Distance Learning: How Accessible are Online Educational Tools
For further information, contact Stacy Kelly, Policy Research Associate
More and more schools, colleges and universities are using online educational tools that students are required to use to obtain course syllabi, access lectures and associated material, participate in class discussions, read course material, and receive grades and feedback from instructors. These popular tools, such as Blackboard, can frequently pose significant barriers to students with vision loss because they do not work well, if at all, with computer programs commonly used by students who are blind or visually impaired to access content displayed on the computer screen. For example, screen reading software reads the contents of the screen aloud. Screen magnification software enlarges text and graphics displayed on the computer screen in a customized way.
Findings from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) distance learning survey indicated the most important and necessary features of online educational tools presented significant problems for those using assistive technology such as screen reading or screen magnification software. Nearly one third of respondents who used assistive technology to access online educational tools reported the experiences as unreliable/inconsistent or no successful use/access. Open ended questions gave respondents the opportunity to share their personal stories. In nearly every instance, respondents indicated features that were inaccessible.
AFB explored ways in which popular online educational tools can be made more accessible with the help of nearly 100 individuals who voluntarily completed an informal online questionnaire. Three open ended questions assessed the types of online educational tools with which people had experience, the features that seemed to be usable, the features that posed the most problems, and the access technology, such as screen reading or screen magnification software, that people used to access online tools.
Respondents were also asked to provide an accessibility rating for online educational tools with which they had experience. To do so, respondents completed a Likert item that asked, "On a scale of 1 to 5, how accessible/usable do you think these tools are?" with response options 1 = no successful use/access, 2 = unreliable/inconsistent, 3 = doable with patience/effort, 4 = fairly usable with some quirks, and 5 = accessible without difficulty.
Even though the survey did not explicitly ask for such information, respondents offered several suggestions about how to best accommodate for many of the inaccessible features.
Respondents included students who have used online educational tools and family members of such students as well as teachers and university faculty who had substantial experience and expertise with such online tools. Each of these respondents willingly shared their stories and, in doing so, helped inform the findings included in this special report.
Survey participants commented on a variety of online education tools including Blackboard, Web CT, Live Text, Moodle, Apex Learning, Aventa, MyMathLab, Wimba, ed2go, Elluminate, PowerSchool, and other various online educational tools available exclusively through certain educational programs. The most frequently addressed forum was Blackboard. Approximately 70% of respondents commented on Blackboard either exclusively or in combination with their thoughts about other online educational tools. Thus, Blackboard was the most commonly used online educational tool involved in this survey.
The results from the Likert item that evaluated accessibility and usability are provided in table format. Table 1 is organized by accessibility rating value and type of online educational tool. The percentages of responses for each of the five possible rating values are shown. Overall percentages are provided as well as percentages for each type of online educational tool with the most substantial responses. When there were not substantial responses for a particular online educational tool, the response for that particular online educational tool was designated as other. The category designated as other included Moodle, Apex Learning, Aventa, MyMathLab, Wimba, ed2go, Elluminate, PowerSchool, and other various online educational tools available exclusively through certain educational programs.
The overall accessibility rating showed that people who used screen reading or screen magnification software rarely accessed online educational tools without difficulty. On the other hand, the over accessibility rating also showed that people who use screen reading or screen magnification software were rarely completely unable to use online educational tools. Thus, the overall results demonstrated that responses fell somewhere in between the best and worst extremes with more than 80% of respondents who use assistive technology to access online educational tools reporting the experience to be either fairly usable with some quirks, doable with patience/effort, or unreliable/inconsistent.
|Table 1. Percentage of Respondents who Provided Accessibility Ratings of Online Education Tools by Type of Online Educational Tool
|1. No successful use/access||6%||4%||0%||67%||7%|
|3. Doable with patience/effort||30%||34%||50%||0%||7%|
|4. Fairly usable with some quirks||31%||38%||0%||0%||22%|
|5. Accessible without difficulty||9%||9%||0%||0%||14%|
The accessibility rating was considered by type of online educational tool. Nearly 20% of the respondents rated their Blackboard experience as unreliable/inconsistent or no successful use/access. Since 70% of respondents commented on Blackboard either exclusively or in combination with their thoughts about other online educational tools, any online education tool other than Blackboard was not considered widely used by those who responded to this survey. The online educational tools that were the least widely used demonstrated at least half of respondents rated their accessibility experience no better than unreliable/inconsistent. This included 50% of those who used Web CT, 100% of those who used Live Text, and 57% of those who used other online educational tools. Thus, the results showed that the least commonly used online educational tools were also the most troublesome for people with vision loss who use assistive technology to access online education.
Table 2 shows the accessibility rating valued organized by the type of assistive technology respondents reported that they used. The type of assistive technology respondents used was organized as either screen reading software or screen magnification software.
|Table 2. Percentage of Respondents who Provided Accessibility Ratings of Online Education Tools by Type of Assistive Technology Used
||Screen Reading Software
||Screen Enlargement Software
|1. No successful use/access||5%||18%|
|3. Doable with patience/effort||30%||27%|
|4. Fairly usable with some quirks||33%||9%|
|5. Accessible without difficulty||7%||0%|
Of the respondents that reported the type of assistive technology they used to access online educational tools, 85% reported that they used some type of screen reading software and 15% used some type of screen magnification software. The data showed that 30% of those who used screen reading software to access online educational tools reported the experience as unreliable/inconsistent or no successful use/access compared with 63% of those who used screen magnification software. Respondents showed, therefore, that those using screen magnification software were more inclined to have a less successful experience accessing online educational tools than those using screen reading software.
In addition to the survey items discussed thus far, one of the open ended questions asked participants to describe the kinds of difficulties experienced when using these tools. Participants were asked, "What features seem to be usable?" and "What features pose the most problems?" for this open ended item. There were significantly more responses that indicated inaccessible experiences than there were discussions of usable features. In a few instances, certain features were noted as being both problematic and usable depending on the respondent. The use of HTML content when written with proper structure was the only usable feature that was not also mentioned as a problematic feature.
This report highlights the problematic features in table format. Table 3 shows the problematic features of various online educational tools. Table 4 shows the problematic features of online educational tools organized by the type of assistive technology respondents reported that they used. The type of assistive technology respondents reported that they used was categorized as either screen reading software or screen magnification software.
|Table 3. Problematic Features of Online Educational Tools by Type of Online Educational Tool
|Real-time chat feature||Yes||Yes||No||Yes|
|Sighted assistance required||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Timed graded activities||Yes||No||No||Yes|
Note: "Yes" indicates the feature was problematic for that particular type of online educational tool. "No" indicates the feature was not problematic for that particular type of online educational tool.
The results in Table 3 showed that all of the online educational tools that respondents commented about presented problems with essential features such as assessments and assignments. The most commonly reported problems were access to real-time chat, e-mail, documents, assessments, assignments, and discussion boards included in online educational tools.
Blackboard, the most commonly used online educational tool involved in this survey, presented the most problematic features for those using screen reading or screen magnification software. Approximately 70% of respondents commented on Blackboard. Thus, there was more open ended discussion about Blackboard than any other online educational tool despite the slightly less negative accessibility ratings of Blackboard when compared with other online educational tools. It was the open ended items that enabled participants to give substantial examples of problematic features that supported their more mediocre accessibility ratings of Blackboard and less than mediocre accessibility ratings of many other online educational tools.
|Table 4. Problematic Features of Online Educational Tools by Type of Assistive Technology Used
|Real-time chat feature||Yes||Yes|
|Sighted assistance required||Yes||Yes|
|Timed graded activities||Yes||No|
Note: "Yes" indicates the feature was problematic for that particular type of assistive technology. "No" indicates the feature was not problematic for that particular type of assistive technology.
The results in Table 4 demonstrated that users of screen reading and screen magnification software both experienced many significant problems accessing important features of online educational tools. Those who used screen reading software, the most commonly used type of assistive technology tool involved in this survey, experienced slightly more problems than those using screen magnification software.
As mentioned, the survey did not ask for suggestions about how to best accommodate for many of the most problematic features that people who have vision loss experience with online educational tools. Several respondents provided this useful information anyhow. Many of these suggestions do not involve any drastic measures but instead rely on the proactive role of online learning designers or instructors.
Suggestions for how to deal with the most problematic features of online educational tools for people with vision loss are provided below.
- Respondents frequently noted that chat features and assessments that involved matching were not compatible with access software. Until this situation is remedied, online learning designers should plan courses so that students only use features that are truly accessible and, in doing so, do not use synchronous chat rooms or assessments that involve matching. Only asynchronous features should be used as well as assessments that do not involve matching.
- When timed assessments are not necessary, it is recommended that timed assessments are not implemented. When time assessments are necessary, instructors can provide students with vision loss extended time. One respondent who used screen magnification software to access an online educational tool explained that timed tests were difficult to use for a few reasons. The screen did not magnify very well. It took her a long time to find everything on the screen to read and choose from. By the time everything was read and answered, the time was severely lessened. When she was not being timed, the program was not as difficult to use because she could take her time.
- Online learning designers who use consistent designs, proper headings, fewer frames, contrasting colors, accessible graphics, as well as other formatting techniques can make problematic features of online education more accessible for students using assistive technology. A large part of how accessible various features are within online educational tools depends on how the instructor designs, organizes, and maintains the course. For example, students with vision loss reported that they were unable to access exam tools because of the inconsistent design of this feature within the same online course.
- Instructors should post all materials as Microsoft Word documents and PDF files. PDF files were often reported as problematic for accessibility with screen reading and screen magnification software. In these instances, students with vision loss were unable to access required readings in PDF file format and would have been able to access the required reading materials if they were posted in Microsoft Word documents.
- Instructors should ask students to share accessibility concerns so the instructors can attempt to remedy the concerns.
Some educational programs have hired consultants to try out any new features or versions to try to anticipate problems and solutions. This technique is highly recommended.
- Online systems have regular maintenance that should be limited in how often it occurs and the significance of the updates. Students with vision loss explained the difficulty they encountered when changes were made to the system.
- Several respondents advocated for better inclusion of assistive technology specialists when educational programs make decisions about online learning systems.
- Whenever possible, students with vision loss should frequently save their work in computer programs and documents that are independent of the online course. This is in an effort to back-up and retrieve work that students reported often gets lost when they would inadvertently be knocked out of exams or assignments. In other cases, students took this proactive role because work they submitted through the online educational tool was not received by the instructor due to technical problems submitting the work directly through the online educational tool system.
- It is often more feasible to e-mail instructors directly from regularly used e-mail providers rather than from within the e-mail feature of the online educational tools. Students with vision loss reported that they took a proactive role in this effort by acquiring their instructor's e-mail addresses at the onset of the course and advocating their need for this accommodation.
- Becoming very familiar with the shortcut keystrokes for certain online educational tools can be beneficial for students using access software.
- Students with vision loss should keep their access software as up-to-date as possible so that the latest updates are available to them.
Overall results demonstrated that nearly one third of respondents who use assistive technology to access online educational tools reported the experience as unreliable/inconsistent or no successful use/access. Open ended questions gave respondents the opportunity to share their personal stories. Data indicated that several of the most important features of online educational tools posed the most problems for those who used screen reading or screen magnification software. In nearly every instance, respondents indicated features that were inaccessible.
The ability of respondents to effectively use access technology was considered in this report. As mentioned, respondents included students who have used online educational tools, family members of such students, as well as teachers and university faculty who had substantial experience and expertise with such online tools. Consistent trends among participant responses were substantial enough to negate this otherwise potentially salient factor.
Even though the survey did not ask for suggestions about how to best accommodate for many of the most problematic features that people who have vision loss experience with online education, respondents provided suggestions. Those involved with online education are encouraged to adhere to the aforementioned suggestions and those who have the potential to develop the technical expertise to better the situation are urged to resolve many of the problematic features. It is noted that adhering to these suggestions can give students with vision loss a better chance for successful access with the usable features of online education until the problematic features are remedied by the necessary experts. It is also noted that adhering to these suggestions can give all students a notable better chance for successful online education experiences.
Efforts to remedy the situation should be grounded in bettering the problematic features that prevent full and equal access for people with vision loss. Respondents shared their personal stories through the open ended questions included in this survey. Inaccessible real-time chat features prevent students with vision loss from earning points required for class participation. Sighted parents must access online education materials for their high school children with vision loss. University students with vision loss are unable to complete posts-secondary degrees that involve the use of online educational tools due to accessibility barriers that are too substantial to overcome. These are unacceptable circumstances in this time of technological prominence when computers have the capacity to bridge the digital divide.
Prepared November 2008