Volume One: Computer-Mediated Communication and the Online Classroom: Overview and Perspectives
Editors: Dr. Zane L. Berge &
Chapter 4: Computer Access for Students with Special Needs
Joseph Kinner, Galludent University and Norman Coombs, Rochester Institute of Technology
Computer telecommunications, when enhanced by special, adaptive hardware and software, can drastically reduce barriers for persons with various physical and learning disabilities, and it can also facilitate interaction among those who are, for whatever reasons, inhibited in face-to-face settings. Both of these equalizing factors of computer-mediated communications (CMC) were noticed by students in a course taught by Professor Norman Coombs at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). One student in an African-American history class that met both in the classroom and through a computer conference system recognized this phenomenon and commented on it, “I also agree with everyone else about what a good idea using this conference is. By using the computer as somewhat of a ‘universal medium’, the everyday communication barriers are avoided.” Differences, such as “being hearing impaired, being Black, White, or Green, being shy or not a good speaker,” all vanished. This RIT course consisted of students from several ethnic backgrounds and also included both hearing students and hearing-impaired students. The teacher, Coombs, was blind.
Hearing-impaired students in a classroom require either that the teacher be proficient with American Sign Language or that an interpreter be present to facilitate the deaf student’s class participation. When class discussion occurs in a computer conference, the hearing-impaired person does not require any special assistance to become part of a mainstream educational setting. One deaf woman in an American history course at RIT sent e-mail to the professor, “I really enjoyed having class this way because it allowed me to participate in a hearing class.” She explained further that she was able to get everyone’s views first hand without an interpreter in the middle of the communication. “I have felt so left out of it in other classes,” she added. Hearing-impaired students may still have a problem with this format because, for those who have been deaf since birth, English is their second language. This woman lost her hearing as a young adult, and the computer conference was well suited to her situation.
Persons with other physical disabilities may require special software and hardware adaptations before the computer becomes a new communication medium for them. Visually impaired students may need either a screen-enlarging program to permit their “seeing” the screen or a speech synthesizer that will speak what is on the screen. Motor-impaired students often have problems in using the keyboard. Depending on the particular disability, there are various software and hardware devices that provide alternative input systems. Once appropriate access has been provided to the computer, these students function as equals in the computer classroom, and their disability vanishes. Everyone interacts on the basis of their ideas rather than having the communication shaped by stereotypes based on people’s appearances.
Similarly, students who are inhibited in group discussion find that their stage fright is greatly diminished. One shy student confessed that with the CMC classroom, “you can say whatever you think or feel and not have to worry about somebody giving you a crazy look or something like that. I’m not a great speaker, so the (computer) conference helps me put my thoughts together and allows me to express them better without having my tongue twisted.”
RIT/Gallaudet Pilot Project via the Internet
The unique ability of CMC to reduce many communication barriers inspired a pilot project in 1991 between Gallaudet University and the Rochester Institute of Technology. Gallaudet is a liberal arts university for the hearing impaired in Washington, DC, and RIT has, as one of its colleges, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. The pilot was to use CMC to include students from both campuses in the same class and to include in that class both hearing and hearing-impaired learners. There were two teachers, one on each campus, and one of them was visually impaired. The pilot included two courses: Mass Media and Deaf Culture taught by Professor J. S. Schuchman from Gallaudet, and Black Civil Rights in the Twentieth Century taught by Professor Norman Coombs from RIT with Professor Joseph Kinner from Gallaudet serving as a liaison person. The remainder of this chapter focuses on the Coombs/Kinner course and generalizations about the uses of CMC with the physically disabled learner.
The course content was delivered through a captioned version of the video series, Eyes on the Prize, produced by Blackside Inc. and originally broadcast on Public Television. The text was Voices of Freedom by Henry Hampton. The class discussion was held on a computer conference system—VAX Notes—produced by the Digital Equipment Corporation and running on a DEC VAX computer at RIT. VAX Notes is essentially a computer bulletin board. It is structured like a two-dimensional matrix with a set of topic notes on various subjects. Replies to each topic get attached to each topic note. Topics are numbered 1, 2, 3, and so on. Replies to topic 3 would be numbered 3.1, 3.2, and so on. It permits having several different discussions simultaneously. It also saves all topics and replies, permitting readers to connect at any time even several days late and still catch up on the entire transaction.
RIT students connected to the discussion in VAX Notes either by a DEC terminal in a campus lab or with a PC and modem from home. The Gallaudet students connected to a computer at Gallaudet and reached RIT over the Internet. Personal contacts between students and between student and teacher use VAX Mail. Only rarely did a student appear in person at the office of either professor. Coombs had previously taught several classes online, including some hearing-impaired students. He has also taught many deaf students in the classroom at RIT with an interpreter handling the communication with the deaf students. These students were mainstreamed in regular RIT classes. For Kinner, this was his first experience with CMC, which gave him a fresh perspective, and in teaching deaf students at Gallaudet, he did his own signing in classes that normally contained all-deaf students. The pilot class had 18 students who finished the course. Three quit during the course. Two found they had taken on more than they could handle, and one developed carpel tunnel syndrome, which prevented his using the keyboard. Eleven students were on the RIT campus; five of these were hearing impaired. Seven logged in from Gallaudet with one of them being a hearing student. RIT held a 1-hour, face-to-face orientation meeting to familiarize students with the computer system. About half of the students came. RIT students are frequently at home with computers because of their technical background, and many did not feel in need of such orientation.
With few exceptions, the Gallaudet students who signed up for the course did feel the need for a face-to-face orientation, and all of them showed up for the first meeting. Having earlier introduced himself and his role in the course as the on-site liaison support person to the students via a letter delivered through campus mail, Kinner used the orientation to guide students through the use of the computer, to hand out materials explaining the course, and to emphasize the unique features of CMC. He then went on to demonstrate how to log on to the VAX and then supervised the students as they practiced. During the hour or so of orientation, all of the Gallaudet students except one successfully logged on to RIT; the student who was having difficulty met with Kinner the following day and did successfully learn how to use the computer. One of the important features of this course, even though students rarely availed themselves of the opportunity, was having the chance to meet face to face with Kinner. This was particularly true during the early stages when students were adjusting to the new technology. Once these skills were mastered, students learned to depend more on themselves and to seek their own answers to the problems they encountered. This emphasis on developing self discipline and individualized learning were what helped bring Gallaudet into this pilot project in the first place.
After viewing, in the African-American history class, a video that portrayed the killing of a young boy and reading related materials from the text, the students were asked to comment on the following questions posted on VAX Notes by the professor:
Between 1890 and 1910, there were over 4,000 Blacks lynched, which is over 200 a year or something like 2 every 3 days! Although the number had dropped significantly by the 1950s, Till’s lynching was not the only one which occurred. Why did Till’s death make such national news? What aspects of Till’s murder and of the trial were most surprising to you?
The 1950s seem like a long time ago to you. It wasn’t so long ago! I received my BS in 1955! Did any of you have relatives, still alive, who lived anywhere in the South at that time? Have they told you any shocking stories from their youth? These questions are only to start a discussion. Comment on anything related to Till and lynchings.
The first reply was from a hearing-impaired RIT student who answered some of the questions and added some interesting family information:
Emmett Till’s death made the national news since it was such a brutal murder and many Black people across the United States felt that it was the last straw to those nonsense killings of Blacks in the South. . . . Two men were arrested and brought before the court for killing Emmett Till. There was enough evidence to find those two White men guilty for murdering Emmett but a White jury found them not guilty. Till’s uncle was a witness and he had the courage to point his finger to the White men in court for bringing grief to his family. . . . My grandmother lives in Queens, New York, and I remember her telling me about her visit to the South in the 1950’s. She remembers a lot of tension going on in the South and there were a lot of protests for equal rights for Black people.
The next reply was a question from a hearing student at RIT: “I was a bit unclear after watching the video if the individuals that had murdered the boy had come right out and admitted that they had done it or just implied it. . . . My next question is can that individual not be tried again even if he has the nerve to come right out and admit he murdered the boy?” At this point the professor pointed out that American law does not permit a person to be tried twice for the same crime. Next, a hearing-impaired student logging in over the Internet from Gallaudet added: “I totally agree about the jury being so bigoted and I was surprised that the two men were found not guilty even though the evidence was there. And not only that, they totally disfigured Emmett, I will never forget his face.” He went on to connect the video to contemporary events from the news, “And for some reason, it made me think of the Rodney King beating in California. This clearly shows that racism is still around today. It’s real sad.” Another Gallaudet student said, “TILL’S DEATH MAKE SUCH NATIONAL NEWS BECAUSE, THIS VICTIM OF FOURTEEN YEAR OLD WAS MUTILATED AND IT NEVER HAPPEN TO BE SO GRUELING AND ALSO TO A MERE CHILD. WHAT I FOUND MYSELF ANGRY NOT SURPRISING ABOUT THE TRIAL IS THAT THE DEFENDANT WAS FOUND NOT GUILTY, WITH ALL THOSE OBVIOUS EVIDENCES AGAINST THE DEFENDANTS.” In spite of the apparent language problem in the previous reply, the student was not inhibited from participating, and no one had a problem understanding the intent of the remark. The faculty encouraged uninhibited, relaxed discussion, rather than pushing to get proper grammar and spelling.
After two further replies from Gallaudet participants, another RIT hearing-impaired student commented on how she was emotionally moved by the pictures in the video. Then she went on to add some stories from her family:
I spoke to my father last night on the phone and asked him questions about that trial. He grew up in a county in Louisiana where there were lot of people that are racist. I asked what people there thought of it. (He was a year older than Emmett when that happened.) He said he heard a lot of talk about the men what they ‘d do if a black man had flirted with their wives. They said they’d shoot him. Despite the fact Emmett was only 14, some thought he was grown up! I’d like to share my father’s experience relating to this case. In his neighborhood, a young black man had flirted with a wife of a man who was away in Marines in Korea. That man’s brother-in-law found out and wanted my father’s brothers to help him take the black man to the woods to beat him up. But Dad’s brothers refused to help. Dad doesn’t remember what the white man did to him, but doubts he did anything cuz he was afraid to do it alone.
The teacher again stepped into the discussion flow to reinforce the personal sharing that was taking place, “Thanks, for sharing those stories. It helps us realize that history isn’t always so far away and doesn’t always relate to other people. It sometimes is closer to home than is comfortable.” Believing that connecting past history to personal and family happenings makes the history more real and facilitates learning and understanding, the teacher wanted to encourage this kind of sharing.
This is only a sampling of the 23 replies to this topic, but it demonstrates the ability of CMC over a data network to facilitate a discussion by people separated by physical distance, physical disabilities, and also by time. The course lasted 10 weeks. Students viewed 14 hours of documentary television, read the textbook, and shared in the computer discussion. Students were asked to respond to 58 sets of questions, and the 18 students made an average of 21 replies. During the course, students averaged 227 lines of discussion each. (Actually, as there were a couple of students whose participation was minimal, the average for those who genuinely participated was even higher.) Students also had to write two take-home essay exams and to submit one written paper. These assignments were also submitted on the computer. This much writing was important for the development of those students with English deficiencies. Although this was not one of the course objectives, it was an expected byproduct, and more than one student said that it did help their writing abilities.
The final discussion topic in the computer conference asked the class to express their views on the electronic classroom. “At first it was weird for me,” one young man from Gallaudet confessed, “because I am so used to being in a classroom instead of using the VAX as a way to receive and send messages from me and the teacher and to students too. But as the weeks went by I got the hang of it. . . . I find it enjoyable and it is a unique experience I will never forget.” Another Gallaudet student said that she enjoyed the class because, though she was African American, she had never learned much about the civil rights movement, and she appreciated the opportunity. “Anyway, Dr. Coombs,” she continued, “I think you did a marvelous job considering the fact that you haven’t met any of us here (at Gally).” A woman from RIT also shared her original anxiety, but said that “it turned out to be not as hard as I anticipated. I enjoyed the material—it was interesting and it wasn’t a class that puts you to sleep.” Another RIT student shared that the course enabled him to work at his own pace and still participate in discussion with others. He concluded that “it put the responsibility on the students to learn themselves.”
Another Gallaudet student said, “Watching the videos made me feel like I was really there watching it happen. I saw so much anger and other emotions in blacks and whites, it helped me see how they really felt.” Another Gallaudet student commented that the course helped her develop more self-responsibility and also inspired her to take an internship at the King center in Atlanta. A hearing Gallaudet student said that, even though she did not particularly like the electronic delivery system, she did participate more than in the classroom. She also liked the flex learning system which let her schedule her own time. Similarly, a hearing-impaired Gallaudet woman shared how much she liked controlling her time. “I really enjoyed this experiment. . . . This way of going to class has taught me how to be responsible for my own work.”
Some students who did not participate much also shared their successes and frustrations. One Gallaudet student who had difficulty with English admitted that she was anxious about taking a course on the computer, but she specifically thanked Professor Kinner for encouraging her to take it. She said the computer wasn’t that hard, but she also hoped to meet the RIT professor in person some day. She seemed to miss the face-to-face interaction, but she also seemed to lack self-motivation. A RIT student said that “even though I do not get to participate much, I still find it enjoyable reading other students’ feedback. I think I would be a better participant in a classroom than on the VAX because I never seem to be able to get to the computer and type.” Another RIT student liked being able to compare ideas with his deaf peers from Gallaudet, but he found his outside activities interfered with his getting to the computer. He confessed, “I find it a valuable learning experience since I have to be motivated enough to learn it myself and make myself face it.” The final comment from a Gallaudet student said, “It taught me some responsibility. Every time I finish my classes and can find time to do VAX, I really enjoyed it.”
The other complaint listed by several of the Gallaudet students was that, when they were connected to the RIT VAX system over the Internet, sometimes the screen would “freeze” for seconds or minutes between keystrokes. This was due to heavy line traffic, and it was one of the complaints that spurred an upgrade of the connection with the Internet system.
Research Evaluation Report
The course was also evaluated through questionnaires and interviews. These were conducted after the exam and grading in order to protect student anonymity and encourage an honest response. Although the picture that emerged was quite similar to that provided by student comments in the computer conference, some negative comments were stated a bit more strongly. Though the responses were anonymous, they were also voluntary and only about one-quarter of the students participated. This might have skewed the results in a more negative direction.
The formative evaluation was done by Barbara G. McKee and Marcia J. Scherer from Instructional Development at the National Technical Institute of the Deaf (NTID) at RIT. Students were requested both to fill out a questionnaire and to participate in a personal interview. The interviews were conducted by a graduate student who was in an educational specialist program at NTID and who was also proficient in American Sign Language. The study combined the input from students in the two courses into one set of results. Separate data are not available for this course as the intent was to evaluate the delivery systems rather than the courses themselves. A total of 51 students from the two campuses registered for the classes. Twenty-six were from RIT, and 25 from Gallaudet. Six dropped out (two from RIT and four from Gallaudet), and the researcher was not able to determine the reasons for their decision. Of the 45 participants—24 from RIT and 21 from Gallaudet—who finished the course, 8 voluntarily filled out questionnaires, and 10 came to a personal interview. Once the courses were concluded, the members moved on to busy schedules and were difficult to reach. It is also possible that those who were hearing impaired, which was about three-quarters of the group, may have been resistant to being objects of study. Even though the goal may have been to study the system, filling out questionnaires and submitting to a personal interview may have felt as if the person was the object of the evaluation.
The questionnaire asked a series of questions about the students’ opinions of various aspects of the course and had them rate their answers on a 5-point scale. The interview also tried to probe the same issues, but in more depth and with better opportunity to include subjective responses. The report also included evaluations by the interviewer and by the faculty who taught the courses.
The report noted that “students divided themselves into two basic groups: (a) those who enjoyed and were satisfied with the delivery system and stated they would be happy to enroll in another teleconferencing course, and (b) those who were not satisfied and stated they had no intention of enrolling in another such course.” Aside from the complaints about the periodic slowness of the Internet connection, negative comments were all psychosocial: either they missed the face-to-face social contact, or else they had trouble motivating themselves to do the work when there was no schedule to provide that discipline. None of the dissatisfaction indicated that using the technology was too difficult or that the technology was inadequate to deliver the content. (Both courses were history courses, and therefore this does not indicate whether the technology would be adequate for other content areas.) None of the hearing-impaired students who were accustomed to American Sign Language indicated that the computer provided any problems in conveying course content. None of the hearing students commented on problems arising from the class containing physically handicapped participants. Sometimes a reader might guess by the use of awkward English that a student was hearing impaired, but other times this fact would be indistinguishable. Apparently, CMC functions well as a mainstreaming mechanism.
When asked if they felt comfortable communicating through the computer, 50% either agreed or strongly agreed, and only 37% disagreed or disagreed strongly. One told the interviewer that “I feel more comfortable [with discussions through the VAX],” and “It helped my English skills.” Another confessed to being shy in a classroom and said, “I prefer discussions through the VAX because I do not have to worry about people looking at me. I feel more comfortable.” Another who also felt that people were less inhibited on the computer, at the same time thought that the discussions were less spontaneous. Others said it gave them time to think and express themselves better.
Eighty-seven percent said they did miss “seeing” their fellow students. When asked if this left them feeling isolated, half said yes, and half said no. Several told the interviewer that they missed seeing facial expressions and body gestures. One wrote on the questionnaire that “deaf people need to depend on eyes and hands.” This statement may partly explain the strong emphasis on the need for visual cues in communication stated by members of this class. Previous classes I have taught with CMC did not express the need for visual feedback this strongly. It may be a special function of the communication habits and needs of the hearing impaired. Interacting through the use of sign language is not only a visual means of interaction, but the participants’ entire body becomes involved in the exchange.
Participants were asked how they would compare these courses with traditional classes. Twenty-five percent said they found it easier to communicate using CMC, whereas 62% disagreed. When asked about the frequency of communicating with the professor, the group split with 37% agreeing or strongly agreeing that there was more frequent interaction, and the same percent disagreeing. Thirty-seven percent indicated that they had more interaction with their peers using the computer than in a traditional classroom, and 50% said they did not. Two questions on the evaluation asked about how this delivery system impacted their personal work habits. Seventy-five percent indicated that this system put more responsibility on them to manage their own time, whereas 12% disagreed. “I can do the work when it is convenient for me,” one commented, but then added, “I can get lazy. I can put it off too easily. I have to have good disciplinary skills.” Another liked the ability to access the system any time, which meant that one didn’t have to wait until the next class to ask a question. Several claimed that they did learn better time management and independence. Several among those who were the most dissatisfied said that the course required discipline, which they lacked. Fifty percent said it was harder for them to keep up with the work, and 25% disagreed.
When asked for a general rating of the courses, 50% agreed or strongly agreed that they were excellent. Twenty-five percent disagreed. Fifty percent said they would recommend such a course to a friend and 25% would not. Thirty-seven percent further said that they would like to take another course in such a format. Twenty-five percent were uncertain, and another 25% said they would not. However, of the 10 students interviewed personally, 6 said they would take another computer-delivered course, which was a much higher percentage than that which resulted from the written questionnaire.
The report concluded that the slowness and inefficiencies of the Internet connection between the two campuses caused frustration. Even those students who most appreciated the delivery system complained strongly on this point. It should be noted that this problem is not necessarily inherent in the Internet but resulted from the particular grade connection being used by these institutions at that time. Since then, RIT has upgraded its connectivity, and this problem would be reduced in future online courses.
The second widely expressed complaint was the lack of regular face-to-face interaction. Students who came to enjoy computer-mediated interaction did not seem bothered by this. Not surprisingly, different students have different social and learning styles and hence have varying needs. Some students have more need for a face-to-face contact, whereas others can find CMC interaction useful for learning.
Further, the report noted that almost none of the students had been aware that these courses would be delivered using CMC. Some noted considerable confusion about why it was not being given in a “normal” format. Whereas CMC is most frequently used as a distance delivery system, on-campus students were recruited for these two courses because they were easy to identify and because the quality of their work was already known. The report noted that the experimental nature of these courses had not been adequately communicated. Students selected the courses because of their content, without any regard to the delivery system.
Undoubtedly, if students had realized the CMC component, many of those who most felt the need for face-to-face social contact would have self-selected themselves out of the project.
Finally, the report did find the CMC classroom facilitated genuine discussion and learning. Further, it provided students with a “flex” learning environment that encouraged development of self-discipline and taught students how to work better independently. Several students commented favorably on this feature both in the questionnaires and in the personal interviews. Some seemed to appreciate it because they were already self-starters and enjoyed the opportunity to work within such a context. Others recognized their need for self-discipline and felt that working independently without a schedule assisted them in developing such personal habits. Most of those who found CMC frustrating also commented that they were not self-starters and that they wanted and needed more structure.
For some of the hearing-impaired learners, the daily writing practice helped them to improve their English language skills. Shy students were less inhibited, and it pulled them more actively into group discussion. This was true for shy hearing students as well as for shy hearing-impaired learners. The report cautions against drawing sweeping conclusions from its data because they were based on a small number of respondents.
Faculty perceptions of the course, although recognizing some weaknesses mentioned in the report that needed to be addressed, were more positive than the evaluations by students who participated in the formative evaluation. The small sample on which the report was based may partly account for the difference. Also, faculty had understood the nature of the course’s delivery system, and they approached it with expectations based on that fact. Therefore, they tended to look more abstractly at the nature of the communication that occurred, whereas students were more likely to evaluate it by their feelings, highlighted by their expectation of a face-to-face interaction. As the discussions were mediated through a computer, the instructors have a written record against which to compare their views.
This record shows free and open sharing about the course content as well as demonstrates how the participants connected the content to events out of the lives of their families. Reading it gives the clear impression that the content had become internalized and that it engaged the students at a personal and vital level. Faculty felt that these discussions were of a higher quality than was typical in a traditional classroom. This enhanced discussion was expected by faculty with experience in computer conferencing, but this expectation was not conveyed to the students. It was feared that announcing the ability of CMC to induce more open sharing might make students self-conscious and be counterproductive.
As mentioned previously, the unique ability of CMC to reduce many communication barriers inspired this pilot project between Gallaudet and RIT/NTID. For the first time students on both campuses, deaf and hearing, were able to take courses together using CMC. Time and distance between the campuses and the students were irrelevant, and varying modes of sign communication, crucial factors in the courses taught at Gallaudet, no longer were so important. Removing this barrier had an immediate impact on one of Kinner’s former Gallaudet students who had taken courses from him the year before. In one of Kinner’s upper division courses for majors, for example, he observed the reluctance this student had to participate in any of the class discussions, primarily because the student had very weak signing skills. This student never overcame his feeling that his signing was not on a level equal to the others in the class, and he often expressed his anxiety to the instructor about his inability to communicate his thoughts and ideas effectively in sign language. When this same student took the course using CMC delivery, however, it was a completely different matter. He felt totally at ease, he communicated openly and honestly—and more frequently than any other student from Gallaudet. This student loved the course and found it intellectually and emotionally challenging, and at the same time he felt it was liberating and empowering in the most positive ways.
Most of the students from Gallaudet, in talking with Kinner, responded to the course in much the same way as did the student just mentioned. However, there were a couple who had some problems adjusting to the method of delivery and the self-motivation demands of the course.
Those who already possessed or who quickly developed computer skills tended to overcome whatever shyness they had at the beginning and participated in discussions often. They responded positively to the insistence on self-discipline and managed their time responsibly, completed their assignments ahead of or on time, and depended entirely on themselves to get the work done. The quality of their work improved steadily throughout the course. One or two students did have difficulty getting started on the computer and remained reluctant to engage in discussions as often as the others. These students were never able to develop meaningful strategies to enable them to cope with the responsibilities and demands of the course, and they frequently desired to meet with the instructor face to face. Kinner’s previous experience with these students in his other courses, in which they consistently demonstrated weak study habits and a lack of self-discipline, indicates that they were not as well prepared as the others in the class.
Was this pilot project successful? From Kinner’s perspective the answer is unequivocally “Yes.” Some students encountered problems getting started, a couple never did feel entirely comfortable with the computer, but virtually all the students enjoyed the course immensely and recommended that it be taught again in the same way. Kinner, for whom this was his first experience with a CMC classroom, was tremendously impressed by the skillful ways Gallaudet students embraced computer technology and by the frequency and eagerness with which most of them participated in the class discussions and communicated their thoughts and feelings with their deaf and hearing peers at RIT. Many years of teaching at Gallaudet have made Kinner aware of how difficult it is to integrate many different modes of communication into a coherent class discussion, especially when many of the students are shy and hesitant to give their views and thoughts about the issues being discussed. He observed a very different and, in many ways, much more promising process of communication in this project.
He saw students develop a strong sense of self-discipline and assume more responsibility for their own learning. Shy students and those with weak sign skills felt increasingly comfortable in this unique learning environment and learned to communicate honestly and openly with the other students. Future CMC projects may benefit some deaf students by incorporating some face-to-face interaction between students and instructor, but based on Kinner’s observations of, and participation in, this project, including his follow-up discussions with students, he is convinced the course was a great success and that more like it can, and should be, developed in the future.
Coombs also felt the pilot project was successful. Combining students from two geographically separated campuses was no real problem. The benefits of the CMC classroom that he had observed previously carried over into this project. One RIT hearing-impaired student added the comment that communication by CMC was helpful because it required no interpreter as a communication intermediary. At RIT few faculty sign for themselves, and interpreters are common in most classes.
Coombs was surprised at how many students had motivation problems and how many complained about the lack of face-to-face contact. He noted that, among those struggling over self-discipline, there were both hearing and hearing-impaired learners. The problem was not connected with any physical impairment. In previous CMC courses taught by Coombs, the audience was usually distance learners who were usually older and much more mature. Whether hearing-impaired persons have more need for visual feedback in communication is not clear, but Coombs noted that this group did not expect a CMC format. His previous computer conference classes did have a more realistic picture of what the delivery medium would be like. This would suggest that student expectations and levels of maturity are important factors in a successful CMC classroom.
CMC in the form of e-mail and computer conferencing can serve both as a replacement for the traditional classroom and as an extension for such a classroom. This has been documented previously in other places and has been confirmed in this volume. CMC offers some unique features of its own. Because it is time and place independent, it facilitates and encourages learner independence. The student can set his own work schedule and pace his or her work to accommodate personal needs. Educational strategies that help students become self-starters and more self-disciplined will provide them with important work skills for the information age.
CMC also facilitates and encourages an open and free sharing of ideas and experiences. Furthermore, it tends to equalize participants in a discussion. Shy students participate more readily, and students who normally dominate a discussion find it does not work in a CMC setting. No one person can control others by controlling the debate. Others are free to skip or ignore their contributions.
The ability of CMC to create more open and equal interaction is the feature that helps to integrate disabled learners into a mainstream class. Physical disabilities vanish from sight, and participants interact on the basis of their contributions.
Although both RIT and Gallaudet are uniquely equipped to assist hearing-impaired learners, the members in this project needed no special help beyond a brief orientation period. This would indicate that the successes of the RIT/Gallaudet project can be replicated elsewhere with very little special preparation. Visually impaired and motor-impaired students may require adaptive hardware and software, and they may require some special training to use it. However, students will frequently have mastered those skills before becoming involved in the CMC course. At that point, these students should need little more than encouragement to become part of a CMC classroom.
However, this project did alert the faculty to three important considerations. These qualifications are largely true for all students, whether physically impaired or not. First, some students feel a need for regular face-to-face interaction. These persons should be steered toward other learning methods. If, however, CMC is being used for students residing on the campus with the teacher, such courses should integrate classroom contact with the computer component. The teacher also has the responsibility to set an open and interactive tone for the discussions. CMC is a highly interactive technology, but, by itself, it will not yet make a nonresponsive teacher into an interactive moderator. The faculty member needs to recognize and exploit its strengths.
Second, student expectations significantly influence their response to a CMC class. When those registering for such a course realize it will be delivered by CMC, they accept the technology with few complaints. When they expect a traditional delivery method, some adjust readily, whereas others become frustrated and dissatisfied.
Third, this particular CMC classroom was run on an asynchronous basis. Students could “go to class” at any time. They could “talk to the teacher in his office” at any time. Both the VAX Notes conference used for the classroom, and VAX Mail used for office-type communication are available at any time and on any day. Students with poor self-discipline procrastinated and fell further and further behind. A time-independent class format demands more maturity than some younger students have developed. The system works well with adult learners. For less mature participants, the course should build in requirements for regular, scheduled participation. Keeping these qualifications in mind, mainstreaming disabled learners via CMC is a possibility that can be adapted in almost any setting.
Sources of Relevant Information
EASI: Equal Access to Software and Information, is a project of Educom and is concerned with computer access for the disabled primarily, in higher education. It can be contacted by e-mail on the Internet: firstname.lastname@example.org or by paper mail at: EASI, Care of Educom, 1112 16th St. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036.
The Trace Research and Development Center is an extremely valuable source for adaptive technologies for handicapped persons, and it can be reached by paper mail or phone at: Trace Research and Development Center, S-151 Waisman Center, 1500 Highland Ave., Madison, WI 53705. Phone: (608) 262-6966, TDD (608) 263-5408.
To obtain copies of the unpublished formative evaluation report mentioned above, write to: Barbara G. McKee, National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology, One Lomb Memorial Dr., Rochester NY 14623.
Coombs has written several articles on the use of CMC with disabled students. Two of these are:
Coombs, N. (1989). Using CMC to overcome physical disabilities. In R. Mason & A. Kaye (Eds.). Mindweave: Communication, computers, and distance education (pp. 180-185). New York: Pergamon Press.
Coombs, N. (1992). Teaching in the information age. Educom Review, 41(2), 28.