Sheryl Burgstahler

Teaching on the Net: What’s the Difference?

by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D.
University of Washington
in T. H. E. Journal, 1997, volume 24, number 9, pages 61-4


Much has been written about the revolutionary impact that networking technology will have on all levels of education. Multimedia simulations, real-time communications with experts around the globe, human-like interactions with artificial intelligence systems the list of imaginative applications seems endless. I explored an application that is much simpler and less dramatic than these possibilities. I set out to take a topic normally taught in a traditional classroom mode and deliver instruction in a distance learning program using standard Internet tools as the primary vehicle for information access, presentations, and discussion. My experiences demonstrate the exciting instructional options that the Internet offers and the new challenges that it creates.

The Course

Computers, adaptive technology, and the Internet network offer the potential to improve the lives of people with disabilities, making them more independent and productive and allowing them to participate in a wider range of life experiences. Over the years, I have presented a number of seminars and courses on this topic for teachers, parents, service providers, and individuals with disabilities. As with all traditional seminars and courses, the set of people who could enroll has been limited to those potential participants who could meet in a single place at a pre-specified time. To move away from this constraint, I considered the question “What is the feasibility of offering a successful course that typically involves demonstrations, discussions, and field experiences in a distance learning format using the Internet as the primary medium for the delivery of instruction?”

The adaptive technology class seemed a good choice to begin to answer this question. Now delivered world-wide over the Internet, Adaptive Computer Technology is offered for three college credits in both rehabilitative medicine and education through the University of Washington. The course surveys the field of adaptive technology as it impacts the lives of people with disabilities, including the performance of tasks related to employment, education, and recreation. Topics include interface devices, computer applications, compensatory tools, access to information technology, legal issues, and implementation strategies. It is designed primarily for physical, speech, occupational, and rehabilitation therapists; counselors; librarians; special education teachers; computer technology support staff; and other service providers. People with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities have also taken the course.

The Tools

In the traditional course format a text, videotapes and slides, instructor lectures, printed handouts, products to demonstrate, and a classroom are the primary instructional tools. In the distance learning version, the primary vehicles for learning are:

  • a text,
  • a videotape,
  • electronic mail,
  • a course electronic distribution list (ListProcessor software), and
  • a World Wide Web server.

The Instructor(s)

The first time this course was offered I team taught it with Dr. Norman Coombs, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Team teaching is not new, but in a traditional class the instructors must be in the same place at the same time with the students. This is not true of a distance learning course taught via the Internet. Dr. Coombs and I have co-presented at conferences and in workshops before, when it was possible for us to be in the same place at the same time. For the distance learning course we prepared materials and coordinated lessons via electronic mail. We “met” many times to discuss the progress of the course, but never in person.

Meeting Place and Time

In a traditional course students must come together in a common location on a regular schedule. In the distance learning version of the course, no common location or schedule is required. Students enroll through the Distance Learning program at the University of Washington. All students are placed on an electronic distribution list managed by ListProcessor software on a Unix host computer. The course begins on a given date. The ListProcessor software handles distribution of the syllabus and other course materials via electronic mail. Students are required to read and respond to electronic mail at least once per week over a period of 10-12 weeks while lessons are regularly distributed. The course continues for a total of six months, by which time all assignments and the final exam must be complete.

The Text

As with a traditional course, the distance learning version requires a textbook. Reading assignments are distributed via electronic mail with the weekly lessons.

The Lessons

In a traditional class, lectures and handouts are used to deliver content. In the distance learning course, lessons are distributed weekly to the course distribution list; they fill the role of course lectures and handouts. Once distributed, the lessons are archived on the course World Wide Web site where they can be easily referenced by the students and instructors.

Class Discussions

In a traditional class, in-person discussions provide opportunities for students to ask questions and share knowledge and experiences. Such discussions are generally limited to the scheduled class times plus whatever time can be arranged outside of the scheduled time. In the distance learning class, full-class discussions take place via the class electronic distribution list. Small group discussions can break off from full-class discussions as people find common interests and concerns. Participants can also communicate individually with each other and with the instructor via electronic mail. In this day of the part-time, commuter student, it is often difficult to find a convenient time for instructor and student to meet. On the Internet, individual student-teacher communications can take place efficiently.

As in a traditional class, class participation can be required in a distance learning class offered on the Internet. To keep communications lively and prevent some students from just “lurking” (i.e., observing without participating), I require, each student to contribute at least one comment (i.e., electronic mail message) to the discussion of each lesson. All messages posted to the distribution list are archived on the course World Wide Web site for easy reference.

Product Demonstrations

In a traditional course on adaptive technology, there would be demonstrations of products, either live or using videotapes or slides. In the distance learning course, students purchase, as part of the required course materials, a videotape which overviews adaptive technology options. After the assignment is given to watch the videotape, the class discusses the content using the course electronic distribution list. Eventually, videotaped materials will likely be distributed over the Internet along with the other course materials.

Guest Speakers

In a traditional class, guest speakers bring specialized expertise and new perspectives to the group. In most cases, possibilities for guest speakers are limited to those who live and work within easy driving distance of the course location or those who happen to be visiting at the right time. On the Internet, this constraint disappears; a guest speaker can join in class discussions easily, regardless of where the speaker lives or works. In the adaptive technology distance learning class, one of the guest speakers is the author of the course text, who lives far away from the University of Washington. Further, instead of participating in just one class session, he is able to participate in the course for several weeks.

The Library

The library is an important resource for a traditional class. Journal articles and books can be placed on reserve for course participants and students can be directed to other useful resources. To use these materials students have to make a trip to the facility. In the adaptive technology class, our World Wide Web site is the course “library.” Links to other resources provide students with thousands of pages of useful resources for their papers, and projects. For example, for some students, having access to the full text of the Americans with Disabilities Act is of interest. This, and other reference materials, are easily accessible from the course Web site.


In a traditional class, course assignments are usually handed to the instructor in printed form. In the distance learning course, all assignments are turned in to the instructor via electronic mail. Summaries, and sometimes entire papers, are easily shared with the rest of the class via the course distribution list. The first assignment for students in the adaptive technology distance learning class is to distribute an introductory biography to the rest of the class via the course distribution list. The second assignment is to respond with at least one e-mail message to each of the ten lessons. Three additional “papers” are required. They involve writing on a topic related to the course content using and referencing Internet resources, visiting a site and evaluating electronic access issues for individuals with disabilities, and making recommendations regarding access for a particular facility or program.

Field Experiences

A field trip to a computing facility that uses adaptive technology is a valuable experience for students in this course. Since students in the distance learning class are from all over the world, there is not an opportunity for everyone to go on a trip to the same site. However, this educational experience can still be incorporated in the distance learning model. Students are required to make a site visit as part of one of their assignments; they are encouraged to go with another student if one lives nearby. If there are no nearby facilities that use adaptive technology, they can visit a site such as a library, collect information about access issues, and make recommendations for improving accessibility to computing resources for visitors with disabilities.

The Final Exam

An in-class written exam or a take-home exam is common in a traditional course. In the adaptive technology course students take the exam as soon as they are ready (but before the six-month ending date of the course). When ready, they request the exam via electronic mail. It is delivered to them via e-mail. Each student has several days to complete the essay exam. They may access printed and electronic resources while completing the exam.

Access Issues

This distance learning course attracts people from all over the world. Some of them have disabilities. It is important that course materials be accessible. Since all electronic lessons and other resources in this course are available in text form, they can be accessed with standard adaptive technologies. This can be important for the instructors as well, For example, Dr. Coombs is blind and uses a screen reader and speech synthesizer to read lessons, electronic mail discussions, and assignments submitted by students. Other course materials are also accessible to people with disabilities. The videotape is open captioned for hearing impaired students and is available in descriptive video form for individuals who are blind. The textbook is available in recorded form for students who are blind or who have specific learning disabilities from Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic.

Providing the course using the Internet actually enhances accessibility for people with disabilities. Electronic text materials are generally highly accessible to those with disabilities. Media conversion and other customized accommodations are minimized since participants already have access to computers when they enter the class. Whatever adaptive technologies they use facilitate the accommodations. For example, a blind student does not need the lessons produced in Braille or on tape; his/her existing computer output method (usually a screen reader and voice synthesizer) provides the accommodation. Similarly, a deaf student does not require interpreters or amplification systems since lectures and discussions occur on-line. The inability to speak, hear, see, or move is not a limitation in electronic communication. The most “vocal” learner in the class may not even be able to speak in the traditional way.


The Internet is a powerful, flexible, and efficient tool for the delivery of instruction. It provides new ways for us to teach and learn. It allows us to do new things as well as to do traditional things in new ways. Although using the Internet to deliver instruction, store information and facilitate communication provides many benefits to the instructor and student, several challenges persist. As with most paradigm shifts, there is both good news and bad news.

The Good News

The electronic mode of delivery is a good choice for a course of a specialized nature where few people in one locality might be interested in taking it at any point in time. Students in the adaptive technology distance learning course have participated from throughout the United States as well as from Canada, Italy, Germany, and Hong Kong. We do not need to be in the same place at the same time. Students can gain access to unlimited opportunities for interaction and learning without ever leaving their homes. Co-teachers and guest speakers can participate from anywhere in the world. I don’t even need to cancel and reschedule a class when I am on a business trip. In fact, I often get caught up on class discussions and on grading assignments using my laptop computer and modem in the quiet of a hotel room. In addition, there is no need to make special provisions for students who have schedule conflicts for specific classes.

The Internet facilitates participation by a diverse group. Students who have taken the adaptive technology distance learning class include a mother with a baby (she worked on the class during nap times), a disabled person who has difficulty attending traditional classes, and a blind student who could access all of the course resources using his computer without requesting special accommodations from the University. In the distance learning course, I can offer students access to a wide range of resources. There has been an explosion of electronic versions of books, periodicals and other printed materials that are being made available on the Internet. Some suggest that traditional libraries will someday be largely electronic collections of books, journals and other printed materials. Distance learning instructors and students who use the Internet can make use of this vast, growing collection, perhaps mare easily than in a traditional course.

A challenge for any instructor is to ensure the active participation of all students. The Internet provides an environment that promotes the engagement of learners. Students in my class regularly make comments that they participate more in class discussions when the course is delivered electronically than they would in a traditional class. They seem to share more over the Internet perhaps because of reduced limits of time, the ability to take more time to compose comments and responses, and a sense of anonymity. They can communicate at their convenience, not necessarily at the same time as other students, and take as much time as they wish to formulate a comment or response. And, if a student thinks of yet one more comment to make on a subject, he/she can just log on and chime in. The length of a discussion is limited only by the interest of the participants.

The Bad News

Although using the Internet provides many benefits to the instructor and student, there are also important challenges. One limitation is that potential students must have access to the Internet in order to participate in the class. Internet access is more available every day. However, while distance-learning classes have great potential for reaching those in rural areas, access to the Internet is least available in rural areas. Equal access to this technology will require the commitment and work of educational information providers and legislators to overcome financial and technical barriers. Another challenge to the instructor is to provide sufficient Internet training within the class so students can access the resources referenced without allowing technical aspects of the course to dominate course discussions. In the adaptive technology distance learning class, experience using electronic mail is required. Other standard Internet tools (e.g., distribution lists, Telnet, Gopher, World Wide Web) are used and simple explanations are given for those without previous experiences using them.

Delivering a course which typically includes in-class demonstrations is a challenge to the instructor. However, as demonstrated in the example described in this article, videotapes and on-site visits can counteract this disadvantage. And, finally, I cannot deny that something of value is lost when you give up the face-to-face interaction between instructors and students that occurs in traditional classroom instruction. There is no way to replace this aspect of instruction electronically, but the increased opportunities for interaction via electronic mail help to compensate for this disadvantage.

In conclusion, although the electronic delivery of courses is unlikely to completely replace traditional classroom instruction, this powerful option for the delivery of information and the facilitation of communication should not be ignored or underestimated by an institution of higher education.

For more information on the Adaptive Computer Technology course at the University of Washington, consult the World Wide Web page at

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Sheryl Burgstahler
Last modified: Fri Sep 5 11:50:05 2003