Having access can mean many things in the context of online learning. Courses can be accessed “any time, any place.” Students can find access to degree programs and areas of study that aren’t available through schools in their local areas. And online programs often reach students who may not have the resources to participate in traditional higher education.
However, full participation can still be difficult, especially for those with hearing, sight, or mobility challenges. While online learning eases access to those for whom traveling to and negotiating a traditional campus would be too challenging, barriers related to technology can still be limiting. Accessibility initiatives seek to make course materials available for all learners.
I admit that I am an online instructor who teaches courses that aren’t completely accessible. We all know it’s important, but often wait until we have a student who needs accessible features enrolled in the class, to make the changes. While some schools are making accessibility part of the process when designing new programs, many courses end up going through a sort of retrofit when the need arises. But by the time that happens, the students who need the assistance may already be at a disadvantage.
What is Accessibility?
Earlier this year a panel session presented by 3Play Media and The Sloan Consortium brought attention to the fact that “with more education going online, content accessibility for students with disabilities is a pressing issue.” This group outlined these three components of accessibility:
- Hardware: Laptops, tablets, and smartphones, for example, should offer the ability for students to access all course site components and interfaces.
- Software: Applications, such as word processing and presentation development software, should include “keyboard, screen, and audio assists.”
- Content: From text-based articles to multimedia presentations, the course materials should be in an “accessible-friendly format” that may include alternatives for reading, listening, etc.
There are multiple organizations – such as AccessibleTech.org, the National Center for Accessible Media, and the National Center on Disability and Access to Education, that are actively creating accessibility guidelines and reference materials for online programs, instructors, and employers. But it’s not just a good idea. Web accessibility is part of the Americans with Disabilities Act, often referred to as “Section 508.”
Design and Usability Challenges
Students with sight and hearing disabilities often rely on alternative presentation formats to participate in their courses, including audio recordings of text-based materials and captioned video presentations. Students with mobility challenges may not be able to use a mouse or keyboard, but voice recognition software can help them navigate an on-screen menu.
These are some of the considerations that course designers and instructors need to factor in when developing new offerings. As technologies rapidly emerge and evolve, they can improve online learning or add to the challenges faced. Creating accessible courses means staying up-to-date on capabilities and continuous requirements for new techniques and strategies.
With all of the attention accessibility has received in higher education over the past several years, awareness has increased and many barriers have been removed. Online learning is more accessible than ever, but challenges remain. Here are a few of the issues encountered in online courses:
- Embedded Components: Course materials are often accessed within layers of technology – video may be embedded in a slide presentation, images may be uploaded to a learning management system (e.g., Blackboard, Moodle, Desire2Learn). This can add a level of complication for students trying to access these components of the course. There are options for making these materials more accessible, such as creating “alt tags” for images so that screen reading software can describe them to a visually impaired student.
- File Formats: Word documents (.doc, .docx), PowerPoint presentations (.ppt), and PDFs (.pdf) are all popular ways to present materials in an online class. Unfortunately, not all files are created equal. Course designers and instructors can, however, take steps to make sure that they use helpful settings to make each item as accessible as possible. The University of Central Florida’s Teaching Online resources include tips for working with the most frequently used types of files.
- Video Captioning: Video presentations are increasingly found in online courses and there are a lot of new tools that make it easy for anyone, including online instructors and students, to quickly capture, edit, and upload video to a course site. Not all of these applications create a final product that meets the requirements of Section 508. As stated by instructor Michelle Pacansky-Brock “to be compliant … videos must be captioned. The federal law requires that electronic content provided by all entities that receive federal funding must be accessible to all users.” Transcripts and captioning should be provided.
- Web Conferencing: Some courses require students to meet in real-time through systems such as Collaborate, Adobe Connect, and GoToMeeting. These virtual classrooms include a variety of tools that may not be fully accessible. Whiteboards are one example highlighted by AccessibleTech.org. These spaces often rely on the learner’s ability to use a mouse, and any text or images added to the space during a live session may not be detected by a screen reader, making it difficult to be an active participant in the discussion.
What do you need to know about your courses?
If you are a prospective or current online student who would benefit from accessibility features, you may have questions like these:
- How will I be expected to communicate in my courses?
- Will I be able to access and use all of the course materials?
- Where can I find assistance if I encounter access issues after I enroll in a course?
- Are the school’s support services (i.e., libraries, websites, advising, counseling) also accessible?
Fortunately, there are several helpful resources available. Before you enroll, check and compare accessibility information that is posted on the websites of the schools you are considering. Most schools have policies and procedures related to making their courses as accessible as possible. You can also ask admissions advisors for more details and examples of the ways in which the courses you want to take are accessible.
After you are enrolled, work with your school’s disability services office for individual evaluation and assistance. Kaplan University, Capella University, and Penn State Word Campus provide a look at the types of services you can expect and the steps required for getting started.
DIY Accessibility Tools
Colleges and universities are improving their support for all students through the design and implementation of courses, usually within a learning management system. But what happens when you need to work with materials outside of your course site? Take a look at this short list of resources that can help you with other web-based materials:
- Google Products: Explore some of the features available that make Google applications more accessible, including keyboard shortcuts, android phone text-to-speech and screen reading options, and more.
- Firefox Add-ons: If you use this Internet browser, consider some of the more than 20 tools that increase usability. Readability, for example, is a download that “makes reading on the Web more enjoyable by removing the clutter around what you are reading,” and Mouseless Browsing “enables you to browse the Web entirely with the keyboard.”
- WordTalk: Just one of the text-to-speech tools out there, this one is a free download from the University of Edinburgh. After installing the plugin users who want assistance with reading and writing can listen to a spoken version of a Word document, and also convert the audio to an .mp3 file.
While these and many additional tools are available, it’s not up to you to make your courses accessible. Your school’s administrator, course designers, support services providers, and instructors are working together to make the online learning environment as effective and engaging as possible, for all enrolled students. As the 3Play Media and Sloan Consortium session described, “accessibility benefits all end-users.”
If you think your studies could benefit from improved accessibility and support services, initiate a connection with the resources you need, ask questions, and share your concerns.
Source: Inside Online Learning Blog