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Who Should be Responsible for Accessibility in Online Courses?

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November 16, 2016 by admin

accessibility in online coursesWho do you think should be responsible for accessibility in online courses? That’s a question I’ve been asking since I became interested in inclusiveness and universal design for learning. Even in my own experience planning online courses, I have never been quite sure of the answer.

Along the way, I reached out to our disabilities services department, where perhaps one would naturally turn for assistance. Disability services is where I would send a student who self-identified as one needing accommodation in my face-to-face classes. And, while they applauded my interest, they really didn’t have a program to help ensure that all the content in my courses was accessible and that I was considering in the development of my courses different learning styles of all students in the online class. Their primary domain is accommodation, which is important, but only one aspect of accessibility and universal course design.

I turned to our IT people, and they too applauded my interest in accessibility, but were only able to offer student workers to help close caption my videos. I might point out there are a number of commercial services, like 3Play Media, that will, for a fee, close caption videos, which raises the issue regarding whose budget such expenditures should be assigned.

Making online courses accessible is not as simple (or complex depending on your view) as making close captioned videos and making a transcript available. While close captioning is there to support students with difficulty hearing, research suggests that students without hearing problems prefer to watch videos with closed captions, because it encourages them to focus on the content. Beyond video captioning, Word documents, PDFs, any content on your LMS, and even emails need to be presented with accessibility in mind. There is a slight learning curve to making all of these aspects of online content accessible, and few universities offer workshops to train faculty in such skills that require changes to routine behaviors.

Legal Obligation for Accessibility

It is important to point out that institutions of higher learning are legally obligated to make their online courses accessible. Creating online course content, based on principles of universal design, poses unique challenges in that the government regulates the presentation of web-based communication. Specifically, Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that educational institutions provide access for those students with a disability. And Section 508, implemented in 2016 includes the Web Accessibility Initiative’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG). This is an international standard for web accessibility. There have been innumerable lawsuits levied against institutions of higher learning as well as corporations, sports teams, and non-profit organizations who have violated the law. Accessibility is something the law requires that all organizations, including institutions of higher education, must comply with.

Moral Obligation for Accessibility

Ultimately, I took on the responsibility for making my courses accessible. But, I admit that it felt like walking into this blindfolded. For example, I stumbled upon tools built into Moodle, the LMS utilized at my institution, that would allow for all content contained there to be consistent with best practices in accessibility. But nobody told me those tools were there. I sought out online webinars that provide instruction, for example, regarding how to make a Word document accessible. And, after posting my videos on YouTube.com, I use the Google automated close captioning, which is pretty terrible, to clean up the captions. Having had this experience, I now lead a yearly workshop on accessibility for faculty teaching in my department. These workshops are offered yearly, because faculty need to be encouraged into this change from the way they are use to doing things. They need reinforcement and follow-up to ensure they continue practices of universal design. And, they need reminders to continue to build out their course content in an accessible manner.

In an ideal world responsibility for accessibility and universal design would be a collaborative effort between the Disability Resource Center, Faculty, and Instructional Designers. However, in all practicality such collaboration may not be the norm, as faculty may view their courses as strictly within their domain. Disability Resource Centers may not be equipped to provide much in the way of direct assistance. And instructional designers, a relatively new phenomenon, may not exist on your campus. Therefore, the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article still seems up in the air. Please take a moment to complete the poll below to let us know who you think is most responsible for accessibility in online courses?

-Neil Alperstein, PhD

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