College students on the margins in the new media classroom

Sean Zdenek
Texas Tech University
Computers & Composition Online (Fall 2009)


  1. Introduction
  2. Limiting access in the Podcasting Bible
  3. A critique of “on the fly” podcasting (Part 1, 2)
  4. Podcasting 2.0: Towards an accessible Web (Part 1, 2)
  5. References
  6. About the author

Students with disabilities are in danger of being either excluded from the new media revolution or accommodated as after-thoughts of pedagogies that fail to anticipate their needs. Too often, our excitement about new media, even when that excitement is tempered by sober reflection, leaves intact a set of normative assumptions about students’ bodies, minds, and abilities. These assumptions operate behind the scenes. They are activated readily and unconsciously as beliefs about how well or poorly students move, see, hear, think, learn, know, act, and use specific technologies. Normative or so-called “ableist” assumptions about our students – e.g. that they hear, see, and move well enough or in certain anticipated ways to engage directly with course learning tools (on ableism, see Linton 2006) – threaten to undermine our commitments to accessibility and inclusivity.

The issue is not simply whether students with disabilities can or should be accommodated. Universities in the U.S. and other industrialized countries are required by law to provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities, just as every responsible teacher is committed to designing optimally accessible courses. Rather, the issue is whether ableist assumptions, coupled with the promises of new media, are unconsciously and subtly shaping our teaching philosophies, course-level pedagogies, and beliefs about students’ bodies to the detriment of a growing population of college students with disabilities. As our writing pedagogies come to depend more and more on new media, we need to ask how new media can serve every student – disabled and nondisabled alike – in the name of “universal usability” (Horton 2006: xvi). More specifically, we need to ask: To what extent are our new media writing pedagogies and environments accessible to students with disabilities? How seamlessly are students with disabilities (and their subcultures) integrated into our pedagogical environments? Which students have an advantage in writing courses that presume a minimum level of physical agility and dexterity, not to mention a minimum level of vision and hearing? What effects on learning outcomes will accommodations have on disabled students? In other words, will accommodations serve merely as inferior substitutes for primary instruction that comes channeled through new media? How do we design our courses for universal usability so that we consider, at the inception and through the entire life of our courses, the needs of students with disabilities?

In this webtext, I explore the intersection of disability and new media through the red hot lens of podcasting. From Duke University’s now-infamous experiment to outfit 1600 entering freshmen with iPods in 2004 (Belanger 2005), to the growing popularity of Apple iTunes as a repository for more than just music files (e.g. consider the recent addition of iTunes University and Apple’s already impressive list of clients in higher education), to the Open Courseware movement (most notably at MIT) and the role of audio and video podcasting in distributing courses to the public (“Take Any 2007“), podcasting is realizing its potential, in concert with other forms of new media, to reshape the nature of learning – where it takes place, when, how, and for which students. The excitement about podcasting in mainstream podcasting discourse is palpable, almost embarrassingly so. To what extent does this discourse make ableist assumptions? To what extent does it discuss the need for alternative accommodations for hard of hearing and deaf students? Despite the increased visibility of disability as a pedagogical, scholarly, and social issue (as opposed to merely a personal or medical problem), disability is virtually invisible in podcasting discourse. If we are committed to leveraging the affordances of podcasting technology in our classrooms, then we need to design podcast-ready pedagogies that are sensitive to the needs of a diverse student body.

Next: Limiting access in the Podcasting Bible