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Virtual Reality Use in Online Courses: Perceptions of Postsecondary Students with Low-Vision

Asma Marghalani

Professor Cynthia Campbell

Fall 2019

A research submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirement for ETR 520, Introduction to

Research Method

Virtual Reality Use in Online Courses: Perceptions of Postsecondary Students with Low-Vision

In the last decades, online courses have become a great opportunity for students who

have multiple responsibilities or/and disabilities to face such challenges in order to complete

their education successfully. . Students with disabilities need special support; specifically,

students with low-vision have some difficulties dealing with technologies such as virtual reality

(Corn, 2018). Some researchers have noted that students with low-vision face challenges in

online courses and require special accommodations using assistive technology (Crow, 2008;

Fichten, Asuncion, Barile, Ferraro, & Wolforth, 2009; Summers, White, Zhang, & Gordon,


This introduction will examine the relevant information on online courses and synthesize

relevant literature on the specific needs of this population of students. The initial literature

review has revealed limited empirical research on students with low-vision in online courses. In

an attempt to fill the gap in the existing literature, this study will highlight the significance of the

research on virtual reality for students with low-vision who have experience with online courses.

Universal Design of Learning (UDL) will serve as the theoretical framework, and a research

question will be formulated to guide the study. Also, this chapter will include the purpose

statement, theoretical framework, and the key concepts of the study.

Online courses attempt to create a learning environment that connects students,

instructors, and learning resources when they are not physically present in the same location

(Park & Choi, 2009). In 1997, the first online course platforms were launched at famous

universities, such as Yale, Cornel, and University of Pittsburgh. In the same year, Learning

Management System (LMS) known as Blackboard was founded and has become widespread for

delivering online instruction and it is still utilized in many colleges and universities across the

globe (Nicholson, 2007). Online courses can make use of both asynchronous and synchronous

technologies. Synchronous technology requires that students and instructors work at the same

time but not in the same place through using video conference (Palmer, 2012). In contrast,

asynchronous technology does not require students and instructors to work at the same time

(Palmer, 2012), but rather students and their professors can work independently at time that is


In the last three decades, online courses have significantly increased in higher education

(Betts et al., 2013). Recently, 30% of postsecondary students are enrolled in at least one online

course in one of the U.S. higher education institutions (Cole, Shelley & Swartz, 2014). Although

online courses have increased, students with disabilities enrolling in institutions of higher

education have also increased over the last 25 years (Lyman et al., 2016). Higher education has

attempted to make online courses more effective and accessible for all students, however, some

instructors and/or institutions may inadvertently overlook the needs of students with disabilities

(Kharade & Peese, 2012). Cook and Gladhart (2002) stated that 10% to 15% of postsecondary

students identify themselves as disabled. According to the American Disabilities Act (ADA), a

disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life

activities. To be labeled as disabled, a person must have a history or record of such an

impairment, or a person should be perceived by others as having such an impairment. To be sure,

self-identified students with disabilities should have equal opportunities in their online courses as

other students without a diagnosed disability.

Low-vision is one of the common types of disabilities (Richardson, 2014). It is a type of

visual disability and is defined as the functional limitation of the eye or eyes or the vision system

(The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010). The American Foundation for the Blind

(AFB) defines low-vision as a condition caused by eye disease in which visual acuity is 20/70 or

poorer in the better-seeing eye and cannot be corrected or improved with regular eyeglasses

(AFB, 2015). Students with low-vision usually have several academic difficulties (Moola, 2015).

One of these difficulties is using technology because sometimes they cannot adjust technology

according to their needs.

Consequently, the emergence of online courses has brought challenges for students with

low-vision (Argyropoulos, Padeliadu, Elias, Tsiakali & Nikolaraizi, 2019; Summers, White,

Zhang, & Gordon, 2014). Literature on the experiences of students with low-vision is scarce,

and most seminal articles focus on students with disabilities without specifying the type of

disability (Lorenzin & Wittich 2019; Okiki, 2019). However, some relevant studies (e.g., Lee &

Oh. 2017; Richardson, 2014) have observed that students with low-vision are not often active in

online courses due to the challenges they face when interacting with learning materials. On the

contrary, several studies suggest online courses are beneficial for students with low-vision

because it can provide learning experiences (Barnard, Paton, & Sulak, 2012; Haegele, Zhu &

Kirk, 2018; Kharade, & Peese, 2012) that allow instructors to provide remote instructional

assistance to the students anytime and anywhere even if they live far from the main campuses of

the universities (Holmgren, 2018).

Most U.S. institutions of higher education incorporate principles of Universal Design for

Learning (UDL) into their educational and instructional materials. UDL is a framework for

improving instruction because it helps provide equal opportunities for all learners to succeed.

This strategy provides flexibility in how learners access, engage with, and demonstrate what they

understand and increases the quality of learning materials for everyone (Rose & Mayer, 2008).

UDL helps instructors and instructional designers, particularly for online courses, create

environments that provide easy access for all disabled and nondisabled students (Burghstahler,

2006). UDL matters because of an increasingly varied student population, instructors are often

challenged to design and implement the curriculum. UDL helps by offering a variety of

strategies and resources to satisfy a range of learning requirements, make learning possibilities

more accessible, and increase student achievement.

Online Courses

Before proceeding to the history of online courses, I would like to provide some

definitions of online courses. Gray and DiLoreto (2016), and Nicholson (2007) showed that in

the last 30 years, technology has clearly had a strong influence on education contributing to the

development of online courses. Online courses are part of this trend and have broad implications

for the field of Educational Technology (EdTech). Online courses are the natural result of

distance learning adopting new communications technologies and then being co-opted or

redefined by those technologies (Gray & DiLoreto, 2016).

Online courses started in 1982 at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla,

California, but the popularity of taking online courses began in 1989 when the University of

Phoenix started offering education programs through the Internet. In 1993 with the invention of

the first Internet web browser developed by the University of Illinois, online learning became

widespread (Nicholson, 2007). In 1997, the first online learning platforms were launched at

famous universities, such as Yale, Cornel, and the University of Pittsburgh. In the same year,

Learning Management System (LMS) known as Blackboard became widespread to deliver

online instruction and is still utilized in many colleges and universities across the globe

(Nicholson, 2007).

To better understand the pros and cons of online course delivery, I found that some

researchers (Gray & DiLoreto, 2016; Knightley, 2007; Panacci, 2015) have discussed various

positive and advantageous positions taken with respect to online courses. Online courses provide

flexibility in scheduling, use of asynchronous technology to allow students to take examinations,

access to a wide variety of materials, ability to complete assignments, and be involved in group

discussions according to a schedule student develop (Knightley, 2007). For instance, students

can complete their course assignments after finishing work and other family responsibilities;

however, they need to manage their time within time limits of the course (Panacci, 2015).

In addition, online courses can provide flexibility of attending classes through the use of

the synchronous technology. For example, students may use video conferencing to meet with the

class or/and instructor. As a result of using synchronous and asynchronous technologies in online

courses, students can become more familiar with technology and gain technological skills (Gray

& DiLoreto, 2016). Technical skills, such as creating and sharing documents, incorporating

audio/video materials into assignments, and completing online sessions, can be helpful for

students to become proficient in using such technologies in their future careers. Thus, online

courses are beneficial for individuals who face difficulties pursuing education such as various

disabilities, location, time, work responsibilities, and so forth (Gray & DiLoreto, 2016; Panacci,


In contrast, several researchers (e.g. Chyung, 2007; Horzum, Kaymak & Gungoren,

2015; Knightley, 2007; Palmer, 2012) have found that online courses formats can haave

disadvantages as well as advantages in learning, in that not all students in online courses are

successful with this learning format (Horzum, Kaymak, & Gungoren, 2015). Knightley (2007)

noted that students in online courses have different preferences. For example, some students

favor working with other people, others work better alone, and some prefer working directly with

the instructor rather than working on their own. Therefore, depending on their learning

preferences, students in online courses need to be motivated to successfully complete online

courses (Knightley, 2007; Panacci, 2015).

In addition, several researchers have addressed motivational factors in completing online

courses. Many students completing online courses have little or no interaction with their peers

causing less motivation to learn (Chyung, 2007). Palmer (2012) found that 48% of students in

online courses like the flexibility which gives students opportunity to attend classes wherever

they have Internet access. On the other hand, 66% of students in online courses desire limited

face-to-face interaction. Moreover, online courses usually have deadlines for events such as

assignments, tests, or commenting on lectures. Panacci (2015) found that students need to have

strong time management and organizational skills in online courses because it is vital to stay on

top of their work, allowing appropriate amount of time to complete each task, as well as balance

coursework against other priorities in life. Many students in online courses may worry about

missing out on the social aspect of learning, or that they will be isolated as if on a desert island.

Social interaction is one of the most important motivations to share experiences (Panacci, 2015).

Therefore, the students try to communicate with other people enrolled in the same online course

(Horzum, Kaymak, & Gungoren, 2015). Horzum, Kaymak, and Gungoren (2015) found that

students will be more motivated when they exchange e-mails with other classmates enrolled in

the same course to communicate with each other to speak about course material and share

experiences and information. In addition, communicating with the course instructor provides an

opportunity to ask questions or discuss course material, which can encourage students to become

more motivated (Horzum, Kaymak, & Gungoren, 2015; Palmer, 2012). Moreover, student and

instructor interactions can facilitate student motivation.

Online Courses for Students with Low-Vision

In the second section of the literature review, I discuss studies that have examined

experiences of students with low-vision in online courses. Low-vision is one of the visual

disabilities identified as having significant difficulty seeing even after one’s vision is corrected

with eyeglasses, contact lenses, surgery, or medicine (AFB, 2015). Researchers have observed

that most people with low-vision have difficulty with daily tasks such as reading mail, shopping,

cooking, and paying bills (Haegele, Zhu, & Kirk, 2018). Some of the low-vision symptoms are

dimness, haziness, and difficulty recognizing faces, reading labels, and moving around safely

(Wolffe & Sacks, 1997).

Online courses can benefit students with low-vision because they face challenges in being

physically present on campus (Kharade & Peesa, 2012; William, Ray, Wolf, & Blasch, 2006).

Kharade and Peesa (2012) emphasized that the delivery of online courses reduced the challenges

of attending class on campus. Feucht and Holmgren (2018) reported that students with low vison

prefer not to enroll in traditional classes because they cannot drive to the campus, and many do

not live close to the campus. Moreover, walking around campus can also be a challenge because

sometimes it requires students with very low vison to use aids such as a cane or a guide dog. I In

some cases, students with low-vision cannot even see the small things, or in other cases, students

with low-vision cannot see things in bright or dark places. Therefore, they often have a difficult

time self-navigating outside of well-known environments and prefer to stay indoors (Long,

Rieser, & Hill, 1990). Some students with low vision prefer to study and work in small physical

spaces (Haegele, Zhu & Kirk, 2018). As a result, low-vision affects their ability to learn or

perform many job duties, which severely limits his/her main life opportunities for education and

employment (Long et al., 1990). Therefore, online courses has become a great opportunity for

students with low-vision to complete their educational degrees and be more motivated to succeed

(Kharade & Peese, 2012).

Assistive Technologies and Virtual Reality

In the last section of the literature review, I review the literature pertinent to most

assistive technologies used by students with low-vision. According to the Individuals with

Disabilities Education Act (2004), assistive technology is “any item, piece of equipment, or

product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, used to

increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of people with a disability.” Assistive

technology is a tool that helps in accommodating disabilities (Rosner & Perlman, 2018). For

example, students with low-vision need screen readers. A screen reader is software that students

with low-vision can use to help them read what is on the screen. Instructors should provide

several formats of the course material such as word or PDF format, so students can use assistive

technologies to access course content and interact with accessible materials. Fichton et al. (2009)

identified some assistive technologies that are beneficial for students with low-vision. They

surveyed students with visual impairments (blind and low-vision) to explore the most assistive

technologies used to support their learning. They found that 50% of the students with low-vision

used different types of software that helped them enlarge what was on the screen (e.g.,

magnification, zoom) and software that improved the quality of writing (e.g., grammar and

spell check, color, and highlighting). In addition, most students with low-vision indicated that

they frequently utilized other types of technology, such as large-screen monitors, scanning and

optical character recognition software, and alternative mouse (e.g., trackball and mouse keys).

Other less used technologies have been dictation software, adapted keyboard with large keys and

an on-screen keyboard, and refreshable braille display.

Besides flexibility, online courses allow students with low-vision to adjust the

instructional materials using assistive technologies according to their needs (Crow, 2008;

Fichten, Asuncion, Barile, Ferraro & Wolforth, 2009) thus, acquiring academic and nonacademic

skills (Hewett, Douglas, McLinden, & Keil, 2017; Rosner & Perlman, 2018). In addition, using

assistive technologies in online courses help students facilitate their learning and receive equal

learning opportunities (Hewett, Douglas, McLinden, & Keil, 2017). Because of this equality,

students with low-vision can be more active and motivated to participate in online activities such

as discussions and group work. Moreover, online courses with assistive technologies encourage

students with low-vision to be active participants and share ideas with classmates and instructors

remotely in online course activities (Crow, 2008; Fichten, Asuncion, Barile, Ferraro, &

Wolforth, 2009; Hewett, Douglas, McLinden, & Keil, 2017).

However, there are a few studies that have examined virtual reality as one of the new

assistive technologies that students with low-vision could benefit. The last consideration in this

literature review is the virtual reality which is known by many names, including 360 video,

immersive video, spherical video, and augmented reality, abbreviated as VR or AR. Such

technology allows users to immerse themselves in a virtual environment. Videos are shot with

multidirectional cameras from every angle and put together using a technique called video

stitching. Virtual reality allows the user to be completely immersed in an environment, while

augmented reality allows for a blending of virtual reality and the real world.

VR will encourage online courses to merge experiential learning. Experiential learning is

a process of learning through first-hand experience. It’s a method of gaining expertise and skills

through the practical application of concepts, theories and problem-solving techniques instead of

just reading or hearing about them.

Although there are several areas of investigation regarding online courses in higher

education, including several qualitative and quantitative approaches, there is a need for more

structured qualitative studies to explore specifically the perceptions of students with low-vision

in online courses regarding virtual reality as an assistive technology. To fill this gap, the

proposed study seeks to conduct qualitative research to enhance knowledge of students’ use of

low-vision assistive technologies to increase the effectiveness of online courses. Finally, the

proposed study will contribute to literature on the use of virtual reality in online courses for

students with low-vision and provide practical recommendations for the implementation of an

effective online course design with helpful technologies for students with low-vision.

Purpose Statement

The purpose of this study is to explore perceptions of postsecondary students with low-vision

enrolled in online courses about using virtual reality.

Research Question

How do postsecondary students with low-vision describe their experience with using virtual

reality in online courses? 

Key Concepts

The following terms are important to this study:

Assistive Technology (AT) device. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

(Sec. 602), assistive technology device is “any item, piece of equipment, or product system,

whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, used to increase,

maintain, or improve functional capabilities of people with a disability” (Presley & D’Andrea,

2015, p. 18).

Asynchronous online learning. Learning does not use a set schedule (Palmer, 2012). For

example, a class might conduct a discussion through a message board, with students posting their

contributions whenever they log on (Palmer, 2012).

Legal blindness: In the United States, this refers to a medically diagnosed central visual acuity

of 20/200 or less in the better eye with the best possible correction and/or a visual field of 20

degrees or less (NEI, 2015).

Low-vision. Vision that cannot be corrected with regular glasses, contact lenses, medicine, or

surgery (NEI, 2015).

Online courses. Online courses are defined as a system and process of connecting students,

teachers, and learning resources when they are not in the same location (Park & Choi, 2009).

Students with low-vision. Low-vision is an impairment in vision that, even with correction,

adversely affects a student’s educational performance. The student may access information

through visual, auditory, and/or tactual modes.

Students with total blindness. Students who are unable to see at all to access information.

Synchronous online learning. Learning needs a schedule that requires the students and

instructor to meet online at the same real time. Synchronous learning uses technology such as

webinars, virtual classrooms, or audio-video conferencing to give students a closer social

connection with their instructor and peers (Palmer, 2012).

Universal Design for Learning (UDL). A set of principles for curriculum

development, including flexibility of curriculum and instruction that give all individuals

equal opportunities to learn (Meyer & Rose, 20002).


Virtual Reality (VR): refers to computer-generated environments or realities that are designed

to simulate a person's physical presence in a specific environment that is designed to feel real.

The purpose of VR is to allow a person to experience and manipulate the environment as if it

were the real world

Theoretical Framework

 The UDL theoretical framework approach will guide this study. In the 1990s, Anne

Meyer and David Rose first laid out the principles of UDL. They and their colleagues at the

Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST, 2008) introduced UDL as a framework to

improve teaching and learning in the digital age, sparking an international reform movement.

Since UDL requires equal access for all students, it will help to provide accessibility

accommodations for low-vision in online courses. In addition, it helps instructors to not just look

at the reasonable accommodations but also look at accessibility accommodations and assistive

technologies that students with low-vision may need to use in online courses. UDL recommends

that instructors support students who need individual accommodations. If a student has a

disability, instructors need to work with the Disability Resource Center (DRC) to translate course

materials and to design alternative and equivalent assessments. Instructors should also ensure

that the environment is conducive to the student's learning. Even simple, proactive measures

such as offering early syllabus access and textbook orders can have a significant positive impact

on the accommodation process.

According to CAST (2008), there are three principles of UDL: Representation, Action

and Expression, and Engagement. The “Representation” principle allows accessing information

in several formats such as audio, video, or hands-on learning to help students have different ways

to access the instruction and learning materials. The second principle is “Action and

Expression,” which supports instructors using assistive technology. The “Action and Expression”

principle refers to the different ways that students can use assistive technologies to navigate and

express what they know in a learning environment. The assistive technologies allow students

with disabilities to navigate and express what they know through voice-activated switches and

expanded keyboards and to navigate or interact with a single switch. The last principle is the

“Engagement,” which provides methods to ensure that students receive support to be motivated

to re-enroll in online courses.


Study Design

This study will use a qualitative method. Creswell (1998; 2009) categorized qualitative

research methods into three approaches: narrative, grounded theory, and ethnography. For this

proposed study, ethnography will be the study design. Ethnography is rooted in cultural

anthropology, where researchers plunge into a culture. According to Cresswell (2009),

“ethnographic designs are qualitative research procedures for describing, analyzing, and

interpreting a culture-sharing group’s shared patterns of behavior, beliefs, and language that

develop over time” (p. 462). A culture is “everything having to do with human behavior and

belief” (Cresswell, 2009, p.462). There are three types of ethnographic design: the realist

ethnography, the case study, and the critical ethnography.

Case study will be conducted for this study because it is an approach that emphasizes

data about people’s experiences for describing and reporting stories of their lives (Hatch, 2002;

Moustakas, 1994; Yin, 2009). According to Cresswell (1998), case study is defined as “a

qualitative approach in which the investigator explores a bounded system (a case) or multiple

bounded systems (cases) over time, through detailed, in-depth data collection involving multiple

sources of information (e.g., observations, interviews, audiovisual material, and documents and

reports), and reports a case description and case-based themes” (p.61). Case study is the best fit

for this study because the study focuses on providing in-depth information on the participants’

experiences of virtual reality in online courses seeking to understand how to best support

postsecondary students with low-vision enrolled in online courses.


Study participants will include individuals who have low-vision, are 18 years and older,

are female or male students at the university level, and have taken or are taking online courses.

According to the AMA (1924) and Social Security Administration (1995), students with low-

vision do not qualify under the definition of legal blindness: “In the United States, [low-vision]

refers to a medically diagnosed central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with the

best possible correction, and/or a visual field of 20 degrees or less”. In addition, the participants

must not have any concomitant considerations besides low-vision. For the purposes of this study,

low vision is defined as vision that cannot be corrected with regular glasses, contact lenses,

medicine, or surgery (National Eye Institute, 2019). The sample size will be approximately 10


The study will take place at a U.S. public university in the Midwest with total enrollment of

17,169 students for fall 2018. According to the university website (2018), there are 12,788

undergraduates, 4,121 graduates and 260 college of law. I will recruit participants by seeking

permission from an associate professor to make an announcement in one of his/her online

courses to ask the students to voluntarily participate in the demographic survey for this research.

The survey will include a question to ask the participants provide their contact information if

they are willing to participate in interviews. Students who identified as a low vision in the survey

will be contacted for interviews. I will also contact the disability resources center (DRC) to help

recruit participants.


I will conduct individual interviews to collect data and field notes. The interview

protocol will be designed by performing an extensive literature review of the studies and the

UDL principles guidelines related to virtual reality in online courses (Lyman, 2016; Terras et al.,

2015). The semi-structured interview will be developed with open-ended questions (See

Appendix A). Additionally, probe questions will be developed to help me ask the participants for

more details about their experiences using virtual reality.

Prior to starting the study, I will conduct at least one practice interview with students who

meet the criteria. I can familiarize myself with the interview protocol and judge the quality of the

answers given and the degree to which respondents have understood the questions. Required

changes will be made to the interview questions based on the participants’ feedback.


First, I will distribute the survey in online courses. Then, I will contact the willing

participants who provided their information to set up interviews. The participants may choose the

in-person, phone or by skype interviews. In addition, participants will suggest a time and

location that is convenient for them to meet. Prior to the interviews, each participant will sign a

consent form to participate in the study. The consent form will ask their permission to voluntarily

participate and to be audio recorded, as well as describe confidentiality. The duration for each

interview will be approximately 60 to 90 minutes. I will meet with each participant once.

Field notes contain "descriptive notes" of what has been observed and "reflective notes":

personal thoughts, interpretations, and importance of what has been observed (Creswell, 2009, p.

182). In this study, after the individual interviews, I will write down reflective notes of any

personal thoughts and observations that would not be revealed by the transcript. The field notes

will help me describe behavioral observations and record my personal thoughts.


I will transcribe all interview data, review for accuracy, then re-read multiple times, and

analyze using open-coding. The coding categories will be derived from the data and used to

triangulate findings across the multiple modes of data collection.

Once responses to questions have been analyzed individually, responses will be

compared using the “cross-case synthesis” technique described by Yin (2003, p. 133). This

method compares one piece of data with another piece to establish differences and likenesses. To

analyze open-ended responses, qualitative researchers look for overlapping themes in the open-

ended data, and some researchers count the number of themes or the number of times the

participants mention the themes (Creswell, 2009). For this study, I will also use the “cross-case

synthesis” technique to analyze the data. For the reliability process, I will use member-checking

that the participants will confirm the themes emerged from the data collection.

Study Limitation

There are few studies that focus on online courses and virtual reality. Therefore, I could

not find a semi-structured question so, I wrote the semi-structured interview questions and will

need to pilot them for appropriateness, clarity, comprehensiveness, and so forth. In addition, this

study will be dependent on voluntary self-reporting of data from a sample of participants at the

target university in the United States. Most of the students with disabilities may not be

comfortable talking about their disabilities. This is more common with low-vision because it is

not an apparent disability (George & Duquette, 2006). Students’ hesitation about discussing their

disabilities is a limitation because it makes it hard to gain enough details about students’

experiences. To minimize this limitation, I will ask the participants prob questions to establish

trust and they can be more open and explain experiences.



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Appendix A: Semi-Structured Guiding Interview

1. As a student with low-vision, do you prefer online or face to face courses?

Face to Face course

Online course

Hybrid/Blended course

All types of courses

a. Why do you prefer that type of course?

2. Do you think virtual reality has motivated you to be engaged in the online course’s

environment? (Probe Questions below)

a. Did it help you in a positive way? Or in a negative way

3. What specific virtual reality device did you use and were/are they helpful to better

understand online instruction and to complete online activities? (Probe Question for Q4


4. How does the virtual reality in the online course affect your learning?

5. What, if anything, would you like to be improved regarding virtual reality in an online


6. Please, describe your understanding of and experience with virtual reality devices.

7. I’m curious about your experience with getting approved for accommodations and then

not using one or more of those accommodations. Can you describe this experience for


8. Describe a specific experience when you felt like you didn’t have access to services or

accommodations that you thought would be helpful in your education.


9. As a person with low-vision, is there anything else you would like me to know about

your online course experience?

10. What question should I have asked, but didn’t?