Making Computer-Mediated Education Responsive to the Accommodation Needs of Students with Disabilities

By Bricout, John C. | Journal of Social Work Education, Spring-Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Making Computer-Mediated Education Responsive to the Accommodation Needs of Students with Disabilities


Bricout, John C., Journal of Social Work Education


THE ACCOMMODATION NEEDS of students with disabilities has been a subject of concern to social work educators for at least two decades (see Alperin, 1988; Cole & Cain, 1996; Cole, Chirst, & Light, 1995; James & Thomas, 1996; Madden, 1995; Weinberg, 1978). With the passage and implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, social work educators began to articulate the unique learning needs of their students with disabilities in the language of "reasonable" and "appropriate" accommodations. The intention of such accommodations was to remove barriers to access and to equal participation in the educational process (see Cole & Cain, 1996; Cole et al., 1995). At the same time, a technological revolution was taking place in the domain of information technology with broad implications for social work practice and education (e.g., Cwikel & Cnaan, 1991; Marson, 1997; Marson, Cogswell, & Smith, 1994; Nurius, 1995; Schoech, 2000; Visser, 1995; Weinberg, 1996).

Computer-mediated communication in the form of Intranet-based (proprietary agency computer networks) and Internet-based information exchange and retrieval has become an increasingly prevalent resource for social work practice (Finn, 2000; Henrickson & Mayo, 2000; Holden, Bearison, Rode, Kapiloff, & Rosenberg, 2000; Marson, 1997; Weinberg, 1996). Over one quarter of all social work education programs have websites, as do a number of private practitioners (Marson, 1997). In a survey of social workers who regularly use the Internet, almost 94% reported that online services improved their professional capabilities (Marlowe-Carr, 1997). However, the Internet's potential as a resource for social work practice is just beginning to be developed (Marson, 1997). The Internet provides a promising new learning media for social work education, and a new context for the accommodation of students with disabilities.

The Internet has only recently been explored as a learning medium in the research literature on social work education (e.g., Faux & Black-Hughes, 2000; Latting, 1994). It has also recently been examined in other areas of higher learning, such as education (Murphy & Collins, 1997), educational psychology (e.g., Anderson, 1996), student affairs (Strange & Alston, 1998), organizational psychology (Hantula, 1998), human sexuality and research (Rosen & Petty, 1995), psychology (Krantz & Eagley, 1996), and sociology (Southard, 1997). These studies tend to describe a single course and relate the experience of students and faculty newly introduced to the Internet as a learning and communication medium. Most examine student receptivity to the medium and chronicle their acclimation over time while monitoring the quality and degree of student interactivity with Internet-based resources (e.g., on the World Wide Web) and with each other (e.g., real-time or asynchronous "chats"). Although several investigators have raised the issue of ensuring the pedagogical integrity of computer-mediated education (e.g., Anderson, 1996; Hantula, 1998; Johnson & Huff, 2000; Latting, 1994; Schoech, 2000), the context of these discussions has often been a concern for preparing instructors and students for online research or collaborative learning online. Less consideration has been given to the challenge of preparing the educational medium for the learner.

The underlying assumption in most discussions of Internet learning seems to be that computer-based communications provide a transparent, or universally comprehensible and accessible, medium for learning, provided that the student is appropriately trained and skilled. There appears to be a notion of a "generic" or "universal" user (learner) behind the notion of a transparent medium. Similarly, the notion of a generic or universal user has led to the creation of both public and private facilities and services that have proven inaccessible to individuals with disabilities who do not fit the "mold.

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