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Accessibility from a distance in higher education

Today’s digital learning platforms come with varying degrees of accessibility for students with disabilities
University Business, November 2013
Panopto's lecture capture platform, like many others, includes captions for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Panopto's lecture capture platform, like many others, includes captions for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The technological revolution sweeping higher education may not be carrying all students with it equally. MOOCs, lecture capture, and other digital platforms are being designed with varying degrees of accessibility for students with mobility restrictions, hearing and visual impairments, and learning disabilities.

“Much like the brick and mortar, your virtual infrastructure has to be accessible,” says L. Scott Lissner, president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability. “A number of institutions have started down that road and some have plans to, but I don’t think it’s the majority yet by a long shot.”

The standard for institutions is to ensure students with disabilities have access to the same material and same interactions in the same time frame and with the same ease of use as other students have. Along with captions for students with hearing impairments, digital platforms need to be navigable by people who can’t use a mouse and compatible with screen readers for users with visual impairments, says Lissner, who also is ADA Coordinator at The Ohio State University.

Also, content posted in a MOOC or online learning platform, from images to PDFs to graphics, has to be convertible to text to be identified by screen readers.

“There’s a standard in the world of programming around usability—try to make it intuitive,” Lissner says. “If you have a complicated way to do it and a straightforward way to do it, go with the straightforward way—there are times where good design principles simplify communication.”

With MOOCs, it’s unclear where the legal responsibility lies for making them accessible because they are created mainly by private consortiums for people who won’t receive credit. Meanwhile, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires higher ed institutions to make sure any digital platform being used for credit-bearing courses is accessible, says Nicholas Anastasopoulos, an attorney in the Higher Education Group at Massachusetts-based Mirick O’Connell.

College and university administrators are seeking vendors whose products meet ADA requirements. In the past, higher ed institutions were always among the first to install ramps, make bathrooms accessible, and provide tutors for students with disabilities, Anastasopoulos says.

To help navigate this emerging challenge, here is a look at what some institutions are doing, how companies are adapting their technology, and the policies campuses need to set for the future.

Making equations accessible

The ease and speed of technology can create challenges when it comes to accessibility. At North Carolina State University, where lecture capture is used extensively across campus, videos of classes can be posted online within the hour.

But, for students with hearing impairments, the transcripts can’t be generated as quickly. Typically, it takes a few days for humans to create the captions, but in this case NC State will spend a little more to have the transcript ready in 24 hours, says Greg Kraus, the school’s IT accessibility coordinator.

The university uses the Mediasite lecture capture platform, and Kraus says he and developer Sonic Foundry have worked together to make the technology widely accessible to students with various disabilities. The Mediasite website is coded so it is compatible with various accessibility softwares. Students who can’t use a mouse can use a keyboard to navigate the website. Students who can’t use a mouse or a keyboard can use speech recognition software, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking, Kraus says.

Students with visual impairments can use screen readers like JAWS, which the university licenses and can give to anyone on campus, Kraus says. A more complex problem assistive software has yet to tackle is reading whiteboards.

“Let’s say it’s a math class, let’s say I’m a blind student, and the professor is working on equations on the board. How am I going to get that information?” Kraus says. “There’s various ways that could happen.” The instructor could meet later with the student, the student may have an assistant, or the professor’s notes could be converted into a special digital format.

Kraus says he is planning to do a MOOC-like course of his own. He intends to use the university’s learning management system—an open-source platform developed by Moodle—to launch open-enrollment courses on web accessibility for developers and faculty.

Designing a degree for disabilities

“The adaptation of online learning for people with special needs is a fairly new idea,” says Dana Reinecke, assistant professor at The Sage Colleges in New York and department chair at its Center for Applied Behavior Analysis. The completely online Achieve Degree offered by Sage was created by using knowledge about people with autism and other cognitive disabilities and applying it online.

For instance, the LMS was developed with Moodle and every course looks the same, regardless of subject, so students don’t have to learn new systems. Individual courses look the same week to week, and assignments are always presented in the same, simple manner. There also is a lot of white space in the design, and nothing blinking or flashing, she adds.

“The course platform disappears,” she says. “It’s not about being online. It’s not about learning to use the LMS. It’s about the learning content.”

Students can also access a recorded lecture by listening to it, watching graphics while listening, reading a transcript while listening, or reading a transcript without even listening. Most essays can be turned in as video essays or PowerPoints.

“We didn’t want writing to be a barrier to anyone,” she says. “Students with cognitive disabilities often have awareness of the content but they really, really struggle to put it in writing.”

The LMS also has discussion boards where students can ask questions and have conversations about the class. “This is a big advantage for people with social and language disabilities,” she says. “They are able to take their time to formulate their thoughts, and prepare how they want to comment and what their questions are.”

The Achieve Degree launched last fall with four students. It’s designed for those who are ready academically for college but have challenges dealing with social situations, says Reinecke. Students take two classes each eight-week term. The curriculum is geared toward computer science but covers a variety of subjects.

Students have specially-trained mentors, with whom they never meet in person. All communication in the program is done by Skype, email, or phone. “One of the objections I’ve heard is ‘why would you take somebody with a social disability and isolate them further,” she says. “My response to that is this is a highly interactive program, and it’s not like these students would be interacting otherwise. I think online education can be highly social if it’s done properly.”

Achieving universal access

A recent ruling that could impact MOOCs is the National Association of the Deaf v. Netflix, in which a judge ruled that even though Netflix was a commercial entity not typically covered by the ADA, the online video rental and streaming service was “a place of public accommodation.” Netflix has agreed to caption all of its video by next year.

“There haven’t been any specific lawsuits with MOOCS, but the writing’s on the wall—if people are able to sign up and take classes, that’s definitely a place of public accommodation,” says Tole Khesin, vice president of marketing for 3PlayMedia.

3PlayMedia provides captions and transcripts to MOOCs designed by EdX and 2U. The company does the same for MITOpenCourseware, which publishes course materials online for free.

“It’s really important that MOOCs make their content accessible to cover the majority of major disabilities,” Khesin says. “In brick-and-mortar educational institutions, a student can go to disability services and make his disability known to the professor and the professor can take measures to accommodate the student. In the case of MOOCS or other online programs, it’s more difficult to do that.”

The federal government will issue new guidelines on web accessibility in the next several months. And Cyndi Rowland, technology director at the National Center on Disability and Access to Education at Utah State University, says MOOCs, and the web in general, still has some catching up to do when it comes to accessibility.

“I’ve been at web accessibility since 1998—that’s a chunk of time. And in that amount of time, what I can say is that we are still, in many respects, at an awareness stage,” says Rowland, who also is director of WebAIM, a nonprofit that provides web accessibility services and the free WAVE tool which helps developers make web content more accessible. “In the postsecondary setting, we’re still looking for that transformation that is yet to come.”

To achieve uniform online accessibility and reduce liability in a changing legal landscape, Lissner of AHEAD says administrators have to move beyond solving problems as they traditionally have—on a case-by-case basis as students reach out to the institution’s office of disability services.

“Your best protection at this is to identify a standard that’s usable for your institution, and do an audit of your online presence, and have a strategic plan in place that shows how you’re going to move from where you are now to being fully accessible,” he says.