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An international peer-reviewed journal

Online Learning: Designing for All Users

Cindy Poore-Pariseau

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 5, Issue 4, August 2010, pp. 147 - 156

Article Contents

Accessibility and a Learner’s Social and Educational Environments

From a social point of view, all individuals have a right to access the web. Brophy and Craven (2007) note, however, that disabled individuals have the most difficulty accessing the Internet in general, which will impact their ability to access online learning. An inability to access this mode of learning can have serious socioeconomic implications, including increased rates of unemployment and an increased dependence on governmental resources for this population.

Because of the social issues involved, disability agencies and organizations have emerged to guard the rights of people with disabilities and to see that the patterns of “marginalization, poverty, and abuse” do not continue (Stienstra, Watzke, & Birch, 2007, p. 149). One area in which many of these organizations are interested in pursuing is that of access to information technologies and, in particular, increased accessibility to the platforms used for online learning.

While many learning management platforms such as Blackboard (http://www.blackboard.com/Teaching-Learning/Learn-Resources/Accessibility.aspx) and Angel  (recently purchased by Blackboard) profess to be developed in an accessible manner, the content placed on the platforms by instructors may not be, unless there is a conscious effort on the part of the instructor or the institution to ensure that accessibility issues are being addressed. Consider the following statement: “A well-designed course will provide the instructor with many opportunities to engage students in discussion, criticism, and constructing knowledge” (Moore & Kearsley, 2005, p. 136). As noted by Sims, Dobbs, and Hand (2002), this interaction may determine how effectively students can learn. This is a powerful observation when one considers how important the ability to effectively access course information is to engagement and interaction. If a student has a disability that causes him/her to have trouble accessing the curriculum, and the course has not been designed to meet accessibility standards and guidelines, (i.e., s508 standards nor WCAG guidelines have been followed) how can the student effectively engage in discussions and other interactions that are so vital to the educational process?

Although implementing accessibility guidelines is important for learners with disabilities, there are also significant implications for faculty members who teach the courses as well as for other students and the educational institution as a whole. Sims et al. (2002) reflect that “one of the complexities of online development and evaluation is that issues and factors such as accessibility impact on a wide range of environmental and operational elements of online learning” (p. 146). Changes made to a course of study to allow for accessibility impact everyone in the course. The impact may be as little as a change in color schemes or as great as an avatar sign language interpreter on screen, or the ability to “hear” text rather than simply “reading” it. In many cases, these factors may be seen as annoying (how do I turn off that sign language person) or extremely helpful (a person without a disability who happens to be an auditory learner would benefit greatly from having audio of text available). The positive factors have lead to the idea of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which is a movement that has recently received much recognition.

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