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Education and Accommodations for Students with Learning
Distance Education and Accommodations for Students with
learning disabilities: implications for postsecondary service
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 http://www.interdys.org.
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
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
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
education courses need to
adjust to new ways of
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Transition to College: Practice Doesn't Always Make Perfect
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.