Clearing Up Accessibility for Distance Education Administrators: Accommodating the New Students
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Clearing Up Accessibility for Distance Education Administrators: Accommodating the New Students

It’s critical for distance education administrators to develop resources to support accessibility and success among students with learning disabilities.

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:

  1. Document enhancement: Students with LD often need to read and hear the content.
    1. PDF files are easier for screen readers to access, and many students with LD and ADHD use screen readers. Scanned documents and pictures  can’t be read by screen readers.
    2. Consider adding an accompanying podcast to any written material you present, remembering the rule of thumb that visuals should also be available in audio. If possible, create the podcast yourself. Teacher-created videos and podcasts build the teacher/student relationship, as the student is hearing your voice, rather than a robot’s . The better the teacher/student relationship, the more attentive the student will be in your course!
    3. At minimum, be sure to give students directions on how to access an audio copy of the reading, such as providing the link to the library or an online source.
  2. Content delivery: Students with low attention spans or difficulty processing information need to be very active in the learning process.
    1. Give the student as much of an opportunity to actively engage in  learning as possible. For example, use techniques such as jigsawing (each student gets a piece of the content to learn and teach back to the class). Jigsawing is just one way to vary content delivery and help the students break down information into bite-size chunks.
    2. Having students interview, explore and engage outside of class and then report back is another great way to get them involved.
  3. Multimedia: Students with LD and ADHD will often do better in very multimedia-rich environments.
    1. Vary content delivery by supporting lectures with video or audio examples of the learning objectives. Online learning environments are perfect for showing pre-recorded demonstrations that will turn out just the way you wanted them to — every time!
    2. If the demonstration is a video, captioning or providing a transcript is a must.
    3. A Webquest is a great example of a teaching technique that allows the students to follow a content thread as they search the Internet and access the media that works for them, as required.
  4. Communication and collaboration: Students with LD and ADD often need help with organization of their tasks. Effective, frequent communication from the instructor is critical.
    1. Provide specific, clear directions, learning outcomes and expectations in a place that is easily accessible from anywhere on your course shell/website.
    2. Open a threaded discussion for students to post questions regarding the course. Students with LD and ADD can post their questions when they arise, rather than having to wait. An added bonus is that students will often find the answer posted by another student before you check in!
    3. A quick email reminder to the class regarding upcoming events is always appreciated. If you have an electronic class calendar that sends out automatic reminders to the class, that’s even better!
  5. Student Response:
    1. “Asynchronous” response vehicles for students such as written documents, threaded discussions, tweets, blogs, wikis and forums allow students with LD or ADHD processing time for their response.
    2. In contrast, “synchronous” response vehicles such as live text chats and audio chats can be difficult because time for processing the questions is limited and often fast paced. For students with processing and attention deficits, understanding the question, converting the answer into words and typing those words out under a time limit can create extreme stress.  If you are using these tools, be sure to provide the students with the questions ahead of the conversation, so they can prepare.
    3. If you do a live chat, either in audio or video, be sure it is recorded and posted so that students can reflect and respond later to the issues and topics that were discussed.
  6. Time management and organization:
    1. To prevent your students from missing deadlines or not being prepared for discussions, use your class calendar tool or create a class calendar and post it. Once dates are set, do not change them if at all possible. Reminders and pokes are always welcome!
    2. Advanced organizers are a big help. Break content information down into chunks and visually outline those chunks in relation to the anticipated final project. As you teach each chunk, relate how that chunk will fit into the final assessment expectation.
    3. The advantage of an online course is that you don’t have “just 50 minutes” to complete a task; however, firm deadlines are important to students with LD an ADHD so they don’t get behind and so you have plenty of time to give them feedback on their work. By breaking material into chunks and giving “mini” deadlines, you can better gauge if your students are managing their time well.
  7. Assessment Options:
    1. Be very clear on identifying what you are testing/evaluating and post that information ahead of time.
    2. Give the criteria for success to the students ahead of time (rubric).
    3. Keep instructions brief and uncomplicated and posted in audio/written/visual if possible.
    4. Written tests need to be offered in audio format as well (podcast), so students can access either or both formats.
    5. Offer proctored tests for students who will need extended time if your test is time limited.
    6. Problem-based assessments (“Given X, how would you…”), scenario-based assessments (“Watch this scenario unfold. What happened and how does that relate to what we just learned?”) and  videotaped project presentations (“Make a presentation to the parents of the sample student regarding how you would construct your learning environment to best meet their child’s needs”)  are not time limited and often allow a student to show a higher cognitive level of understanding.

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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3 Responses to Clearing Up Accessibility for Distance Education Administrators: Accommodating the New Students

  1. Greg Allen Reply

    2013/02/19 at 10:12 am

    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.

  2. Vera Matthews Reply

    2013/02/19 at 11:41 am

    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).

  3. Greg Allen Reply

    2013/02/19 at 5:35 pm

    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.

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