July 22nd, 2010

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.

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  • Debra

    I appreciate the tips offered in this article for teaching students with disabilities online. One of my challenges is making my graphics in PowerPoint ADA compliant. I know I am guilty of not fully accommodating my visually challenged students as you pointed out, so I'd like any help with this.

    Many thanks,
    D. Ferdinand,Ph.D.

  • Pauline

    I think this article is quite apropos. Students with learning disabilities in elementary school will be students with learning disabilities in college. At every level, they will need help. The ones that are always making excuses are the students who have not had enough help throughout their education and are now feeling so rejected that they are not willing to be discovered as a college student. We live in a society that thrives on perfection or the perception thereof. Children learn early when they are being treated as an anomaly. They do not like it. As a special educator, I use whatever is necessary to provide the necessary support for my students. A few years ago one of my parents who is also a university professor, was discussing with the issue of a smart student who was not turning in well written paper. This was difficult for her to understand because she has no background in special education. She thought the student was depending on her speaking eloquence to carry her through college. I suggested that she have a talk with the student privately and talk to her about her concerns. The student broke down and told her that she was diagnosed with dyslexia but she did not want it to be a crutch for her. The professor came back and thanked me for the suggestion. That's what we do use what we know to help our students.

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  • Don

    I have dealt with learning disabilities since before they were acknoledged. I have been forced to take an online class this term. But, I can not even get started. I do not understand the assignments, what they are asking me to do. I have expressed my concerns to the administration but am having trouble getting answers. I have e-mailed my instructor but we have been playing phone tag. Deadlines have passed. My two concerns are the effects on my GPA and financial aid. Independant study classes have been helpful but online studies have been nothing but trouble. Where else do I get help?

  • Joanne

    Your the educational institution where you are enrolled in your online class has an accessibility center. Every major college/university has one. This office may go under different names so you may need to call the school to ask. I would start there.

  • Concern parent

    Can you tell me which online colleges offer classes for students with learning disabilities.

    • Cess

      That is my question too.did u ever get an answer on this?

  • Rojene Campbell

    I would like to take online class but do have a learing disability and I’m blind in my right eye I would like to know if there’s a school out there for me