M8 Michael’s Curiosity About How “Online” Affects Accessibility

I think I was one of the first to ask about accessibility and online instruction this year, and it’s something I try to think about all the time in my teaching–perhaps because Theater Studies often seems to attract students with learning differences, perhaps also because I have a close relative who’s learning-disabled, and, thus, have had to think a good deal about alternative neurologies–and other relatives who are mobility-impaired, as well. I feel I’ve seen Emory grow up a bit on this subject (I have some unpleasant memories, back from my department chairing days, when I saw faculty department chairs laughing together at the very thought of testing accommodations). I found these readings this week familiarly disturbing of simple ableist complacencies, and appreciated a few best-practice ideas about inclusive media.

I choose at this moment to be hopeful about online instruction and accessibility;  I’m wondering if our online technologies might not actually be especially helpful to students with these particular considerations. Certainly we’re getting past some physical accessibility issues from the get-go, yes? (No wheelchair ramp issues here.)  There are obviously steps that can be taken–some of them cumbersome and expensive, but they exist–to augment recorded lecture or other audible media with captioning, and visual media with narrative description. (Is anybody else disturbed by the inherent bias of so many of these technological tools against language and toward narrowly visual culture?) Hearing-impaired students might be able to participate more easily, both listening and expressing, in text-based interactions.I might be drawn to take these additional steps with online courses that I wouldn’t take in normal F2F classrooms, where the ease of face to face interactions might seduce me into thinking we’re all seeing and hearing the same.  So I think we’re in a great place to address accessibility issues thoughtfully.

As for learning differences, such as processing issues, media that allow students, according to individual need, to engage asynchronously, to stop, review, take a break, start again, skim, focus on outline or pattern of the lecture or material, might be transformatively helpful to some (after all, isn’t notetaking in  an F2F lecture just a way of providing asynchronous materials that allow for review and recapture of that fleeting synchronous lecture? Take that, Aristotle! Now we can go further).

A conversation Emory is having only slowly and behindhand deals with the question of educating ESL students; here, too, I think the asynchronous elements of online instruction might be key to helping students work through language difficulties and simply hear more of what we’re all saying.  It’s not the complete answer, but it’s a step.

At the same time, I feel, as many have said, that this kind of media interaction will work better for some students than others, and that there is an executive function of managing your different needs, off-center strengths, or disabilities that inevitably places additional pressure on these students, and technologically-rich teaching environments might be especially challenging to some. I certainly have struggled with technological interfaces in our course, and strain to force ideas to cohere for me when I have to search for them across a variety of platforms. I could see an ADD student, for example, getting lost repeatedly in the mix. (Part of the reason I’m imagining a very consistent routine for my course, at the risk of engaging variety.) I have no idea how students with manual dexterity issues would manage keyboards and cursors.

I would love to find research on what online instruction itself makes easier and harder, just in terms of perception and cognition.

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