Equal Access [to Digital Education] for All!
When looking at the prompt for this week’s EDTC6104 question, I was struck by a seeming discrepancy in the text of the question for the prompt and that of the coaching standard itself (ISTE coaching standard 3, indicator F). The standard/indicator calls for digital education leaders to “collaborate with teachers and administrators to select and evaluate digital tools and resources that enhance teaching and learning and are compatible with the school technology infrastructure” (ISTE 2011) whereas the prompt question for this module asks, “How do we evaluate, select and manage digital tools for teachers and students and resources that meet accessibility guidelines and fit within our institution’s technology infrastructure?” (emphasis added). While some of the wording may be slightly different, it is the addition of the clause “accessibility guidelines” that caught my attention and caused me to ask my own questions regarding this standard. Namely, what does this clause mean? Why was it added? What are some examples of these kinds of guidelines? And, what are my institution’s accessibility guidelines regarding technology?
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are approximately 6.5 million students ages 3-21 with disabilities that attend schools in the US. That’s 13% of the entire school population. And of that 13%, 35% have specific learning disabilities (NCES 2017). Technology has the potential to substantially help these millions of students, but only if it is done right.
Seale, Georgeson, Mamas, and Swain’s 2014 study, “Not the Right Kind of ‘Digital Capital'” outlines that technology alone is not the answer (2014). Their study focuses on the difficulties incorrect technology presents to disabled students in higher education. This study indicates that it’s not enough for people with disabilities to merely have access to technology, but that the technology must meet their specific needs. Students with specific learning disabilities benefit when technology matches their needs. Hall, Cohen, Vue, and Ganley’s 2015 report, “Addressing Learning Disabilities with UDL and Technology: Strategic Reader” (2015) shows what can happen when a more pedagogically holistic approach is applied to digital education for students with learning disabilities. Their study looks at how a technology-based system based on the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) matched with Curriculum Based Measurement (CBM) led to improved engagement and scores with the Strategic Reader program. Granted, this was paired against a non-digital classroom format, but the concepts found in the UDL go beyond merely being digital.
So how is the technology done right? Schools and other institutions are learning to establish and implement the aforementioned “accessibility guidelines” in an effort to make digital education meaningful to ALL students.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975 requires a “free and appropriate public school education for eligible children and youth ages 3–21.” Even more broadly, “title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that businesses and nonprofit services providers make accessibility accommodations to enable the disabled public to access the same services as clients who are not disabled. This includes electronic media and web sites” according to my primary artifact for this entry, TechRepublic’s guide on “Creating an ADA-compliant Website.” (Nash 2012). In this 2012 piece, written by Nicole Nash, provides a checklist from the Department of Health and Human Services to see if your website is accessible to people with disabilities:
- Every image, video file, audio file, plug-in, etc. has an alt tag
- Complex graphics are accompanied by detailed text descriptions
- The alt descriptions describe the purpose of the objects
- If an image is also used as a link, make sure the alt tag describes the graphic and the link destination
- Decorative graphics with no other function have empty alt descriptions (alt= “”)
- Add captions to videos
- Add audio descriptions
- Create text transcript
- Create a link to the video rather than embedding it into web pages
- Add a link to the media player download
- Add an additional link to the text transcript
- The page should provide alternative links to the Image Map
- The <area> tags must contain an alt attribute
- Data tables have the column and row headers appropriately identified (using the <th> tag)
- Tables used strictly for layout purposes do NOT have header rows or columns
- Table cells are associated with the appropriate headers (e.g. with the id, headers, scope and/or axis HTML attributes)
- Make sure the page does not contain repeatedly flashing images
- Check to make sure the page does not contain a strobe effect
- A link is provided to a disability-accessible page where the plug-in can be downloaded
- All Java applets, scripts and plug-ins (including Acrobat PDF files and PowerPoint files, etc.) and the content within them are accessible to assistive technologies, or else an alternative means of accessing equivalent content is provided
- When form controls are text input fields use the LABEL element
- When text is not available use the title attribute
- Include any special instructions within field labels
- Make sure that form fields are in a logical tab order
- Include a ‘Skip Navigation’ button to help those using text readers
Many of these recommendations are also mirrored in the government’s ADA Best Practices Tool Kit for State and Local Governments, as well as in the ISTE’s own article, “5 pro tips to make digital learning accessible to all students,” which includes the following list (ISTE Connects, 2017):
- Write alt text for your images.
- Caption your videos.
- Transcribe your podcasts.
- Structure your website for ADA compliance.
- Use the right tools.
As we can see, there are many similarities designed to make the material more accessible to more people – especially with regard to issues related to vision, reading, and organization. Nash also includes recommendations for procedures and tools to assist in meeting these suggestions. These are all good guidelines and they are a good place to start. But these guidelines are not really about education and their focus reflects that. As such, they primarily address disabilities not related to learning learning disabled students – the 35% of the 13% mentioned earlier. What about their access?
The School – Helping Students with Learning Disabilities
When examining this part of the question, I found two resources that help in different ways. The first is in practical application. Here, once again, I turn to the ISTE and Luis Perez and Kendra Grant’s 2015 article, “25 Tools for Diverse Learners.” In this overview, Perez and Grant break the tools into three categories to help learners with different learning styles (Perez and Grant 2015):
- Tools for engagement and the affective network (collaboration)
- Tools for representation and the recognition network (reading)
- Tools for action, expression and the strategic network (writing)
The tools are practical and well-organized. They include explanations of how to use them and what kinds of students would benefit most. Perez and Grant are trying to help teachers where they need it most: in the day-to-day activities in their classrooms. They also take up the slack where the government guidelines fall short by specifically addressing learning disabilities.
Perez and Grant’s categories are also taken directly from the second source I looked at with regards to this category, the National Center for Universal Design for Learning’s UDL Guidelines. These guidelines fall into the “Why” of learning (Engagement), the “What” of learning (Representation) and the “How” of learning (Action & Expression). These three basic categories establish a solid philosophical and pedagogical foundation for education in general and, as we have seen with the Perez and Grant article, can be specifically applied to digital education. This whole-brain approach addresses many of the issues related to students with learning disabilities, and, as already demonstrated in the Hall, Cohen, Vue, and Ganley’s study, can be paired with specific technology tools to achieve better engagement and end-results.
As I see it, when it comes to accessibility guidelines and education, there’s the law and then there’s teaching. First, we must comply with the law. As it stands right now, guidelines exist for websites and I’m not sure how compliant most schools’ websites are with this. I believe there is work to be done here. It also creates more questions. How are federal ADA guidelines being applied in other tech components in the school? The website surely isn’t the only place students are interacting with the technology in the school. What about the LMS or LCMS? What responsibility do third-party developers or the schools themselves bear with regard to making sure that information is accessible and in compliance? I suspect this will be a big issue going forward. And then there’s the issue specifically with regard to learning disabilities. How is technology being used to address issues of access here? What are the legal ramifications of this under the ADA?
As usual, my question has ended up with me asking more questions, but I have a firmer grasp on the nature of “accessibility guidelines.” Right now, this is not a formal indicator in the ISTE standards, but maybe it should be. Perhaps that is the next question.