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Distance Learning

By Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.
Case Study | FAQ | Resources
(Adapted from the publications Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone and Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning )

Increasing access to more students is often a reason given for providing instruction in a distance learning format. However, these "access" arguments usually focus on people separated by distance and time and rarely include consideration of students with disabilities.

Assuring that individuals with disabilities can participate in distance learning courses can be argued on ethical grounds. Some simply consider it to be the right thing to do. Others are more responsive to legal mandates. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 requires that people with disabilities have equal access to public programs and services. According to this law, no otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities shall, solely by reason of their disabilities, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in these programs. Besides elevators in buildings, reserved spaces in parking lots, and lifts on buses, the ADA accessibility requirements also apply to Internet-based programs. As the United States Department of Justice clarified, "Covered entities that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means as well." Specifically, if a qualified person with a disability enrolls in a distance learning course offered via the Internet, the course must be made available to him.

But, what is required to assure that a distance learning class taught over the Internet complies with the ADA? The following paragraphs discuss access issues and present design guidelines for assuring that a distance learning course is accessible to potential instructors and students with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. The field of universal design provides a framework for this discussion.

Access Challenges for People with Disabilities
The rapid development of adaptive technology makes it possible for almost anyone to access computing resources. Adaptive technology includes special hardware and software that allow individuals with a wide range of skills to make productive use of computers. Described below are examples of access challenges faced by students and instructors in typical distance learning courses.

Visual Impairments
A student or instructor who is blind may use a computer equipped with text-to-speech software and a speech synthesizer. Basically, this system reads with a synthesized voice whatever text appears on the screen. He may use a text-only browser to navigate the World Wide Web or simply turn off the graphics-loading feature of a multi-media Web browser. He cannot interpret graphics unless text alternatives are provided. For example, his speech system will simply say "image map" at the place where an image map would be displayed to someone using a multimedia Web browser. Printed materials, videotapes, and other visual materials also create access challenges for him.

A student who has limited vision can use special software to enlarge screen images. He may view only a small portion of a web page at a time. Consequently, he is confused when web pages are cluttered and when page layout changes from page to page. Standard printed materials may also be inaccessible to him.

Specific Learning Disabilities
Some specific learning disabilities impact the ability to read, write and process information. Students with learning disabilities often use audiotaped books. For some, speech output or screen enlargement systems similar to those used by people with visual impairments help them read text. People with learning disabilities often have difficulty understanding web sites when the information is cluttered and when the screen layout changes from one page to the next.

Mobility Impairments
Students with a wide range of mobility impairments may enroll in a distance learning course. Some have no functional hand use at all. They use alternative keyboards, speech input, and other input devices that provide access to all of the Internet-based course materials and navigational tools. Some options use keyboard commands to replace mouse functions and thus cannot fully operate software that requires the use of the mouse. Some students with mobility impairments do not have the fine motor skills required to select small buttons on the screen. Those whose input method is slow cannot effectively participate in real-time "chat" communications.

Hearing Impairments
Most Internet resources are accessible to people with hearing impairments because they do not require the ability to hear. However, when web sites include audio output without providing text captioning or transcription, this group of students is denied access to the information. Course videotapes that are not captioned are also inaccessible to individuals who are deaf. Deaf students also cannot participate in teleconferencing sessions that might be part of a distance learning course.

Speech Impairments
Students with speech impairments cannot effectively participate in teleconferences that might be part of a distance learning course.

Potential students and instructors in an Internet-based distance learning class may have visual, hearing, mobility, speech, and learning disabilities that impact their participation in the class. Planning for access as the course is being developed is much easier than creating accommodation strategies once a student with a disability enrolls. Simple steps can be taken to assure that the course is accessible to those with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. People without disabilities also benefit when "universal design" is considered in the course development process.

Universal Design
The design of a distance learning class can impact the participation of students and instructors with visual, hearing, mobility, speech, and learning disabilities. Planning for access as the course is being developed is much easier than creating accommodation strategies once a person with a disability enrolls in the course or applies to teach it. Simple steps can be taken to assure that the course is accessible to participants with a wide range of abilities and disabilities.

"Universal design" is defined by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." At this Center, a group of product developers, architects, environmental designers, and engineers established a set of principles of universal design to apply in the design of products, environments, and communication and other electronic systems. General principles include: the design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities; the design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities; the design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities; and the design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue.

When universal design principles are applied, products meet the needs of potential users with a wide variety of characteristics. Disability is just one of many characteristics that an individual might possess. Others include height, age, race, native language, ethnicity, and gender. All of the potential characteristics of participants should be considered when developing a distance learning course. Just as modern sidewalks and buildings are designed to be used by everyone, including those who use wheelchairs, distance learning designers should create learning environments that allow all potential students and instructors to fully participate.

The next sections of this publication provide examples of strategies for making distance learning courses accessible to everyone. Be sure to include a statement on all program promotional materials about how to obtain materials in alternate format and how to obtain disability-related accommodations.

On-Site Instruction
The interactive video sessions, proctored examinations, and retreats for students in some distance learning courses require place-bound meetings. In these cases, the facility should be wheelchair accessible, the furniture should be flexible enough to accommodate wheelchair-users, and accessible restrooms and parking should be available nearby. Standard disability-related accommodations, such as sign language interpreters, should be provided when requested. Instructors should speak clearly; face students when speaking to facilitate lip-reading; and read aloud and describe text and other visual materials for those who cannot see them.

Internet-based Communication
Some distance learning programs employ real-time chat communication in their courses. In this case, students communicate synchronously (at the same time), as compared to asynchronously (not necessarily at the same time). Besides providing scheduling challenges, synchronous communication is difficult or impossible for someone who cannot communicate quickly. For example, someone with a learning disability who takes a long time to compose her thoughts or someone whose input method is slow may not be fully included in the discussion. In addition, some chat software erects barriers for individuals who are blind. Instructors who choose to use chat for small group interaction should select chat software that is accessible to those using screen readers and plan for an alternate method of communication (e.g., email) when not all students in a group can fully participate using chat.

Text-based, asynchronous resources such as electronic mail, bulletin boards, and listserv distribution lists generally erect no special barriers for students with disabilities. If a prerequisite to a course is for students to have access to electronic mail, the instructor can assume that participants with disabilities already have an accessible email program to use. E-mail communication between individual students, course administration staff, the instructor, guest speakers, and other students is accessible to all parties, regardless of disability.

Web Pages
Applying universal design principles makes web pages accessible to individuals with a wide range of disabilities. In 1999, guidelines for making web pages accessible were developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). W3C, an industry group that was founded in 1994 to develop common protocols that enhance interoperability and guide the evolution of the web, is committed to assuring that the World Wide Web is fully accessible to people with disabilities. More recently, the United States Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) developed accessibility standards for web pages of Federal agencies, as mandated by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998. The standards provide a model for other organizations working to make their web pages accessible to the broadest audience.

There are basically two approaches for making web page content and navigation accessible. Certain types of inaccessible data and features need to be avoided or alternative methods need to be provided for carrying out the function or accessing the content provided through an inaccessible feature or format. For example, a distance learning designer can avoid using a graphic that is inaccessible to individuals who are blind, or he can create a text description of the content that is accessible to text-to-speech software. Tips for designing specific formats or features (e.g., PDF files, forms, JAVA applications, Flash content) can be found in the AccessIT Knowledge Base at

Web pages for a distance learning class should be tested with a variety of monitors, computer platforms, and web browsers, including a text-only browser, such as Lynx, or a standard browser with the graphics and sound-loading features turned off (to simulate the experiences of people with sensory impairments). Testing to see if all functions at a website can be accessed using a keyboard alone is also a good accessibility test. Online programs (e.g., A-Prompt, Bobby, WAVE) are available to test web pages for accessibility.

Course designers using development tools, such as Blackboard™ or WebCT™, can employ product accessibility tools to create accessible courses.

Printed Materials
Students who are blind or who have specific learning disabilities that affect their ability to read may require that printed materials be converted into Braille, large print, audiotape, or electronic formats. Making the content of printed materials available in an accessible web-based format may provide the best solution for students who cannot read standard printed materials.

Video Presentations
Ideally, whenever a video or televised presentation is used in a distance learning course, captioning should be provided for those who have hearing impairments and audio description (that describes aurally the visual content) should be provided for those who are blind. If a video publisher does not make these options available, the distance learning program should have a system in place to accommodate students who have sensory impairments. For example, the institution could hire someone local to the student to describe the visual material to a blind student or to sign audio material for a student who is deaf. Real-time captioning (developed at the time of the presentation) or sign language interpreting should be provided for videoconferences when requested by participants who are deaf.

Telephone Conferences
Sometimes, online courses include telephone conferencing opportunities for discussion in small groups. This mode of communication creates scheduling challenges for everyone. It is also inaccessible to a student who is deaf. Instructors who use telephone conferencing for small group discussions should allow alternative communication (e.g., email) that is accessible to everyone in a specific group. Or, a student who is deaf might be able to participate in a telephone conference by using the Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS), where an operator types what the speakers say for the deaf student to view on his text telephone (TTY) and translates his printed input into speech, however this system might be too slow to allow participation in lively conversations. Another accommodation approach involves setting up a private chat room on the web. A transcriptionist types the conversation for the deaf student to view. The student can also type his contributions into the chat room and they can be voiced by someone in the group who is monitoring the chat room. Various options should be discussed with the student who needs an accommodation.

Benefits of Accessible Design for People without Disabilities
People without disabilities may have temporary and/or situational constraints that are similar to those imposed by disabilities. For example, people who cannot access graphics due to computer system limitations are in a similar situation as students who are blind. A noisy environment that prohibits the use of audio features imposes constraints similar to those faced by students with hearing impairments. Those for whom English is a second language experience reading difficulties similar to those experienced by people with some types of learning disabilities. Individuals using monochrome monitors face limitations like those who are colorblind. People who need to operate a computer but whose hands are occupied with other activities face challenges similar to those who use a hands-free input method because of a disability.

Ten Indicators of Distance Learning Program Accessibility
Based on a review of the literature, experiences creating distance learning courses that are accessible to potential students and instructors with disabilities, and work with distance learning administrators nationwide, ten indicators of accessible distance learning programs were identified. The Distance Learning Program Accessibility Indicators (DLP Accessibility Indicators) can be used as a checklist for documenting programmatic changes that lead to improved accessibility of the courses of any distance-learning program. In an iterative process, the Indicators were shared with and refined with formative feedback from disabled student service and distance learning staff at sixteen postsecondary institutions as part of the DO-IT Admin project.

For 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.

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 1. The distance learning home page is accessible to individuals with disabilities (e.g., it adheres to Section 508, World Wide Web Consortium or institutional accessible-design guidelines/standards).

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 2. A statement about the distance learning program's commitment to accessible design for all potential students, including those with disabilities, is included prominently in appropriate publications and websites along with contact information for reporting inaccessible design features.

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 3. A statement about how distance learning students with disabilities can request accommodations is included in appropriate publications and web pages.

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 4. A statement about how people can obtain alternate formats of printed materials is included in publications.

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 5. The online and other course materials of distance learning courses are accessible to individuals with disabilities.

For 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.

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 6. Publications and web pages for distance learning course designers include: a) a statement of the program's commitment to accessibility, b) guidelines/standards regarding accessibility, and c) resources.

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 7. Accessibility issues are covered in regular course designer training.

For 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.

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 8. Publications and Web pages for distance learning instructors include: a) a statement of the distance learning program's commitment to accessibility, b) guidelines/standards regarding accessibility, and c) resources.

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 9. Accessibility issues are covered in training sessions for instructors.

For Program Evaluators
Distance learning programs committed to accessibility have systems in place to monitor accessibility efforts and make adjustments based on evaluation results.

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 10. A system is in place to monitor the accessibility of courses and, based on this evaluation, the program takes actions to improve the accessibility of specific courses as well as update information and training given to potential students, current students, course designers and instructors.

Consult The Faculty Room Knowledge Base for questions & answers, case studies, and promising practices.

Reference: The content of this web page is from the DO-IT publication and video Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone. A checklist for designing an accessible distance learning program, Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning is also available to guide distance learning program administrators.