization are educational research, technology enhanced learning strategies, and ADA accommodations at the postsecondary level.



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