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Inclusiveness in the Online Class


June 2, 2017 by admin

disabled thumbI sliced my figure on one of those spiralizers. Trying to eat healthy, and this is what it got me – a trip to the ER and several stitches. For someone who spends much of his day writing at a computer, this is not a good thing. Right now I can’t type two words in a row without making a mistake. It’s taking me three times as long to do anything, Even something as simple as opening a door requires me to think first, to be mindful of the need to use my left hand, not my right. No pity party is needed. It’s temporary, I know. Stitches will come out in 10 days. Good as new again.

Having a Disability Requires Advanced Planning

But this instance made me think about my students who have some form of disability: hearing loss, sight impairment, wheelchair bound, among others. And, when I’ve spoken with each of them, I am struck by one similarity: the need to plan out everything. Most people go about their daily lives unconsciously, as they take for granted walkways, doors, ATMs and other barriers experienced by those who have some disability. Many of you are aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that requires buildings, for example, to be barrier free.

But my students tell me they have to know which electric doors are actually working on any given day to plan their route, or to time their venture down a hallway packed with students shuffling between classes, which requires waiting until the crowd has thinned. With regard to designated handicapped parking spaces, sometimes others park too close, making it difficult if not impossible to get a wheelchair out of a van. Even knowing bus routes, and maintaining an awareness of sidewalks with ramps need to be considered. Most people don’t have to do that, and it is an added burden to those that do have to keep all of this present as they plan their daily routine.

Online Courses Need to Be Inclusive

I teach online, and my students have to navigate my courses in the same way they navigate a building. There are parallel requirements between physical structures and digital ones, but the goal of both is to become barrier free. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 11% of undergraduates have a disability. Coupled with the fact that the number of students who have taken at least one online course has increased five-fold over the past 15 years and the rate of increase is much faster than the increase in face-to-face settings, you can perhaps see the need to create inclusive online courses.

But in digital communication, those barriers are not so evident, and in order to comply with sections 504, 508 of the ADA and the WCAG 2.0 rules regarding digital communication, institutions of higher learning are required to make digital communication accessible. It takes a network of people from course designers, IT people, Disabilities Services, ADA compliance personnel to the institution’s leadership in order to create digital content that is inclusive.

Universal Design for Learning and Accessibility

UDL or universal design for learning is derived from architectural design: the goals of both are to make buildings or in this case digital properties accessible to all. When it comes to UDL, the goal is to accommodate all learners, disabled or not. So, how do you create a website or digital content that accommodates people who may be colorblind? How do you design a page so that one can maneuver through it without a mouse, as some people do not have the physical capability to manipulate a mouse? How do you write documents that can be read by a screen reader? And, what about captioning videos? All of these take an extra step—a conscious effort—on the part of those people involved in designing materials to be conveyed through digital platforms.

Who Should Take the Lead?

One 2015 study of administrators reported that many faculty member have gone “rogue” by not meeting compliance requirements for accessibility for online courses. But it may not just be the contrary nature of faculty that prevents them from making their online courses compliant, as I noted in a recent blog post, Who Should Be Responsible for Accessibility in Online Courses? That post included a brief survey of faculty. The non-scientific results were that the answer isn’t very clear. While the majority of faculty I surveyed said it was their responsibility, almost the same number thought that technology services was responsible and many thought it was the responsibility of disability services to make online courses accessible. In that post, I advocated that faculty should view their responsibility not just as a legal responsibility, but as a moral one, with the end goal of making online courses inclusive for all students.

Planning Strategically for Online Courses

To achieve that goal, it’s necessary to engage in training and reinforcement over time. One approach that Dr. Elliot King and I refer to in our forthcoming book, Strategic Planning for Online Education Programs, is referred to as planning from the middle. Whether as an individual, committee or department, strategic planning, or rather planning strategically, can be accomplished through a systematic approach that identifies stakeholders, analyzes the situation to determine the opportunities and actively “works” a plan while encouraging others to form a larger network and engage in educating ourselves about how to best go about creating inclusive online classes based on UDL principles and accessibility standards.

Faculty are in the position to facilitate change, as they are in the best position to create a network of strategic partnerships. Ultimately, changing the culture of teaching is not about compensating faculty financially. Rather, adopting UDL and accessibility into online classes is ultimately a function of having the time to learn how to implement new teaching practices. The power of the 21st Century instructor is not just in the information conveyed, but in the opportunities they provide for all students to learn how to learn, solve problems and apply what they are learning in meaningful ways. Planning strategically is one way that institutions of higher learning can achieve the goal of inclusiveness in their online courses.

– Neil Alperstein, PhD



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