As a follow up to my last post:
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.
Yesterday was the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the Obama administration, much has been done to enhance and support inclusion and accessibility in the US, and many policies have been enacted: The Every Student Succeeds Act assists “teachers in learning about the best ways to support their students with disabilities;” the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act provides “more employment opportunities for people with significant disabilities and youth with disabilities;” and the Affordable Care Act includes policy to “protect the rights of Americans with disabilities” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/07/25/celebrating-ada). Additionally, some of you might remember Maria Town (Emory College, class of ‘09) who currently serves as the White House’s Disability Community Liaison in the Office of Public Engagement. So much is being done to help those with disabilities, and there has never been a time when making classrooms inclusive was easier. So, it’s time that we instructors step up! (Like recognizing when I use a non-inclusive, ableist metaphor such as “step up.”)
I work with ADSR quite regularly, and I’ve tried to be as inclusive as possible in my courses throughout my time at Emory; however, as we all know, the online environment brings in a new set of challenges and potential issues. I do believe that available technologies are the first step to making a class accessible – well, recognizing that I need to pay attention to accessibility is the first step – so let’s say available technologies are the second step in making an online course UDL compliant. Having all videos captioned will not only help those who are hard of hearing but also has a secondary advantage of helping those who might only have internet access in a loud environment (e.g. café) or who might have a connection too slow to support full video and audio. Incorporating learning communities and multimedia into online courses, i.e. everything we have read in this class, gives students the ability to learn and perform in different modes, which is a key factor of UDL. Even the asynchronous learning environment gives those with some learning disabilities the chance to work at their own pace. If I keep these principles in mind as I create materials for my own online course, and as I revise materials for my current F2F courses, I believe that many of my initial challenges of accessibility will be met. That said, I also have to keep my eyes open for unforeseen issues that are sure to come up with every class and every semester. Wish me luck.