Accessibility in College Online Learning Curriculum

Summary
The current availability of accessibility tools utilized in online learning curriculums at public and private colleges and universities. Report download available.
Body

Compiled by Erin Moser1

Edited by Jill L. Bezyak2

Submitted July 12, 2020

Background Information

This report summarizes the current availability of accessibility tools utilized in online learning curriculums at public and private colleges and universities and the policies and best practices being applied by universities in creating accessible online learning programs. 

Nearly 22 million students are currently enrolled in American colleges and universities, with approximately 11% (2.4 million) of all postsecondary undergraduates identifying as having some form of disability3. In recent years, online education has increasingly gained popularity. Approximately 33% of college students are taking at least one course online, with future expectations of one-third of college students to fully study online4. For students with disabilities, online courses can generate additional barriers to access and learning, creating an environment that does not offer the same opportunities to them as it does to students without disabilities. Students with disabilities have protected rights under laws that influence how colleges and universities develop policies and create best practices to provide proper online curricula that ensure equal accessibility to both students with and without disabilities. 

The transition from high school to college can be difficult for any student and potentially more so for students with disabilities. Laws previously in place during primary and secondary schooling and special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), cease after high school graduation. Currently, there are two laws that ensure recipients of federal financial assistance and public entities provide individuals with disabilities equal opportunities as compared to individuals without disabilities in regard to participation in their services, programs, and activities, including public and private colleges and universities. One of these laws, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, applies to entities that receive federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education and requires schools to provide appropriate academic adjustments to assist students with disabilities. The second law, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, applies to publicly funded universities, community colleges, and vocational schools and is enforced by the Office of Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice5. Thus, colleges and universities are required by law to create an environment that is equally accessible to individuals with disabilities as it is to individuals without disabilities. Due to the increasing presence of online curricula in college and university settings, adherence to online accessibility requirements has become vital. Colleges and universities have partnered with many companies and organizations to create accessible course websites, and many of these colleges and universities have been identified as some of the top places for individuals with disabilities to obtain online degrees. 

Research Question

How are colleges and universities ensuring accessibility to their online learning curriculums?

Distance Learning and Students with Disabilities

The ADA does not specifically address distance learning requirements, although the general provisions of the law states that postsecondary schools must provide equal access to programs and services offered to the public. Therefore, if a student with a disability is qualified for post-secondary education at a given institution and enrolls in an online or distance learning course, reasonable modifications of policies, practices and procedures must be provided to ensure that the student has an equal opportunity to participate3.

There are no universal standards or guidelines for the preparation and execution of online courses, including providing equal access to students with disabilities. Providing equal access can either be proactive and/or reactive. An online course with a proactive design considers the needs of students with disabilities while designing the course. Examples of proactive designs include closed-captioning, descriptive narration, limited use of various fonts and colors, and compatibility with industry-standard adaptive technology. Reactive actions occur after the course has started and typically entail modifications and/or adaptive technology hardware and software to students with disabilities3.

One of the key strategies to making online learning accessible to all online learners is to provide multiple ways for students to gain knowledge, demonstrate knowledge, and interact with the instructor and peers throughout the course. It is also beneficial for instructors to be familiar with assistive technology devices, such as screen readers, that aid individuals with disabilities in successfully accessing all aspects of the online curricula. There are numerous tips on how to develop course web pages to eliminate accessibility issues. For example, use descriptive wording for hyperlink text, and use large, bold fonts on uncluttered pages with plain backgrounds. Formatting, such as these examples, eliminate barriers due to disabilities and provide an equal opportunity for learning for all students enrolled in online courses. There are also instructional methods that eliminate accessibility issues as well. Presenting content in multiple ways (e.g., in a combination of text, video, audio, and/or image format), as mentioned previously, and providing adequate opportunities for practice are a few examples. Many of these best practices are used throughout colleges and universities around the country and have provided positive online educational settings for individuals with disabilities6.

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) was developed with the focus of reducing barriers to instruction to allow all students access to general education7. UDL provides the opportunity for every student to participate, demonstrate their knowledge, and fully immerse themselves in their education. The main focus of UDL is to teach people how to learn. Expert learners will be able to assess their own learning needs; will have the ability to monitor their progress; will control and maintain their interest, effort, and determination throughout each learning task. UDL provides additional tools outside of traditional classrooms with traditional curriculums to help students become expert learners7

There is a plethora of information available to parents about UDL, including tips and resources. Individuals are encouraged to learn about the framework of UDL, which will aid in further exploration of the resources available to them. For individuals with a disability, it is important to ask questions about their curriculum to find out if it is accessible to them, to find out if the school is familiar with UDL, and if not, to encourage the school to adopt an approach that includes all students, regardless of their status or disability7

Essentially, UDL challenges instructors to be creative with their course content and instruction, to provide various opportunities to students in how they express what they have learned, and the strategies utilized to motivate learning in online courses. The UDL framework has three main principles: providing multiple kinds of representation (i.e., perception, language, expression, comprehension); provide multiple kinds of action and expression (i.e., physical action, expression and communication, executive functions); and provide multiple kinds of engagement (i.e., recruiting interest, sustaining effort and persistence, and self-regulation). The University of Oregon, for example, provides faculty various resources on inclusion and class climate, accessibility and universal design for online course content, and specific accessibility resources focusing on Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat8.

Quality Matters

Another program that is being utilized by colleges and universities to ensure equal access to online courses is Quality Matters (QM). QM is a program that has been created to evaluate online course quality and focuses on training and empowering faculty to evaluate courses against their course designed standards. QM provides guidance to instructors for improving the quality of courses and certifies the quality of online courses at institutions across the nation. More than 1300 colleges and universities throughout the world subscribe to the QM program and have used the rubric to improve course design. QM has trained more than 52,000 education professionals on online course design standards and certified thousands of online and blended courses9.

Within the standards developed for QM certification, there are specific review standards that contribute to the assurance that certified QM courses are fully accessible for students with disabilities. One standard ensures online learners know they have access to services that support learners at the institution (e.g., technical support, accessibility support, academic services support, and student services support). An additional standard identifies resources that can help learners succeed in the course. In addition to offering supports outside of the course itself, QM standards have also been developed that focus on the accessibility and usability of the course, focusing on the course design and its accessibility and usability for all learners. Ease of use, readability, accessible text and images in files, documents, LMS pages, and web pages are also reviewed to meet the needs of diverse learners. Another standard identifies alternative means of access to multimedia content in formats that meet the needs of diverse learners. These specific standards are just a few that are essential for courses to receive a QM certification10.  

Monsido

Monsido is a website management company whose mission is to empower customers to achieve optimal website performance that is accessible to everyone11. Monsido is used for a variety of customers such as government, healthcare, non-profit, commercial, and education. Universities such as Colorado State, Xavier, Cornerstone, and Notre Dame are clients who work with Monsido to aid the perception, comprehension, involvement, navigation, and interaction of individuals with disabilities on the course websites12.

Monsido’s vision is to develop web accessibility during the design process and not try to make adjustments after the fact. Focus on common web accessibility issues for various visual, hearing, neurological, cognitive, and motor disabilities help create a website that does not hinder individuals from the same educational experiences as their classmates. For example, considering the level of contrast when choosing color schemes for lectures or background elements in courses can help individuals who have difficulty seeing contrast13. People with certain cognitive or neurological disorders may find it difficult to read long sections of text. To diminish this complication, Monsido web designers break up text into smaller sections with appropriate headings and significant amounts of white space between sections to improve readability14

Monsido also provides resources to customers, including an accessibility handbook, blog, webinars, tips, product training, live support, and other resources in their Resource Center to help organize and improve website use for individuals with disabilities. Monsido offers to scan a website for free to show what errors are found and offers the opportunity to book a demo to show what tools and resources are offered15.

DubBot

DubBot is another resource available to colleges and universities, which tests websites for levels of accessibility to ensure universal access. DubBot is a software program that scans for broken links and misspellings, enforces web policy standards, ensures web accessibility for all visitors, and complies with the Web Content Accessibility Guideline 2.0 (WCAG 2.0), amongst other collaborative task management skills16. DubBot’s software will find problems on the website and highlight them within the context of the site to show the course developer where changes need to be made. Descriptions of the issues are also provided, including specific accessibility standards that are not in compliance. DubBot also rates accessibility based on severity, to assist the course developer with setting priorities to create a fully accessible course design17.

DubBot provides personalized demos, sample reports of your website, testing of website for all three levels of web accessibility (defined by WCAG 2.0), and collaboration with a team when issues are found to gain feedback and guidance to resolve accessibility issues. DubBot automatically scans course sites every seven days for new errors, so course developers can remain confident that content uploaded to the course throughout the semester is continually monitored for accessibility issues. 

Research Question

What are the policies and/or best practices being used by universities that have succeeded in creating accessible online learning programs? 

Best Online Schools for Students with Disabilities

According to Guide to Online Schools, California State University-Chico, Case Western Reserve University, Central New Mexico Community College, and Colorado State University-Fort Collins are some of the topmost disability-friendly online colleges of 2019. These colleges were rated based on their use of UDL training and compliance and at least 5% of the student body are students with documented disabilities18.

California State University-Chico

California State University-Chico’s (Chico State) mission statement focuses on providing access to its diverse student, employee, and community populations. Their Office of Accessible Technology and Services (OATS) works with staff, faculty, students, administrators, and community members to certify that Section 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and CSU’s standards are met in all aspects of the university. 

Chico State developed an Accessible Technology Initiative (ATI) that emphasizes the importance of technology access for individuals with disabilities and states that technology must provide comparable functionality, affordability, and timeliness, including the ability to be delivered in as seamless a manner as possible19. Additionally, the implementation of the Universal Design principles stated above must reduce the needs and costs associated with accommodations for inaccessible technology products.

Case Western Reserve University

Case Western Reserve University is a top-ranked private research university in Ohio. The Disability Resource office at Case Western Reserve University works closely with all programs offering an online format of a course as well as the university’s IT Teaching and Learning Group. Teaching and Learning works closely with the program faculty on course design and accessibility. The Disability Resource office is available for consultation in regard to accessibility and to approve accommodations for learners (E. Porter, personal communication, July 1, 2020). 

Central New Mexico Community College

Another example of one of the best online schools for student with disabilities, according to the Guide to Online Schools, is Central New Mexico Community College (CNM). CNM has a Disability Resource Center (DRC) that supports both students and faculty to provide accommodations that allow students with disabilities equal opportunities to obtain the same outcome that students without barriers receive while obtaining an education. DRC offers assistance to instructors to make courses accessible, including some of the following step-by-step instructions to increase accessibility.

  • Whenever possible, instructors must utilize textbooks that have an accessible digital version.
  • Any videos need captions.
  • Any audio needs a transcript.
  • Images must have alternative text that explains the information in the image.

In addition, faculty has access to the Open Education Resource List on Accessibility, that contains resources to help make course content accessible to all students. There are also Microsoft Quick Tips and a DRC Accessible Formatting Guide to offer guidance on developing accessible content, no matter what software is being used for course development. The abundance of resources available to faculty at CNM is one of the many reasons it has been classified as a top-ranking online school for students with disabilities20.

Colorado State University-Fort Collins

Colorado State University (CSU) has an Instructional Design and Development unit that works with CSU faculty on course design and adaptive platforms. The Student Disability Center on campus developed a Faculty Accommodation Guidebook, which provides faculty information on reasonable modifications, tools, rights and responsibilities, and resources21. CSU also provides campus standards to faculty with steps that guide how to create inclusive content and requirements for new CSU websites to be compliant with WCAG 2.0 standards2223. In addition, faculty can check accessibility of documents and web content by utilizing several tools available to them, such as The WAVE Tool, Site Improve, and Color Contrast Tools24. Tips for inclusive content is also available to faculty, including specific information for Canvas content, Adobe InDesign, Multimedia, and PowerPoint, to name a few25. For example, Canvas tips for headings are to use headings to indicate sections of content and to avoid over-using them, to use the bullet and numbering options available from the formatting toolbar instead of manually typing lists, and to nest appropriately and not skip levels25. The Assistive Technology Resource Center also has an option for electronic access issues to be reported by students, employees, or guests of CSU26.

Conclusion

Accessibility to online courses is paramount to student success, particularly to students with disabilities. As colleges and universities develop more online courses and programs, access to resources to cultivate accessible online courses for equal opportunities for all students is essential. In addition to adhering to mandates such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, many colleges and universities are utilizing software and/or companies, such as Monsido and DubBot, to ensure there are no accessibility issues in their course website or course content. Standards such as UDL and QM have been developed and are followed by many colleges and universities, to create universal access to online content. Faculty is trained to focus on key standards that allow equal learning opportunities for all individuals, regardless of whether or not they have a disability.

Many colleges and universities have gained notoriety for being a top school for online learning for individuals with disabilities. Resources, such as a Disability Resource Center or an IT Teaching and Learning Group, work closely with faculty on course development and identify any accessibility issues that arise. Additional communication about specific accommodations is also available for students with disabilities, as well as step by step instructions for increasing accessibility. Although accessibility and accommodations have come a long way since the Rehab Act of 1973 and the ADA have been implemented, technology and online courses are continually evolving. Thus, policies, best practices, and ensuring equal access to online learning for students with disabilities will always need to be in the forefront of planning online course development.