Online Education Grapples with Accessibility

Published May 4, 2020

Momentum behind online education continues to build for a variety of reasons: the ability to reach large numbers of students on-campus and off, economical usage of teachers’ time and classroom resources, and the ability to offer a rich web-based array of content. But online learning is still a work in progress. Even as teachers and professors strive to improve the online educational course material, making online courses accessible to those with disabilities remains an important and sometimes unfulfilled requirement. And course content alone is not enough — the ability to register, pay, drop courses, and communicate with faculty also must be adapted to students with disabilities. 

A little history 

Online education is hardly new. MIT, for example, began publishing its courses online with 50 courses in 2002 and officially launched its Open Courseware site in 2003 with 500 courses. In 2019, MIT published 2250 courses online, attracting 1.7 million subscribers to its OCW YouTube channel. As long as course content has been available online, it has been covered by laws mandating equal access to educational content, beginning with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In 1975, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed to ensure children with disabilities have the same free, public access to the same level of education as all children. 

In 1998, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 added Section 508 covering computers, telecommunications devices, intranet and internet applications, software, applications and web sites, and digital content including video. For example, Section 508 mandates open or closed captions for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.  In addition to the federal government, many states require Section 508 compliance. 

Specifically referenced by Section 508, the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 (published in 2018, updating WCAG 2.0, which first appeared in 2008) includes recommendations to make web content accessible to people with “blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity, and combinations of these, and some accommodation for learning disabilities and cognitive limitations; but will not address every user need for people with these disabilities These guidelines address accessibility of web content on desktops, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices.”

WCAG 2.1 success criteria are not technology-specific, but rather can apply to all digital content. The four principles of WCAG 2.1 outline that content should be:

  1. Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presented in ways they can perceive.
  2. Operable: User interface components and navigation must be operable.
  3. Understandable: Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.
  4. Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.

In practice, this would mean that a screen reader, for example, can access the content as it’s intended to be perceived, or that videos must be captioned.

Not as easy as it looks 

Despite the goal of institutions to disseminate knowledge widely, a number of institutions, among them MIT and Harvard, have been the targets of civil-rights-based legal action. In 2015, both MIT and Harvard were accused by the National Association of the Deaf of failing to make their open online courses, guest lectures and other video content accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. At issue are videos, often hosted on YouTube, that have allegedly poor captions, making the course content effectively inaccessible to deaf students. Requests by the institutions to dismiss have been denied. 

In response to another legal action, the University of California, Berkeley chose in 2017 to cut off public access to tens of thousands of video lectures and podcasts rather than make the content accessible to people with disabilities. The university cited the high cost of making such a large amount of content accessible. 

And K-12 schools are not immune from legal complaints. The Santa Fe school department was ordered to implement accessibility changes to its web site after the site was deemed to have fallen short by the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. 

Best practices 

With the goal of accessibility and the checkered track record of some institutions in mind, how should educational bodies proceed? It seems clear that implementing WCAG 2.1-compliant measures is only the beginning. Compliance might also require using Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA), a set of attributes that define ways to make web content and web applications, especially those developed with JavaScript, more accessible to people with disabilities. 

While lawsuits are sorting out, institutions should take a hint and make sure they are complying with the spirit as well as the letter of the law.