This week I started work on my very first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. “Accessibility: Designing and Teaching Courses for All Learners” has already been such a great learning experience for me. The course has introduced me to so many great resources that I’m excited to bring to Wichita State University. Although I’ve had a brief introduction to accessibility through my training with Quality Matters, there is so much I have yet to learn.
For my first module, I was required to write a fake “memo” explaining why accessible design is important, providing examples of ways disability may impact students and their learning experiences, and discussing examples of assistive technology and technological barriers. Writing this memo really helped to cement why accessibility matters so much to me.
Accessibility is a major concern for those developing and teaching online courses. Recently, major institutions of higher learning including Harvard and MIT have encountered lawsuits regarding accessibility in their online courses. While the threat of a lawsuit is intimidating, the IDT office focuses on accessibility in order to meet the needs of all diverse learners on Wichita State’s campus. Accessible design is important because every WSU Shocker deserves an equal opportunity to be successful in an online course. While accommodations provided by the Office of Disability Services are helpful for many students on campus, creating accessible courses means that all students can be successful from the very start. Disability is not a personal deficit; rather, disability is the result of an inaccessible environment. Help us to create a welcoming online environment for our students by leveling the playing field.
Traditionally, the term “disability” has meant identifying the differences between what we might consider “able bodied” and what we would not. Instead, the IDT office suggests shift our thinking from “disability as a deficit” to “disability as diversity.” The World Health Organization offers a broad definition from which we might approach disability in future online courses:
“Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions…Disability is thus not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives. Overcoming the difficulties faced by people with disabilities requires interventions to remove environmental and social barriers.”
The broadness of this definition is helpful when thinking about the ways in which a disability may impact students and their learning experiences. For example, students with sight challenges may require different accommodations and design considerations than others. Ensuring that the ENGL 101 and 102 courses are compatible with basic versions of screen readers and including detailed alt tags are a few ways that we could provide a more accessible environment for our students with sight challenges. For those with hearing challenges, well-captioned videos help to make course content accessible. That being said, it is always important to remember that an accommodation for one student may not be as helpful or accessible as it is for another. A sight challenged student might not require a screen reader but may require an online course that is accessible with screen magnification software. It’s important to act with a spirt of adaptability and resourcefulness when we design for accessibility.
It is all too tempting to assume that a disability is something that you can see. What do you think of when you hear the term “disability”? Do you think of someone in a wheelchair? What about those students with less visible disabilities? How have you considered them and their learning experience? When you are designing and delivering online courses, it’s important to remember those students with invisible disabilities. Invisible disabilities are especially important to consider for online courses, as Taylor, Goldstein, and Margolis say in their brief “Invisible Disabilities and the ADA Brief”:
“The student in the online modality is especially disadvantaged in this regard: While she or he might appreciate the asynchronous access of the online classroom, this student may never be seen by the instructor, support professionals, or anyone else in a facilitative campus role. In the online classroom, all disabilities—whether readily evident or not—are in fact invisible and hidden.”
Psychological disorders are some of this most prevalent and difficult disabilities facing college students today. It’s important to identify, talk to, and work with those students who may be struggling in online courses because of an invisible disability. For those students with anxiety or ADHD, instructors should consider sending out regular reminders for due dates or provide a course schedule in varied formats (checklist, calendar, etc.). Adaptive design strategies like this will immediately benefit students with invisible disabilities but may also improve the course as a whole.
As all of us know, technology is simultaneously a helpful tool and a massive headache. There are technological barriers that all of us will encounter as we design and deliver accessible courses. Students with disabilities will have often identified the technology that best suits their needs. In most cases, it is our goal to ensure that our online courses are accessible by their technologies rather than asking them to learn a new software or hardware on top of the course content. For example, a student may prefer using Microsoft Word’s screen reader. Rather than requiring your student to download new screen reading software to accesses course content, it is our responsibility to ensure that the course content works with their preferred screen reader.
Designing and delivering accessible courses can be a daunting task, but your Instructional Design and Technology team is here to help you. Please contact us at 978-7750 for further information and help on creating accessible online courses.