Opening Up Access to Online Learning
A month ago The University of Rhode Island decided to put all learning online due to the COVID19 Pandemic. But placing learning resources online vs them being accessible to students are not the same thing.
Inclusion of All
When we speak of learning content online being accessible most people think of ADA compliance. And yes, that matters. But access to education is about far more than that.
Access to education is about providing online learning resources that attend to inclusion of all learners, and that pertains to disabilities, learning challenges, second language learners, learners in disadvantaged environments, and more.
When our department encourages faculty to add closed captions to videos it isn't just for the hard of hearing - it is also for students for whom learning comes easier from reading, or for those whom the primary spoken language in the video is a second language. I lived abroad for a decade (France and then the UAE). I had to contend with being the person in the room that didn't' understand the language or accents being spoken, and struggling to comprehend what was being said. Second language learners in the USA face the same challenges to understanding their instructors' lectures. Closed captions opens their access to understanding the content of video content. Transcripts do the same.
Many course designers also do not think about the disadvantaged situations some students used to content with, and now even more so are contending with at home due to the pandemic. Entire families are stuck in the house, all using the same Internet access. So sister is in the next room watching Netflix, and brother is in the family room playing a video game, and mom is on her iPad (all iPads are major bandwidth drainers!) playing Words with Friends, and now Susie just wants to access her course learning materials from her online class and she cannot because they are super large files sizes that she can't download on her slower home Internet that is being used up by the rest of the family.
When we consider access to online learning, we have to consider many factors when designing a course:
Where will the course participants be learning from?
Is there even Internet available to them?
Will they be using mobile Internet access instead of home Internet to access learning?
Will some need to go to public access points to get online?
What is the Internet quality like where the participant lives?
Will participants need offline access to materials?
What tools and technology do participants have at home to access learning?
Do they have the right software versions to access the course learning files?
What skills or pre-training will participants need to access the learning materials or submit online learning deliverables?
For example, while I worked in the Middle East I was the lead instructional designer on a project to design courses for an online MBA program. In my pre-project analysis of contextual needs I learned that many of the female program participants lived in homes where their fathers forbade them from being on the Internet. Therefore the only place they could access their learning materials was while on the women's campus. So we have to design the courses such that the learning materials were smaller compressed file sizes that could be easily download onto school-assigned iPads while on camps for the students to take home for offline study.
At URI we have been providing extensive training to all the faculty teaching online for the first time - and a large portion of that is helping them understand the access challenges many of their students now face at home. We provide training on how to compress files and resize (PDF, Powerpoint, etc), how to compress and stream videos, and how to resize photos (as just a few examples).
Considering access to learning materials for all students, and from multiple angles and for multiple reasons, helps ensure that all learning is available to those who need it, when they need it, where they need it.
That is ultimately the entire reason online learning even exists.