Online Learning | October 2013 Digital Edition

Who's Serving Online Learning's Forgotten Students?

As online learning explodes in K-12 education, technology for students with physical differences is playing catch-up.

This article originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's October 2013 digital edition.

visually impaired student using computer

As a teacher of visually impaired high-school math students, Robin Lowell understands the importance of creating a seamless online environment where her pupils can learn without worrying about accessibility issues. And as an instructor who works remotely from her home, this Washington State School for the Blind teacher appreciates her Microsoft Lync software's keyboard-driven functions, which are easier for visually impaired students to use than mouse-driven commands. Her students Lync to take part in online classes using the system's instant messaging; audio-, video-, or webconferencing; and desktop-sharing capabilities.

From their classrooms or their own homes, Lowell's 11 students use a standard keyboard, a Braille display, and Perky Duck, a six-key Braille emulator program, to input questions and answers that teachers read and respond to on screen. At her home, which is about three hours away from the school's campus, Lowell uses a computer that's equipped with dual monitors and a document camera. She uses SharePoint to record, upload, and share lectures, and is able to arrange all of her students' desktops on a monitor screen and provide instant feedback on their work.

This school year, Lowell is experimenting with a flipped classroom strategy. She'll record all lectures and lessons and upload them to SharePoint, which she selected because it allows for full keyboard command. She'll then ask students to watch the videos, take notes on them, and come to class ready to ask questions in an active classroom setting. "Instead of me lecturing to them," says Lowell, "we'll actually be able to work on the materials as a group."

Despite the obvious strides that Lowell has made in establishing an online learning environment, obstacles remain. Getting materials from students, for example, can be a significant challenge. "We can use US mail, but it takes a long time and ruins the flow of the class," she says. "And if they want to scan and e-mail the documents, someone has to help them."

In some cases, helpers such as parents or teacher's assistants don't know how to properly scan documents for Lowell's use. She'd prefer a hard copy of the original work, but says that printing out graphics-intensive documents takes too much printer ink. Most of the time, Lowell has to settle for whatever format is placed in front of her. "Sometimes I spend four times as long going through papers," says Lowell, "because the document quality is poor, the scan wasn't done properly, or we had to use regular mail for correspondence."

Despite the ongoing challenges, Lowell is pleased to see that technology vendors are adapting existing tools or creating new products to meet the needs of students who have physical disabilities. "The vendors seem to be making individual efforts, but so far it's still not an overall effort," Lowell points out. "We've seen some progress and movement in the right direction, but we'd definitely like to see more."

The Gap Widens
Given the explosion in online learning in K-12 education over the last few years, it just makes sense that assistive technologies would be a hot topic among vendors, administrators, teachers, and parents. But even as the need has been established-- and as pioneering providers jump into the fray--some experts in the field feel that these learners are being passed by.

"Very little attention is being paid to students with disabilities," says Tracy Gray, managing director for PowerUp WHAT WORKS!, a product of the American Institutes for Research (AIR) that provides a free online toolkit to help schools better teach students with disabilities through technology. "Students with special needs are being left behind because the online courses do not take their needs into consideration."

Gray says several factors are to blame. Districts view distance education as a way to combat shrinking budgets, she says, and vendors with "great salespeople" are stepping up to the plate to meet that demand.

Along the way, Gray says that little attention has been paid to the children who can't participate in online learning in the same way that traditional students would--and in particular the ones who need additional tech tools to help them decipher information, interact with instructors, and/or access graphics-intensive content. Embedded videos that don't include subtitles, for example, are useless for hearing-impaired students.

"Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon because online learning seems like the answer to a lot of different needs at this point," says Gray, "but students with disabilities can't always access the platforms and are being left behind." In fact, she says that in some ways, students' disabilities are exacerbated by distance learning. "When they can no longer raise their hands to ask questions, or have someone in front of them to provide the necessary support," Gray explains, "course content becomes even more difficult to grasp and understand."

A Perfect World
Brent Pitt, division director of services for the deaf at the Texas Education Agency in Austin, says that developing assistive technology for students who have physical disabilities must go beyond retrofitting and adapting existing classroom and communication tools. "All you wind up doing is playing catch-up," says Pitt, "and that's exactly what we're doing right now," he says. A better approach, he says, is to start with universal design that factors in all types of learners.

Pitt points to TEA's accessible instructional materials, which are supported by Bookshare's online library of 169,000 titles available to people with print disabilities; and the organization's internal educational division, which provides Braille and large-print materials, as two steps in the right direction. Pitt does acknowledge, though, that at least one major stumbling block remains in place: figuring out how to produce copyrighted, print-based instructional materials in alternative formats for students who are visually impaired. "We aren't sure how to do that yet for web-based materials," he says.

In a perfect world, Pitt says, the publishers who create the material in the first place would implement "good universal design that precludes the need for future retrofitting." In other words, they would take all of the potential physical disabilities into account before developing the content, rather than trying to adapt it to the students' needs at a later date. Will Pitt's perfect world ever come to fruition? He's hopeful. "I'm positive about the future," he says, "but still apprehensive about getting both web- and print-based technologies caught up to the point where all students can access and learn from them."

PowerUp's Gray shares a similar view, and says that the biggest progress will come when the individuals who are purchasing classroom technology for schools, districts, and statewide initiatives factor students with disabilities into their criteria. "There needs to be a level of awareness across the board--from administrators to the teachers to the developers of online courses--of the specific challenges that these students are dealing with," Gray says. "Very often these students are the last ones in the loop. That needs to change in order for progress to happen."


The Online Technology-Autism Connection

As president of Stamford Education 4 Autism, a child advocate, the holder of a master's degree in special education, and the mother of a son with autism, Robin Portanova has seen firsthand how well online learning technologies can work for children with autism.

Portanova says her son's school district recently introduced iPads in self-contained classrooms where autistic students are taught. Teachers use applications like Brain Parade's See.Touch.Learn. for visual learning and assessments.

Teachers were unsure of how students would react to the devices, which were intended to help students focus on lessons, interact with others, and do homework. "They were glued to the devices," says Portanova, "and didn't want to put them down."

On the distance-learning side of the equation, Portanova says her son has benefited from online, Skype-based tutoring. Working one-on-one with teachers online, for example, he gets enrichment, homework assistance, and other types of support without having to be in a traditional classroom setting. Portanova sees this arrangement extending to those autistic students whose parents prefer the home-schooled approach.

"I've seen this type of online teaching in action, and it's literally a magnet for autistic students," says Portanova. "They love learning this way." The setup also works well for pupils who have attention deficit disorder, she adds. "It's amazing how long they will sit in front of the computer versus anywhere else," says Portanova. "It's a great focus tool."

As the use of distance education increases, Portanova says she'd like to see more interactive applications and devices introduced. Avatars, for example, could be used to further engage autistic children and keep them tuned into the learning experience. She'd also like to see technology extended to the home environment, and not just introduced and used in classrooms. "There are great things happening in the classroom right now," says Portanova, "but parents can't tap into it if they don't have the same technology setups at home."

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