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Confidence in the accessibility of online courses at community colleges has fallen dramatically in the last decade, a survey from the Instructional Technology Council reveals.

The annual survey on the impact of online learning at community colleges, published earlier this month, shows what the report calls a “remarkable decline” in certainty among institutions that the online courses they offer are fully accessible to students with disabilities.

In 2008, 73 percent of community colleges said their online courses were “completely” or “mostly" compliant with Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. In 2017, this figure fell to 33 percent, following years of decline.

While colleges are becoming more doubtful about courses being fully compliant, confidence in courses being “somewhat” compliant has grown from 26 percent in 2008 to 61 percent in 2017.

The author of the report, Fred Lokken, is a professor of political science at Truckee Meadows Community College in Nevada. He traces lingering uncertainty about compliance back to the publication of a June 2010 Dear Colleague letter from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education to college presidents.

The Dear Colleague letter predominantly addressed how to make electronic book readers accessible to students with limited or no vision, but it also unexpectedly extended its recommendations to all instructional technologies, creating uncertainty regarding compliance, said Lokken.

A series of high-profile accessibility lawsuits against colleges have also shaken institutions’ confidence in their compliance, said Lokken. Digital accessibility litigation reached “an all-time high” in 2017, with a significant number of cases filed against universities, according to the advocacy group Level Access.

While awareness of accessibility issues has improved, Lokken said that community colleges frequently reported that they lacked the resources to make compliance a priority, instead relying on learning management system providers and software vendors to make good on accessibility claims. In the survey, 68 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with the accessibility and universal design of their LMS.

The number of institutions with zero staff dedicated to assistive technology has increased from 37 percent in 2016 to 55 percent in 2017. Similarly, the number of institutions with no staff dedicated to captioning has also increased, from 56 percent in 2016 to 61 percent in 2017.

Addressing accessibility and universal design issues was listed as the third-greatest challenge facing online learning administrators in the survey. The No. 1 challenge was ensuring adequate student services for online students, followed by a lack of space for training and technical assistance.

Training is now mandatory for three-fourths of faculty members prior to teaching online, the survey found. Lokken said this is a “significant improvement” over previous years, but he notes that a quarter of colleges still lack any training requirements for online instructors.

Administrators appear to face some “chronic” problems when dealing with faculty members, said Lokken, with many of the same issues being reported year after year -- suggesting the issues are “significant” and “not easy to solve,” he said.

This year, the top five faculty-related issues administrators faced challenges with were: (1) Engaging the faculty in development of online pedagogy; (2) evaluation of faculty members; (3) training; (4) workload issues and (5) compensation.

The survey found that online enrollment at community colleges is increasing, despite an overall decline in enrollment since the 2010 recession. This year, the survey reported an 8 percent increase in online enrollment. Part of the success of community colleges’ online programs could be attributed to their maturity, the report suggests. Fifty-eight percent of community colleges responding to the survey said they began offering online education courses between 16 and 20 years ago.

Other key findings in the survey include:

  • Fewer institutions are considering switching their learning management systems, despite concerns about affordability. Blackboard Learn continued to be the most popular LMS among respondents, followed by Canvas by Instructure, Moodle and D2L.
  • Ninety-five percent of respondents said their online courses were as good as or superior to traditional courses. Fifty-three percent of respondents said students are charged extra to study online.
  • Nearly 70 percent of respondents said they expected open educational resources to have a “significant” impact at their institution in the next five years -- a sizable increase from 36 percent in 2012.
  • Preparing students to study online is seen as a significant challenge by administrators. The survey noted that historically, community college students face more obstacles to success than do students at the university level.
  • Seventy-nine percent of institutions reported that they require some type of faculty-student engagement in their online courses, with 74 percent saying that their programs require students to have regular interactions with faculty members.

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