For an increasing number of persons distance learning will mean that the process of a
lifelong continuing education will become a reality. And for others it will be a
complement and an added value to the existing education. But there is one group of people
that have even more to benefit from the possibility to study from a distance and for whom
this could mean a major breakthrough in the access to knowledge, namely people with
different kinds of disabilities.
Even though the physical accessibility today is improving (especially in the U.S.
thanks to ADA), the barriers for disabled persons are still high, when it comes to having
access to various parts of society. For these people the focusing on the individual and
his needs that is possible in distance education, could mean a shortcut to the level where
able bodied persons already dwell.
At CERTEC, Center for Rehabilitation Engineering Research, we have tried do develop a
concept of distance learning that would allow for people with different kinds of
disabilities to partake in the course-work on the same terms as, and together with,
The challenge for us has to some extent been that we would like to use both the
flexibility and individuality of the learning on demand type tool, i.e. that a
person should be allowed to go through the information when he likes and at the pace he
prefers, but also to have the possibilities of getting in phase with his fellow students,
through seminars and group-work. The place to be, we soon discovered, was the Internet.
We started our attempts with distance education a few years ago. Initially we had a
strong focus on the moving picture based versions (read:video). We tried to record
lectures on video, and we tried to use videoconferencing tools. We abandoned the taping of
lectures quite soon. It was simply too bad. The form of the lecture did not translate well
into another media. In retrospect this seems natural. The change in format is to big.
The videoconferencing tool, as well as the person to person videophone, had some value
in creating contact but it was too bandwidth consuming. To make it work with bearable
quality you have to have at least ISDN and this was not the case for any of our students.
We wanted it to work with a normal computer and an Internet-connection at 28.8 kbit/s.
The system we have developed, and are currently using in our classes in Rehabilitation
Engineering, is possible to view with a normal HTML-browser, e.g. Netscape or Internet
Explorer, and has the following outline.
The lecture(s) each week consists of a 10 minute long overview of the weeks topic. It
consists of a streaming audio file with the lecturers voice that also controls the
automatic change of pictures, graphic and text in the four main frames of the screen. In
one frame there is a picture of the lecturer that changes every thirty seconds. We have
found that a voice and changing picture where you can see the eyes of the person speaking
is a way of creating a contact that is similar to the one you get when watching a
video-tape. And in this concept it is even better. Since a lot of other information is
given on the pages it is less distracting.
In another frame at the bottom of the screen, the lecture is written out in text in a
fashion similar to the way you would do it in television. This enables blind, deaf and
dyslectic students to follow the lecture in the same way as a non-disabled student would.
Since you only have to start the lecture and then all changes on the screen is controlled
automatically by the sound file, it is also convenient for people with motoric
disabilities, not having to click through all the pages. We also provide a text
only version of the lecture, where you can go through the material in your own pace.
After the ten minutes of introduction and overview, the program will put you on a
webpage where you can find links to the mandatory and suggested reading that is connected
with the weeks topic.
The system we use is a real-audio streamer to send sound and control the change of
pictures in the lecture, and different java script programming to enhance the graphics and
the user interface. We also use a text based conference system called Webboard, to have
seminars and group practice. This we use for the follow up of the lectures, and also for
the students to discuss and arrange the homework.
An additional feature is the laborations where the students have been able to try out
different technologies, by using technology already available on the net, or by running
java applets written specially for this purpose, e.g. a simple keyboard replacement that
you can play around with, a typewriter for writing Braille signs and a demonstration of
how people with cognitive disabilities sometimes perceive a clock, called the flower
clock. These are examples of how we have tried to bring with us the best things we
had in our classroom bound lectures into the net version.
To us the concept of distance learning is not a cheaper version of
real education. We strongly believe that our way of giving the courses in
Rehabilitation Engineering today has an added value compared with the way we used to give
it (traditional lectures). We have found that the distance in distance
education in many cases has become closer in our present version of the course. We
have been able to give the students possibilities to meet with lecturers and others, that
would have been very difficult for them to get close to otherwise.
An example; A few weeks into the fall quarter the students were studying
cognitive disabilities. Through the Webboard they were given the possibility
to have a seminar together with an autistic woman, and ask her questions about her
situation and her handicap. This wouldnt have been possible to conduct in any other
form, since this woman does not function well in a group when physically present. But over
the computer it was possible.
The students have also been given an opportunity to communicate with a group of people
with cognitive disabilities, who cannot speak, but communicate through pictures over the
net. The students have sent them messages, an are now waiting for replies.
Our motivation for doing this is dual. The first is the obvious, we want our students
to have the best education that they can get. We strongly believe that the tools of
learning we present them with in this concept, is a step in that direction. The second is
that by giving a fully web based course, we can at the same time make it accessible for
people with different kinds of disabilities, and giving them a possibility to study under
almost exactly the same conditions as other students.
We are currently in the midst of a continuous process where we are learning from
observing how our students learn in this new environment. We are evaluating the tools as
we go along, and hope for a more extensive study when the whole course is finished.
The results we have had so far has been very positive. We had some initial fears when
we started that putting it all on the net would scare a lot of the students off. But the
drop out rate so far has been lower than the normal. Initially there were a few
suggestions from students and some teachers as well, that maybe we should have at least
some gatherings in real life. But gradually this has changed, and now the
students are asking for even more active tasks to be performed on the net, i.e. more group
work and laborations and seminars.
It should be noted that the above mentioned activities may require restraints in time
to create a feeling of really working in a group. A discussion, for example, where the
students all participate during limited period of time is quite different from a
discussion with no limits in time (like news groups).
We have also discovered an interesting development in how rapidly the students are
taking in new concepts and testing them while using the Webboard. Since seminars can be
conducted during two hours with all the participants there at the same time, the students
and the teacher can wrap their thoughts around each others and comment and amplify the
things that interest them, much a in an extended and deepened e-mail exchange.
From the teachers point of view the amount of work that is put in amounts today to
somewhere between 3-6 times the work for a normal lecture. Initially the amount of work
was much higher, but with experience, a properly worked through format and some
development of software aids, we are cutting down the time for the production of the
lectures. As the material is reusable, we will be using many of the lectures in other
courses for other kinds of students, with or without modifications, and this of course
lowers the overall time spent on lectures by the teachers at our institute.
The overall impression of putting a whole course on the net is that it works very well
and that we both as researchers and as developers are learning more from watching the
students learning, than we ever could imagine.
Distance, learning, education, disability, deaf, blind, Internet, lecture,
accessibility, user interface, dyslectic, motoric disabilities.
)A demo version of our concept can be found at this address. (Alas only in Swedish so far).
Inlärning och omvärldsuppfattning, Marton et al, 170 p, Stockholm: AWE/Gebers, Tionde
tryckningen 1996, ISBN 91-20-04887-4