Addressing Accessibility In Online Education

California Community Colleges Online Education InitiativeThere is much that has already been said about online content accessibility and civil rights, both the legal and moral obligations. We’ve recently heard about major lawsuits that resulted in huge fines for well known colleges.

 

There is also a lot of information available about some of the complicated technology solutions that can make online learning material compliant with federal laws. And, more often than not, those of us working in the online learning space recognize the need for making our work accessible to all students. However, getting from knowing to doing is often consuming, expensive, confusing and downright mysterious.

The crux of the issue to make online learning accessible to students with disabilities is a lack of adequate support for faculty who teach online. The fact is, when institutions and individuals are actually able to utilize accessible technology to create, obtain and distribute accessible content, the chances are pretty high that they will. Chances improve substantially with a little training, and a bit of guidance and support.

The biggest challenges for online accessibility arise when faculty are unable to create or obtain instructional materials that rival what they can easily find online. Unfortunately, it is easy to create accessibility problems while trying to add online interactive engagement for students, ironically locking those with disabilities out of the experience. Additionally, being unable to make materials accessible causes us to set aside wonderful ideas for making learning happen, rather than implementing them because we don’t have what we need to make them accessible.

Why do we not see all faculty members overcome the accessibility issues with their course materials? The reasons usually center on a lack of the essential resources: training, instructional design assistance, time and technology. Regardless of what has been attempted so far, the question remains, how can we determine what is accessible, deal responsibly with all of the otherwise wonderful content that is not accessible, and create ongoing support for creating accessible online courses?

The California Community Colleges (CCC) Online Education Initiative (OEI) presents a tremendous opportunity to address these issues and, in so doing, empower faculty to create and deliver exceptional educational opportunities that everyone can benefit from.

There are several ways the initiative can help:

  1. OEI is assuming the cost of a systemwide common course management system (CCMS), enabling colleges who are adopting the Canvas-based CCMS to use their savings to help fund local accessibility resources for faculty.
     
  2. OEI is establishing a network of instructional designers through @ONE who can help teachers learn first-level accessibility strategies.
     
  3. OEI and @ONE are establishing a “train the trainers” model for creating local designers that can work with both faculty and the college as a whole.
     
  4. OEI is developing a series of resources that will address and de-mystify accessibility issues in online course design.

If we work together to make creating solutions to the accessibility issue a high priority for the CCC, our students’ ability to succeed—and our state’s ability to grow economically—will benefit.

Challenges Of Teaching An Accessible Online Course

Being able to teach an online class doesn’t necessarily mean you have a strong capability with technology, and many faculty members need more help than often is available. As a system, we need to be more sensitive to the needs of our faculty, and do more to address their support needs with online instructional technology, among other things.

The challenge of accurately determining the accessibility of digital content, both in third-party and in teacher-created materials, is beyond the reasonable scope of expectations for most of our faculty. It’s very much like network security, which is a vital concern that requires dedicated specialists and a proactive policy and plan for implementation and maintenance. Creating accessible materials requires the same approach.

The expectation that the responsibility for delivering accessible content lies with the teacher is a misguided one. The issue is pretty simple, and one those of us in education should share equally. The faculty member should be able to identify accessible content as a content expert in the design process, and the institution should assist with that identification, and also provide support for any adjustments that are then needed.

With the investment of the OEI in the purchase of a systemwide (CCMS), colleges can now invest in funding the support for online teaching faculty in this area and we encourage colleges to do just that. Colleges are now able to implement solutions to the accessibility problems locally using the savings from not having to purchase the CCMS. The OEI can and will help with identifying and planning the implementation of funding that will ensure accessible content for students.

Creating An Accessibility Plan

It’s pretty clear that every college in our system should have a plan for ensuring that all things published online are compliant with the laws involved. That plan should, at the very least, cover the following:

I. Selection and procurement of online tools and materials

A. Board policies

B. Campus procurement offices

C. Information technology support (IT)

D. Instructional technology support (ITS)

E. Professional development programs for faculty and staff

II. Staffing

A. Developing an informed DSPS department that is connected to an informed Distance Education department (re: compliance with Title V and all federal laws regarding accessibility related to online learning)

B. Accessibility technology specialists

C. Trained instructional designers

D. Course reviewers trained on the use of the OEI Effective Course Design Rubric

III. Implementation

A. Current college online publications

1. Develop a review process for accessibility across institutional online publications

2. Review of online course accessibility

a) Self-review by individual faculty

b) Assisted review by instructional designers

3. Remediation of inaccessible content in both areas

a) IT and ITS works with accessibility specialist to provide active solutions to institutional issues.

b) Instructional designers/accessibility specialists work with content experts (faculty) to remediate identified problems.

B. New online publications across the institution

1. Creating awareness

a) Curriculum process that includes accessibility information and requires strategies to be listed for addressing accessibility in the course as a separate approval process for distance education.

b) Available online information about general and specific accessibility information.

2. Professional development for faculty and staff

a) How to identify potential problems

b) Simple solutions that are available within the initial design process

c) Process for seeking instructional design support

d) How to complete final accessibility review before a course is offered

3. Plan for ongoing accessibility review cycles to occur to ensure accessibility is maintained over time.

The outline offered here is a skeleton of what could be, if we work together. The OEI Management Team will be working in the months ahead to flesh out a template that institutions can follow. We will also be available to assist colleges in creating plans, developing job descriptions for true accessibility specialists who can work with faculty members during the course design process and the course review processes, training course reviewers to identify simple accessibility issues and refer courses for further support, and more.

We are working on a “train the trainers” model that should bring us all into the world of “Accessibility Fitness.” Once we get ourselves in shape, we can maintain our promise of doing what’s best for the students of California.

For more information, please visit our Online Accessibility Resources page at https://ccconlineed.instructure.com/courses/98. Return to the site often, as our Accessibility Director, Jayme Johnson, will be adding resources on a regular basis.


Pat James is Executive Director of the
California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative

Jayme Johnson is the Accessibility Director of the
California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative


 

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