Going the Distance

Spurred by rapid advances in communications technology, the educational landscape of America is being redrawn. Distance learning-the delivery of education through video, closed-circuit television (CCTV), or the Internet-has become one of the fastest-growing trends in higher education. College courses are being delivered across a highway that is global in scope, sometimes turning night into day while spanning continents half a world apart.

In a particularly dramatic setting, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, Cambridge, Mass., is delivering a lecture on global economics to MBA students at a university in Beijing, China. It is late evening at MIT, early morning in Beijing, and the professor and the students are able to see one another on television monitors and talk to one another in real time.

In more conventional illustrations of the program's growing reach and popularity, the University of Phoenix offers thousands of degree-credit courses at 57 learning centers in 12 states. At Morehead State University in Kentucky, where just 60 students were enrolled in an on-campus MBA program three years ago, there are now 400 students taking the program, and not one of them is on campus. The Alfred Sloan Foundation has put more than $15 million into some 40 campuses throughout the country in an effort to encourage research in the use of asynchronous networks.

Students on the global highway are no longer bound by campus-based courses in their states or countries. Whether the transport system for distance-learning programs is satellite, compressed video, cable, microwave or switched networks, the educational process has been altered drastically. Distance learning has provided students with more opportunities to participate in a richer, broader educational experience. However, the impact on students with disabilities has not yet been fully assessed. For some, the advent of new communications technology is a liberating innovation; for others it remains a potential barrier to be overcome.

ADA and distance learning Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, private and public schools must ensure that their programs and services are accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities. This applies to the facilities in which the programs are held and the manner in which they are delivered. For a distance-learning program, compliance means that the public facilities at the sending and receiving ends must be accessible. In addition, schools must provide "auxiliary aids and services" to ensure that people with hearing and/or visual impairments can participate fully in the program.

The ADA does not mandate that distance-learning programs be provided, but where they are offered, the accessibility requirements are no less stringent than for standard educational programs. For example, a deaf student who requires an American Sign Language interpreter or an equally effective aid in a traditional classroom setting is entitled to the same accommodation if he or she is taking the course at a remote location. In a distance-learning program, however, the aid may originate at either end of the system; the interpreter does not have to be in the same room as the student.

Students working at home are responsible for their own physical environment, but once they tap into an on-line service or the Internet, they are at the mercy of web designers and other technological transmitters. Students with sensory or cognitive disabilities may need help in order to gain access to certain types of information. For every graphic image used on the web there should be a corresponding text that someone who is blind can access with the assistance of a sound card.

Similarly, every bit of auditory information should be complemented by a corresponding visual alternative. Several programs are available that review web pages to determine the quality of access for users with disabilities. One of the most popular is called "Bobby," a free service developed by the Center for Applied Special Technologies.

Designing accessible facilities Designing an accessible distance-education classroom requires the same careful planning that is used for any successful educational space. Design professionals, people with disabilities and administrators or governing bodies responsible for funding must work together on decisions. Those building the networks need to work closely with school personnel to assure that the right network capacity is put in place.

Schools must address a number of key issues before developing the design. What types of activities will take place in the classroom? A room used for audiovisual presentations or interactive computing may require a different configuration than one used primarily for traditional lectures and seminars. Schools also should consider the flexibility of the space. Maximum flexibility often is desirable, but increasing flexibility may result in a design that fails to support any of the specific uses of the space.

Other design decisions will be determined by whether the instructor or a technology assistant will control technology. In every instance, the goals of the curriculum must drive the design of the environment and the selection of technology.

Impacting design Early in the planning phase, schools should consider several regulatory requirements that affect the design of distance-learning facilities:

-The ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) require that rooms with fixed seating must have accessible wheelchair locations that offer lines of sight comparable to those of the general user. Although ADAAG does not require wheelchair locations to be dispersed in rooms of less than 300 capacity, providing such spaces in more than one area averts the sense of creating an isolated area for those with disabilities.

-Deaf and hearing-impaired students who rely on lip reading, sign-language interpreters, captioning or infrared assistive-listening devices also must have adequate lines of sight and appropriate lighting. Whether within the classroom or when viewed on a screen at a remote location, these students must have an unobstructed view of the lecturer at the front of the room, as well as other students who may ask questions. Where computers are to be used at each seat in the classroom, desktop models with full-size monitors may present obstacles to lines of sight. Portable computers with smaller screens may be a better option.

-Although there are no regulations governing the slope of a classroom, newly constructed facilities must provide an accessible path of travel to the front of the room from wheelchair locations. If the room contains a stage, it also must be accessible to students in wheelchairs.

-Classrooms with fixed seating for 50 or more must have a permanently installed assistive-listening system.

As distance-learning programs grow in number and scope, design professionals and school administrators will continue to refine how they are delivered, while making access easier for everyone. It is essential that schools establish a policy that places a high value on universal access and design, assuring that all computers, telephones, fax machines and messaging systems conform to specific guidelines. Libraries should provide assistive technologies that link students with physical, sensory, or cognitive differences to state and global information resources.

Finally, schools should set benchmarks for improving access and monitor progress regularly. While no single plan will meet the needs of all those with disabilities, full access to distance-learning programs for all students can be achieved with careful planning and long-range vision.

Using a fiber-optic, two-way video channel, a model distance-learning program is being developed on the campus of the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf, on a small island off the coast of Portland, Maine. Baxter is one of four pilot schools deploying a new Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) technology to carry high-speed voice and video data to a network of Maine high schools.

Among its first initiatives, the Baxter School is using distance learning to teach American Sign Language as a modern language to high school students throughout the state. A deaf instructor broadcasts her class from a small room on campus to students as far as 100 miles away, switching between her text work and a camera view of her signing. The program incorporates interactive television camcorders, computers and communications software to create a multisensory approach to learning.

The Baxter classroom has become a laboratory for designing, delivering and evaluating distance-learning educational programs. With the assistance of design specialists and disability focus groups, the layout of the classroom, as well as the hardware and software being used, incorporate the concepts of universal design. Portable computers will be placed around the perimeter of the room on pivoted, articulated arms. Flexible seating will permit students to be seated around the perimeter of the room for lectures and in small working groups or around a center modular conference table.

Wall-size television screens will provide access to interpreters for students whose language is primarily visual. Captioning programs are being integrated into the communications program design for improved access to higher-quality instructional materials. Room colors are being tested to determine the best background for sign language and for people who are visually impaired.

The Governor Baxter School for the Deaf is responsible for a statewide educational consulting service that supports deaf and hearing-impaired students in public schools. The ATM network is being used to connect the school's staff throughout the state for training.

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