Today’s fastest-growing trend in education is online teaching. As instructors want to reach out to wider and wider audiences, they are finding that online education makes their classrooms virtually limitless. Academics everywhere are turning to the Internet as their new classroom. Students around the world are now able to take classes at the university of their choice without having to travel. However, for students with disabilities there are perils in online education which may almost outweigh the benefits. Students with disabilities may be excluded from this online experience when universal design principles are not followed.
First I’d like to examine what an online class offers and then talk about how students with disabilities may be blocked from accessing this modern educational opportunity. The structure of online classes is much more flexible than the traditional lecture or seminar classes held in brick-and-mortar institutions. Instructors of online classes often do not require students to attend fixed-in-time lectures. An online class may have prerecorded lectures that students can watch whenever and as often as they want. Students can play back the lecture at their leisure and convenience.
To compensate for the interactive process of asking questions while in class, students can email instructors or post questions on in-class bulletin boards and forms. Questions may be answered by the instructor, teaching assistants, or even other students in the class. Many instructors encourage students to help each other the quality of student responses informs the instructor about how well students understand course content.
Online courses allow students to absorb the content of the class at their own pace. The student can interact with the teaching module in a variety of different ways until they understand the material and are ready to move on. If there’s difficulty understanding a particular concept, the student can approach the subject matter from multiple angles before moving on to the next topic. Many online classes dynamically generate content such as problem sets for students, until the student demonstrates a successful understanding of the principle. Only then are the students given the opportunity to move to the next level. This dynamic generation of content means that instructors do not need to spend as much one-on-one time with students as in the past, and yet students are actually learning more, especially students with different learning styles. Instructors are now freer to give focused specialized instruction tailored to the specific problems of the students they spend time with.
Due to the interactive nature of modern Internet technologies, students today participating in online classes can virtually experience many of the same things they would in a physical classroom. Modern technology can simulate everything from mixing chemicals for an experiment to building structures to learn about stability. Students can play virtual instruments to learn about music or manipulate virtual devices to perform tasks. When instructors “virtualize” classes, the cost of instruction significantly decreases. Instead of having to purchase an expensive chemical for each and every student taking the class, theoretically an unlimited number of students can manipulate the online experiment an infinite number of times. The possibilities of the course design are limited only by creativity and expertise.
Unfortunately, unless attention is paid to ensuring that all students can participate, these expanding innovations will not be available to everyone. As wonderful as these technological advances are, each has access challenges. When communicating information to their students, instructors must identify effective methods of reaching different types of users, including those with sensory and learning disabilities.
If an instructor shows a video of a chemical experiment and neglects to describe the action, including all the visual elements, a blind student is precluded from acquiring most of the key information the demonstration is meant to convey. A video should have a good narrative describing the key points the instructor wants the viewer to understand, so that students with visual impairments have access to the same educational opportunities as the sighted viewer.
For students with hearing impairments, the video should also be captioned and provide a standalone transcript. In keeping with the “curb cut” phenomenon, increasing the accessibility of course content results in everyone having an enriched experience, e.g., word-searchable captioning enables everyone to quickly find a desired point in the video. Captioning is helpful for not just those with hearing impairments, but also can be a valuable resource for those with other disabilities, like color-blindness or learning disabilities. And I can’t tell you the many times I’ve heard from non-disabled viewers, after a video has been captioned, how much more usable and effective the newly captioned video is.
There are so many different technologies being used today to create online forums and chats. Every time you turn around, a different chat client is being created. Many of these chats are very difficult for a screen reader to use at the same speed as other users. The screen reader may not find incoming chat messages from other class participants, or may not identify the participants who are speaking. If the screen reader is focused on the content being generated, the student with a disability is missing simultaneous portions of the chat essential to following the conversation. When choosing a chat client, an instructor should be sure that it works well with a screen reader and that students with multiple disabilities can engage in the classroom conversations.
If the client chosen for the class is accessible only through manual keyboarding, students who input by speaking (and have no use of their hands) may not be able to participate in the conversation. It is vital that instructors be sure the client selected offers multiple methods for inputting, so that online class participation is accessible to all students. The interactive process, so named long before the internet took center stage, needs to be even more interactive now that it is so easy to by-pass direct interaction between instructor and student. We don’t want students with disabilities to fall off the Cloud!