I work with students who are disabled and what I love the most about distance-based education is its capacity to foster academic inclusion. It wasn’t that long ago that people who are deaf, blind, have mobility impairments, or cognitive challenges didn’t even attend school. Or if they did get some schooling it was either by studying with a private tutor or in a separate classroom set up just for those who were viewed as being disabled. On-line education removes the barriers to learning and presents opportunities for the non-traditional student to engage fully within his or her learning community.
Along with being able to pursue a quality education technologically-mediated instruction helps to break down social isolation for many people with disabilities. It is very nice to be able to log into a course and participate easily. A lot of learners with disabilities like that participating in on-line education gives us an option whether or not to tell our classmates about our life circumstances. It may sound like we are trying to hide our disabilities, but it is more that we like having a chance to be welcomed into a class as just one of the crowd. I always tell people I am blind, but I also enjoy having a chance to get to know my classmates without the constant fuss around negotiating other’s feelings and concerns about my disability.
Another amazing feature of distance-based education is that it makes it much easier to customize an educational environment for accessibility. The growing interest in Universal course Design is helping all our students to be able to facilitate their own learning more effectively as well as providing resources for including learners with disabilities into the classroom. I love that I don’t have to re-vamp my entire course objectives or their delivery when a student tells me they have a specific set of learning needs. I design my assignments and assessments to be flexible. Offering options to my students usually takes care of most of the learning needs even when I have a student disclose that they have a disability to me.
Where I think things get tricky for faculty who want to enhance the overall accessibility and inclusiveness of their on-line courses is when they have to take the learning management system’s level of access into account. Some professors are not familiar with how to provide an aspect of their course in an accessible format. Things get much harder when a conscientious professor is not aware of how accessible an LMS is or how to build end user accessibility into it.
Here is an example of what I mean about not understanding the accessibility of the LMS. A blind student tells you that he cannot open and read your Power Point files. The first thing you might think is that there is an issue with the LMS which is interfering with the student’s ability to read the PPT. That may be the case, but more often it is not the LMS’s structure that is the problem
What could be happening is that the assistive technology the student is using to participate in your course is missing a security flag telling him that he has a firewall setting that is prohibiting the download of the file. It could also be that the PPT did open up in a separate window and the student missed it. The third thing that could be going on is that the Power Point presentation itself is not in an accessible format.
Did your head start to hurt while reading the previous paragraph? Don’t be discouraged! All is not lost. It is very easy to increase the accessibility of an on-line course without knowing that much about the access features of a given LMS. It is possible to make a very accessible version of a PPT and to put it into your course in ways that will make it much easier for a student who is struggling to find and read it. It will require some creativity on your part and you may need some help from your LMS support staff, but fostering inclusion is doable.
We will discuss techniques for creating and uploading accessible content in the workshop I am offering for Sloan-C. We will also be taking a look at the- ways students with various disabilities engage in distance-based education along with discussing how you can use some open source and freeware tools to support all your students. We will also be talking about some Universal Design best practices and how to apply them.