Accessibility of Technology in Higher Education (Distance Learning)


In systems thinking divisions apparent in science specializations are seen “as arbitrary and man made” (Checkland, 1981, p. 4). A key idea embedded in systems theory is that it can assist us in understanding of phenomena and that its holistic emphasis will promote orderly thinking. According to Checkland (1981), there are natural systems, designed systems, abstract systems, and human activity systems (p. 112). Human activity systems can be broken down into examples of open systems that are relationship dependent. Change is inherent in human systems, as the intricacy of the relationships in these kinds of systems require continuous adaptations if the system is to remain stable. Checkland viewed human activity systems as wholes that are emphasized by the existence of other systems.

Checkland (1981) called systems theory a metadis-cipline because of its emphasis on holistic thinking. While “Descartes taught the Western world to break things apart,” systems thinking required one to look at things from the opposite end. Thus, “systems thinking is about the framework itself,” and it is an apt theory and manner of thinking to use when looking at a variety of kinds of systems (Checkland, 1981, p. 12). Two themes flow through systems thinking: (a) emergence and hierarchy, and (b) communication and control (Checkland, 1981, p. 75).

Kuhn (1974) declared that there are just two kinds of controlled systems “all living things, and controlled systems made by living things” (p. 69). Business, industry, government, and education systems are human creations; such social systems are created in direct response to meet their own needs and requirements, and the system created must meet, satisfy, and determine how it will attain its goals. System components then carry out, transform, and integrate the goal relationships into patterns of interaction and interdependence, and the process and interaction of the system created becomes whole and evolves into something that cannot be divided (Banathy, 1973). Churchman and Ackoff (1949 in Emery, 1973) alleged that when something has value in a social system, one can look across periods of time, see an increase in the pursuit of the system value, and observe an increased desire to achieve the system value (p. 20).


Over the past 30-some years in the United States, shifts in thought regarding the use and value of information technology and new perspectives in relation to persons with disabilities and their ability to participate in key areas of human social interaction—such as work, citizenship, education, and independent living—have taken place. This article will explore changes to the education system brought about by the changes in viewpoint connected to the use of information technologies in education and educating persons with disabilities.

Technology has been a constant in the change process for education systems. Assimov (1991) outlined how technology has driven history and pointed to increases in literacy, advances made during the scientific and industrial revolutions, and the advances in 21st century information technology as evidence of technology as a change agent in history. Information technology’s place in history as a change agent is well documented, as is its impact on society, change, and is evident in the increased use, acceptance, and integration in today’s education system.

Research connected to the use of technology has flooded literature connected to teaching and learning. There are numerous professional organizations such as the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), American Library Association (ALA), American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), International Interactive Communications Society (IICS), International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI), International

Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), Media Communications Association International (MCAI), International Visual Literacy Association (ILVA), and the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) dedicated to the advancement of education technology. Increasingly, computer and Internet technologies focused on its use in education have found a home in specialty journals such as Electronic Learning, Technology and Learning, and the Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, to name a few (Heinich, Molenda, Russell, & Smalldino, 2002, pp. 320-322). According to Roblyer and Edwards (2000), “Technology is us—our tool, our methods, and our own creative attempts to solve problems in our environment” (p. v).


The history of agricultural and industrialized-based education systems of the 20th century depicts many system changes, and our 21st century education system is undergoing another metamorphosis. Bandura (1995) stated that the current technological era has “profound implications for educational systems” (p. 17). Along with the technological changes occurring in education systems, Bandura pointed to a social system of change and declared, “As countries become more ethnically diverse, educational systems face the difficult challenge of fulfilling their mission with students of diverse backgrounds and inadequacy of academic preparation” (p. 21). Ongoing battles will be fought over whether educators should adopt assimilationist or multicultural approaches…” in the American educational systems operating within what he termed “sociopolitical contexts” (Bandura, 1995, p. 22).

Education is an activity of social systems that processes people and affects their mental state (Luhmann, in Vanderstraeten, 2000). It is an “intentional system” that exists to move people through organized learning based on context of grade level, ability, and prior learning experiences of the individuals moving through the system (p. 7). Education systems create opportunities for learners that are dependent on social interaction “between the possibility and reality” (Vanderstraeten, 2000, p. 7). Bandura’s (1995) belief that social initiatives can build people’s sense of collective efficacy as well as “influence conditions” and “shape” the lives of “future generations” is evident in his statement that “societies that fail to develop the capabilities of all their youth jeopardize their social and economic progress” (p. 25).


Crewe and Zola (1983) stated: “Social movements eventually find expression in both public and professional practice” (p. 21). In view of that, one can look back over the past 30 years and observe a society that has become increasingly inclusive and accepting of differences. Evidence of this can be seen in federal law connected to civil rights and disabilities-focused legislation such as the Civil Rights Act (1964), Rehabilitation Act (Section 504, 1973), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990), Section 508 (2000), as well as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, (1983), Carl D. Perkins (1984, 1990), and the

Technology-Related Assistance Act for Individuals with Disabilities (TechAct, 1991, 1994). Through some 3 0 years of legislated change, societal thought and overt action have been altered, and persons with disabilities now have more opportunities in the education system and society at large.

The policies and laws set by the government dictated numerous changes to policy and practice in schools and other areas of public life that previously excluded and discriminated against people of color, women, and persons with disabilities.American citizens advocating for themselves and others during the past 30 eventful years directly influenced legislation, attitudes, values, and practice in society with their demands for equality in the 20th century (Smith, 2001, p. 181). Despite the gains, Smith (2001) stated that issues related to special education practice still exist and have not “addressed exclusions and discrimination at individual or institutional levels,” nor has society truly addressed the “disability rights movement” (p. 182).

Man-made social systems such as education are created in response to a need (Bathany, 1973). Schools exist to meet a variety of educational and societal needs. The improbability of building an education system with practices that make some students more worthy of education than others is outlined by Smith (2001), as is the need to recognize that the current system of education has harmed “children, disproportionately limiting and constraining the opportunities for children in poverty, children of color, children with disabilities, and children with cultural and language differences” (p. 186). Any transformation of the education system cannot take place without a change in the fundamental goals, structures, and curriculum perspectives in the system. Smith (2001) outlined the difficulty oftransfor-mation in the education system and framed it in terms of leadership, participation, and change, which she argued creates “democratic, participatory approaches that emphasize movement, critical reflections, and transformation” (p. 186).

Power, status, hierarchy, privilege, voice, agenda, and the part they play in sustained improvement of systems or the lack thereofare discussed by Smith (2001), as is a true transformation that she sees as requiring collaboration, problem solving, and the “democratic participation of stakeholders” (p. 186). Bandura (1995) would say education systems are forced, designed, and structured by eras of history, social, and technological change. In his deliberations on self-efficacy in changing societies, Bandura (1995) expressed a belief that as “a society, we enjoy the benefits left by those before us who collectively fought inhumanities and worked for social reforms that permit a better life,” and further that “our own collective efficacy will in turn shape how future generations will live their lives” (p. 38).

What exists between the possibility and the reality of the educational system for students with disabilities? Mills (1959) outlined three pivotal questions that classical social analysts consistently asked themselves about societal issues in his book, The Sociological Imagination. Mills’ (1959) pivotal questions, which are focused on the nature of our society, structure of the society, our place in history, and the manner of the men and women living in society, are seemingly resonated in Banathy’s (1991) systems of learning and human development inquiry list comprising key questions to ask in systems design for education:

1. What are the nature and characteristics of the post-industrial, information knowledge age?

2. What are the educational implications of these characteristics?

3. What should be learned, by whom, when, where, and how?

4. What core values and core ideas should guide us in: a) creating a vision; b) based on it, forging a new system; and c) the implementation of design?

5. What opportunities, means, and resources shall we require (and might be available to us) in implementing the design, developing the system, and carrying out the educational functions? (p. 3 of 4)


According to Steiner (1988), an education system is made up of four components or subsystems that include: teacher, student, content, and context. In Steiner’s (1988) education system, there is always at least one affect relationship that has information in it. Frick’s (1993) writings—based on Steiner’s model of an education system—argued that the “basic classes of affect relations in any educational system are teacher-student, teacher-content, teacher-context, student-content, student-context, and content-context relationships” (p. 5). Components in Frick’s (1993) theory include the manner in which communication takes place in the system which are, by real people and things, iconic representations or real people or things, or by abstract representations of people or things. Many of the education technology tools available to instructors could be considered as components if looked at in light of Stiener (1988) and Frick (1993) theories about education systems.

In Steiner’s (1988) education system, each person or thing in the system is affected and altered by changes made in the system and the kinds of relationships within the system. Education systems in this model can be informal or formal, and all education systems are portrayed by teachers who guide others, students who follow and intend to learn from teachers, content which provides the information to be learned, and a context setting in which all of the parts come together and content is taught (Steiner, 1998). This integration of the four components set forth in Steiner (1988) is a recognition of relationships and dependencies inherent in the process of learning.


Increasingly, higher education is using information technologies in instruction. Delivering online courses and supplementing instruction in the traditional classroom is becoming common across the higher education system (Green, 2000; Morgan, 2003). Colleges and faculty are using instructional management systems (IMSs) such as Web CT and Blackboard across the United States, and many faculty are using HTML and other HTML editors to create content and links to content for their students (Green, 2000; Luke, 2001; Morgan, 2003). Although research indicated technology is neutral (Russell, 1996), learning delivered over distance technologies and the component casual relationships in an education system are affected in an IMS. Teachers, students, content, context, relationships, and interaction of all the components in an education system can be altered through the use of an IMS or other information technologies in electronic environments (Steiner, 1996).


Instructional management systems are known for their ability to support institutions and their faculty as they begin to develop online programming and courses. IMSs assist institutions and their faculty to develop and deliver online content without a great investment in technological training.According to Morgan (2003), most oftoday’s IMSs “date from the mid- to late 1990s,” and the major goal of such systems is “to integrate a powerful suite of technology tools that make it easy for faculty to use technology in instruction” (p. 15). The systems allow courses to be developed and used by faculty who may have limited or no knowledge of HTML, programming languages, or information technologies.

IMSs have a variety of tools within them that allow faculty to create Web pages; upload documents; create assessments; use e-mail; provide areas for discussion, chat, and lecture; and according to Morgan (2003), one of its strengths is that it has the “potential” to open faculty up to an “inquiry into the nature of effective pedagogy” (p. 86). IMSs have within them the “potential” to be used to create courses and integrate content that is “anchored in the learning theories of Skinner, Piaget, Gagne, Bloom, Kolb, Maslow, and others” and could allow faculty to “adapt the teaching to each learner’s needs and learning style” (Morgan, 2003, p. 186). They are exponentially growing in use across college campuses in America (Green, 2002).


Faculty who create content using information technologies and the colleges that have jumped into the excitement of online learning have been blessed and cursed by IMS technology. On the one hand, these systems provide a quick method for faculty who may have limited technological or instructional design savvy to develop courses, because they are built to ease the labor and delivery of content and courses into the e-learning environment. On the other hand, the very ease of developing course content and materials in IMS allows course environments to be created and birthed without sound pedagogy or knowledge of accessibility issues, and thus, barriers to learning may be integrated into the course content.

Morgan (2003) discussed what she called the “accidental pedagogy” (p. 75) that can take place when using an IMS. Horton (2000) wrote about barriers inherent in online learning in terms of accessibility issues for all students. Horton (2000) described two kinds of students experiencing problems with the technology in online learning environments. One is the student with a disability experiencing barriers related to content, design, and misuse of information technologies. The second is the student with a disability who is technology disabled (Horton, 2000) and is experiencing barriers and problems related to new technology in an IMS system being used by a college or a technology they are using.


Section 508 is an amendment that took effect in July of 2001. This act “requires federal agencies to adhere to specific guidelines developed by the Access Board in March of2000″ (Robertson, 2003, p. 1). The guidelines are meant to assist the design of accessible Web pages so that persons with disabilities may “navigate, read, or write on a site” (Robertson, 2003, p. 1). Section 508 (2001) standards mirror the lowest level of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) standards for accessibility of information technology. WAI standards for Level One and Section 508 standards require that minimal levels of accessibility for Web pages are met through the provision of alternative text descriptions for all images; implementing this design element is considered the “single most important thing” to do in making Web pages accessible (Thatcher, 2001, p. 2). Alternative text should be provided for all images on a page to allow persons with assistive technologies—such as talking browsers, screen readers, or text browsers—to read Web pages.

Along with the alternative text requirement, Section 508 (2001), Bobby (2002), and WAI (2002) guidelines for accessible Web pages stated that image and server-side maps should provide equivalent text links, active regions should be assigned their own links, and descriptive labels should be applied to the links. Schmetzke’s (2001) accessibility study found that a full 97% of accessibility issues in Web pages were caused by not using alternative text for images and image map hot spots and the view that this type of oversight is easily fixed, as it requires minimal skills and only a basic understanding of HTML code to correct (p. 28).

According to Robertson (2003), maximizing access to information and education will provide equal opportunities for persons with disabilities, and despite a view that although “these issue may seem complicated…with little effort Web authors can make their pages accessible to anyone with a disability” (p. 4). While many instructional management system vendors advertise built-in Section 508 compliancy, they do not on take on the task of teaching educators about accessibility issues. The compliancy efforts of the vendors can be looked at as an attempt to build in accidental accessibility in much the same way that “accidental pedagogy” is built into the IMS (Morgan, 2003).

Just as an IMS has the “potential to guide instructors through course plans anchored on the learning theories of Skinner, Piaget, Gagne, Bloom, Kolb, and Maslow (Morgan, 2003, p. 68), an IMS has the potential to allow instructors to consider content in light of audience and accessibility in the design—technical and pedagogical—within it. Sadly, beyond that potential promise to transform course design, and the teaching and learning of the faculty and students who use the IMS, it often does neither.

In order to meet Section 508 guidelines, many IMS vendors market products that create alternative text for faculty whenever an image is inserted. Many of them provide alternate views to allow for accessibility features for text readers. Few of them provide anything beyond the accidental accessibility built into the system’s Section 508 feature. There is not an emphasis on building faculty knowledge related to pedagogy or issues of accessibility in common information technologies that are linked to or inserted into a course through the use of an IMS. Applications such as PowerPoint, audio clips, and other special features such as whiteboards that faculty commonly use to add interest and engage students at a sensory level are topics that should be addressed as accessibility of online courses can be impaired by “excessive amounts of graphics, frames, and animations” (Robertson, 2003, p. 4).

Reasoned thought and application of how accessibility and pedagogy fit into such an education system are not built into an IMS beyond what Morgan (2003) termed the “accidental” potential the systems have in that they may cause faculty to “rethink their course instruction” (p. 75). Morgan’s (2003) study of the University ofWisconsin system faculty and their use of IMSs did note the importance of training to encourage faculty use of the system. Morgan (2003) noted that 80% of faculty in the University of Wisconsin system used IMSs in face-to-face instruction in hybrid courses and 27% of faculty in the study used them in online courses. In her study, Morgan (2003) also indicated that faculty training was most effective when the training was local, delivered to small sessions with IMS peers and mentors, provided trainees real examples of how the IMS could be used, and made sure that the training focused on the technology and not the pedagogy (p. 75).

The report also included an account of problems with student access to technology. Faculty who replied to the Morgan (2003) survey indicated that students often did not have “access with enough bandwidth” and that “access was not always reliable” (p. 77). Although Morgan (2003) looked at IMSs from a variety of faculty and system issues, as well as considering some limited pedagogical and historical implications, she did not except for an account of student access problems caused by bandwidth address issues of accessibility in regard to teaching in the IMS. Students with disabilities were not addressed in her study. Nor was the pedagogical opportunity for content to be transformed through technology addressed beyond a discussion of “accidental” pedagogy (Morgan , 2003) happening during the time that faculty rethink a course within the environment of the IMS.

Accidental pedagogy may bring about some good changes to the structure and delivery of content within an IMS, but without deeper understanding and appreciation of the interaction of all the parts within the course management system, teaching and learning cannot be transformed or utilized to its true potential. Stamm and Howlett (2002) declared success in an IMS is driven by the “design and performance of the technology” and that Web delivery is most effective when Web pedagogy is a part of the process (p. 1). Further, Web pedagogy as process has the potential to inform the course design and “harmonize content, delivery tool, and audience” (Stamm & Howlett, 2002, p. 1 of 6).

Online delivery requires more than just inserting course materials into a Web-based template and instructional tools such as an IMS provides. Limited understanding and accidental improvements will never lead to true accessibility of content in an electronic environment and due to this inequity will exist in these IMSs for disabled students. According to de Rosnay (1979):

The systemic approach has little value if it does not lead to practical applications such as facilitating the acquisition of knowledge and improving the effectiveness of our actions. It should enable us to extractfrom the properties and behavior of complex systems some general rules for understanding systems better and acting on them. (Chapter 2, p. 26)

Although Morgan’s (2003) study was not designed to find a poor systemic approach related to the integration of IMS or pedagogical issues connected to its use in higher education systems, the findings seem to support the notion that IMSs are not being used to their full advantage or potential, especially as they relate to equity in teaching and learning, and quality instruction for all students.


Levine (in Morgan, 2003) described the future of higher education as “brick and click,” and this pithy phrase seems an apt one in light of the technological landscape of today’s higher education system (p. 77). Instruction enhanced by technology that can be accessed by anyone at anytime is seemingly the mantra of the day (Schmetzke, 2001), and as IMS use increases in higher education and the numbers of students with disabilities attending postsecondary schools increase, barriers may be created unknowingly. The same laws that protect the rights of students with disabilities and provide provisions for access, accommodations, and accessibility (Section 504, 1973; ADA, 1990; Section 508, 2001) in the traditional classroom exist in the electronic classroom. The same confusion (Carnevale, 1999; Coombs, 2000; Leyser, Vogel, & Wyland, 1998) and misconceptions that have followed these laws into the face-to-face environment of higher education are now prevalent in the new technology-laden environment created in higher education since the mid-1990s.

In 1998 Bruce Landon developed a tool that could be used to evaluate IMS products in terms of pedagogy and course tools they provide. During 1999 and 2000, the Special Needs Opportunity Windows (SNOW), an organization affiliated with the University of Toronto in Canada, outlined a project that would use Landon’s tool and additionally would focus on accessibility issues inherent in using IMS technologies. In the executive summary of Inclusion in an Electronic Classroom, readers were provided the following cautionary information:

With the recent increase in the popularity of Web-based instruction and computer-accessed information in general, it is becoming increasingly important for the electronic community to become aware of the barriers people with disabilities face in these virtual environments. As technologies emerge to deliver Web-based instruction, it is also important to educate both courseware developers and educators of solutions they can apply to insure that persons with disabilities are not excluded from participating in this new and quickly developing form of education. (p. 1)

One of the results of SNOW’s study of Web accessibility in the electronic classroom was Robert Luke’s (2000) Inclusion in an Electronic Classroom-2000: AccessAbility—Enabling Technology for Life Long Learning. This white paper focused on the online educational environments that are provided within IMSs and those learning or physically disabled students who could be prevented from accessing the learning in the IMSs due to the system.

A systems approach in the design of instruction and in managing the complexity of instruction is an important process. According to Robyler and Edwards (2000), while a systems approach has been used most in business, industry, and the military, it has not been used very much in education systems (p. 59). Instructional management systems are similar in concept to integrated learning systems (ILSs) as outlined in Robyler and Edwards (2000) and offer many of the same features such as opportunities for drill, practice, tutorial, simulation, problem solving, and an array of methods to maintain records on student progress. The major difference between the two packages is that an ILS is prepackaged with curriculum in place for faculty use, while an IMS is for the most part an empty template made to be filled with faculty-developed content. Often the IMS templates are filled by faculty with course content previously delivered in a traditional classroom. In the move to the IMS environment, course content is often inserted in the application without regard for accessibility (Robertson, 2003; Stamm & Howlett, 2002) or any connection to Web pedagogy.

According to Senge (1990), systems thinking can provide a framework to help us “make full patterns clearer and helps us to know how to make changes effectively” (p. 5). Senge indicated that systems thinking could allow us to: a) clarify and strengthen our own vision, energies, and patience to see reality objectively through personal mastery; b) through review get a sense of our own mental models and how they impact our thinking; c) build shared vision in an organization around a common destiny and identity; and d) team together to create an organization where all have a voice and people gain the skills needed to recognize “patterns of interaction that undermine learning” (p. 9).

While pedagogical concepts and accessibility may be built into an instructional management system, what is often lacking is the organization’s vision of how to educate faculty on the use of the new Web pedagogy and its connection to teaching and learning. The ability to use instructional design tenets, to consider audience, and to integrate a system’s shared vision in a common plan for transforming teaching and learning in the electronic environment is often the missing link in the IMS chain of implementation.

The possibilities of the Internet and new learning environments that are inherent within an IMS could greatly extend and enhance potential opportunities for students with disabilities. Luke (2000) expressed the belief that without an overall emphasis on accessibility and up-front consideration of concerns for students with disabilities, new obstacles are created for them in distance education and in the IMS itself.

In fact, Luke (2000) argued that “good pedagogy takes the technical access considerations into account when creating online curricula,” and a focus on accessibility takes into account both views as ” these divergent issues—the technical and the pedagogical—are inherently linked” (p. 3).

According to Proctor (2004), data collected from empirical research looking at technology integration in Canadian colleges, and its impact on the system and on students with disabilities (Fitchen et al., 2001; Luke, 2000), echoed research findings and themes in other studies related to issues of access, accommodation, and accessibility for students with disabilities in American systems of higher education (Michaels, Prezant, Morabito, & Jackson, 2002; Hinn, 1999; Rowland, 2000; Schmetzke, 2001). Current research and articles connected to use of technology and issues of access, accommodations, and accessibility mandated for students with disabilities in higher education documented the lack of knowledge of the issues surrounding the incorporation of accessible technologies used in higher education.

Current disabilities law—such as Section 504 (1973), the ADA (1990), and now Section 508 (2001), which specifically addressed and outlined issues of accessible technology for persons with disabilities—indicated the need for colleges to inform themselves and their faculty on issues of accessibility inherent in use of an instructional management system. Schmetzke (2001) reinforced the importance of higher education’s need to focus on understanding issues of persons with disabilities related to accessibility of information technology. Like Coombs (2000), Schmetzke (2001) pointed to legislative mandates, ethics, economics, and selfishness as reasons to provide equitable learning environments for students with disabilities. Rowland’s (2000) work delineated the need for stakeholder commitment, action, and ongoing professional development related to technology solutions as important steps for post-secondary systems to take in improving the system for students with disabilities.

Looking ahead, Green (1999) expressed a belief that assisting faculty as technology is being integrated into instruction is one of the important challenges that colleges and universities in the United States will face in the next few years. Senge (1990) outlined systems thinking as a conceptual framework that can make patterns clear and help people in the system see how to change them effectively. Systems of higher education have the ability through strong faculty development initiatives to provide a common identity and destiny for their organizations .A vision that includes pedagogy and accessibility issues as a part of learning how to design and teach with instructional management systems, as well as other technologies, will allow faculty and their systems to meet challenges inherent in the integration of technologies and at the same time provide them with the ability to recognize the “patterns of interaction that undermine learning” (Senge, 1990, p. 10).


Spencer (1999) and Frick (1991) both outlined a history of education that summarized technology use across time. Oral transmission of knowledge, written language, the invention of the printing press, and 20th century educators’ attempts to integrate new technologies such as film, television, radio, and now computer technology to improve methods and student performance are all discussed. Crew and Zola (1983), Sarkess, Wircenski, and Scott (1995), and Smith (2001) each outlined a history of changed social thought and gains made toward equal participation in society for persons with disabilities across time.

Rowland (2000) and Roblyer and Edwards (2000) presented information on issues connected to the crossroads of increased use of information technology and teaching and learning in education systems. In a discussion of education technology, Roblyer and Edwards (2000) expressed the belief that there is not a single paradigm that can really explain the current status of technology in the education system or that can predict what its integration will mean in the future (p. 7). However, an assumption can be made that the components, the relationships, the system, and the environment of the system will be changed by the increased use of information technologies.

According to Roblyer and Edwards (2000), there are four historical perspectives on the tools and uses of technology that have influenced practice in today’s education system. The perspectives included discussion of how educators have used or will use the following: media and audiovisual communication, instructional systems, vocational training tools, and computers and computer-based systems. The “disparate views” in these perspectives can be reviewed in an intellectual process by which educators using reason are “determining of which electronic tools” or “methods for implementing them are appropriate for given classrooms situations and problems” (pp. 8-9).

Frick (1991) framed and outlined the concept of education systems and technology’s role in such systems of education. In the outline of the component relationships in an education system, he added the environment to the teacher, student, content, and context subsets in the system described by Steiner (1988). Frick (1991) and Roblyer and Edwards (2000) all portrayed American education systems as influenced and on a collision course with information technologies that are dramatically altering relationships in the education environment. According to Roblyer and Edwards (2000) and Rowland (2000), societal, cultural, equity, education, technical, and disability issues related to the use of information technologies in education are exacerbated by both pro and con viewpoints on the use and misuse of technology in education systems.

Inequity in access to information technology by students who are poor, multicultural, disabled, or inequity by means of gender are all problematic areas to be addressed as technologies are integrated and ingrained in the education system. Roblyer and Edwards (2000) called technology a “two-edged sword,” discussed its potential to create greater inequity and divisions across society, and described the need for educators use technology to “promote.. .the goals of a democratic society” (p. 33). In our democratic society, access and accessibility of technologies used in education are increasingly being viewed not just as teaching (Rowland, 2000; Schmetzke, 2000) and learning issues, but as an area of civil rights for persons with disabilities.


Systems thinking experts Mitroff and Linstone (1993) proposed that not all problems should be governed by logic and rationality, particularly those that involve issues of justice and fairness toward social groups and ethical consideration of the needs of that particular group. Phenomena such as demographic information relating to increased numbers of students with disabilities entering higher education, increased use of technologies in general—especially the use of IMSs in postsecondary institutions—and laws that impact systems practice, policy, and perhaps even litigation make it imperative that integration of new technologies that have the potential to transform education be viewed holistically.

Senge (1990) stated that there are “two sources of energy for motivation: fear and aspiration” (p. 225). Further, in a discussion of the use of a positive vs. a negative vision, he said: “What do we want?” is a different question than “What do we want to avoid?” (Senge, 1990, p. 225). One ofthe items seemingly lacking in the integration of IMSs into systems of higher education is systems thinking and the causal relationships inherent in the system. Systems thinking could provide a conceptual model to allow users of IMS to look at how people and things will interact within that system. Looking critically at pedagogical and accessibility issues is linked to success, as is sound instruc-tion—whether face to face or in the technology-laden environment of an IMS. It is increasingly important that educators look at how system components in an education system are influenced by the integration of technology. Consideration ofthe cost oftime, resources, and problems that would be associated with retrofitting all of the courses that an organization is vested in, that did not take into account the technical and the pedagogical implications, is important in colleges across the United States.


Access: “A means of entrance, the opportunity to reach or use, free of physical and attitudinal barriers. Access for blind individuals means mobility and information (warning textures at curbs, stairs, and hazardous doors; removal of obstacles; Braille elevator buttons). Access for deaf individuals means communication (cooperation, warning lights on fire alarms, text telephones). Access for the mobility impaired and wheelchair users means removal of physical barriers, maneuvering space, clear floor space” (http://www.

Accessibility: The ability to easily navigate and move about in the environment. Usually thought of in terms of the architecture of buildings, but since the recent advent ofthe WebAccessibility Initiative (WAI), has been expanded to include the architecture of the World Wide Web and, per Section 508 (NCD, 2001), all electronic and information technology.

Accommodations: Modifications or adjustments to a task or an environment that allow a person with a disability an equal opportunity to complete a task or to access an environment. Not all persons with disabilities, or kinds of disability, require accommodations. Environmental accommodations include, but are not limited to, ramps, curb cuts, handicapped accessible bathrooms, accessible computer stations, touch screens, and light switches. Education accommodations include, but are not limited to, tape recorders, screen readers, oral tests, extra time to complete related course work, and notetakers and interpreters provided to students with disabilities.

ADA: “The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. It also applies to the United States Congress. To be protected by the ADA, one must have a disability or have a relationship or association with an individual with a disability. An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA does not specifically name all of the impairments that are covered” (http://www.usdoj .gov/crt/ada/cguide.pdf, p. 3 of 23).

Barriers: Real or perceived obstructions to social, political, and intellectual enterprise for persons with disabilities that deny civil rights, are discriminatory, or impede a person’s access in an environment (Crewe & Zola, 1987, p. 37).

Disability: “This is the accepted term under the ADA and replaces all other terms in legislative and professional terminology. For purposes of the ADA it means the limitation of a major function, which is the result of a physical or mental impairment. Some disabled people include: wheelchair users, the mobility impaired, the blind, the deaf, those with lack of stamina, mental and cognitive disabilities, and various ‘hidden’ disabilities” (

Distance Education: A formal educational process in which the majority of the instruction occurs when student and instructor are geographically separate. Instruction may be synchronous or asynchronous. Content and communication may be exchanged through a variety of media.

Higher Education: Education beyond high school provided by colleges, graduate schools, and professional schools. The term is “used interchangeably with post-secondary education in journal articles and education discourse” (Random House, 1987, p. 902).

Information Technology (IT): “A term that encompasses all forms of technology used to create, store, exchange, and use information in its various forms (business data, voice conversations, still images, motion pictures, multimedia presentations, and other forms, including those not yet conceived). It’s (sic) a convenient term for including both telephony and computer technology in the same word” (http://www.

Instructional Management System (IMS): System and information technology tool that allow educators to create, organize, and manage online courses quickly and easily though the use of Web-based templates for online course delivery. Most IMS vendors advertise their product as a course management tool that allows individuals to create course content as easily as they create documents or presentations in software applications such as Word or PowerPoint.

Integrated Learning System (ILS): Packages of hardware and software intended to deliver computer-based instruction. The packages provide opportunities for drill, practice, tutorial, simulation, problem solving, and an array of methods to maintain records on student progress. Each student can study at his or her own level, and when used as intended, assessment information is used to enhance student learning in off-line instruction as well. An ILS is prepackaged with all the curriculum in place (Roblyer & Edwards, 2000).

Issues: According to Mills (1959), “issues transcend” the individual and are societal concerns that take into account larger and more public matters. The issues ofpersons with disabilities, and their integration into and access of societal institutions such as higher education, are public matters in the 21st century, as is the concept of accessible technology for all citizens.

Section 504: “Section 504 states that ‘no qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall be excluded from, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under’ any program or activity that either receives Federal financial assistance or is conducted by any Executive agency or the United States Postal Service. Each Federal agency has its own set of section 504 regulations that apply to its own programs. Agencies that provide Federal financial assistance also have section 504 regulations covering entities that receive Federal aid. Requirements common to these regulations include reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities; program accessibility; effective communication with people who have hearing or vision disabilities; and accessible new construction and alterations. Each agency is responsible for enforcing its own regulations. Section 504 may also be enforced through private lawsuits” (http://www.usdoj. gov/crt/ada/cguide.pdf, p. 19 of 23).

Section 508: “Section 508 establishes requirements for electronic and information technology developed, maintained, procured, or used by the Federal government. Section 508 requires Federal electronic and information technology to be accessible to people with disabilities, including employees and members of the public. An accessible information technology system is one that can be operated in a variety of ways and does not rely on a single sense or ability of the user. For example, a system that provides output only in visual format may not be accessible to people with visual impairments [,] and a system that provides output only in audio format may not be accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Some individuals with disabilities may need accessibility-related software or peripheral devices in order to use systems that comply with Section 508″ ( cguide.pdf, p. 20 of 23).

Stakeholder: Stakeholders include people or organizations with a stake in a particular issue or resource. In this article, stakeholders are defined as faculty, staff, and administrators who work in systems of higher education.

Student with a Disability: Any person “who has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more ofa person’s major life activities; has a record or such impairment; or is regarded as having an impairment” (Section 504). Impairments include, but are not limited to, physical, visual, auditory, mobility, cognitive, and learning disabilities. Also see the term disability provided in the list of definitions for the ADA-recognized definition. Note too that definitions that attempt to describe disability cannot be exhaustive, as words and terms to describe types of disability change over time.

Systems Thinking: A manner of thinking that takes into account how the things being studied relate and connect to each other. A key idea embedded in systems theory is that it can assist us in understanding of phenomena and that its holistic emphasis will promote orderly thinking. It is an apt approach to use when thinking about complex issues and interactions.

WebAccessibility Initiative (WAI): “WAI, in coordination with organizations around the world, pursues accessibility of the Web through five primary areas of work: technology, guidelines, tools, education and outreach, and research and development” (http://www.

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