September 30th, 2009

Reaching Online Students with Learning Disabilities


Students with disabilities are drawn to online courses for many of the same reasons as everyone else, but it’s often the anonymity that makes learning online particularly attractive to someone who’s spent his or her life trying to mask a disability. For online instructors, this can present new issues.

After all, it’s hard enough distinguishing whether someone you see in class a few times a week has, for example, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or is simply disorganized. Put that same student in an online course, and it’s even more challenging.

In the recent online seminar Six Ways to Teach Students of All Abilities Online, presenter Mary Beth Crum, Ed.D., an online instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, offered guidelines for recognizing a student with a learning disability, and discussed how to transfer many of the tried-and-true best practices of teaching into the online learning environment.

Crum’s six strategies for effective online teaching are:

  1. Contact all students by phone before class begins. Use the introductory call to discuss the goals of the course. If a student has a learning disability, they might tell you at this time. If so, you can recommend they seek accommodations through your school’s department of student disabilities.
  2. Facilitate throughout the entire class and course. Be visible on the discussion boards every day so your students know their posts are being read.
  3. Divide large class into small groups and visit each group daily. A few groups of 10-12 students each will have much better discussions and be more manageable than one large group.
  4. Use Web communication tools. Go beyond discussion boards with instant messaging and online meeting applications that are easy to use and readily accessible at most schools.
  5. Make accommodations. Help struggling students succeed by making them aware of assistive technology, as well as providing such accommodations as extending deadlines, reinforcing directions verbally, or chunking information for better understanding.
  6. Communicate. Encourage phone calls, post clarifications when something is unclear, answer email within 24 hours, and explain when you will or will not be available.

Crum also stressed the importance of being proactive when it comes to identifying behaviors that may indicate a student is struggling due to a learning disability. A phone call from a concerned instructor is often all a student needs to explain why he or she is having a problem with assignments. On the other hand, if there’s no disability-based reason for an unsatisfactory performance, by demonstrating your concern for their education, your commitment is likely to be returned in the form of a more dedicated student.

“Students online will let problems fester and they will build up more anxiety as time goes on,” says Crum. “If you sense there is a problem, the best thing you can do is nip it in the bud.”

  • Karen Kane

    As the counselor for students with disabilities, I see a VERY IMPORTANT component missing.
    The ADA law …Section 508.. is a federal law that requires all web based information be made accessible to persons with disabilities. This means that deaf students need to access audio information that is presented by an instructor on line. Example: IF instructor voices over a powerpoint, the class is able to hear via the speakers from home. If a student is Deaf, they don't know there is voicing. By law, a text must be available for Deaf students to access this information. The Deaf student should not be required to go to campus and get an interpreter to access the information….when non deaf students can access from the comfort of their own home.. which is the purpose of the on line class.
    Also all videos on line must be captioned.
    This is very important to educate all on line teachers.

  • guest

    Section 508 is a part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, not ADA

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  • julie

    I was wondering if can answer my questions and concerns. I have struggled with school all my a year ago I finally decided to get tested to see if I had a learning disability and indeed I did. I went as far as an Associates degree, now I am a mother of two and a military spouse looking to better my self. I really want to go back and finish my bachelors but I am scared. I am thinking the only way I could finish is going for an Online degree. Just the though of me paying the money they charge and then I am scare I won't be able to do this online. I have ADD and severe memory retention. Any suggestions anyone.

  • sam steele

    Julie, It is important that you understand your learning difference and let your potential instructors know in advance. You should check with the Admissions Office of the College or University your are planning on attending and ask them what accomdations do they have in place for you. Good luck and good for you realizing your learning needs are not the same as others.
    Sam S.