Online Learning Brings Opportunities and Challenges for Students with Disabilities
College students are surrounded by technology inside and outside of the classroom. And increasingly educators are reaching learners through smart phones and laptops. Community Voices producer Jeff Hiles is an instructional designer at Wright State University. He finds that for some students with disabilities, the move to online learning brings new opportunities and new challenges.
Charles Hiser walks through a stream of students in the halls of Wright State University. His service dog keeps him from bumping into things along the way. In class, Charles sets a black box on his desk. It’s called a braille note taker. It’s something like a laptop. But its keyboard has just one key for each finger. Also, it doesn’t have a screen. Instead, he runs his finger over a strip of small bumps. These represent letters and numbers in braille.
Outside of class, Charles uses a regular laptop. It has software that reads out loud what’s on screen.
“This was a short story that we had to read for Tuesday’s class,” he says. “Really short.”
Like many screen reader users, he listens at a very fast rate. He plays a segment of the story and it’s so fast it sounds unintelligible to most people.
“Usually, I’ll slow it down to about here if I want to read,” he says, slowing the reader to a speed that still chatters too fast to understand. “So that’s what it’s like when I’m reading one of these textbooks on my computer.”
It’s common now for faculty to deliver course materials electronically. With screen reader software, a student who is blind can grab a syllabus online and read it anytime without needing anyone else’s help.
That’s the ideal. But it’s not always so easy. Using a screen reader can be like looking through a straw. Charles can’t glance at a whole web page to spot what he wants. He may have to listen to every link and line of text to figure out what’s there.
Charles describes how he explores an online course: “So, from there, I just started exploring with the down arrow.” His computer chatters each time he taps his keyboard. “I find that. I don’t know what that does, I’m not going to mess with it.” The screen reader chatters some more. “I don’t know what ‘bread crumb’ means. But it’s a heading and it starts a table. So that’s promising...”
Just finding a syllabus can take a lot of time.
When he does find the file, his software may not be able to read it. There might be a table, for example—data arranged in rows and columns. If it’s made right, no problem. But if it’s not…
“If something looks like a table but it’s not set up as a table, it’s not coded as a table, it’s not a table to us,” Charles says. “It’s just nothing. But if it looks like a table, then people are like, yeah go to the table. There is no table. And that’s a major problem that I’ve run into with instructors: They don’t get it!”
It’s often as easy to make things accessible as not. But few faculty know how; it’s not their job. As they put documents and media online, they sometimes unwittingly exclude students who are blind or deaf, or who can’t use a mouse.
So higher education is struggling with how to make sure no one gets shut out of an increasingly digital environment. Meanwhile, advocacy groups are suing universities who have inaccessible online materials. Recent targets include Harvard and MIT.
Charles seems to take things in stride, though. Once he gets familiar with how a course is laid out, he has shortcuts that help him navigate more quickly.
“Different letters jump by different elements,” he explains. “V jumps by visited links. H jumps by heading. G jumps by graphic. F jumps by forms field. So on and so forth. You can jump by a whole bunch of different things.”
And evolving technology is closing the gap on those hard-to-read documents.
“Even in the last six, seven years, technology has jumped enough that if it’s not extraordinarily beautifully accessible, it’s close enough that you can usually figure it out.”
That's good not only for students, according to Ken Petri, director of the Web Accessibility Center at The Ohio State University.
“One of the things that I think has gotten a lot better is the acceptance of students with disabilities as just regular learners,” Petri says. “Faculty generally get less nervous now. A blind student registers for a class, it’s not a huge panic.”