Teaching on the Net: What's the Difference?

Computers, adaptive technology and the Internet offer the potential to improve the lives of people with disabilities, making them more independent and productive and allowing them to participate in a wider range of life experiences.

Over the years, I have presented a number of seminars and courses on this topic for teachers, parents, service providers, and individuals with disabilities. As with all traditional seminars and courses, the set of people who could enroll has been limited to those potential participants who could meet in a single place at a pre-specified time.

To move away from this constraint, I considered this question: ìWhat is the feasibility of offering a successful course that typically involves demonstrations, discussions and field experiences in a distance learning format using the Internet as the primary medium for the delivery of instruction?î

Course Topic Is Adaptive Technologies

The Adaptive Technology class seemed a good choice to begin to answer this question. Now delivered world-wide over the Internet, Adaptive Computer Technology is offered for three college credits in both rehabilitative medicine and education through the University of Washington.

The course surveys the field of adaptive technology as it impacts the lives of people with disabilities, including the performance of tasks related to employment, education and recreation. Topics include interface devices, computer applications, compensatory tools, access to information technology, legal issues and implementation strategies. It is designed primarily for physical, speech, occupational and rehabilitation therapists; counselors; librarians; special education teachers; computer technology support staff; and other service providers. People with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities have also taken the course.

The Tools for a Net-Delivered Course

In the traditional course format a text, videotapes and slides, instructor lectures, printed handouts, products to demonstrate and a classroom are the primary instructional tools. In the distance learning version, the primary learning vehicles are:

  • a text,
  • a videotape,
  • electronic mail,
  • a course electronic distribution list (ListProcessor software), and
  • a World Wide Web server. 

The Instructor(s)

The first time this course was offered I team taught it with Dr. Norman Coombs, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Team teaching is not new, but in a traditional class the instructors must be in the same place at the same time with the students. This is not true of a course taught via the Internet.

Dr. Coombs and I have co-presented at conferences and in workshops before, when it was possible for us to be in the same place at the same time. For the distance learning course we prepared materials and coordinated lessons via electronic mail. We ìmetî many times to discuss the progress of the course, but never in person.

Meeting Place and Time

In a traditional course students must come together in a common location on a regular schedule. In the distance learning version of the course, no common location or schedule is required. Students enroll through the University of Washingtonís Distance Learning program.

All students are placed on an electronic distribution list managed by ListProcessor software on a UNIX host computer. The course begins on a given date and the ListProcessor distributes the syllabus and other course materials via electronic mail.

Students are required to read and respond to electronic mail at least once per week over a period of 10-12 weeks while lessons are regularly distributed. The course continues for a total of six months, by which time all assignments and the final exam must be complete.

The Text and the Lessons

As with a traditional course, the distance learning version requires a textbook. Reading assignments are distributed via electronic mail with the weekly lessons.

In a traditional class, lectures and handouts deliver content. In the distance learning course, lessons are electronically distributed weekly to the course distribution list; they fill the role of course lectures and handouts. Once distributed, the lessons are archived on the courseís Web site where they are easily referenced by students and instructors.

Class Discussions

In a traditional class, in-person discussions provide opportunities for students to ask questions and share knowledge and experiences. Such discussions are usually limited to the scheduled class times plus whatever can be arranged outside of that.

In the distance learning class, full-class discussions take place via the class electronic distribution list. Small group discussions can break off from full-class discussions as people find common interests and concerns. Participants can also communicate individually with each other and with the instructor via electronic mail.

In this day of the part-time, commuter student, it is often difficult to find a convenient time for instructor and student to meet. On the Internet, individual student-teacher communications can take place efficiently and easily.

As in a traditional class, class participation can also be required in a class offered via the Internet. To keep communications lively and prevent some students from just ìlurkingî (observing without participating), I require each student to contribute at least one comment (i.e., e-mail message) to the discussion of each lesson. Again, all messages posted to the distribution list are archived on the courseís Web site for later reference.

Incorporating Product ìDemonstrationsî

In a traditional course on adaptive technology, there would be demonstrations of products, either live or using videotapes or 35mm slides. In the distance learning course, students purchase, as part of the required course materials, a videotape that overviews adaptive technology options. After the assignment to watch the videotape, the class discusses its content using the course electronic distribution list. Eventually, videotaped materials will likely be distributed over the Internet along with the other course materials.

Guest Speakers

In a traditional class, guest speakers bring specialized expertise and new perspectives to the group. In most cases, possible guest speakers are limited to those who live or work within easy driving distance of the course location, or those who happen to be visiting at the right time. On the Internet, this constraint disappears; a guest speaker can join in class discussions easily, regardless of where the speaker lives or works.

In the Adaptive Technology distance learning class, one guest speaker is the author of the courseís textbook, who lives far away from the University of Washington. Further, instead of just one class session, he is able to participate for several weeks.

The 'Library' Component

The library is an important resource for a traditional class. Journal articles and books can be placed on reserve for course participants and students can be directed to other useful resources. To use these materials students have to make a trip to the facility.

In the Adaptive Technology class, our Web site is the course ìlibrary.î Links to other resources provide students with thousands of pages of useful resources for their papers and projects. For example, for some students, having access to the full text of the Americans with Disabilities Act is of interest. This, and more, are easily accessible from the course Web site.


In a traditional class, course assignments are usually handed to the instructor in printed form. In the distance learning course, all assignments are turned in to the instructor via electronic mail. Summaries, and sometimes entire papers, are easily shared with the rest of the class via the course distribution list.

The first assignment for students in the Adaptive Technology distance learning course is to distribute an introductory biography to the rest of the class via the course distribution list. The second assignment is to respond with at least one e-mail message to each of the ten lessons.

Three additional ìpapersî are also required. They involve writing on a topic related to course content using and referencing Internet resources, visiting a site and evaluating electronic access issues for individuals with disabilities, and making recommendations regarding access for a particular facility or program.

Field Experiences Not Left Out

A field trip to a computing facility that uses adaptive technology is a valuable experience for students in this course. Since students in the distance learning class are from all over the world, everyone cannot go on a trip to the same site. However, this educational experience can still be incorporated in the distance learning model.

Students are required to make a site visit as part of one of their assignments; they are further encouraged to go with another student if one lives nearby. If there are no nearby facilities using adaptive technology, they can visit a place such as a library or museum, collect information about access issues, and then recommend ways to improve accessibility to computing resources for visitors with disabilities.

The Final Exam

An in-class written exam or a take-home exam is common in a traditional course. In the Adaptive Technology course students take the exam as soon as they are ready (but before the six-month ending date of the course). They both request and receive the exam by e-mail. Each student has several days to complete the essay-format exam. They may access printed and electronic resources while working on it.

Access Issues

This distance learning course attracts people from all over the world. Some, as you might expect, have disabilities themselves. It is important that all course materials be accessible. Since all electronic lessons and other resources in this course are available in text form, they can be accessed with standard adaptive technologies.

This can be important for instructors as well. Dr. Coombs, for example, is blind and uses a screen reader and speech synthesizer to read lessons, electronic mail discussions, and assignments submitted by students.

Other course materials are also accessible to people with disabilities. The videotape is open captioned for hearing impaired students and is available in descriptive video form for individuals who are blind. The textbook is available in recorded form (from Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic) for students who are blind or who have specific learning disabilities.

Using the Internet to provide the course actually enhances accessibility for people with disabilities. Electronic text materials are generally highly accessible to those with disabilities. Media conversion and other customized accommodations are minimized since participants already have access to computers when they enter the class. Whatever adaptive technologies they use facilitate the accommodations. For example, a blind student d'es not need the lessons produced in Braille or on tape; his/her existing computer-output method (usually a screen reader and voice synthesizer) provides the accommodation. Similarly, a deaf student d'es not require interpreters or amplification systems since lectures and discussions occur online.

An inability to speak, hear, see or move is not a limitation in electronic communication. The most ìvocalî learner in the class may not even be able to speak in the traditional way.

Paradigm Shifts Bring Good & Bad

The Internet is a powerful, flexible and efficient tool for delivering instruction. It provides new ways for us to teach and learn. It allows us to do new things, as well as to do traditional things in new ways.

Although using the Internet to deliver instruction, store information and facilitate communication provides many benefits to the instructor and student, several challenges persist. As with most paradigm shifts, there is both good news and bad news.

The Good News

The electronic mode of delivery is a good choice for a course of a specialized nature where few people in one locality might be interested in taking it at any point in time. Students in the Adaptive Technology distance learning course have participated from throughout the U.S. as well as from Canada, Italy, Germany and Hong Kong.

We do not need to be in the same place at the same time. Students can gain access to unlimited opportunities for interaction and learning without ever leaving their homes. Co-teachers and guest speakers can participate from anywhere in the world.

I donít even need to cancel and reschedule a class when I am on a business trip. In fact, I often get caught up on class discussions and on grading assignments using my laptop computer and modem in the quiet of a hotel room. In addition, there is no need to make special provisions for students who have schedule conflicts for specific classes.

Internet delivery facilitates participation by a diverse group. For instance, students who have taken the Adaptive Technology distance learning class include a mother with a baby (she worked on the class during nap times), a disabled person who has difficulty attending traditional classes, and a blind student who could access all of the course resources using his computer without requesting special accommodations from the university.

In the distance learning course, I can offer students access to a wide range of resources. An explosion of electronic versions of books, journals, periodicals and other printed materials are now being made available on the Internet. Some even suggest that traditional libraries will someday be largely electronic collections. Distance learning instructors and students who use the Internet can exploit this vast, growing collection, perhaps more easily than in a traditional course.

A challenge for any instructor is to ensure active participation by all students. The Internet is an environment that naturally promotes engagement by learners. Students in my class regularly make comments that they participate more in class discussions when the course is delivered electronically than they would in a traditional class.

Students seem to share more, in terms of quantity, over the Internet -- perhaps because of reduced limits of time, the ability to take more time to compose comments and responses, and a sense of anonymity. They can communicate at their convenience, not necessarily at the same time as other students, and take as much time as they wish to formulate a comment or response. And, if a student thinks of yet one more comment to make on a subject, he/she can just log on and chime in. The length of a discussion is limited only by participantsí interest.

The Bad News

Although using the Internet provides many benefits to instructor and student, there are also important challenges. Of course the first limitation is that potential students must have access to the Internet. While this is more available every day, access is least available in rural areas, which have among the greatest need for distance learning classes. Equal access to this technology will require the commitment and work of educational information providers and legislators to overcome financial and technical barriers.

Another challenge to the instructor is to provide sufficient Internet training within the class so that technical aspects do not dominate course discussions. In the Adaptive Technology class, for instance, e-mail experience is required. Other standard Internet tools (e.g., distribution lists, Telnet, Gopher, World Wide Web) are also used, with simple explanations given for those without previous exposure.

Delivering a course that typically includes in-class demonstrations is another challenge. However, as explained in a previous example, videotapes and on-site visits can counteract this disadvantage.

And, finally, I cannot deny that something of value is lost when you give up the face-to-face interaction between instructors and students that occurs in traditional classroom instruction. There is no way to replace this aspect of instruction electronically, but the increased opportunities for interaction via electronic mail help to compensate for this disadvantage.

In conclusion, although electronic courses are unlikely to completely replace traditional classroom instruction, this powerful option for the delivery of information and the facilitation of communication should not be ignored or underestimated by an institution of higher education.

For more on the Adaptive Computer Technology course at the University of Washington, see their Web page at:


Sheryl Burgstahler is an Assistant Director within Computing & Communications at the University of Washington. She teachers Internet classes for teachers and distance learning classes on making computing resources accessible to people with disabilities. She directs DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology), a project to recruit students with disabilities into science, engineering and mathematics academic programs and careers. DO-IT, recipient of the 1995 National Information Infrastructure Award in Education, is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation.

E-mail: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.