Sheryl Burgstahler

Distance Learning and the Information Highway

by Sheryl E. Burgstahler, Ph. D., University of Washington
in Journal of Rehabilitation Administration, November, 1995.


Distance learning offers exciting training options for administrators, staff, and clients in the rehabilitation field. The Internet is a flexible, powerful, and efficient tool for the delivery of such programs and facilitates access for people with disabilities. Two programs at the University of Washington demonstrate the successful use of the Internet for communication, instructional delivery, and information access. This paper describes these programs and discusses advantages and challenges in using the Internet as a medium for the delivery of distance learning.

Distance Learning and the Information Highway

The Internet “information highway”creates a revolutionary forum for the exchange of ideas, fundamentally changing the way we communicate. It is an indispensable tool in the information age. For distance learning programs, it can be used to deliver instruction, store information, and facilitate communication. People equipped with appropriate technology, including individuals with disabilities, can gain access to unlimited opportunities for interaction and learning without leaving their homes or offices.

Distance learning occurs when an instructor delivers instruction to students who are not in the same location. This approach eliminates the constraints that once limited education to students and instructors in the same place at the same time. Distance learning programs show promise in the rehabilitation field and may help address shortages of trained personnel (Barker, Frisbie, & Patrick, 1989; Bitter, Gregg, & Jackson,1994; Bussell, Harrison, McFarlane, Saba, & Turner, 1994; Eldredge, Gerard & Smart, 1994). They use a variety of technologies to deliver instruction, including print media, voice technologies (real-time, voice mail), video technologies (tapes, live telecasts, cable television), postal mail, and computer technologies. Increasing numbers of schools, government agencies and other institutions are using the Internet to deliver distance learning courses (Moore, 1990).

The Internet provides a rich medium for distance learning (Coombs, 1992; Ehrmann, 1992). This collection of networks began as a research vehicle, but grew to become much more. The Internet connects thousands of computers and millions of people around the world. As network technologies become indispensable tools in post-secondary programs and careers, schools and employers provide direct network connections in labs and offices. However, most personal computer users with access to the Internet are connected to host computers through modems and standard phone lines.

This paper describes two distance learning programs that make use of the Internet network and discusses advantages and challenges in using the Internet as a medium for the delivery of distance learning.

Program Descriptions

The University of Washington is involved in several efforts that use the Internet to create electronic communities of learners. Two of special interest to rehabilitation administrators are project DO-IT and a distance learning course on adaptive technology.

Just DO-IT!

Project DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology), primarily funded by the National Science Foundation, helps students with disabilities transition to college and, ultimately, to employment (Burgstahler, 1994). Each year, high school students with disabilities are selected from a five-state region to become DO-IT Scholars.

Disabilities of the DO-IT Scholars are diverse, including low vision, blindness, deaf-blindness, mobility impairments, multiple amputations, speech impairments, learning disabilities, hearing impairments, brain injury, health impairments, and attention deficit disorder. Scholars are loaned computer systems and modems to keep in their homes.

Many Scholars require adaptive hardware and software products to control input, interpret output, and read documentation. Hundreds of adaptive devices are commercially available (Closing the gap, 1994). For example, students who are blind use optical character readers, voice output, and Braille translation software and printers. Products that present large images on the screen are used by those with low vision. Individuals who cannot use their hands access computers with alternative keyboards, Morse code input devices with appropriate switches, and voice input. And, students with learning disabilities use voice output, large print technologies, and spelling/grammar checkers.

Scholars are provided with local Internet connections or 800 number dial-up access to host systems at the University of Washington. They receive one-half day of in-home training. Once they learn the basics of electronic mail and information access, students communicate with other DO-IT Scholars. They also correspond electronically with college and career mentors who have disabilities themselves.

The students attend a live-in summer program at the University of Washington, but instruction, communication, and information access over the Internet continue year-round. Instruction is delivered to DO-IT Scholars via electronic mail. Each week short electronic mail messages are sent to the group. These lessons train the participants in the use of Internet resources that support their school studies. They also collaborate on group projects.

Each Scholar joins world-wide discussion groups unique to their disability, academic, and career interests. Members of the larger global community, they “meet” hundreds of people with common interests. For example, one student with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair and cannot speak participates in a discussion list for parents of children with cerebral palsy. He shares his personal experiences with parents who are eager to listen and learn. Participants alternate easily between instructor and student roles when network communication is the medium. Being equal participants in electronic discussions is particularly welcome to deaf students who are often left out of classroom and social conversations.

Information access is a point of emphasis for DO-IT. Project information is distributed to the group electronically. Students access news, encyclopedias, databases, and other useful information via the Internet. Because all of the participants in DO-IT have access to adaptive technologies, anyone communicating with this group need not worry about alternative format materials. Access issues are addressed automatically by each student’s computer.

A Distance Learning Course

Another distance learning project at the University of Washington is an adaptive computer technology course for credit in both rehabilitative medicine and education. Designed primarily for physical therapists, occupational therapists, rehabilitation counselors, special education teachers and service providers, this course is offered world-wide over the Internet.

Several videotapes are distributed to the class; they are open captioned and include enough descriptive material for students with visual impairments. In addition, an individual/small group field trip is required. The University provides Internet accounts and dial-up access as part of the course. Course materials are delivered, class discussions take place, resources are accessed, and assignments are submitted over the Internet.

One of the two instructors of the course is blind. Some participants may also have disabilities, but media conversion and other customized accommodations are not necessary. In fact, students with disabilities who would require special services in other courses do not even have to identify themselves as disabled in this course. For example, blind students do not need materials on tape or Brailled; deaf students do not require interpreters or amplification systems.


Use of the Internet for distance learning can benefit both clients and administrators in the rehabilitation field. The Internet is a flexible medium for instructional delivery, information access, and communication between all participants, including those with disabilities.

Delivery of Instruction

For administrators of rehabilitation programs, distance learning can be used to train rehabilitation counselors and other staff, develop leadership and administrative skills of managers, and provide continuing education. The Internet facilitates delivery of instruction, group work, and class discussions. Individuals with disabilities who have adaptive technologies can benefit from the growth of distance learning programs where students and educators “meet ” electronically for instruction, discussion, and support.

Information Access

As a research tool, the Internet is unsurpassed. Electronic connections can provide access to databases for academic research, electronic journals for professional development, on-line library catalogs, encyclopedias, dictionaries, newspapers, and resources for addressing the needs of clients. There has been an explosion of electronic versions of books, periodicals, and other printed materials that are being made available over the Internet (Coombs, 1991; Watkins, 1992). Some suggest that traditional libraries will someday become largely electronic libraries in which catalogs, books, journals, and other printed materials are available over international networks.

Instructors of distance learning courses can store their own course materials on-line and link to thousands of pages of reference materials for people in their classes using Internet resource tools. On the Internet it is easy to share resources and obtain resources from others.


A challenge for any distance learning instructor is assuring active participation between participants and between the teacher students. The Internet is a learning environment that promotes the engagement of learners. Students can regularly share and discuss ideas, viewpoints, and beliefs with other learners and with the instructor. They can communicate at their convenience (not necessarily at the same time), contemplate issues before presenting ideas to the group, and develop long-term relationships. Electronic mail facilitates student-teacher interaction, “classroom” discussions, and collaboration on group projects at their convenience; electronic communities never sleep. Such interaction is important and satisfying to learners (Moore, 1990; Wagner, 1993).

Electronic mail and Internet discussion groups provide new and limitless opportunities for communication and collaboration with colleagues from around the world. Participants can become part of a community of learners that extends far beyond the class list as they join the ever-growing global community (Wilson, 1992). They can choose people to communicate with based on common interests, not common locations and convenient schedules. Telecommunications is an important communication tool for individuals with disabilities which make communicating in other ways difficult because of social isolation and difficulties speaking, hearing, and/or moving. The inability to speak, hear, see, or move is not a limitation in electronic communication.


The greatest challenges in using the Internet to deliver or enhance distance learning courses are related to difficulties some potential students face in gaining access to the Internet. For example, use of the Internet to deliver distance learning programs has great potential for reaching those in rural areas and individuals with disabilities. However, people in rural areas and people with disabilities tend to have more difficulty accessing the Internet than others. Equal access to this technology will require the commitment of legislators, educators, information providers and others to overcome financial and technical barriers. A question yet to be answered is whether electronic resources will be managed in such a way that there will be equal access to on-ramps to the information highway.

Students must have access to appropriate technology in order to participate in courses that use the Internet. For those who already have computer equipment and can obtain local Internet access, costs can be low. Once on the Internet, there are no line charges. However, for those who must dial long distance to make their connection to a host computer, long distance charges can be significant. Thus, Internet access can be particularly problematic in rural areas. Access will become less of a problem as more people connect to the Internet. An interim solution for some distance learning providers is to provide both Internet and non-Internet distance learning options. This solution may create more work for instructors now, but help programs move ahead toward more Internet delivery as time goes on. Instructors and administrators who currently have distance learning courses in place, can consider providing an Internet option for one course, evaluate the experience, and add offerings in response to the resulting experience and interests of potential students.

Besides access issues, challenges facing instructors and administrators of distance learning programs who desire to use Internet as all or part of its delivery mechanism include providing Internet training to instructors and students and converting existing materials into formats accessible over the Internet network.


Administrators and instructors should consider available technology for delivering distance learning options that allow all individuals, including those with disabilities, to fully participate. The Internet is a flexible, powerful, and efficient tool to supplement or replace other distance learning delivery modes. Existing programs like those at the University of Washington demonstrate the successful use of the Internet for communication, instructional delivery, and information access in support of distance learning. Rehabilitation administrators are in a unique position to help other distance learning programs make effective use of this powerful technology. An added bonus to rehabilitation administrators who work through the problems in gaining Internet access for staff and programs is that the rich networking resources will be of personal benefit to them in their own professional growth, research, and collaborative efforts.


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Sheryl Burgstahler
Last updated: Feb 4, 1998