The Design of Accessible Distance Education Environments That Use Collaborative Learning

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The use of information technology in education is proliferating throughout the world, both in traditional classroom environments and in distance education using the World Wide Web. It is assumed that new technology enhances opportunities for disabled students in higher education. Adequate research data are, however, needed to assess the effectiveness of technology for enhancing learning and to demonstrate how people who have been marginalized by social, economic, and physical situations best use the technology.

Even though educational opportunities for disabled students continue to expand, many students who have disabilities do not enter higher education even when they have both the motivation and the requisite intellectual capability. This situation is similar in Sweden (National Agency for Higher Education, 2000) and the United States (Horn & Berktold, 1999).

Malmo University in Sweden is conducting a project entitled "Accessibility and Learning in Higher Education, Learning and New Media." This integrated research, development and training project, located in the School of Teacher Education at Malmo University, is supported by funding from the Knowledge and Competence Development Foundation of Stockholm. A multidisciplinary team representing the Center for Teacher Education, the Department of Information Technology, and the University Library Services is conducting the project. Private companies in the region interested in computer-supported educational products are also participating. This article reports the goals and efforts of the pilot project designed to study the development and testing of optimal methods for facilitating learning through the use of information technology by all students, including those with disabilities.

It is relatively easy to see the effects of technology on accessibility to education for disabled students. It is much harder to gauge the impact of educational design and methods on this population. The fact that research and related literature concerned with educational accessibility focus mainly on technological issues may be a consequence of this difference. Examples of this perspective are offered below.

Schmetzke (2001) investigated the degree to which distance education sites were accessible. Using Bobby, a web-site accessibility evaluation tool [1], Schmetzke checked 219 sites. Only 15 % of the beginning pages were free from severe accessibility errors.

Schmetzke's article studied the technology used for web access. His findings showed that the technology affects the accessibility of a web-based course.

Schmetzke (2001) also reviewed the literature that examines the obstacles that people with disabilities encounter in an online distance education environment. Only a few articles treated the issue, and they had a primarily technological perspective. None of the reviewed articles dealt with how educational design and pedagogical approach affect the accessibility of a web-based course: Stewart (1999) stated that accessibility must be built into the offered product. Harrison (1999) asserted that web-based educational resources must have a universal and barrier-free design. Kessler and Keefe (1999) discussed the impact that newer distance education technology has on students with disabilities.

CERTEC, Center for Rehabilitation Engineering Technology in Sweden [2], has conducted research since 1995 on development of a distance education concept that is accessible to disabled people. Anderberg (1999) described the efforts to make distance education courses accessible. (For more information, also see Anderberg, 1998; Anderberg & Magnusson, 1998; Anderberg & Jonsson, 1997; Anderberg et al., 1997.) Anderberg described CERTEC's educational philosophy and concept, but his discussion primarily presented a technological perspective of accessibility issues.

In contrast, the present article focuses on the impact of pedagogy, educational design, and teaching method on accessibility. …