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The Ontario Government's proposed distance learning policy

It is often said that it is the early bird that catches the worm, and in this case, I thought that I would go out there and try and catch the worm or maybe jump the gun in order to register my concerns.

A few days ago, a press release was issued from Queen's Park that stated that the Ontario Government was considering a distance learning policy for colleges and universities, mandating these institutions to include and increase the number of distance learning courses in their syllabuses. That is all well and good, and I for one would applaud this, but here is my huge concern: how is the Ontario Government planning to address the accessibility issue when it comes to those students who are blind, partially sighted, and deaf-blind? Or should I be asking if they have even considered this factor in their equation?

It is true that distance learning has become the way of life for millions of students the world over, but for blind, partially sighted, and deaf-blind students, it is not as cut and dry as you may think. Distance learning has made it possible for more students to obtain an education, but in the case of those mentioned above, it is still very much a challenge and, in so many cases, a heartbreaking nightmare. Why?  There are several factors that continue to present barriers, and I will give you some of them so that you can get the picture.

First, too many of those websites that are “home-to-distance learning courses” are not very accessible to a blind student. They are extremely difficult to navigate, and many of the videos that are used as part of course work do not have adequate descriptive video content.

Second, many of the forms on these websites are not very accessible or navigable—often leaving a blind student to either seek sighted assistance or give up in pure frustration. This comes about because fields are probably not appropriately tagged.

Third, and this is probably one of the biggest barriers for me, there is the fact that many professors and administrative staff are simply unaware of what makes things accessible. Accordingly, many students are often left to throw up their hands in frustration when they are unable to obtain their textbooks on time. This too often leads to a blind student being left to complete their course well after the time has expired for the duration of the course in question.

I know from first-hand experience that there are some recognized universities here in Toronto that openly promote accessibility, but alas, actual accessibility is not the case. These institutions continue to vacate their responsibilities to provide equal education for all, and it would shock you to learn the excuses which are proffered. I am not going to point my finger at any one of these offenders, but suffice it to say that one major university, when told that the student needed to write their exam in 2013 at their testing center, flatly refused to help, saying that they did not have the resources to provide the necessary facilities (access technology hardware and software). There is also a growing concern over some testing centers right here in Toronto refusing to provide facilities to enable blind students to write their exams.

So, my parting message to the Ontario government is this: Please do not leave us out. Like anyone else we too yearn to learn and take advantage of distance learning. Yours is a great proposed initiative, but we really need for you to take a very close look at how distance learning facilities are being provided to blind students in Ontario.

Disclaimer:

This blog is curated by the AEBC, but welcomes contributions from members and non-members alike. The thoughts, views, and opinions expressed in the Blind Canadians Blog are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the AEBC, its members, or any of its donors and partners.

Comments

This is a subject near and dear to my heart because I am a visually impaired person with a background in teaching who also happens to specialize in designing and teaching online/e.learning courses. I applaud the Ontario government on this intuitive. Online learning is becoming the way of the future.

The issue of Learning Management Systems being accessible is not a responsibility of the government but lies with the institutions. Learning Managements Systems (such as Blackboard) are actually accessible within the shell. The problem is the professors that design the courses simply do not have the technical know-how to make their material accessible. They lack the knowledge of how to alt-tag images, properly format headings etc. Usually, instructors are just given the parameters of an LMS shell with little to no direction on how to make it accessible for everyone. And really, these instructors are hired for their expertise in their subject matter, not for their technical-know-how. It is simply up to the institutions—whether it be their departments, IT or professors—to work with their disability service offices to ensure that the courses are designed with accessibility in mind.

I think you're right, Christine, that the institutions are responsible for implementation, but when you say "it is simply up to the institutions", I can't help but wonder: what if the institutions decide not to bother?

It seems like including some accessibility statements/requirements in a government policy on distance learning would be a good thing. Implementation should be left up to institutions, but it should not be their decision as to whether or not they make an effort to create accessible courses at all. And rather than a student having to file a complaint of some kind when she comes up against an inaccessible course, a policy that promotes/requires accessibility from the outset seems more proactive to me.

Policy is a wonderful thing, when it can be implemented. The problem is every institution uses different Learning Management Systems. This also gets more complicated when you consider public vs. private. Private institutions do not have to abide by disability policy--especially when they are a satellite campus of a US school.

The solution then again is for the institutions to handle this problem. The solution really goes deeper than accessibility. The root of the problem is, institutions are not hiring an IT person that specializes in the online courses to ensure consistency from course to course and accessibility. It is an unfair expectation from the institutions to expect instructors to be tech savvy on top of being subject matter experts in their teachable field and they are the ones putting the course content on the LMS that may be inaccessible. It's not because they are trying to make it harder for visually impaired students, they just simply lack the skills and knowledge to do otherwise.

What it ultimately comes down to--it makes little difference whether it's written into a law or whether it's written into an institution's policies, it's not going to change the fact that there are going to be inaccessible courses. And ultimately, it is up to the institution to solve that problem with, hopefully, the help of the disability office and proactive students.

It sounds like you're saying laws like the ADA and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in the US make no real difference because it's ultimately up to the institutions, the disability offices, and the students. If that's what you're saying, then we simply disagree on that. When a university in the states tried to introduce the Amazon Kindle to replace textbooks, the school was successfully sued under Section 508. Amazon then took steps to make the Kindle more accessible. Similar law suits have happened because a university tried to introduce Google Apps, and now Google is working much harder to make its suite of apps accessible. I'm not sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if it happened in the past with Blackboard. And even if it did not, it could and would have if they did not take steps to be more accessible. If Blackboard were not accessible, any university in the states that used that LMS would be risking a law suit.

If we had a policy that said no university/college could, on punishment of law suit, offer a distance learning course without taking reasonable steps to ensure the course is accessible, I guarantee all the courses offered would become accessible very quickly, and it wouldn't be the responsibility of the students and disability offices to make that happen.

I do believe that private institutions, even satellite campuses of US institutions, are required to act in accordance with Canadian law if they are going to operate in Canada. If you have evidence that suggests they do not need to obey Canadian laws, I would be very interested.

The fact is these distance learning courses should not be offered without taking steps to make them accessible. It would be wrong to offer a course that aboriginals or gay people are not allowed to take, an it is similarly wrong in the case of accessibility. Whether the exclusion is intentional or not doesn't really change that. It would be worse if professors were intentionally excluding, but it's no excuse to say they didn't mean to exclude aboriginals.

When you see some of the good that the legal protections have done in the states, I just find it puzzling that anyone who wants education to be accessible wouldn't support similar protections being adopted in Ontario.

Anthony: Your question is at the heart of the matter - do we address the provincial government creating the policy or do we address the individual institutions affected by the policy and who are not accessible?
Cindy

One of the things that is sorely lacking in higher education is an unerstanding, at the procurement stage, of the need for accessibility. What needs to happen is that accessibility considerations must be added to the criteria used to evaluate any product that an institution is contemplating purchasing and implementing, whether for staff or students. Only then can there be any hope whatsoever that new deployments will stand some chance of being reasonably usable by everyone in the community.

I wonder, in this instance, where it is that we need to focus our efforts? Is it at the government level, which is apparently coming up with this new policy, or is it at the level of individual universities which will be tasked (probably in some very vague and general way) with turning that policy into reality?

I have had similar experiences but shouldn't these problems be addressed by the A.O.D.A.?

ZZ - Disregard this link; it is used to trick spammers.