The Digital Courseware Accessibility Problem

High-tech instructional materials are gaining popularity with instructors, but they can be problematic for students with disabilities. Colleges and publishers say there’s no easy fix.

December 2, 2019
 
Istockphoto.com/OksanaStepova

Educational publishers such as Cengage, McGraw-Hill and Pearson are investing heavily in digital courseware -- interactive, personalized course content that aims to improve the learning experience.

Videos, simulations, quizzes and built-in homework assignments make these products an attractive option for faculty and students alike. But not every student’s learning experience is enhanced by them. College accessibility staff say that digital courseware is frequently inaccessible to students with disabilities, particularly blind students who use screen readers.

Universities and colleges that receive federal financial aid are required by law to ensure their digital learning materials are accessible to all students or provide reasonable alternatives in a timely manner. Failure to do so can result in an accessibility complaint to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights or a discrimination lawsuit.

Earlier this year the Los Angeles Community College District lost a discrimination lawsuit brought by two blind students, the National Federation of the Blind and its California affiliate. The Federal District Court for the Central District of California ruled that the college district had breached Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act as it failed to provide accessible course materials to the students.

The court specifically criticized the use of Pearson’s MyMathLab, a popular digital courseware product, at Los Angeles Community College. The software, which was used by one of the blind students, was inaccessible, the court said. The college also failed to quickly provide materials from an equivalent math textbook as an alternative. In the court’s final ruling, the college was ordered to hire a dean of educational technology, make its website accessible and improve procurement practices so that no technology is purchased without an accessibility evaluation.

While many colleges and universities have introduced stringent accessibility checks for software purchased for use across the institution, these checks rarely extend to digital courseware -- which is often selected by individual faculty members without coordination from IT accessibility staff.

“It’s a sticky wicket because of academic freedom,” Cyndi Wiley, digital accessibility coordinator at Iowa State University, said in an email.

Wiley said she and colleagues are actively working to include digital courseware in their procurement processes and educate faculty about accessibility issues.

“Some faculty simply don’t know products are inaccessible or are just relying on accommodations to provide alternative means to the content,” she said. “The problem is publishers often take weeks, not days, to provide alternate content that is equal to what is being used in classes.” A few weeks is a long time in a college course, and students waiting for alternative content can fall way behind their peers. “That leads to attrition and retention issues for the university.”

Although Wiley doesn't have the power to stop faculty from selecting courseware with accessibility issues, she can make recommendations for alternative options and help them look for other possible solutions. She suggested some professors might be resistant to the idea of accessibility staff telling them what materials they can and cannot select.

“We want to partner with faculty and departments as much as possible. Mostly, faculty have been supportive of this approach. It demonstrates that we are not mandating what their choices are, but we are encouraging them to choose accessibly.”

Wiley, like many other digital accessibility staff, believes publishers should be doing more to make their products accessible, even if it is the institution’s legal responsibility to ensure accessibility.

“One hundred percent, the publisher should be responsible for providing accessible content. They need to put money and resources into their content creation,” she said. “We do not have the means to fix courseware issues. We try and work with the publishers, but some are very resistant to making changes. It costs them money. It’s not our place to fix publisher content. We believe it is their responsibility, and if they are not going to make their content accessible, we are going to try our best not to buy it.”

Chris Danielsen, director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, said the organization has received dozens of complaints about digital courseware from students in the past two years.

“We have been concerned about this for a long time,” he said. “We are doing what we can to put pressure on the publishers.”

Danielsen noted that the more components software has, the more things that can potentially go wrong. Some professors may get “prickly” about being told what courseware they can and can’t use, but universities have a legal obligation to make content accessible, he said.

“Accessibility is not a content-based decision,” he said. “If universities were to act in concert, they could put a lot of pressure on the publishers. After all, it is the universities that the publishers are selling to.”

Danielsen said stricter procurement policies could prevent colleges from having to make “stopgap accommodations” for students when publishers don’t quickly make fixes or provide alternative content.

He said the court case against the Los Angeles Community College District was significant because the court recognized that “at least part of the liability was created by the publisher product.”

“It doesn’t change who has the legal obligation, but it does signal that a publisher can create a problem for the university that gets them into legal jeopardy,” he said. “Universities need to be making the argument aggressively, that they can’t buy a product that is inaccessible.”

Danielsen said increased user testing by publishers and institutions would prevent situations where students are denied the opportunity that new technology presents.

“The ultimate irony is that technology can actually level the playing field if it is applied appropriately,” he said.

Elynsey Price, a spokeswoman for Pearson, said the company is committed to providing accessible course materials.

“We stand behind our digital products, which are rigorously tested for compatibility with the most commonly used accessibility tools and devices,” she said. The company recognizes, however, that it has “many opportunities for improvement.”

“Pearson has invested significant resources to continuously improve the accessibility of our digital products. We routinely update our existing digital learning platforms to improve accessibility, usability and compatibility with assistive technologies through an ongoing audit and remediation process,” said Price. The company is also integrating accessibility requirements into new product development and working to meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 and plans to soon publish a Global Accessibility Policy, she said.

Tiffany Anderson, a blind student at Johnston Community College who uses a screen reader to access online content, said she has had frustrating experiences with McGraw-Hill courseware. She has encountered issues such as her screen reader not reading content in order and being completely unable to interact with interactive content. She described how she couldn’t answer any of the math questions she was assigned to do for homework in one of her classes. Her instructor emailed her the questions instead.

“My grades have suffered as a result in some classes,” she said. “Some of my instructors didn’t really know how to deal with it.”

Scott Virkler, chief product and operations officer at McGraw-Hill Education, said the company is working to address these issues. The publisher's accessibility team is devoting time to making their content more compatible with screen readers. Most recently, the team developed a way to make drag-and-drop-style questions work.

“It’s not easy to retrofit products,” he said. Products that are not accessible will be phased out over time and replaced with products that have been developed to be accessible from the outset, he said.

“It’s a journey,” he said. “These changes aren’t going to happen overnight.”

Read more by

Inside Higher Ed's Inside Digital Learning

Back to Top