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In higher education’s distance-delivered courses, we can proactively ensure access to our learning environments for all students by putting our efforts into supporting faculty in the design of accessible learning platforms.
With improved services available, as outlined in the Higher Education Opportunity Act and the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act (2008), more and more individuals with disabilities are realizing their right to higher education. In 2008, 11 percent of all post-secondary students reported having a disability; of those, nearly half reported having a learning disability and approximately 20 percent reported having attention deficit disorder (ADD). A growing group of students with disabilities is veterans, who are returning with newly-acquired disabilities. In some cases, the veterans may not be aware of how the disability affects their learning until they are faced with a learning environment that does not meet their needs. To ensure accessibility in our learning environments for all students, we must first be sure our students are aware of their rights and know where to find help if they need it. Second, ensure faculty are aware of the institution’s responsibility to adapt and modify the environment and learning materials if needed to meet the needs of the student. And, finally, we need to be proactive about designing our learning environments with accessibility in mind. The challenge is, recent research indicates that many students with disabilities (60 percent) will not self disclose their disability in online and/or distance-delivered environments until they start to struggle in the course. Thus, proactively building accessible learning environments is the best mitigation for this issue.
The advent of new technologies combined with the specialized expertise of instructional designers has given us the ability to build new learning environments. Purposefully-designed learning environments are made to be accessible to the vast majority of students. Proactively-designed learning environments benefit all learners in the same way dropped curbs benefit the whole community.
At the macro level, a simple first step to providing accessible learning environments for your distance-delivered program is to collaborate with your institution’s experts in the field and identify the resources available. Lack of a coordinated approach to accessibility has been cited by the Government Accountability Office (2008) as the largest barrier to serving students with disabilities in postsecondary settings, including distance education. Research by Roberts, Crittenden & Crittenden (2011) suggests outreach or distance education offices work in conjunction with disability services, students with disabilities and instructional design specialists to develop standards for course accessibility to ensure all online and distance courses and degree programs meet federal accessibility standards from the beginning. For example, the University of Wyoming (UW) Outreach School is in the process of determining accessibility needs as they search for a new learning management system (LMS) and online platform. Stakeholders at UW have created a collaborative committee (UW Outreach’s instructional designers, disability support services, faculty members and staff from the Center for Teaching and Learning) to ensure accessibility issues are adequately addressed within the LMS platform they choose. Once the new platform is determined, faculty will be trained on how to use it to build their courses. The committee realizes this creates a window of opportunity to assist faculty in learning how to build their courses so they take full advantage of all of the accessibility features available. The faculty who will be teaching the online courses in the new platform also teach face-to-face courses. By learning how to create accessible courses in one environment, it is hoped they will transfer those skills into building their face-to-face course environments as well.
On a micro level, more than 50 percent of the students with disabilities you will be serving in your distance courses will have either a learning disability or have been identified as having ADD. Recent research states that up to 60 percent of those students will not disclose their disability until they are in academic trouble. So what types of student supports do we need to automatically build into our online learning environments to ensure the needs of these students are being met, well before they crash and burn?
While learning disabilities (LD) and ADD are distinct disabilities and do not manifest in the same way, students with these disabilities often benefit from very similar accommodations and modifications (keeping in mind that the success of the accommodations differ depending on the disability). For now, we are just concerned with what works. I offer this micro look at the needs of students with these disabilities to get you thinking about what kind of faculty training might need to happen to meet the needs of the largest group of students with disabilities in online environments. It is not meant to be an exhaustive “to do” list, but a way to start the conversation.
General accommodations for students with LD and ADD in online courses
You may have heard of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Universal design for learning takes the principles of accessibility in physical environments and translates it into how to adapt our teaching and content for accessibility in the classroom. In the online classroom, the oversimplified rule of thumb is: if your content is audio, provide visual and if it is visual, provide audio. If it needs to be captioned, add captioning or post a transcript. It is important that faculty know where to go and how to access a collection of digital tools that provide alternative methods of content presentation and student response.
Students with LD and ADD often need material and content to be presented in an alternative format, organized sequentially, and broken into smaller chunks that are assessed fairly frequently. Each of the following suggestions requires that the faculty member consider these needs while building the course. Thus, learning objectives, readings, assignments and assessment methods need to be thought out well in advance. The best way to prepare an accessible course is to collaborate with the disability specialist at your institution; however, as mentioned above, often the faculty who are delivering online courses do not have the immediate access or collaborative relationships with the disability specialists. The following are a few tips that can help faculty start to think about how to best prepare accessible courses for students with LD and ADD.
Here are some ideas that may be helpful. Again, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a starting point for discussion with some concrete examples:
Again, these are only some ideas to consider as you design your online or distance environment. As a director of a distance education program, it is critical that your faculty have the appropriate training in how to create their online learning environments to be accessible and meet the needs of the vast majority of their students. For example, UW provides a “Boot Camp” every year for their Outreach instructors to come together and work toward incorporating technology and addressing issues of student accessibility. UW has also created a Distance Learning Guild, where any faculty member interested in learning more about how to use technology in their courses to enhance learning can join with other learners and experts to share information and experiences. The Guild also includes members of the University Disability Support Services department as active contributing members.
What might you do to help your faculty create more accessible online learning environments?
This is the second article in Simpson’s series on Accessibility for Distance Education Administrators. The first article in the series looked at the law and its rules regarding accessibility to higher education.
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Author Perspective: Administrator
Studies suggest that postsecondary students with learning disabilities regularly report poorer self-esteem and academic adjustment than students without diagnosed disabilities. This could certainly explain students not wishing to self-disclose to a professor, regardless of whether it’s for an in-class or online course. Another possible factor affecting self-reporting rates for students with disabilities is that some students may not know they have learning disabilities if they’ve never been formally diagnosed. Having difficulty with learning may just be ‘the way things are’ for them. This group is particularly at risk because they are less likely to access support services offered by the school. This means faculty have to be proactive about designing courses with maximum accessibility in mind, to ensure these students’ academic success.
I think there’s a tendency for people to think of online courses as automatically more accessible than traditional on-campus courses, mainly because they are more or less self-paced. This seems to give the student more control over how to access and learn the course material. However, this article serves as an important reminder for faculty to consider accessibility just as much in developing online courses as when they’re designing for an in-class course.
On the issue of multimedia, I agree that students with learning disabilities tend to do well in multimedia-rich environments, but I would add that faculty also need to choose which technologies they use carefully. Technology can improve accessibility for some but it can also hinder others (e.g. flash-heavy sites that contain graphics that screen readers, which visually-impaired people use, can’t pick up).
It’s important to take a holistic view as you suggest when designing for accessibility. Research tells us that individuals already identified as having one learning disability are likely to also have another. Designing for students with multiple disabilities will require a lot of effort and creative thinking of accessibility in the broadest sense possible.