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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


The Future of Instructional Design as it Relates to Accessibility

Instructional design influences accommodation decisions by establishing the channels of interaction and communication within the course, as well as the degree of accessibility of information, and the options for technical adaptation. (Banergee, 2005, para 5)

The decisions referenced above by Banergee are significant because they signal that, for the first time, faculty members will have to share the design of their courses if they are to meet accessibility standards. Those with the technical expertise to develop accessible content will need to be consulted; no longer will a faculty member have the luxury to lecture, knowing everyone in the classroom is “hearing” what he/she has to say. In an online environment, the faculty member must plan in advance for many known and unknown situations. Although this is true to some extent in face-to-face courses, retrofitting can be more complicated in an online learning environment because of the technology involved. Planning ahead may mean designing courses with the ideals of accessibility and/or universal design in mind; this will greatly reduce the need to retrofit necessary accommodations that can save time and money for all involved and also increase students’ motivation to learn.

Another consideration in the process of planning courses for accessibility involves disability services providers. Service providers must be knowledgeable about online accessibility issues and available to partner with those who design online learning; this will facilitate the process of providing accessible online learning opportunities for disabled students. In postsecondary settings in the U.S., the importance has always been placed on the service provider’s knowledge about the operations of face-to-face courses. Because accessibility and distance education are fairly new concepts, and given the growing number of students with disabilities enrolling in college, service providers must now gain a new fund of knowledge regarding how online courses are produced and structured. If they do not gain this knowledge, possibly by working with the instructional design team, they will not know how to advise instructors, instructional designers, and students in regards to accessibility issues.

Accessibility has come a long way over the past decade, but there is still work to be done. For example

…one significant regulatory gap exists in the overall environment within which information technologies are created. Disability and accessibility are not included or seen as relevant in the market economy. ... This is significant because until people with disabilities are recognized as a part of the market environment not simply as consumers or users of technology, but as full citizens…” (Stienstra et al., 2007, p. 157)

Can or should people with disabilities be a part of the cycles of development and evaluation of courses to ensure accessibility measures, as implemented, work? Should accessibility be written as a formal part of the instructional design process? A review of major instructional design models (including Dick, Carey and Carey, Tennyson’s ISD4, ASSURE, and Sims and Jones 3PD) revealed that, although many of the models include evaluation check points, none of the models overtly check for accessibility. As noted in the above sections, accessibility is a key factor to the success of a large and growing number of college students, not only in the U.S., but worldwide. Accessibility is such an important factor in this day and age that a model should be formed that includes a formal evaluation checkpoint to ensure that all course designs are, in fact, fully accessible. “Too many Web developers will check for accessibility at the end of the project only to discover they picked the wrong technology before even starting” (Santovec, 2005, p. 4), which results in a waste of time, money, and effort. Instructional designers are learning that the best course of action is to design for accessibility from the outset (Web-Based Education Commission, 2000).

Although the checkpoints may slow down the process of developing a course in the beginning, the final result will be that a larger group of students will be able to effectively access and learn from the course and, as stated previously, the chances of an institution of higher education being taken to court for disability discrimination will decrease. In the end, results of increased accessibility include students who can be more productive. In being more productive, these students will be better prepared to assist in the educational growth of their fellow students through effective interactions within the course space. In turn, increased education can lead to jobs that allow these students to be financially independent.

The process of moving towards more accessible modes of learning as a given rather than as an exception is already underway in the U.S. For example, an article in the Boston Globe (Bray, 2008) details a law proposed by U.S. Representative Ed Markley to “require major producers of Internet videos to add captions as well as ‘video descriptions,’ soundtracks that describe the on-screen action for blind people” (p. C1). The article reflects back to the 1980s when the government stepped in to require that television networks provide text captioning for people who are deaf/hard of hearing.

Representative Markley and other governmental officials are beginning to understand the wide impact the Internet has on so many lives due to the increasing number of people who utilize the Internet as their main form of entertainment. Through this article the reader learns that, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, many Americans (about half) who use the Internet use it to watch video online, including video from cable channels and the major TV broadcast networks. For this reason, the passage of such a law will benefit society as well as distance education as a whole by establishing access to information as the norm rather than the exception.

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