ATHEN E-Journal Issue #2 (2007)
Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.
Director, DO-IT, AccessSTEM, AccessDL
Co-Director, AccessIT, AccessComputing
Director, Accessible Technology Services
University of Washington
This article reports the results of three research studies that, together, shed light on training distance learning personnel regarding how to make courses welcoming and accessible to students with disabilities. Two studies conducted focus groups of three stakeholder groups- postsecondary students with disabilities, faculty and academic administrators, and student service personnel. A third study developed and tested ten Distance Learning Program Accessibility Indicators. The results of these three studies suggest that accessibility training for distance learning personnel should include content related to access challenges for people with disabilities, legislative requirements, accessibility guidelines/standards, design techniques, and resources; be tailored to the unique needs of program administrators, course designers, instructors, and evaluators; be offered in formats to include printed/web resources and onsite presentations with varying levels of detail; and should support learning as an ongoing process.
Distance learning (or, online learning, or e-learning) may have the potential to bring education to anyone anywhere at any time, and growth in online learning options has been exponential (Waits & Lewis, 2003). However many of these courses are not accessible to all potential students with disabilities. The following two sections summarize published research in the areas of postsecondary education and distance learning as they relate to students with disabilities.
Postsecondary Education and Students with Disabilities
Increasing numbers of people with disabilities are pursuing higher education (Henderson, 2001; National Council on Disability, 2000). It has been estimated that 6-9% of college students have disabilities, and that the largest and fastest growing group of students with disabilities are those with learning disabilities (Henderson, 2001; National Center on Educational Statistics, 2000). Of those who report a disability, 40% report a learning disability, 16% a visual impairment, 16% a health-related disability, 9% a hearing impairment, 7% a mobility/orthopedic disability, and 3% a speech impairment (Henderson).
Federal legislation, specifically Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, requires that postsecondary institutions provide reasonable accommodations to assure equal access to program offerings for qualified students who disclose their disabilities and present appropriate documentation (Frank & Wade, 1993; West et al., 1993; Waddell, 1999). This legislation is interpreted to mean that institutions must assure access to academic courses, including distance learning courses, as well as admissions, registration, housing and residential life, advising, computer labs, libraries, career services, learning centers, and other student services (Milani, 1996; Patrick, 1996; Simon, 2000).
Even with legislation in place, students with disabilities are less likely than students without disabilities to stay enrolled, successfully transition from two-year to four-year schools, earn postsecondary degrees, and secure employment (Horn & Bobbitt, 1999; National Council on Disability, 2000; Wagner & Blackorby, 1996; Yelin & Katz, 1994). These facts are of particular concern because the positive correlation between level of education and rate of employment is stronger for individuals with disabilities than it is for the general population (Benz, Doren, & Yovanoff, 1998; Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Stodden, 1998; Stodden & Dowrick, 2000; Yelin & Katz, 1994). This correlation suggests that further education may be one way for students with disabilities to work on a level playing field with peers who do not have disabilities.
The attitudes, knowledge, and skills of instructors, including those in distance learning courses, impact the learning of all students. However most faculty members have little experience teaching students with disabilities and little or no specific training in effective strategies for making curricula accessible to students with disabilities. Although it has been found that faculty are generally willing to provide accommodations to students with disabilities, they are not always clear about what specific accommodations are appropriate, their role in making accommodations, which teaching strategies work best, and what resources are available (Bourke, Strehorn, & Silver, 2000; Burgstahler & Doe, 2005; DoÃ±a & Edmister, 2001; Leyser, Vogel, Wyland, & Brulle, 1998; National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Supports, 2000; Vogel, Leyser, Burgstahler, Sliger, & Zecker, 2006).
Some instructors do not understand that â€œreasonableâ€ accommodations are designed to assure equal opportunity, not unfair advantage to students with disabilities, and are concerned that accommodations might compromise the academic integrity of their courses (Nelson, Dodd, & Smith, 1990). Some instructors have mistaken beliefs about the abilities of individuals with disabilities to succeed in postsecondary studies and demonstrate other prejudicial attitudes that can have a negative impact on their interactions with students who have disabilities.
Postsecondary faculty and academic administrators have expressed a need for instruction regarding legal issues, disability-related accommodations, communication with students who have disabilities, and resources (Burgstahler, 2002; Burgstahler, Corrigan, & McCarter, 2004; DoÃ±a & Edmister, 2001; Leyser et al., 1998; Leyser, Vogel, Wyland, & Brulle, 2000; Scott & Gregg, 2000). Recommendations to help administrators and support staff address barriers in student service offices are also beginning to emerge in the literature (Burgstahler & Doe, 2005; Higbee & Eaton, 2003; Schmetzke, 2002; Uzes & Connely, 2003; Wisbey & Kalivoda, 2003).
Distance Learning and Students with Disabilities
Assistive technology makes it possible for individuals with almost any types of disabilities to operate computers and access the Internet (Closing the Gap, 2006). Readily available assistive technology includes text-to-speech software for individuals who are blind or who have disabilities that affect their ability to read, alternative keyboards and mice for people who have limited hand function, and specialized software for students with learning disabilities. However the inaccessible design of web resources and other educational technology can erect barriers even to students who have access to assistive technology (National Council on Disability, 2004). For example, text-to-speech software reads aloud text that appears on the screen and, therefore, provides access to only the content of electronic resources that are provided in text formats. Distance learning designers can avoid erecting barriers to students who are blind by, for example, providing text alternatives such as tags to fully describe the content presented in graphic images. Similarly, captions on video presentations make them accessible to students who are deaf.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that U.S. federal agencies procure, develop, maintain, and use accessible information technology (IT), unless it would pose an undue burden to do so. IT covered under this legislation includes computers, software, telecommunications products, and websites. As mandated in the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 (U.S. Department of Education, 1998), the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board developed accessibility standards for IT to which federal agencies must comply. These standards include minimum criteria for making web pages and other Internet tools accessible (Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, 2000). Although Section 508 applies directly to federal agencies, many states, postsecondary institutions, and other entities have adopted Section 508 standards in an effort to meet their obligations under the ADA. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has developed comprehensive Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (World Wide Web Consortium, 1999, 2003) that tell how to design web pages that are accessible to people with disabilities; these guidelines are applied by governmental bodies and agencies worldwide. Both the Section 508 standards and the W3C Guidelines were guided by universal design principles.
Some distance learning programs have developed accessibility policies that encourage or demand compliance with Section 508 standards and/or W3C Guidelines. However students with disabilities are not considered in the design of many distance learning courses (Kinash, Crichton, & Kim-Rupnow, 2004). For example, in one report that identifies benchmarks for the success of Internet-based distance learning programs in seven categories- institutional support, course development, teaching/learning, course structure, student support, faculty support, and evaluation and assessment- disability-related issues are not explicitly discussed (Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2000). Similarly, in an analysis of distance learning literature that organizes trends relevant to program planning into six categories- students and enrollment, faculty members, academics, technology, the economy, and distance learning- no relevant accessibility issues are discussed (Howell, Williams, & Lindsay, 2003). However one consistent message in the small body of literature on accessibility and distance learning is that making courses accessible to students with disabilities promotes best practices for all students (Kinash, Crichton, & Kim-Rupnow; Opitz, 2002).
Although some publications about distance learning discuss specific access issues for people with disabilities and/or accessible design considerations (e.g., Burgstahler, 1997, 2000, 2002; Kessler & Keefe, 1999; Schmetzke, 2001; Waits & Lewis, 2003), most do not (Kinash, Crichton, & Kim-Rupnow, 2004). Given this apparent lack of interest on the part of distance learning program personnel, it is not surprising that many distance learning courses are not accessible to all students with disabilities. Although almost all institutions of higher education surveyed in a recent study used the Web for distance learning courses, only 18% reported following established accessibility guidelines to a major extent; 28% to a moderate extent, 18% to a minor extent, and 3% not at all; 33% reported that they did not know if their Web pages adhered to accessibility guidelines (Waits & Lewis, 2003).
At least four conditions make accessibility an important topic for distance learning program administrators to address:
- many people consider it unethical to bar some eligible participants from program access;
- legislation mandates that programs be accessible to qualified people with disabilities;
- applying accessible design principles is a best practice for all students; and
- costly redesign may be required when a student with a disability enrolls in an inaccessible course (Burgstahler, 2006)
Three Research Studies
The results of three research studies conducted at the University of Washington shed light on the training needs of distance learning personnel; details regarding these studies are reported in other publications. The first study focused broadly on disability-related training needs of postsecondary faculty and academic administrators (Burgstahler & Doe, 2005); the second explored the training needs of student service personnel (Burgstahler & Moore, submitted for publication); the third focused specifically on policies and procedures for making distance learning programs accessible to students with disabilities (Burgstahler, 2006). Participants in each of the first two studies represented more than twenty postsecondary institutions (DO-IT, 2002, 2003) in projects funded by the U.S. Department of Education (grants #P333A990042 and #P333A020044). Participants in the third study included distance learning programs at institutions whose disabled student service directors were part of the second project. Participants in these studies represented schools with diverse demographics with respect to size, degrees offered, public/private funding, racial/ethnic mix, and rural/suburban/urban location. The following three sections share findings of these studies and are followed by recommendations for further research and training content and formats for distance learning personnel.
Research Study One: Training Faculty and Academic Administrators
The first study (Burgstahler & Doe, 2005) conducted focus groups of two homogenous stakeholder groups- students and academic personnel (faculty and academic administrators)- to identify what instructors need to know in order to effectively teach students with disabilities and their preferred media and formats for professional development. Focus groups are well-suited for research seeking to understand problems and solutions as perceived by members of specific groups, to identify similarities and differences in their perceptions, and to use these perceptions to inform policy and practice (Buttram, 1990; Krueger & Casey, 2000; Morgan, 1997). Allowing participants to, â€œqualify their responses or identify certain contingencies associated with their answersâ€ results in â€œa certain ecological validity not found in traditional survey researchâ€ (Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990, p.12). By sharing their points of view with each other, participants can develop their own ideas and explore creative solutions. Since moderators can probe for details, focus group results also provide insight into why individuals think the way they do.
Twelve focus groups of faculty and administrators were conducted at 12 institutions; forty-one faculty and four staff members participated; a diverse range of institution types was represented, including four two-year and eight four-year institutions and eight urban, one rural, and four suburban institutions. Seven student focus groups were conducted at seven institutions; a total of 24 students with disabilities participated; a diverse range of institution types was represented, including three suburban and five urban institutions and two two-year and four four-year schools.
Faculty and academic administrators expressed concerns about maintaining academic standards, assuring fairness, and securing support services in a timely manner. Participants in both groups reported specific concerns about reasonable accommodations for students with learning and other "invisible" disabilities, communication between students and faculty, confidentiality of disability-related information, and coordination of services for students with disabilities. Results of this study suggest that faculty need training to increase their knowledge and skills regarding legal issues; disabilities; accommodation strategies (especially those related to â€œinvisibleâ€ disabilities) that support high academic standards and assure confidentiality and fairness to all students; communication between students and faculty; resources; and service coordination. Instructor preferences vary greatly, suggesting that campuses offer a variety of training options- multi-media presentations, short presentations as part of existing meetings, longer seminars, participatory workshops with case studies and panels of students with disabilities, Internet-based training, searchable Web resources, and short printed materials. It was recommended that accessibility topics be integrated within other professional development options and resources for faculty, such as in new faculty orientations and website development presentations.
Applying universal design principles was proposed by researchers in this study and others (e.g., Hatfield, 2003; Scott, McGuire, & Shaw, 2003; Silver, Bourke, & Strehorn, 1998) as a promising approach for addressing myriad issues presented by participants in this and other studies, selecting and organizing content, and delivering professional development to faculty; this approach has been favorably received by faculty (e.g., Fox, 2003; Hatfield, 2003). Universal design has been defined as â€œthe design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized designâ€ (North Carolina State University, 1997). When universal design is applied to buildings, they can be comfortably used by individuals with a wide variety of heights and who walk with crutches, use wheelchairs, move independently, and push baby strollers and delivery carts.
Universal design (UD) has been applied to many products (e.g., textbooks, educational software, websites) and environments (e.g., classrooms, libraries, distance learning courses) in education (Burgstahler, 2005b; Preiser & Ostroff, 2001). The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) has focused attention on the application of UD to technology-based curriculum, defining universal design for learning as â€œa research-based set of principles that together form a practical framework for using technology to maximize learning opportunities for every studentâ€ (Rose & Meyer, 2002, p. 5). Applying the results of brain research and the capabilities of information technology, CAST has identified three essential qualities of curriculum that applies universal design for learning- multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement (Rose & Meyer; ERIC/OSEP, 1998). Several researchers have developed principles and performance indicators for the universal design of instruction (Burgstahler, 2005c; Mason & Orkwis, 2005; Scott, McGuire, & Shaw, 2003; Silver, Bourke, & Strehorn, 1998) that demonstrate how universal design can be applied to all aspects of instruction, including class climate, physical access and usability, safety, delivery methods, information resources, interaction, feedback, and assessment (Burgstahler, 2005c).
The results of this research were used to develop a universal design of instruction checklist (Burgstahler, 2005a) and printed, video, on-site, and online training materials for faculty. Project resources can be found in The Faculty Room at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Faculty/. Specialized content for faculty members who teach distance learning courses can be found within this collection at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Faculty/Strategies/Academic/Distancelearning/.
Research Study Two: Training Student Service Personnel
A second study conducted focus groups of personnel from student service offices and of students with disabilities (Burgstahler & Moore, submitted for publication). Focus groups were determined to be appropriate for this research for reasons summarized in the first research study section of this article. Fourteen focus groups with 72 student service personnel were conducted at 14 institutions; a diverse mix of institution types was represented, including four two-year and ten four-year institutions and six urban, three rural, and five suburban institutions. Fourteen student focus groups were conducted at twelve institutions; institutions with a diverse set of characteristics were represented, including four rural, two suburban, and six urban institutions and two two-year and ten four-year schools.
Participants in student service office focus groups revealed that knowledge, skills, and attitudes vary greatly among student service personnel. Students shared experiences in which student service staff did not know how to deal with them and where they felt disrespected while attempting to use services. Participants identified training options to increase staff knowledge and skills regarding disabilities, especially â€œinvisibleâ€ disabilities; accommodation strategies; rights and responsibilities; appropriate communication; campus resources; and issues unique to student service administrators in specific offices (e.g., admissions, learning centers, distance learning). Participants recommended that a variety of publications and training options be tailored to specific student service administrators and integrated within existing training programs for student service staff. Applying universal design principles was proposed by researchers in this study as a promising approach for addressing myriad issues presented by participants and then organizing and delivering professional development to student service personnel.
The results of this research were used to develop universal design checklists for student service offices (Burgstahler, 2005b) and video, on-site, and online training materials for student service personnel. Project products can be found in The Student Services Conference Room at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Conf/. This website includes content tailored to specific units, including content for distance learning administrators and course designers at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Conf/distance_learn.html. Another website, The Board Room, was created for postsecondary presidents and other high level administrators who want to explore strategies for making all courses and student services on their campus welcoming and accessible to students with disabilities.
Research Study Three: Design of Accessible Distance Learning Programs
A third research study explored policies and practices related to the accessible design of distance learning programs (Burgstahler, 2006). It built on results of the two earlier studies reported in this article, on experiences in creating accessible distance learning courses at the University of Washington (Burgstahler, 2000; Burgstahler, Corrigan, & McCarter, 2004, 2005), and on collaborative work with and distance learning administrators nationwide. Researchers in this study created, refined, and tested a list of Distance Learning Program Accessibility Indicators and recommended training for staff and faculty of distance learning programs.
Participants included personnel in sixteen distance learning programs at institutions whose disabled student service directors were part of a project funded by the U.S. Department of Education (grant #P333A020044) described earlier in this article. Fourteen of the participating programs offered primarily Web-based distance learning courses and two used primarily teleconferencing technology. In this project Distance Learning Program (DPL) Accessibility Indicators were created, tested, and refined. A website and electronic discussion list were created as part of the project (DO-IT, 2004). Each DPL Accessibility Indicator relates to one of four stakeholders in the delivery of distance learning courses:
- students and potential students,
- distance learning designers,
- distance learning instructors, and
- distance learning program evaluators
For small distance learning programs, one person may perform more than one of the last three roles. The DPL Indicators and explanations developed in this study are listed below. Although researchers located an example of an application of each Indicator in at least one program, their search suggested that these practices are not widely applied in distance learning programs nationwide (Burgstahler, 2006).
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 programs" 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, on the basis of this evaluation, the program takes actions to improve the accessibility of specific courses and to update information and training given to potential students, students, course designers, and instructors.
Limitations of Three Studies
One limitation of these three studies is that participating schools were not selected randomly, but, rather, they were the result of a sample of convenience. The University of Washington and the other institutions of the sixteen distance learning programs that participated in these studies were part of larger projects funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The participants in the focus groups conducted for the first two studies were recruited through departmental notices, postings on electronic discussion lists, and professional contacts. Participants were often people known to the moderators. Although all focus group members were assured that their responses would be aggregated with others in a non-identifiable form, some participants may have refrained from disclosing some opinions for fear of repercussion or identification within the institution. Since participants were not randomly selected, their responses may not be representative of students with disabilities, faculty, academic administrators, and student services staff on any given campus. In the third study, interactions with distance learning program participants was informal and inconsistent from school to school; project staff worked the most with schools most interested in working with them. In addition, the DLP Accessibility Indicator list does not address incremental programmatic changes and does not capture increased awareness that might eventually result in program change. All of these limitations might have impacted outcomes and, therefore, these studies should be interpreted with caution.
Implications for Training Distance Learning Personnel
The literature review and three research studies reported in this article suggest that distance learning program administrators, course designers, instructors, and evaluators need training in issues regarding the accessibility of distance learning courses- access challenges for students with disabilities, accommodations and universal design, legal issues, and standards/guidelines regarding course accessibility. Ongoing challenges are deciding what content specific audiences need to do their work; avoiding overwhelming them with too much information that is not important for them to know; choosing the best mediums for professional development; and providing resources for in-depth content and ongoing support.
Specific content and training options as well as ongoing support- print/web materials, videos, in-depth resources, on-site instruction, and online discussion forums- should be tailored to each audience. It is understood that, in small distance learning programs and in situations where a single professor is creating a course, some or all of these roles will be undertaken by one person, in which case this person needs to gain knowledge and skills in multiple areas. The following sections outline key content that should be included in training these four stakeholder groups. Each section ends with resources developed by the three research projects discussed in this article as examples of materials that might be useful for members of each group; these products provide general content overviews, checklists, videos, and links to resources that can be used in training and support efforts.
Distance Learning Program Administrators
Distance learning administrators need to have a general awareness of legal responsibilities regarding accessibility and of potential accessibility challenges faced by students with disabilities who enroll in their courses, particularly those students who are blind or deaf. They need to direct their staff to apply steps such as the DLP Accessibility Indicators, initially working closely with them to select guidelines/standards and adopt policy and practice wording for their documents and websites and assure that accessibility content is integrated within existing training and support materials for staff and instructors. Distance learning administrators should direct their staff to assure that reasonable accommodations are made to students with disabilities who enroll in courses and that planning for access is undertaken as distance learning courses are being created and evaluated.
Administrators should be aware of accessibility guidelines or standards that have been adopted by their state or institution and assure that staff are made aware of these requirements. If they are not covered under existing guidelines or standards, they can adopt their own guidelines/standards, such as the Section 508 standards of the federal government, as a step toward meeting their Section 504 and ADA obligations. They need to understand that the distance learning course development tools, such as Blackboard(TM) or proprietary software, can be used to create accessible (or inaccessible) courses and that their courses are unlikely to be accessible to students with disabilities without their clear direction to design staff that they achieve this goal.
Distance learning program administrators should consider adopting a proactive approach to addressing accessibility issues; as the U.S. federal government have found: â€œUse of an "ad hoc" or "as needed" approach to IT accessibility will result in barriers for persons with disabilities. A much better approach is to integrate accessibility reviews into the earliest stages of design, development, and procurement of IT" (U.S. Department of Justice, 2000). Distance learning staff can learn from this approach. Being both proactive (by applying universal design principles) and reactive (by providing accommodations) results in more accessible courses for all students and minimizes the need for accommodations for specific students.
Administrators should direct their staff to integrate accessibility content into existing standards, guidelines, and training for designers, instructors, and evaluators. The Michigan Virtual University (n. d.) distance learning program provides an example of how accessibility guidelines are integrated into overall course design standards. Its Standards for Quality Online Courses includes four subsectionsÂ¬- technology, usability, accessibility, and instructional design. Based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, the accessibility categories include basic content, tables/frames, and media. It is important for them to understand that applying universal design principles throughout the course development process may be easier and therefore less expensive than quickly developing accommodation strategies each time a student with a disability enrolls in a course. In addition, besides assuring access to students with disabilities, applying universal design principles to distance learning courses makes them welcoming and usable by students with diverse characteristics, including those defined by race/ethnicity, gender, age, native language, and learning style.
Administrators should assure that designers, instructors, and evaluators have the tools they need to assure that distance learning courses are accessible to students with disabilities. These include clear policies, technical direction, ongoing support, and in-depth resources.
Resources that distance learning program administrators might find useful include:
- Overview Publications and Streaming Video Presentations at AccessDL - http://www.washington.edu/doit/Resources/accessdl.html
- Student Services Conference Room - http://www.washington.edu/doit/Conf/
- The Board Room - http://www.washington.edu/doit/Board/
Distance Learning Course Designers
Distance learning course designers do not need extensive knowledge of legal issues, but they should have a basic understanding that providing access to distance learning course content for students with disabilities is not optional; it is an obligation. They should also be aware of potential accessibility challenges faced by students with disabilities who enroll in their courses. Distance learning designers also need to be able to articulate relevant accessibility content to course instructors with whom they work.
Distance learning designers should have access to accessibility guidelines or standards regarding accessibility, as initially determined in consultation with distance learning program administrators. Accessibility should be included as a design standard among other standards they use for the development of their distance learning courses. Distance learning designers need to understand that some distance learning tools need to be avoided, used in limited ways, or enhanced with alternative access options in order to avoid erecting accessibility barriers. They need to know how these issues apply in the case of the specific distance learning course development tools they use, such as Blackboardâ„¢. Programs such as these that use templates for courses could do more to promote accessibility by designing their templates to be accessible and providing improved instructions for using the accessibility features.
There is a significant body of knowledge related to specific technical issues regarding accessibility made available by the Access Board, the Web Accessibility Initiative, WebAIM, EASI (Easy Access to Software and Instruction), and many universities and professional organizations. This body of work includes accessible design strategies as well as those related to specific course development tools. Designers can choose those relevant to their programs and make them available to their colleagues for ongoing reference. Distance learning designers might also want to join forces with webmasters on campus to create a user group that meets monthly and communicates online about accessibility issues (Burgstahler, Corrigan, & McCarter, 2004).
Resources that distance learning designers might find useful include all the resources within the AccessDL website at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Resources/accessdl.html. For ongoing conversations and support regarding accessibility issues, they can join the AccessDL discussion list described at this site. They can also find guidance in the Student Services Conference Room at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Resources/postsec.html, where there is specific content relevant to designers at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Conf/distance_learn.html.
Distance Learning Instructors
Legal issues, access challenges of students, and teaching strategies should be integrated into online and on-site instruction provided to instructors. Distance learning instructors need to have a general awareness of potential accessibility challenges faced by students with disabilities who enroll in their courses, in particular students with visual and hearing impairments. It is also desirable for them to know about teaching strategies that can be employed to maximize the learning of students with different learning styles, racial/ethnic backgrounds, ages, genders, technical skills, and other characteristics.
Most distance learning programs that have designated design staff can be managed in such a way that instructors need to have very limited knowledge of technological issues. Faculty members need to be given specific instructions on how to provide design staff with content that can be easily incorporated into an accessible course; for example, instructors may need to provide the design staff with the content of PDF files in a text-based format, transcripts for audio clips, captions for video presentations, and text descriptions for graphic images.
Instructors also need to know about how to address accessibility issues as they make assignments to students. For example, real-time chat, telephone, and other tools that allow students to communicate synchronously (at the same time) are difficult or impossible to use by someone whose input method is slow, perhaps because of limited hand function, a learning disability, or a speech impairment, and that some synchronous tools are not accessible to those who are blind. Similarly, standard telephone conferencing is inaccessible to students who are deaf or have speech impairments. Rather than require that all students use these tools in small group discussions, instructors could require that members of each group use a tool that is accessible to all participants in the group- when a synchronous tool is suggested by a group member, but is not accessible to all participants, an alternative such as electronic mail would need to be used. They will likely find that, although inaccessibility to a student with a disability is one reason why a synchronous tool might not be accessible to everyone in a group, a more common barrier is simply the inability of a group to find a convenient time for everyone to meet. An asynchronous option addresses all of these access issues.
Resources that distance learning instructors might find useful include Overview Publications and Streaming Video Presentations at AccessDL, http://www.washington.edu/doit/Resources/accessdl.html. For more general information about teaching students with disabilities, they can consult:
- Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction - http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/equal_access_udi.html
- The Faculty Room - http://www.washington.edu/doit/Faculty/
Distance Learning Course Evaluators
Distance learning programs should have systems in place to monitor accessibility efforts along with other quality indicators they have adopted. Feedback loops to design staff should assure that course adjustments are made based on evaluation results. Such content can be used to both improve the accessibility of specific courses and to update information and training given to course designers and instructors. Resources that distance learning program evaluators might find useful include Distance Learning Program Accessibility Indicators and other resources at the AccessDL website at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Resources/accessdl.html.
The University of Washington continues to support the discussion list and the website discussed in this article as part of its National Center on Accessible Distance Learning (AccessDL), which is now funded by a new grant from the Office of Postsecondary Education in the U.S. Department of Education (#P333A50064). Potential next steps in ongoing efforts include the following:
- Further refine and validate the Distance Learning Program Accessibility Indicators. One approach being considered is to conduct a formal Delphi process with distance education program administrators. The Delphi method is well suited for developing a better understanding of a specific issue like this. Its structured process collects and distills knowledge from a group of experts using a series of questionnaires in order to facilitate the formation of a group judgment (Egan & Akdere, 2005; Gordon, 1994).
- Design a study to explore the promoters and inhibitors of systemic change efforts to improve the accessibility of distance learning courses.
- Identify accessibility challenges faced by people with disabilities who are current or potential designers or instructors of distance learning courses and how these types of positions can be made more accessible to qualified designers and instructors with disabilities.
Accessible distance learning courses offer learning opportunities for all qualified students. However, to assure accessibility for students with disabilities, relevant content must be institutionalized into program policies, procedures, and communications. This means that the training needs of distance learning administrators, designers, instructors, and evaluators must be addressed. Printed publications, web resources, distance learning courses, and onsite instruction should all be considered for delivering information about access barriers, legal issues, accommodations and universal design, accessibility guidelines and standards, and technical tools and strategies. Distance learning professional organizations are encouraged to take a leadership role in promoting this important work.
The content of the article is based upon work supported by the U.S. Department of Education, through the Office of Postsecondary Education (Grants #P333A990042, #P333A020044, #333A50064) and the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (Grant # H133D010306). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the federal government. Content from published documents (Burgstahler, 2002, 2005a-c; Burgstahler (Ed.), 2002, 2006; Burgstahler, Corrigan, & McCarter, 2005; DO-IT, 2003, 2004) was used with permission in this article.