Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities in the Online Classroom

Students with learning disabilities tend to learn better in the online environment, but institutions are not doing enough to prepare instructors to meet their needs, says Mary Beth Crum, an online instructor at the University of Wisconsin—Stout.

Some of the more common learning disabilities include dyslexia, expressive language disorder, reading processing disability, and attention deficit disorder. Ideally, the students will self-identify and contact the institution’s disability services office so the instructor will know what accommodations are required, but not all students are forthcoming about letting others know about their learning disabilities, Crum says. For some, online learning provides the opportunity to hide their learning disabilities from classmates, which can be a welcome relief from the unwanted attention their learning disabilities received in their face-to-face courses.

This lack of disclosure makes supporting students with learning disabilities difficult for online instructors. Further complicating the issue is that under FERPA instructors cannot make the determination or question the student as to whether they have a learning disability. Instructors can raise concerns about a student’s performance (chronic late assignments, excessive errors in discussion board posts, irrelevant or inappropriate answer to questions that seem to indicate a lack of understanding, etc.) and recommend that the student talk with his or her advisor, at which point the student may make his or her learning disabilities known.

Supporting students with learning disabilities
In her research on the issue of addressing learning disabilities in online courses, Crum asked departments of disabilities how online instructors could help students with learning disabilities. Their response: open and constant communication, compassion, a willingness to bend the rules to accommodate students, and one-on-one instruction.

“You can pretty much see it as an online teacher within the first week of a course. You’ll see postings that just aren’t in synch. If you notice that everybody else is answering the question and one student is talking around the question, the next step is to contact the student immediately by phone or email and say, ‘What’s going on? Did you not understand the question? What can I do to help?’ Get to the bottom of it right away because if it is left unaddressed by week three, frustration sets in and the student basically adapts an attitude of , ‘Why even bother?’”

One aspect of communication that some instructors overlook is feedback on assignments. Crum comments on every paragraph of submitted assignments because it’s a great opportunity to maintain that communication with students. This is a technique she applies across the board, and it benefits students with and without learning disabilities.

Special accommodations for students with learning disabilities can include extending deadlines, working with the disabilities services office to help students get access to assistive software, or working individually with the student, and matching the struggling student with a professor that has a lot of compassion.

Crum has found that when students who need extra time initially receive it, they tend to get subsequent assignments in on time. Planning becomes a way for them to reach their potential once the obstacle of a due date is removed.

Students with learning disabilities may have difficulties with online courses that are predominantly text based. There are ways to get around it. There are several software products that read text aloud (such as ReadPlease, available at www.readplease.com/). In addition, textbooks could be loaded into Kindle, or other wireless reading devices, that can make reading easier by allowing students to increase font size and use with black letters on a white background.

Course design
Instructors do not always have the ability to alter course design to accommodate students with learning disabilities, but instructional designers should pay attention to course elements that might be problematic for some students. For example, students with certain visual discrimination disorders may have trouble distinguishing text from background colors.

“Some instructional designers have gotten fancy with colors, graphics, animations, and so forth, and it creates havoc for people with any type of visual disability. Designers need to take disabilities into account. The bells and whistles do not need to be in the electronic classroom. There are Web tools that are great at adding bells and whistles, but use them as an add-on instead of as one size fits all,” Crum says.

Crum also recommends that instructional designers test courses on students with learning disabilities. Doing so would enable designers to prevent problems before they happen.

Excerpted from How to Handle Learning Disabilities in the Online Classroom, August 2009, Online Classroom.