Blinding Technology of Online Learning

Will digital education face legal scrutiny for shutting out blind students?
August 23, 2010

Online learning is often heralded as a way to make college an option for people who would not otherwise have the money or mobility to access it. But for blind students, online learning can present more obstacles than opportunities — especially as e-learning materials become more technologically sophisticated.

“When faculty or course developers hear about a new tool being introduced at a distance education conference, they want to bring it home and try it out,” says Kelly Hermann, chair of the Online Education Special Interest Group at the Association on Higher Education and Disability, or AHEAD. “But what they fail to recognize is where that new tool might create barriers to accessibility.”

That new types of course content being developed for online learning might create accessibility problems is not a new revelation. But the courts have made little progress toward defining and enforcing accessibility standards for online education in the last decade, even as online degree programs have proliferated and been adopted into mainstream higher education. Only in the last few months has the federal government hinted that online education, and technological innovations associated with it, might soon face legal scrutiny.

In the meantime, advocates for the blind are worried that it is becoming harder for the assistive technology used by blind students to keep pace with advances in educational technology. “Dynamic” e-learning content — e.g., graphics that change as a user rolls over or clicks on different parts — could present huge challenges to blind students, says Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation for the Blind, or NFB. Figuring out how translate static tables and diagrams for blind students was trouble enough, he says; it is not yet clear how to deal with newer, more interactive e-learning objects that may soon pervade online education.

“Assistive technology does the best it can to keep up with changes in [educational] technology, but a lot of times you have a university that is using the latest, cutting-edge Web technology… screen-reader technology tries to keep up, but more often than not it's behind,” says Danielsen. For example, screen-readers rely on a screen having to reload every time new content appears on a page — a step dynamic content eliminates. Advocacy groups do not believe online classrooms should deploy such materials until they can be made accessible to blind students.

The news is not all bad. The NFB last week gave Blackboard — the e-learning industry leader whose learning-management platform is used by many online programs — a pat on the back for setting a new standard for accessibility with its the latest version of its online learning portal. Moodle, the open-source learning-management platform that has been making modest gains against Blackboard for several years, allows individual campuses to customize their portals such that they are accessible to blind students. The accessibility of learning-management systems is especially germane to the accessibility of online courses, since in online learning the learning-management platform is not just a supplement to the classroom — it is the classroom.

Unfortunately, making the learning-management system accessible is only part of the battle to make online education accessible. “Even though Moodle itself is accessible, courses and imported content might not be,” says Brad Schleicher, a spokesperson for Moodlerooms, the company that provides support to users of the Moodle platform. Imported content is becoming as much a part of online course delivery as the discussion forums and other features governed by the accessibility practices of the learning-management system.

At Blackboard’s user conference in July, Michael Chasen, the company's CEO, demonstrated how the company was creating more dynamic, seamless ways to integrate outside content into course pages. In the latest version of the platform, “we’ve taken steps to ensure that content from third-party sources like YouTube and others is fully accessible once it is brought into the course, but as a platform solution, there are infinite types of content that could be used within the system,” says Stephanie Cupp, a senior director of user experience at Blackboard. (It should also be noted that less than a third of Blackboard clients have upgraded to the more accessible version, which the company released in April.)

“Third-party content is a problem,” says Anne Taylor, director of access technology at the National Federation for the Blind. As learning-management systems have made it easier to do so, some professors have drawn increasingly from disparate sources — online video sites, blogs, other nonacademic websites — for course material. The more professors “do their own thing,” drawing from nontraditional sources, the less likely it is that everything students need to succeed in an online course is accessible, says Pratik Patel, chair of the information access committee at the American Council of the Blind.

Legal Recourse

None of the advocacy groups contacted by Inside Higher Ed could pinpoint the exact number of blind students currently enrolled in U.S. colleges, but Hermann, of AHEAD, says the proportion is very, very small. Only three to five percent of college students report having any disability at all, Hermann says, and that includes learning and mental disorders. Blindness is, she says, a “low-incidence disability.”

This means that advocates for the blind often need to use federal anti-discrimination laws to keep from being left in the dust on new technologies. Last summer, the NFB and the American Council of the Blind sued Arizona State University under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws, forcing it to end a pilot program designed to assess the educational uses of Amazon’s Kindle DX, which had an inaccessible menu feature. The U.S. Justice Department subsequently forced three other institutions to shut down their Kindle pilots.

So if online education presents so many obstacles to accessibility, why has no one filed a similar lawsuit against any of the institutions that offer it?

“It’s a good question,” says Hermann. "It’s the colleges’ obligation under [federal law] to make every program of their institution accessible.”

“Obviously, we’re cautious about talking about our legal strategies,” says Danielsen, the NFB spokesman. However, the spokesman did note that litigation is an “expensive, time consuming process, and outcomes are by no means guaranteed.” In other words, you do not sue unless you know you can win. “From our perspective, it’s a last resort,” Danielsen says.

Eric Bridges, the government affairs director at the American Council of the Blind, noted that advocacy groups have had little success with litigation dealing with a similar topic: the accessibility of college websites. “Some of the litigation that’s been done over website access has not always been the greatest as far as settlements and outcomes, so I think some organizations have been hesitant,” he says.

The chances of a successful lawsuit might become clearer sometime in the next year or two. The Department of Justice has suggested that it might soon articulate exactly what kind of legal recourse blind and otherwise disabled students have with respect to the accessibility of online courses. Last month, the department issued several notices, saying it is collecting public comment on a number of topics related to accessibility and the Web in preparation to lay out the specific obligations of various institutions under federal law.

While online education is not explicitly mentioned, Bridges says his group is planning to lobby that it be included on the rulemaking agenda. “What they’re doing is putting out feelers,” he says. “They want to see… how the industry feels about even broaching this subject.” The department will probably release a more specific agenda within a year or so, Bridges says, adding that he would be surprised if online learning does not make the cut.

In June, the Justice Department and the Education Department jointly released a "dear colleague" letter to colleges, warning them that the government plans to crack down on institutions that require disabled students to use emerging technology that does not comply with federal accessibility laws. This, again, did not explicitly mention online education, but Bridges says it was a shot across the bow.

John Wodatch, chief of the disability rights section of the Justice Department, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. However, at a June meeting of the National Association of College and University Attorneys, Wodatch urged college officials to think about the accessibility of their online courses to blind students and those with limited manual dexterity, indicating that the government may indeed be preparing to address the issue.

Until then, the innovators will presumably continue to populate online learning environments with new tools, while assistive technology providers and their blind students try to keep up.

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