Professor William Byrnes Develops Online Teaching Methodologies And Distance Learning In Face Of Disabilities

Published on September 17, 2014

Professor William Byrnes, Associate Dean for Graduate and Distance Education at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, pioneered the “online classroom” and distance learning methodologies to remove obstacles for students with disabilities.

William Byrnes pioneered the “online classroom” so he could continue teaching, despite a prognosis of lifetime disabilities resulting from traumatic injury. The program he developed to guarantee his future employment has now become a groundbreaking distance learning model used by higher education institutions and the U.S. military.

Byrnes suffered life threatening injuries in an African ski country accident and spent six months in the hospital undergoing grueling recovery from physical and brain trauma. Doctors could not predict his level of recovery, nor his future quality of life. In an effort to prepare himself for a productive future, Byrnes developed online, multi-media teaching methodologies that effectively ignore disability.

Now an Associate Dean for Graduate and Distance Education at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, California, Byrnes says his motivation was to create a way to communicate with students whether or not he could walk or use body language, as was his practice in the traditional classroom. What he ended up with was a new way of teaching and learning.

“Presenting curriculum using universal design was the answer,” said Byrnes. “I used the basic tenets of audio, visual, and tactile sensibilities so I could teach at every different level. I realized that this approach would also allow me to meet the learning styles of every student.”

It has been more than 20 years since Byrnes developed his first online program. He is fully recovered but has never forgotten the lessons he learned when faced with the possibility of lifelong disability. Today, Byrnes’ first online curriculum is an extensive program using audio, video, text, e-mail, and sometimes that first simple universal design of pictures and colors to teach. He revises and upgrades the modalities every five years to incorporate new technology.

Students with a wide range of disabilities including birth defects, visual and hearing impairments, and memory issues caused by head injury are now able to pursue higher education using the online classroom. Byrnes interfaces regularly with disabled groups and associations to learn the newest assistive technologies and incorporate them into his teaching modalities. The feedback he receives from students indicates that the multi-media approach to teaching does indeed accommodate disabilities and removes obstacles that previously prevented them from obtaining advanced degrees.

The military is taking advantage of distance learning because it allows deployed, active duty soldiers to pursue higher learning. Byrnes relates the story of a soldier in Iraq who was wounded and spent two years in rehab, but was able to continue his studies and complete his advanced degree because he did not need to attend class in a traditional classroom. The military is also finding that the electronic curriculum is ideal for training deployed military intelligence officers the advanced skills of forensic criminology, financial crimes, money laundering and legal analysis.

Byrnes underscores the need for colleges and universities to employ multi-media technology, saying “Students who don’t suffer with disabilities also learn in different ways, some are visual learners, some are auditory learners. If we don’t teach using different modalities we are leaving students behind and that is wrong. I believe that education is part of human development and we need to deliver it to all of humankind.”

On September 18, 2014, Byrnes will lead a workshop that will draft best practices recommendations for online legal education. For more than four years, he worked diligently to achieve this outcome through a concerted effort of many ABA institutions. The Working Group for Distance Learning in Legal Education, is a loosely structured alliance of law educators collaborating to provide increased opportunities for faculty, students, and other participants to access high quality, innovative, and interactive online legal education.

Associate Dean William Byrnes is “…one of the leading authors and best-selling authors in the professional markets” with 30 books and 23 book chapters that have sold in excess of 100,000 copies in print and online and have over one thousand online annual database subscribers. He has been called “one of America’s leading experts on the global battle against money laundering”. His publishers include LexisNexis, National Underwriter, Wolters Kluwer, and Thomson West. He has written over one thousand media articles and spoken at over one hundred events.

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