Dr. Doe's Internet Course: A Case Study on Accessible Distance Learning

Date Updated


Dr. John Doe, a professor in a medium-sized, private postsecondary institution, was asked by his department chair to develop an Internet-based distance learning course on the impact of computers on society. Dr. Doe had a collection of old pictures of computers and some video clips of experts in the field who have worked with various types of computers. He decided to use a collection of links to websites, such as that of The Smithsonian, that provide supplementary content. He also planned several portions of the course in which students would interact in small groups.


Dr. Doe's task was to create this distance learning course within six months. He was experienced in teaching the course topic on site but had no experience in developing or delivering a course via the Internet.


Dr. Doe found that the Faculty Development Center regularly offered courses on how to create distance learning courses. He signed up for the next offering. Meanwhile, he began to create an outline, draft content, collect materials, scan pictures, and locate appropriate websites. In the course, he learned about the technical standards and practices at the university for distance learning offerings. Until this time, he was unaware that the university included in its policy a commitment to the accessibility of course content for all qualified students and instructors. Specifically, the university adopted the electronic and information technology standards developed by the Access Board in response to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. The university chose the 508 standards over other options because these had been adopted by the federal government and are widely accepted and supported. Dr. Doe learned that he needed to include text descriptions for all pictures and other graphics displays for individuals who are blind and using speech output systems and that he needed to assure that all other features for his course are accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Dr. Doe used the campus standards and accessed technical support from the campus-wide technical support group to develop his course. He learned that applying accessibility standards while developing the course added little work to the process. Developing the content, navigational scheme, and discussion formats took most of his time. Although Dr. Doe originally wished to use a chat system for real-time communication between students, he decided to adopt an accessible bulletin board system and standard email as his main modes of communication. For small-group discussions, he made assignments for which the participants in the group could choose the communication method--electronic mail, phone conferencing, bulletin board communication, chat; however, a required condition was that all members of the small group could communicate in the mode of communication selected.

Support staff also helped Dr. Doe test the accessibility of sites he wished to link to in the course. Three were inaccessible, primarily because of the extensive use of pictures without text descriptions. Dr. Doe contacted the three site webmasters and encouraged them to make their sites accessible. One webmaster refused, but the others made simple changes so that most features became accessible enough for Dr. Doe to use them in his course. He chose not to link to the inaccessible site.


Dr. Doe offers this popular course twice per year. So far, no students have requested disability-related accommodations. No one has disclosed a disability to him, but he happens to know that at least two students with sensory impairments have taken his course. In the first case, he learned that one of his students was deaf when one small group reported that they had ruled out telephone conferencing as a mode for group interaction because it was not easily accessible to one of its members, who was deaf. They did not name the person they were referring to, so Dr. Doe does not know his/her identity. He learned of the other student with a disability long after the specific course session was taught. Immediately after he delivered a presentation on Internet-based distance learning at the EDUCAUSE annual conference on the use of computers in higher education, a person who was obviously blind introduced herself as a prior student in one of his distance learning courses.


This case demonstrates the following:

  1. Having a campus policy and standards regarding accessibility of electronic and information technology is a first step toward making these resources accessible to all students and staff.
  2. Accessible design can be promoted by including information about campus policy, standards, and support regarding accessibility of electronic and information resources in regular training sessions on developing websites or distance learning courses.
  3. When accessibility issues are dealt with as a course is being developed, they demand little additional development time.
  4. Offering courses in an accessible format minimizes the need for disability-related accommodations and reduces the need for students to disclose their disabilities.