Web-Based Distance Learning and the Second Digital Divide


In no field have we witnessed a greater impact of emerging technologies than in that of distance learning. Correspondence courses using printed material and postal mail have been replaced by Web-based courses with the potential to make learning available to anyone, anywhere at anytime. This potential cannot be realized, however, unless two digital divides are eliminated. Some people are on the wrong side of the first “digital divide” between the technology “haves” and the technology “have-nots”. The benefits of technology are less available to those who are poor, who live in rural areas, who are members of minority racial or ethnic groups, and/or who have disabilities (Kaye, 2000; U.S. Department of Commerce, 1999). Lack of access to new technologies limits their options for taking and teaching technology-based courses. This is true for individuals with disabilities, even though the rapid development of assistive technology makes it possible for an individual with almost any type of disability to operate a computer (2003 Closing the Gap Resource Directory, 2003). Unfortunately, many people with disabilities still do not have access to these empowering tools, putting them on the “have not” side of the first digital divide.
Within the group of “haves” with respect to the first digital divide, however, many people with disabilities face a “second digital divide.” This line separates people who can make full use of the technological tools, services, and information to which they have access, from those who cannot. Too often people with disabilities lucky enough to be on the right side of the first digital divide, find themselves on the wrong side of this second digital divide (Waddell, 1999). For example, a person who is blind may use a text-to-speech system that reads aloud text that appears on the screen. Because it cannot interpret graphics, it will simply say “image map” at a place where an image map would be displayed to someone using the full features of a multimedia Web browser. It cannot read aloud information within this and other graphic images. This person cannot access the content presented unless this content is provided in a text-based form.


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandated that qualified people with disabilities be provided with access to programs and services that receive federal funds. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 reinforced and extended Section 504, requiring that people with disabilities have access to public programs and services, regardless of whether or not they are federally funded. According to these laws, no otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities shall, solely by reason of their disabilities, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in these programs and services, unless it would pose an undue burden to do so. A United States Department of Justice ruling (ADA Accessibility, 1996) clarified that ADA accessibility requirements apply to programs offered on the Internet by stating, “Covered entities that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means as well.” Clearly, if qualified individuals with disabilities enroll in distance learning courses or are qualified to teach them, these opportunities should be made accessible to them. However, the inaccessible design of most Web-based distance learning courses imposes barriers to people with some types of disabilities (Schmetzke, 2001).


If an applicant who is blind is the best candidate to teach a Web-based course which has been developed without text alternatives for critical content displayed using graphics, the course will need to be modified in order for him to teach it. If planning for access was done as the course was being developed, this costly redesign would not be necessary. Simple design decisions could have been made to assure accessibility to potential students and instructors with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. This proactive process is called “universal design”. Universal design is defined as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (National Center for Universal Design, 2003, p.1). Applying universal design principles makes products and environments usable by people with a wide variety of characteristics, including gender, height, age, ethnicity, primary language, and level of ability to see, hear, speak, and move.
The concept of universal design was first applied to architecture. It has since been applied to the design of household appliances, instructional learning environments, Web sites and other products and environments (Bar & Galluzzo, 1999; Bowe, 2000; Burgstahler, 2001). When the wide range of characteristics of potential students and instructors is considered, distance learning course designers can create learning environments that are accessible to all participants, just as sidewalks with curbcuts are used by everyone, including those who push delivery carts, baby strollers, and wheelchairs.
For many years, examples of isolated distance learning courses designed to be accessible to individuals with disabilities could be found, including a course co-taught by the author of this article and a professor who is blind (Burgstahler, 2000). However, few distance learning programs have policies and guidelines that specifically address the accessibility of distance learning tools and resources (Burgstahler, 2000; Kessler & Keefe, 1999; Schmetzke, 2001). Comprehensive policies, such as the mandate that distance learning options offered by California Community Colleges must afford students with disabilities maximum access (Distance education: Access guidelines for students with disabilities, 1999), are rare.


To create Web pages that are accessible to everyone, developers must either avoid certain types of inaccessible features or formats or create alternative methods for navigating or accessing content provided through inaccessible features or formats (Thompson, Burgstahler, & Comden, 2003). For example, including <alt> attributes with descriptive text makes graphic image content accessible to individuals who are blind. Developers should also assure that all functions at a Web site can be accessed using a keyboard alone, so that those who cannot manipulate a mouse can navigate the pages using the keyboard or a keyboard alternative. Another useful feature is to add a “Skip Navigation” link to the top of each page; otherwise, most speech-to-text systems for individuals who are blind will read through all of the navigation links on a page before reading the content in the body of the page.
Students and instructors who have limited vision may use software that enlarges screen images, but allows them to view only a small portion of the content of a standard screen image at one time. Page layouts that are uncluttered and consistent from page to page can facilitate locating and understanding Web content for people with low vision, as well as for those with some types of learning disabilities. Assuring that content and navigation do not require that a viewer distinguish one color from another makes Web-based distance learning accessible to those who are colorblind.
Internet resources that do not require the ability to hear are accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. However, when Web sites include audio output without providing text captioning or transcription, they cannot access the content. Similarly, distance learning programs should provide audio-descriptions (i.e., aural descriptions) of visual content or text-based descriptions for those who are blind.
Some distance learning programs employ real-time “chat” communication in their courses. In this case, students communicate synchronously (at the same time). Synchronous communication is difficult or impossible to use by someone whose input method is slow. For example, a person with limited hand use who can only type characters slowly or someone with a learning disability who takes a long time to compose his thoughts may not be fully included in the discussion. In contrast, with a synchronous tool such as electronic mail, all students and instructors can fully participate. In addition, since flickers at certain rates (often between 2 to 55 hertz) can induce seizures for people who are susceptible to them, they should be avoided.

Tools, Guidelines, and Standards for Accessibility

The most current version of HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) makes it relatively easy to develop accessible Web sites. Commonly used development tools such as WebCT™(n.d.) and Blackboard™ (n.d.) include accessibility tools as well. Electronic tools that can test Web resources for some accessibility features and training courses and reference materials to help distance learning designers develop skills for making distance learning programs accessible are also widely available (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology,n.d.).
Technical guidelines and standards have been developed to provide guidance to organizations that wish to make Web content accessible to students with disabilities. The most widely used are those created by the World Wide Web Consortium and the U.S. federal government.

Table 1. Quick tips to make accessible Web sites

For Complete Guidelines & Checklist: www.w3.org/WAI
Images & animations: Use the alt attribute to describe the function of each visual. Image maps. Use the client-side map and text for hotspots.
Multimedia. Provide captioning and transcripts of audio, and descriptions of video. Hypertext links. Use text that makes sense when read out of context. For example, avoid “click here”.
Page organization. Use headings, lists, and consistent structure. Use CSS for layout and style where possible.
Graphs & charts. Summarize or use the longdesc attribute.
Scripts, applets, & plug-ins. Provide alternative content in case active features are inaccessible or unsupported.
Frames. Use the noframes element and meaningful titles. Tables. Make line-by-line reading sensible. Summarize. Check your work. Validate. Use tools, checklist, and guidelines at http://www. w3. org/TR/WCAG

Table 2. Steps to creating accessible distance learning programs

Make sure that all stakeholders, including potential students and instructors with disabilities, are represented as accessibility policies, procedures, and guidelines are being developed. Review policies and guidelines that have been created by other organizations, such as the California Community Colleges.
Develop a policy statement that commits the organization to making programs, services, and resources accessible to people with disabilities.
Articulate access challenges that may face potential participants with disabilities in the context of the programs, services, and/or resources offered and the tools used for their delivery.
Consult with legal experts to fully understand the requirements for program, information, and service accessibility mandated by the ADA and other legislation relevant to your organization.
Develop guidelines for all media, tools and strategies used in the distance learning courses; consider Section 508 standards as a model as appropriate.
Assign a person or a department within the organization to be responsible for updating disability-related program access policies and guidelines and assuring compliance throughout the organization.
Disseminate accessibility policy, guidelines, and procedures throughout the organization. Provide regular training and support regarding accessibility issues.
Consider developing a plan to phase in compliance with program accessibility guidelines for previously developed courses, with a date at which all programs will be compliant. Regularly evaluate progress toward accessibility.
Besides taking proactive steps to assure accessibility, develop procedures for responding quickly to requests for disability-related accommodations.
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium developed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (1999) for designing Web pages that are accessible to people with disabilities. Besides providing comprehensive guidelines, the WAI provides the quick tips for making accessible Web pages listed in Table 1 (World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative, 2001).
Section 508, which was added in 1986 to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, 2000), requires that electronic and information technologies that federal agencies procure, develop, maintain, and use are accessible to people with disabilities, both employees and members of the public, unless it would pose an undue burden to do so. As mandated in Section 508, the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) developed accessibility standards to which federal agencies must comply (Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards, 2000). Although most distance learning programs are not covered entities under this legislation, they can use the Section 508 standards as guidelines for designing accessible courses. These programs can also benefit from following the leadership of the federal government in being pro-active with respect to the accessibility of information technology (IT). “Use of an ‘ad hoc’ or ‘as needed’ approach to IT accessibility will result in barriers for persons with disabilities. A much better approach is to integrate accessibility reviews into the earliest stages of design, development, and procurement of IT.” (U.S. Department of Justice, 2002)


It is unlikely that distance learning courses in the future will be universally designed unless relevant policies, guidelines, and procedures are in place within distance learning programs. Organizations can begin the process of developing accessibility policies, procedures, and guidelines by addressing issues listed in Table 2, as published in Educational Technology Review (Burgstahler, 2002).


Well-designed distance learning courses create learning opportunities for everyone and thus do not erect barriers for potential students and instructors with disabilities. Employing universal design principles as distance learning courses are created can make learning opportunities accessible to everyone, everywhere, at any time and thereby eliminate the second digital divide.


Accessible: A product, information, or environment that is fully usable by a person, with or without assistive technology.
Assistive Technology: “Any item, piece of equipment, or system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is commonly used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” (Technology-Related Assistance, 1988). Examples of assistive technology include wheelchairs, hand controls for automobiles, prostheses, communication aids, hand splints, hearing aids, and alternatives to computer keyboards (Technology-Related Assistance).
Electronic Technology: Encompasses information technology, but also includes any equipment or interconnected system or subsystem of equipment, that is used in the creation, conversion, or duplication of data or information. Electronic technology includes telecommunications products such as telephones and office equipment such as fax machines.
Hypertext Markup Language (HTML): A language used to organize and present content on Web pages. HTML uses tags such as <h1> and </h1> to structure text into headings, paragraphs, lists, hypertext links, and so forth.
Information Technology: “Any equipment or interconnected system or subsystem of equipment, that is used in the automatic acquisition, storage, manipulation, management, movement, control, display, switching, interchange, transmission, or reception of data or information.” Information technology includes “computers, ancillary equipment, software, firmware and similar procedures” (Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards, 2000, p.80499).
Person with a Disability: Any “person who (a) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, (b) has record of such an impairment, or (c) is regarded as having such an impairment. Major life activities include walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, caring for oneself, and performing manual tasks” (Americans with Disabilities Act of1990).
Universal Design: “The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (National Center for Universal Design).

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