Distance learning -- boon or bane?
By Art Blaser
Marcus awoke at 7:30. His aide, Terry, helped him dress. Soon he was at his computer, taking a college course online before leaving for work. His employer had paid for the course. The professor had been helpful online; Marcus had received answers from her quickly when he'd been confused. His classmates were a "virtual family" for him. "Almost no one knows of my disability," he said.
Kristen hadn't slept. Her eviction was coming if she couldn't get another job to pay the rent. She'd lost her teaching job in the classroom ("Your future is in developing online offerings," they'd told her none too subtly. "No one will even know you're specially situated.").
Working online was not going smoothly for Kristen. The Admissions Officer had told her, "You should get a special high-speed phone line to take this course." With what money? Her aide, Amalya, might find the service agreement for her defective -- and costly -- screenreading software she was trying to use, but Amalya's workday started three hours ago, and she hadn't been heard from.
Online "distance learning" courses seem to be the coming thing in higher education. Are online courses a boon or a bane for the disability community? For people like Marcus, they're working fine. But for people like Kristen it's another story. The proverbial glass seems both half full -- and half empty.
Disability often means difficulty getting places, so online courses seem attractive. They seem a solution, too, for people with multiple chemical sensitivity and anxiety issues. And people with repetitive-stress injuries need a way to access the Internet by means other than the typical keyboard and mouse.
Much of the push for accessible online instruction has come from the blind community, though, who simply cannot access text materials unless they are in accessible formats -- accessible by "voice" -- or Braille -- output. At inaccessible sites, blind people are confronted simply with gibberish.
With Internet technology, newer does not mean more accessible. Web designers often ignore access, even when it's easy to provide. Although Macromedia's "Flash" plug-in has instructions that allow one to make it accessible, if they're followed a tenth of the time I'd be surprised.
But online course access requires not just the availability of accessible course materials. It also requires economic access.
Disabled people, more often than not, simply fall through the 'net. When it comes to the "digital divide," disability is a more significant variable than ethnicity, income or age. Blind users are much less likely than sighted people to have access to a computer, according to a study by the Benton Foundation; the study reported that nearly all of those with a walking problem said they had never used a computer. People in rural areas (where proportionally more disabled people live) have even less access to the Internet. The figures are worse in the rest of the world (where most disabled people live); the number of Internet hosts in rich industrialized countries is 1600 times greater than in Africa (other than South Africa).
Computer usage often accompanies higher income, education, and employment; disabled people lag behind nondisabled people on all three.
For online education, one needs more than just a computer. That computer must be hooked up to the Internet, at a reasonable "speed" -- and one must stay on the computer for hours at a time.
At the World Wide Web consortium, the international group that oversees Web standards, "there are a whole lot of people working rather feverishly on access issues, promoting a world-wide 'conspiracy,'" says W3C member Bill Loughborough.
Loughborough is active with the W3C's Education and Outreach Working Group, which combats with what the National Council on Disability called "discrimination by inadvertence." Many providers of inaccessible materials may not even know their materials are inaccessible, says the Council -- or that there is a better way, prescribed by the W3C's "Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines" (available at http://www.w3.org/TR/ATAG10/)
U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige has echoed the Bush Administration's pledge to "leave no one behind" and specifically mentioned students with disabilities as a beneficiary of distance education. But the benefit is only a potential one at the moment.
Disability is certainly on the radar screen of those providing distance education. But it's nowhere near the center. Online education is high on many agendas; web access isn't. There is a lot that's accessible in the current state of distance learning. But the truth is, I notice the inaccessible stuff. And there's far more of that.
The Commission on Institutions of Higher Education's guidelines on electronic education developed by the regional accrediting commissions mentions "requirements for service to those with disabilities" as an example of "legal and regulatory requirements" but says nothing further. A statement from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges says only that "access for learning or physically challenged students may pose some concerns since these students frequently avail themselves of distance learning." Both the Distance Education and Training Council (online at http://www.detc.org/) and the U. S. Distance Learning Association (http://www.usdla.org/) had inaccessible websites as of mid-July.
Beyond an introductory clause noting the "great potential" of high-quality programs for "homebound" students, the American Federation of Teachers, the collective bargaining agent for many higher education workers, makes no mention of access for either disabled AFT members or students in its July 2000 resolution "ensuring high quality in distance education." In 1999 the AFT had surveyed members involved in online education; no questions were asked about accessibility. Respondents, though, were overwhelmingly supportive of online education.
Universities can certainly ensure quality
Universities can certainly ensure qualityin accessible distance learning when they decide to. The California Community Colleges' August 1999 Access Guidelines for Distance Education (online at http://www.htctu.net/publications/guidelines/distance_ed/disted.htm)were the result of pressure from the U.S. Dept. of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which had found "little attention . . . being given to ensure that these distance learning programs are accessible to students with disabilities, especially students with visual impairments."
The guidelines are outstanding. "Both state and federal law require community colleges to operate all programs and activities in a manner which is accessible to students with disabilities," they note.
Other universities in California, though, seem simply to be trying to avoid web access. In a June 20 memo, California State University attorney Steven Raskovich wrote, "The Office of General Counsel has reviewed relevant statutes and regulations and concluded that the CSU is not required to comply with section 508." However, he added, "it may . . . depending on cost, be good policy for Cal States to [provide accessibility] to be more hospitable to the disabled."
Several for-profit corporations offer software "platforms" for conducting online courses. eCollege is one. "At this time our product is quite sluggish with a screen reader," eCollege said in response to my email query about access. "A new version will be fully usable by all of the federal disability standards.
"I wish I could accommodate you immediately, but unfortunately we're not quite ready," the eCollege staffer continued, assuming that I must myself use a screen reader (I don't) -- and that my interest in web accessibility could only be personal.
For-profit institutions have discovered the value of web-based education, too. But disabled students and providers aren't central to their calculations.
Concord Law School, a division of Kaplan Incorporated (a subsidiary of the Washington Post), targets "family caregivers" for their online courses. Kaplan itself also has an online college. Its website didn't meet access standards when I tested it in late July; the "site feedback" form I filled out online produced this response from "the experts": "please specify the kind of accessibility you would need and what a screen reader is."
The University of Phoenix, which boasts that it is the nation's largest private university, has many online offerings. Its website didn't meet access standards. I was told that they'd accommodate me in the "exceptional" cases where I needed assistance. They, too, assumed incorrectly that I personally used a screen reader.
Barnes and Noble's online university, which touts itself as "The new BNU" -- "completely re-written from the ground up to improve performance, to add new features, and make it more easily navigable" -- was virtually inaccessible via screen reader.
There are online course that are outstanding in terms of access, though, including Independent Living Research Utilization's online course on the independent living philosophy. Courses on incorporating web access have been offered by EASI, based at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Utah State University.
Online access is more than a good idea. It's the law. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that disabled people not be "excluded from the participation in, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." That includes higher education.
The Americans with Disabilities Act's Title II applies to state colleges and universities. "[T]he issue is not whether the student with the disability is merely provided access, but the extent to which the communication is actually as effective as that provided to others," said the Dept. of Education's Office of Civil Rights's 1998 report on the California Community Colleges. "Title II also strongly affirms the important role that computer technology is expected to play as an auxiliary aid." The ADA's Title III applies to "public accommodations," which include private colleges. The ADA mandates nondiscrimination "in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations."
The 1998 amendments to the Rehabilitation Act include Section 508, which requires that electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the Federal government be accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508's rules just took effect this past June. Although this may not constitute an obligation for universities that don't sell goods to the federal government, more universities than you might imagine do have federal government contracts.
Is online access "cost-effective?" Such questions generate conversations that shouldn't take place. When we declare something such as online access a "right," we remove it from that arena in which something is permitted only because it is "cost-effective." When we pass legislation ensuring rights, we make a statement: those rights are too important to be guaranteed only when they're cost-effective.
Arguments against web access use cost arguments speciously. An "expensive" course would cost $30,000 to adapt; a "less-expensive" one $15,000, went one such discussion. Other estimates say providing access costs $2,000 to $3,000 a course. Yet both examples imply that access is something to be "added on" to an already-designed inaccessible course. In fact, following accessible design principles and using the accessible features of ready-made software costs nothing more at all. Designing for access can often be cheaper, since one can eschew the bells and whistles of high-end graphics and animation that make many sites inaccessible but which are totally unnecessary in terms of communicating content.
At any rate, says Loughborough, "programmers now are much cheaper than lawyers later."
Even if online education does become accessible, the jury is still out on whether such distance learning is the boon it's said to be for disabled people.
A Harris Poll last year reported that 48 percent of disabled people using the web had "significant improvement" in their lives, compared to 27 percent of nondisabled people. Maybe that means that the Internet is good. Maybe it means something else: inability to navigate store aisles, condescending attitudes of personnel, and a transportation system that may mean spending hours to make a store visit. Disabled skeet-shooters may enjoy the hobby more that their nondisabled peers; it doesn't follow that if more disabled people took up skeet-shooting their lives would improve.
Worries that distance learning will become a way to enforce "separate and unequal" are not unfounded: "If 'they' can take classes over the web, we don't have to make classrooms accessible," we can imagine administrators thinking. Online courses may offer a new means of segregating "difficult" students. What better way to show students they are "special" than to deport them to the cyberclassroom where they can't be disruptive?
As Kristen's and Mark's stories show, while the web can provide a virtual community, it can also be a way to discriminate.
College is a time for gaining new experiences, meeting new people, expanding horizons. What happens when your "college" is only the computer in your bedroom?
Profit and higher education are an uneasy combination. Tales of "digital diploma mills" come from historian David Noble, who says, "it is not really about education at all. That's just the name of the market." The "educational market," he predicts, "will eventually become dominated by EMOs -- education maintenance organizations -- just like HMOs in the healthcare market." Only those enjoying privilege will have "residential" educations, actually attending colleges, he says. Those with less privilege will get educated online, or not at all.
Other critics say just the opposite: that in a world of mostly online higher education, only the "privileged" will have the latest technology such as high-speed DSL phone lines to let them get the degrees and credentials to be a lawyer, doctor, manager; that a lack of access to the technology means a limited future.
Can the disability community affect the future of distance learning? Absolutely. We can move the "should it be accessible?" discussion from "it's the right thing to do" (with conditions attached) to "It's the only thing to do."
The formation of the National Disabled Student Union is a promising sign. Rankings of the "disability friendliness" of institutions would help, too. Today, influential rankings such as those compiled by U. S. News & World Report don't put accessible high-quality online offerings into their equations -- but they should. We can get that to happen.
Where access is denied, legal action is an option, of course. Issues of web access were the basis of complaints against San Jose State University, California State University Long Beach, the California Community Colleges and California State University at Los Angeles -- and in each case the problems were resolved. Concerns for web access and for bridging the disability digital divide are mutually reinforcing. The danger is that online education will create a misleading appearance of options. The hope is that for the disability community, the appearance of options won't be misleading but real.
The email message received from firstname.lastname@example.org said,
"Dear Barnes & Noble University Student: As you probably know, BNU launched an entirely new version of its online university on Saturday, July 14th. The new BNU has been completely re-written from the ground up to improve performance, to add new features, and make it more easily navigable. It's faster, more reliable, and has all of the underpinnings to allow us to add additional features and tools that would have been imposssible in the former release."
If you're reading this online story visually, look below to see how the "faster, more reliable" site at http://www.barnesandnobleuniversity.com looked in July when I visited it using the popular the text-based web browser Lynx version 2.7.1: (To check it today, go to http://www.delorie.com/web/lynxview.html and type in "www.barnesandnobleuniversity.com".
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Sept. 24, 2001 -- The latest US NEWS & WORLD REPORT rankings of colleges are out. Disability is on their radar screen -- but at the periphery: it's not taken into account in the rankings. Information on schools starts at http://www.usnews.com/usnews/edu/college/rankings/rankindex.htm -- each has a section on "Disabled Students." The information appears to come from from self-reporting and much of it is wrong. "Campus Diversity" as used in the survey doesn't include disabled students.
-- A. B.
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