A Needs Assessment of the Accessibility of Distance Education in the California Community College System. Part I
If distance education was once the wave of the future, it is now here to stay and is improving rapidly. As technology advances—providing more opportunities for people to access material from almost anywhere on various devices in any number of formats—distance education is becoming increasingly complex. While the opportunity for students to take classes at any time of day or night provides a great convenience for those enrolled, it also presents a new range of challenges for instructors. They have more options than ever before for presenting material in an engaging format.
These advances in technology, however, must benefit anyone enrolling in distance education (DE) courses—including students with disabilities. People with disabilities are entering college in increasing numbers (Henderson, 2001; National Council on Disability, 2000). In fact, the largest and fastest growing group of students who are enrolling are those with learning disabilities (Henderson, 2001). Once enrolled, students with disabilities are also, unfortunately, less likely to persist, make transitions from 2- to 4-year institutions, earn degrees, and secure employment (Horn & Bobbitt, 1999; National Council on Disability, 2000; Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Yelin & Katz, 1994). The latter is particularly important because the association between level of education and rate of employment is stronger for those with disabilities than for the general population (Burgstahler, 2007). As course delivery for distance education improves, the moral and legal obligation that campuses have to make the material accessible to all students remains the same: students with disabilities need the same opportunities as other students to learn course material and to succeed in these courses. But various factors hinder campuses in making DE courses accessible. In some situations, instructors lack the support and skills needed to design accessible course materials. In other cases, the course approval process lacks efficiency and fails to identify courses that are inaccessible before they become active. In still other cases, students are not offered the training, tools, and support needed to succeed in online courses.