Equitable Remote Education: Designing Online Courses to Meet the Needs of All Students


By Christine Voelker, originally published in the January/February 2020 issue of AC&E/Equity & Access

There’s an activity that I like to do in one of our Professional Development workshops called “Picture your Learners.”

I have teachers create a prototype of a student — developing the student’s traits, learning challenges and preferences — using different colors and features to represent the attributes. When they are done, we hang them up in the room so that we have reminders of the types of students that make up a class.

The reason this activity is so powerful is because the teachers engaging in it are online instructors. Their students are online learners, and for the most part, they are behind a computer screen. But the computer screen doesn’t mask the uniqueness of the students. Instead, it should support it.

Many believe that online learning poses more challenges for students with disabilities — but does it?

I have spent about a decade working with online courses, and have seen astounding improvement in the accessibility of online courses. I’m not saying this has been easy for course developers and providers. It’s a labor of love. One performed with the intention of providing equitable learning opportunities for all students. After all, isn’t that why most of us offer online learning opportunities?

Providing access to Accessible Educational Materials isn’t just something that we can choose to do because it’s the right thing — it’s the law. In 1998, Section 508 was added to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This addition requires that digital content be made accessible to learners with disabilities. This act has served as a benefit to students — regardless of whether the learning environment is “brick and mortar,” blended or purely online — because digital content is used to learn material in all of those situations. But the use of digital content in online or virtual learning requires particular attention.

Taking accessibility into account has led to learning experiences that benefit not only students with disabilities, but all learners. For example, captioning within videos allows students with auditory impairments to read the dialogue. But this addition also helps other learners such as those who are English Language Learners (ELL) or students who prefer to read content. Captions can further benefit students who review the content after the video to take notes. Also, since text-based descriptions are added to images and graphs, the presence of alternate text allows screen readers to interpret the visual elements of the course. These are only two examples of design considerations that serve to aid students.

While these and other accessibility changes are beneficial to learners, they can also present challenges to course designers. Software can be used to add captioning to videos, but depending on the audio quality and the annunciation of the speaker, the transcription may be inaccurate. While the designer is able to manually edit transcripts, changing the onscreen text is not always so easy. Adding text to images can be extremely time consuming, and the results are not always ideal. Detailed graphs are often cumbersome to explain using text. This may lead the designer to consider omitting content that benefits some learners because it cannot meet accessibility requirements.

A good online course is built to be accessible from the start

It’s designed that way. A statement in the National Standards for Quality Online Courses explains:

“The course design reflects a commitment to accessibility so that all learners can access all content and activities, and to usability so that all learners can easily navigate and interact with all course components. Online course materials, activities, and assessments are designed to ensure that all learners have access to the same information and are able to engage in the same interactions and within the same time frame. The course, developed with universal design principles in mind, addresses Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by following (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) WCAG 2.0 AA standards.”

Of course, “… this does not guarantee or imply that particular country/federal/state/local accessibility regulations are met.” It is highly recommended that a course developer meet with an accessibility specialist to ensure that all required regulations are met. A course developer needs to design a course with the needs of all types of learners in mind.

Creating accessible content while the course is in session is not ideal for numerous reasons:

    • Valuable learning time is lost.
    • Learners needing the accessible material fall behind their classmates.
    • Accessible Educational Materials (AEM) created “just in time” can suffer if executed without best practice processes that support creating an equitable alternative experience.

A good online course is continuously reviewed for quality and effectiveness

One tool that can be used in the evaluation process is the National Standards for Quality Online Courses. Previously under the oversight of the International Association for Online Learning (iNACOL), these standards have recently been revised through a large-scale community effort, led by a partnership between Quality Matters and the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance (VLLA). The National Standards for Quality Online Courses, Third Edition (2019), is part of a triad of standards that includes The National Standards for Quality Online Programs, Second Edition (2019), and The National Standards for Quality Online Teaching, Third Edition (2019). One major change in the revision is that Accessibility, located within the technology standard in the Second Edition, has been given its own standard, E, and was expanded to include “Accessibility and Usability.” Users will find explanations and examples within this standard set, which are further expanded upon in the QM K-12 Rubric.

Another tool that can be used in the quality assurance process is the QM K-12 Rubric, Fifth Edition. It addresses accessibility in Standard 8. Within this Standard, educators are asked to reflect on the ease of navigation and use of course tools, as well as the readability of the course itself. In addition, this Standard ensures that the content within the course is accessible to all students, despite their individual learning needs. This includes images and multimedia. Finally, the Standard confirms that vendor accessibility has been provided to the learners. By providing best practices supported by research, this Standard not only assists course designers in meeting accessibility guidelines, but also — more importantly — ensures that all students have access to an equitable learning experience. Providers, schools and districts can benefit from having their courses officially reviewed by Quality Matters, where QM-Certified K-12 Course Reviewers provide validation for best practice execution along with suggestions for improvement in a final report.

Where to go for help?

Educators and course designers face many accessibility challenges. The intent is to create enriching courses that meet the needs of all learners, but the answers are not always simple. If during a continuous improvement process, a course is found to be in need of accessibility support, updates, and/or revision, there are many resources that can help. Already mentioned, both the National Standards for Quality Online Courses and The Quality Matters K-12 Rubric, supported by research and best practice, provide guidance and tips.

Quality Matters offers a facilitated resource site to both members and non-members where many accessibility challenges, including those mentioned earlier are addressed. Complementing the site’s collection of resources, are forums where educators can ask questions and discuss realistic solutions that they use in course design. The Accessibility and Usability Resource Site (AURS) highlights accessibility features that should be used when creating a course in order to legally meet the needs of all students. Furthermore, the site examines why these changes are necessary and beneficial to learners. TedTalks and articles explore how omission of these features negatively impacts learners.

Also of value is the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials. Their website provides “resources and technical assistance for educators, parents, students, publishers, conversion houses, accessible media producers, and others interested in learning more about AEM and implementing AEM and the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS).”

Christine Voelker Bio

So, who is staring back at you from the other side of the computer screen? It’s important to remember that online learners represent a diverse group of students. They hail from culturally diverse backgrounds, have unique needs and bring different strengths to the course.

We must design online learning experiences that meet individual needs and support student success.

Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all model for online learning. Instead, we must design online learning experiences that meet individual needs and support student success. That includes creating classes that are accessible to all students. Remembering who our learners are, regardless of IEP status, etc. is extremely important to ensure equitable learning opportunities and student success.

Christine Voelker appeared
on Education Talk Radio in 2019.

Listen to the interview:

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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