Addressing On-line Accessibility Issues at East Carolina University

Dr. Melissa D. Engleman
Professor, Special Education
East Carolina University
englemanm@mail.ecu.edu

Like many universities, East Carolina University (ECU) has seen an overwhelming increase in demand for online courses. As the university that prepares the most teachers in North Carolina, we have always faced distance learning issues, but the more than 250 percent increase in online course offerings during the past five years in the College of Education has had more impact on our programs than any other factor.

Online credit hour offerings have remained constant, which means that this increase is from a new recruiting pool. The convenience of online courses, the “anytime, anywhere” aspect has put these courses in high demand. We continue to respond to this growth as a potentially powerful solution to North Carolina’s certified teacher shortage. In the rural and remote areas of the state, online courses make it easier for communities to “grow their own”, rather than having to recruit teachers from other areas.

Our graduate student population consists of students between the ages of 22 and 50. Many have families and jobs. Most live in poverty zones, and a majority live at least two hours away. Years of teaching experience for participants in this study ranged from 0 years to 38. Most participants were within their first five years of teaching.

Much of our training for developing and delivering online courses has been done “on the fly”, and many faculty members as well as students have had to adapt very quickly, or they would, as one student put it, “….“…drown in the technology and take their students down with them”. We strive to keep our emphasis on excellent pedagogy and how the technology can help us use it, rather than making a new technology fit our courses. Innovative technology d'es not always equate with innovative teaching.

Issues of Accessibility
Although up-to-date training continues to be a challenge, our major issues have had to do with three types of accessibility. First, there was the accessibility of current technology to our faculty and students. We found that we would implement some really wonderful new tool, only to discover that most students couldn’t use it because of the quality of their available machines and connections. This issue has pretty much resolved itself, with faster modems, then wireless technology and cable networks

The next issue we faced, was accessibility to individuals with disabilities. We had begun using the Blackboard course management system, which was an attractive tool because it used a consistent, uniformly developed course “template”, with built in features for interaction with and between students. But Blackboard used “frames,” which cannot be read by a screen reader, and it did not provide the flexibility of alternative ways to learn or access materials. This changed over time, with the enforcement of S508 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act, and with the detailed recommendations issued by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) for accessibility in web page design. These are in constant revision and review, and updated recommendations are posted at http://www.w3.org/WAI/. The newest version (6.0) of Blackboard has been advertised as completely accessible to individuals with disabilities.

The issue that this study examined, was accessibility of online courses using universal design for learning (UDL) to address differing learning styles and preferences. Universally designed courses provide multiple means of representation, engagement and expression. (For more about UDL, go to http://www.cast.org) This allows students to receive, interact with and report back on content in ways that let them show their strengths, by using flexibility in learning activities. When UDL is effectively implemented, fewer “special” accommodations are necessary because everyone is afforded accommodations. We wanted to know what result application of UDL to an online graduate class would be. Would students prefer it? Would they use it to challenge themselves? The results of the study in this course would be particularly relevant, because in this course, students learned about UDL and how to use it in their classrooms. Use of UDL in this course provided a model, as well as an opportunity to experience what it feels like to be on the receiving end of instructional flexibility.

Approach
In two summer session offerings (4 sections of about 20 students each) of this course, students completed a series of activities that would be applied to answering the research questions. The activities yielded information on student characteristics, learning styles, personality preferences, and reactions to a UDL unit.

Full or partial data were collected on 65 participants. By far, the most frequently cited “favorite Internet activities” were the discussion board and the virtual chat. The most frequent learning style was “Active (46%), Sensory (65%), Visual (70%), and Sequential (51%)[FMT1]”. The most frequent personality preference was Extrovert (52%), Sensing (67%), Feeling (82%), and Judging (94%) (ESFJ).

We had originally assumed that extroverted students would report preferring Internet courses, citing the chat and discussion boards as great places to interact. However, we found instead that most of the extraverts did NOT prefer online courses, because they said that the interaction was not as meaningful. Many of them commented on needing to have people “right in front of them”. Contrary to this finding, was the preference of introverts for the discussion board and virtual chat. We received many reports saying things like: “I’m usually too shy to join discussions, but on the Internet I do it much better.”

Another interesting finding was that the learning styles and personality preferences of most of the course participants were the opposite of my own. We would need to look again at this course, re-developing it with more concreteness, and more sequentially arranged directions. We also needed to re-think student interaction assignments to make them more meaningful to the extroverts.

The results of the study indicated that all but three students (out of 65) would prefer to have all their course activities set up using UDL. The few who indicated otherwise, qualified their response by saying they might get confused if the first course module was set up with choices, but that they would love to have UDL in the rest of the course. All students reported liking having an array of choices, and some asked for even more variety in the choices.

So, the answer to the research question about “would incorporating UDL make a difference?” is an overwhelming “yes”. As the data are more thoroughly investigated, the results will be used to make general recommendations to faculty about development of courses using UDL. The study will continue over the next semester, adding another 70-90 students to the database. More conclusions will be possible at that time.

In preliminary discussions with faculty, we have found that many are very excited about the idea of differentiating instruction this way in their Internet courses. There is a lot of interest in learning more about universal design for learning. Only time will tell how many of them follow up on design suggestions made around this concept.

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