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The Struggle to Make Online Courses Accessible in Higher Ed

Accessible online courses are everyone's responsibility, but much of higher education has dodged accessibility law without many repercussions.

When the sheriff's away, the townspeople play — and that's exactly what's happened with higher education accessibility in both on-campus and online classes.  

Though the Americans with Disabilities Act has clear accessibility requirements, very rarely does anyone come knocking on college doors to find out whether they're abiding by the law. That leaves higher education leaders with little incentive to provide online course accommodations for students who can't see or hear — unless they're sued, said Jayme Johnson, director of accessibility and user experience at the California Community College Online Education Initiative.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice finally stepped up to enforce the law several times, going after Miami University of Ohio in a disability discrimination lawsuit and settling with course platform provider edX. These lawsuits brought national attention to an issue that universities have been sweeping under the rug — and their leaders are starting to take notice, said Phil Hill, a higher education industry analyst and blogger.

"Face-to-face has always sort of gotten a pass," he said, "and I think online is triggering some questions that actually apply across the board."

For example, the visual nature of online education makes it hard for students to participate when they can't see videos, images or text. But the same is true in their face-to-face classes because professors post materials online for students to read or watch. 

But it's time for university provosts to take ownership of this problem and send the message that courses must be better designed, Hill said. These leaders need to budget for support staff, including instructional designers who understand accessibility and can help faculty members design courses. 

Accessibility is not a compliance issue that universities should check off at the end of the course design process, Hill said; rather, it should be built in from the beginning of the course design process. That's exactly what's happening in the California Community Colleges System, he said, which is taking one of the most proactive, design-oriented approaches to accessibility in the U.S.

Instead of focusing only on students with disabilities, the system's Online Education Initiative works within the Universal Design for Learning framework, which helps instructors create a flexible curriculum that can be adapted for any learner. Because each student learns differently, this design method allows instructors to provide multiple ways for students to learn, express what they know and engage with what they're learning.

With this general framework in place, colleges can combine text descriptions with images, captions with videos and transcripts with audio files to make their courses more accessible for students with specific needs.

"We can do a lot now, and it really just takes a little bit of extra attention for most of these issues to not be a problem," Johnson said. 

The University of Illinois Springfield also encourages faculty members to adopt the Universal Design for Learning framework, and gives them the option to collaborate with instructional designers and faculty developers as they create their courses. With this strategy, the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service can take care of most students' needs and work with the Office of Disability Services on technology accomodations for those who require extra support. 

"Sometimes we think, 'Well, if we create an office of accessibility, we've done all we need to do,' but it's so much more than that," said Vickie Cook, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at University of Illinois Springfield. "It's really everyone's job to think about accessibility, and that work is never done. Accessibility is an ongoing role and responsibility for everyone across campus."