Distance Learning

by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

(Adapted from the publications Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone and Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning.)

Distance learning has been around for a long time. For hundreds of years instructors have taught students across great distances via correspondence courses using printed materials. The early days of television witnessed the introduction of televised courses. Today, an instructor can videoconference with several classrooms full of students. Early online courses using electronic mail were rapidly followed by web-based instruction. Today, the lines are blurred between different types of distance learning courses as multiple modes of delivery are employed in a single course. For example, a class "library" could be a website; class discussions could take place using electronic mail; some course content could be delivered using printed materials and television; and the final activity could be a place-bound proctored exam.

Increasing access to more students is a common 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 the needs of people with disabilities. In fact, the design of many distance learning courses erects barriers to the full participation of students and instructors with some types of disabilities.

Ensuring that individuals with disabilities can participate in distance learning courses can be argued on ethical grounds. Many people 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 mandates that no otherwise qualified individuals shall, solely by reason of their disabilities, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in public programs. The ADA does not specifically mention online courses, but the United States Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights have clarified that the ADA applies to Internet-based programs and services. Clearly, distance learning programs must make their offerings available to qualified people with disabilities.

The following paragraphs discuss access issues and present design considerations for assuring that a 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 Barriers

Thousands of specialized hardware and software products available today allow individuals with a wide range of abilities and disabilities to productively use computing and networking technologies. If a prerequisite for a course is Internet access, administrators and instructors can assume that any student enrolled will have access to any assistive technology required. However, assistive technology alone does not remove all access barriers. Described below are examples of access challenges in distance learning courses faced by students and instructors who have access to assistive technology.


A student or instructor who is blind may use a computer equipped with text-to-speech software. Basically, this system reads, with a synthesized voice, whatever text appears on the screen. He can use a text-only browser to navigate the World Wide Web or simply turn off the graphics-loading feature of a multimedia web browser. He cannot interpret graphics (including photographs, drawings, and image maps) unless text descriptions are provided. Printed materials, videos, televised presentations, overhead transparencies, and other visual materials also create access challenges for him. These barriers can be overcome with alternate media such as audiotapes, Braille printouts, electronic text, tactile drawings, and aural descriptions.

Other Visual Impairments

A student or instructor who has limited vision can use special software to enlarge screen images. He may see only a small portion of a web page at a time. Consequently, he can easily become confused when web pages are cluttered and when layouts change from page to page. Standard printed materials may also be inaccessible to him; he may require large print or electronic text. Individuals who are colorblind cannot successfully navigate web pages that require the user to distinguish colors.

Specific Learning Disabilities

Some specific learning disabilities impact the ability to read, write, and/or process information. A student with a learning disability may use audiotaped books. To help her read text efficiently, she may also use a speech output or screen enlargement system similar to those used by people with visual impairments. She may have difficulty understanding websites when the information is cluttered and when the screen layout changes from one page to the next.

Mobility Impairments

A student or instructor with a mobility impairment who cannot move his hands may use an alternative keyboard and mouse or speech input to gain access to online course materials and communication tools. Another student or instructor may be able to use standard input devices, but lack the fine motor skills required to select small buttons on the screen. If his input method is slow, a person with a mobility impairment may not be able to effectively participate in real-time "chat" communications. If any place-bound meetings are required in a distance learning course, a participant with a mobility impairment may require that the location be wheelchair-accessible.

Hearing Impairments

Most Internet resources are accessible to people with hearing impairments because these resources do not require the ability to hear. However, when websites include audio output without providing text captioning or transcription, a student who is deaf is denied access to the information. Course videos that are not captioned are also inaccessible to this student. He may also be unable to participate in a telephone conference or videoconference unless accommodations (e.g., sign language interpreters) are provided for that part of a distance learning course.

Speech Impairments

A student with a speech impairment may not be able to effectively participate in interactive telephone conferences or videoconferences. However, modes of participation that do not require the ability to speak, such as electronic mail, are fully accessible.

Seizure Disorders

Attention-grabbing flickers, at certain rates (typically between 2 to 55 hertz), can induce seizures for people who are susceptible to them. They should be avoided.

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. Email 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.

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 student who is blind 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 student who is deaf 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 student who is deaf 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.

Applying universal design principles assists both people with and people without disabilities. For example, using clear and simple language and navigational mechanisms on web pages facilitates use by those whose native language is not the one in which the course is taught as well as people with visual and learning disabilities. People who have turned off support for images on their browsers in order to maximize access speed benefit when multimedia features provide text alternatives for the content, as do people who are blind and those who wish to use search tools to locate specific content. Similarly, people who cannot view the screen because they must attend to other tasks benefit from text-to-speech systems used by people who are blind. Captions provided on video and assist people who work in noisy or noiseless surroundings and people for whom English is a second language along with people who have hearing impairments. Making sure that information conveyed with color is also available without color benefits those using monochrome monitors as well as those who are colorblind. Providing multiple formats of information also addresses differences in learning styles.

Getting Started

Distance learning programs should be proactive in making distance learning courses accessible. They should not wait until someone with a disability enrolls in a course to address accessibility issues, but, rather, consider them from the start! To get started, program staff should:

  • think about the wide range of abilities and disabilities potential students might have.
  • in promotional publications include information on how to request accommodations and publications in alternate format.
  • arrange wheelchair-accessible facilities for on-site instruction.
  • make sure media can be accessed using sight or hearing alone and online content can be accessed with a keyboard alone.
  • adopt and enforce accessibility standards (e.g., Section 508 standards, WAI guidelines).
  • establish procedures for students with disabilities to request and receive accommodations.
  • provide information about standards, training, and support to instructors and design staff.
  • use the accessibility features of development tools (e.g., Blackboard™, WebCT™).
  • review and update standards, procedures, and support issues periodically.

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.

For a current list of the ten indicators for accessible distance learning programs consult the publication Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning.


Distance learning courses are designed to reach out to students from anywhere. If universal design principles are used in creating these classes, they will be accessible to any students who enroll in them and any instructors who are hired to teach them. Designed correctly, distance learning options create learning opportunities for students with a broad range of abilities and disabilities. Designed poorly, they erect new barriers to equal participation in academics and careers. Employing universal design principles can bring us closer to making learning accessible to anyone, anywhere, at any time.


A short video presentation, Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone, demonstrates key points summarized in this publication. It may be purchased in DVD format from DO-IT. Permission is granted to reproduce DO-IT videos for educational, non-commercial purposes as long as the source is acknowledged.