Online Distance Education-"Anytime, Anywhere" but Not for Everyone
Schmetzke, Axel, Information Technology and Disabilities
With the tremendous growth of online distance education programs, it is easily forgotten that the concept of learning "anytime anywhere" is not a new one. Distance learning, in form of correspondence or home study, reaches back over 250 years in this country (Valore and Diehl, 1987: 2). The first formal recognition of home study occurred in 1883, when the State of New York authorized the Chautauqua Institute to award degrees earned through correspondence (Valore and Diehl: 2). That there was, next to economic and social demands arising from the advancing industrialization, a concomitant democratic-egalitarian sentiment behind the drive for distance learning found its expression perhaps most clearly in the "Wisconsin idea" and the creation of the University of Wisconsin Extension.
"The increasing spirit in Wisconsin demanded that the university should serve the state and all of its people and that it should be an institution for all the people within the state and not merely for the few who could send their sons and daughters to Madison; thus was brought about the establishment of the extension division about five years ago." (McCarthy 1912: 132).
It is questionable whether the architects of the Wisconsin idea, which inspired and shaped university extensions all over the country, were including people with disabilities in their thinking when they proposed to make education more available to the community at large. There is no indication in the pertinent literature that this was the case (McCarthy 1912; Patzer 1924: 285-301; Doan 1947, The Wisconsin Idea 1981, Knox and Corry, 1995: 181-192). However, regardless of whether people with disabilities were included or not, it is likely that they were among the beneficiaries of the extended programs. Ommerborn (1998: 22-26) argues that it was not by sheer linear extension of educational programs-the same education now offered to a broader segment of the population-but by the innovative, individualized forms of pedagogy and delivery that distance study resulted in the opening of higher education to new groups, including people with disabilities. Valore and Diehl point out that people with disabilities had been taking advantage of distance learning opportunities even prior to the emergence of university extensions: "Since the beginning, accredited home study schools have extended training to the handicapped, providing educational opportunities that might otherwise not have been available to them" (p. 14). The opening of the educational programs to people with disabilities was not limited to specialized correspondence schools, such as the Hadley School for the Blind founded in 1920, but applied to home study schools in general. Miller et al. (1999) describe students with disabilities as one of several "niche" groups for which distance learning opportunities are particularly suited.
Despite the increase in educational opportunities through distance education and legislative measures, particularly Section 504 and ADA, people with disabilities-some 54 million in the U.S. (McNeil, 1997)-remain underrepresented in postsecondary education. Longitudinal data indicate that students with high-school diplomas are less likely to enroll in public four-year colleges, and that those who do enroll are less likely to graduate (Horn and Berktold, 1999). As Gadbow and Du Bois (1998) point out, a large majority of people with disabilities under the age of 65 are intellectually capable of succeeding in postsecondary education, yet most have not attended institutions of higher learning.
Recent advances in digital information and telecommunication technology present tremendous opportunities for this underserved segment of the population. This is particularly true for people with print disabilities, who, be it because of blindness, visual impairment or motor problems, may have difficulties attending traditional on-site programs. With the help of screen readers (software that converts the text on the screen to voice or sends it to a Braille embosser), digitized text is, at least potentially, accessible to those who are unable to see print or who, because of a learning disability, have difficulty reading it (Mace, 1996; Sreenivasan, 1996). …