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Opting For Online Education

Editor's Note: Rajesh Malik is an AEBC member who teaches Psychology at Dawson College, as well as in the Department of Education at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec.

John Diakogeorgiou is a Columbus, Ohio, resident who is blind and who works for JPMorgan Chase Bank. Recently, he completed a Masters degree in Business Administration in two years at Minneapolis, Minnesota's Walden University, an institution offering degrees in a virtual classroom--over the internet--from the comfort of home.

As online learning is increasing in popularity, and it is almost impossible to avoid it in North American colleges and universities today--some courses delivered completely over the internet and others offered in a traditional classroom with an online component--John's experience could be of tremendous help to would-be students. The following interview was conducted via email.

Q: Why did you decide to enroll in an online degree program and not in a traditional one?

A: An online program fit better with my schedule. At the time, I was working the evening shift and was also raising foster children, which gave me little time during the day. Additionally, I thought I wouldn't have to deal with professors unwilling or unable to verbally describe graphs or math/financial problems on the board. With an online class, this information is provided in lecture notes so that it can be read easily and digested.

Q: How were your classes organized? What could you do if the material was unclear?

A: Each class consisted of online discussion and interaction between students and the instructor. We were provided with lecture notes for each week, reading assignments from a textbook or articles, and either papers to prepare or problems to solve. If something was not clear, we were encouraged to discuss it in the online classroom with other students.

Since the online discussions took place throughout the week and not just during a two or three-hour class, more information was exchanged, and since we never met each other face-to-face, students were less inhibited about expressing their opinions. At the same time, instructors made themselves available by email and telephone at least three days a week for individual consultation.

Q: How did you access your classes and what special equipment did you use?

A: Classes were conducted online using an Internet browser. There was a folder for lecture notes, group discussions, assignments and homework. They were all prepared using standard web pages and were therefore quite accessible. In most classes, we had to participate in a group project via email and a discussion board so that the instructor could gauge each student's participation. Exams were all done online and were open book, using multiple choice or short answer items.

The only special equipment I used was a screen reader called JAWS. I also used off-the-shelf scanning software, which can be used to recognize PDF files and convert them into other formats.

Q: How did you obtain your reading material in an accessible format?

A: The courses came in a specific sequence so I always knew what would come next and I was able to find out the names of the textbooks ahead of time, enabling me or the Disability services department to order the books, in PDF or Word format, beforehand. Occasionally, I had to use a scanner and optical character recognition software, as well as the Optacon, to read graphs, formulas and financial tables in accounting, finance and statistics textbooks, which were difficult to read with JAWS.

Because many of the periodicals and journals are available online, it was much easier to perform library-based research than in the past.

Q: Did you encounter any problems that were unique to being blind? How satisfactorily were these issues addressed?

A: I faced one major difficulty in all of my courses. By the end of a week, the online discussion section usually contained over 100 messages, and it was necessary for me to know whether I had already read them or not. A technical problem with newer versions of JAWS, which Freedom Scientific (the software developer) was unable to fix, made this difficult, so I relied on an older version of JAWS.

The only other problem was with a statistics add-in to Excel that we used for several classes. As this program did not work well with JAWS, I depended on sighted help to use it.

Q: As a blind person, what do you think were some of the advantages of completing a degree online, which may not be apparent to others?

A: We don't have to worry about how we are going to take notes or about ensuring that the instructor provides us with all the information written on the board. Also, we don't have to think about how we?ll get to and from class or the library. Most places do not have the type of transportation that cities have, which might make it difficult for persons with vision loss living in suburbs or rural areas to pursue post-secondary courses.

Q: What advice do you have for other blind or partially sighted persons who might be considering enrolling in online courses? What kind of general preparation would they need?

A: They must be well versed in technology, including how to use their adaptive software and how to perform research online, but we also still need someone now and then to read information or help with computer programs. For example, if a text is provided in PDF format, it may still be difficult to read tables, and in courses like math, science and finance, where formulas are used, screen readers such as JAWS and Window-Eyes are not able to deal with this type of information.

It's also important to develop time management skills, since multiple deadlines usually occur throughout the week.

Q: Based on your experience, would you consider taking online courses again in the future?

A: I would not hesitate to do so. The experience was a good one and I would highly recommend it to others.