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Rethinking Accessibility for Online Learning
May 8, 2014 - 6:41pm

I am a Korean marine geophysicist who became quadriplegic (spinal cord injury with complete injury on cervical bone number four) as a result of a van rollover accident during a geological field trip in California almost 9 years ago (July 2, 2006). I am completely paralyzed from the neck down.

However, with twist of luck and turn of fate, I have become quite influential in Korea beyond just my academic expertise.

Since mid-2010, I have been in charge of running a large multimillion-dollar national program funded by the government to develop assistive technology and empower young disabled people through education, especially in the fields of science and technology. It is named QoLT, Quality of Life Technology.

The year 2010 was also the beginning of a new era when smart phones, SNS and cloud computing came along. It is, in fact, thanks to technology, it is truly an exciting time of opportunity for people like me who have disabilities.

I often tell people that “the computer is God’s gift to people with disabilities.” It’s amazing how much you can do these days with computer connected to the Internet, provided you are able to access it.

I now believe that another gift may be online education.

Many pundits envisage online education as the future face of all education. I tend to agree but I think the area where the online education can have a more significant impact is in the education of people with disabilities---those that may have been shunned or limited by the traditional means of education.

I have given much though to these issues since I recently visited Harvard and MIT to learn more about what each institution was doing, and specifically about their partnership to form edX.

I think there are two areas of potential collaboration that could help make online learning better and more accessible not only for those who are disabled, but for all learners around the world

1. Extending the capacity of learning platforms

Although there are many good accessibility features within modern learning platforms, in my view, there is plenty of room for improvement. Of course, the range of what amounts to a “disability” is so diverse that it is practically impossible for a single platform to cover all types.

In addition to making platforms accessible in terms of software (technically), we at QoLT would like to develop foundational courses at pre-college, freshman and sophomore levels and share them with the world---of course, for free.

We anticipate software developers with disabilities to take part in this effort as well as nondisabled professionals.

The reason why we are focused on pre-college, freshman, and sophomore courses is that they are the foundation for other disciplines. Students can later move into the areas of their choice.

In addition to making online courses and providing online technical supports, we envisage of forming a so-called ‘Academic Peace Corps’ with students in Korea so that they would go to developing countries and provide off-line education as volunteers.

We are not going to just rely just on the benefits of online education, but also emphasize off-line aspects as well, and we will actually send volunteers to selected countries.

2. Modifying content for a larger audience in Korea (and other countries)

I often tell people that 99.9% of Koreans are disabled. Of course this is a joke, but one that tells a deeper truth.

When it comes to listening to courses in English on YouTube and through MOOC providers, most Koreans have had difficulty in comprehending the materials. There are many excellent online learning opportunities made in English, but much less in the Korean language.

Our idea is to import these great courses from Harvard, MIT, and other universities and translate them into Korean. While that is already being done, to serve the widest possible audience will require not only captioning but also dubbing the voice.

Further, some of the courses are simply too long for people who are there to learn just for learning sake, and may not have the end goal of obtaining academic credits. Thus, we might have to divide courses into several topics and provide summary narrations in Korean.

Initially, I thought of showing such modified content not just online but via a cable network in Korea because it will reach out to a much wider audience. But I realized that this is all too quite risky (considering high cost in production without knowing how the public will accept it).

I decided to scale it down and try it out more or less silently in the background. At the moment I am more or less interested in finding out the best way to do this and seeing the reaction of general public.

Sang-Mook Lee is Associate Professor at Seoul National University, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and Program Director of Quality of Life Technology Industrial Infrastructure Development Center

 

 

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