By Jule Ann Lieberman
This time of year may bring about nostalgic memories of our days heading off to school. The media has multiple stories describing the “move in days” on campuses across the state and beyond. What is probably the most significant change is the fact that many undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees and professional certificate programs are increasingly being completed online or through distance learning. According to the latest statistics I could find, over 6 million students will take at least one online course and a high percentage of these students never step onto a college campus for coursework.
Two universities in Pennsylvania are ranked among the top 10 university programs for providing distance education. Penn State University worldwide ranked 1st and Drexel University ranked 9th. Penn State offers over 120 academic degree study programs and Drexel offers 200 academic courses. The highest enrollment in distance learning programs was at the graduate level courses.
There are many flavors so to speak of for distance learning experiences. For example, an asynchronistic course which includes lectures, assignments and discussion groups all posted on a course link allows students to complete the course according to their schedule within an expected time frame. This is most frequently a weekly time frame. All students will meet a given rubric for course participation in discussion boards and posted assignments and testing. Another type of distance learning is synchronistic, which means all students log into a web based lecture at a listed time in addition to posting assignments. Testing is often done at a pre-determined log in time and must be completed without interruption in the time allotted. Still other distance options are what are known as blended courses where students participate both online with readings and discussion and in person for labs or lectures on campus.
Some of you may be aware I completed my Master of Science in Low Vision Therapy from Salus University in spring of 2013. I began my coursework in spring of 2010 and of the 16 courses required, 10 were Asynchronistic, and 6 were blended courses with labs on campus over two summers. This option allowed me to continue to work full time while earning my degree.
My experience with accessibility was a mixed bag as one can say. When I began in 2010 the online platform was Blackboard Version 8. I had no issues using my screen reader JAWS for Windows to read lectures, watch videos, and complete quizzes and assignments. Then one year later the platform “updated” to version 9. All was well until I needed to log into the timed quizzes. It became very difficult to navigate the questions and answers without the software crashing mid-quiz. As you can only enter the quiz once, this was a big problem. Fortunately, the student services and information technology departments worked out a solution that allowed me to receive my quizzes by email with time stamps for when they were opened and then again when I sent in my reply. Other barriers were related to readings that were posted as PDF files that were saved as images rather than digital text. This required me to perform a conversion process before I had access.
Another distance learning experience I had was in 2013-14 when I attended the University of Pittsburgh where I earned a professional certificate in assistive technology through their College of Rehabilitation Sciences. This coursework consisted of 8 one-hour synchronistic recitations, online group assignments and discussion boards. It concluded with a two-day on campus lab experience. This is how many of us who wish to gain further education and professional training will experience it in the future.
This new reality means it is important for all of us to consider how vital accessibility within distance learning is. How can we compete if we do not have equal access to lectures, quizzes and assignments? Fortunately there are already advocates on our side.
A collaborative of web providers and universities are working to provide an equal environment for all with disabilities. Teach Access is such a collaborative. From their website: “Technology companies dedicated to accessibility have faced the common challenge of preparing designers, engineers and researchers to think and build inclusively. Similarly, academic programs in design, engineering and HCI (Human Computer Interaction) are seeking ways to better prepare students to address the needs of diverse populations. Given this shared challenge, industry, academia and advocacy have now come together to create models for teaching and training students of technology to create accessible experiences.”
This year I attended two conference sessions on website accessibility and distance learning. The sessions I attended included presentations from web leaders such as Facebook, Yahoo, and Google. ACB Executive Director, Eric Bridges was also part of discussions. The web companies announced that all job applicants are asked questions about their background in creating accessible web content. Teach Access described their efforts in establishing accessibility course content in university computer science and engineering programs among several universities. The emphasis is for industry and academia to make accessibility a forethought rather than afterthought in web design and access. For more information on this effort visit: www.teachaccess.org.
I hope that you consider pursuing educational opportunities no matter the method. You need not fear entering into a course or training program that is conducted online as long as we have advocates who are working together to make participation inclusive for all. While I had some occasional access challenges in my recent experience, with a positive attitude and good communication with the educational provider, I completed all coursework with success. It could be your time to head back to school even if you only need to travel as far as your computer!