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Online Learning for All

May 14th, 2020

By Preeti Vasishtha

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Kristie Orr, president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability, discusses how campuses can ensure equal online learning opportunities for students with disabilities.

As higher education institutions moved their classes online in spring, faculty members had to quickly figure out how best to provide accommodations to students with disabilities.

According to Department of Education’s December 2017 report, “Characteristics and Outcomes of Undergraduates With Disabilities,” 11 percent of 2011–12 undergraduates reported having a disability. In the 2013–14 school year, 13 percent of public school students between ages 3 and 21—approximately 6.5 million individuals—received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975 (IDEA). Among 14- to 21-year-olds who received special education services and who left school in 2012–13, some 65 percent graduated with a high school diploma. Data from 2009 indicate that among students who received special education services and had been out of high school for up to 8 years, 59 percent had enrolled in postsecondary education.

In an interview with Business Officer magazine, Kristie Orr discusses how campuses can ensure equal online learning opportunities for students with disabilities. Orr is president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) and director, disability resources, division of student affairs, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.

Now that learning has moved online at campuses and that still may be the case in fall, what are your concerns for students with disabilities?

There’s a learning curve for both students and faculty. After the initial push of moving classes online, faculty members have been trying to determine how to best deliver their course materials online. Many faculty members don’t have expertise in creating accessible online classes. They understand traditional classroom accommodations such as providing students with a notetaker or extra time on tests, but they don’t know how that translates in an online environment.

In addition, some students don’t know what they’ll need in an online environment. For instance, a student who is hard of hearing may have chosen to sit at the front of the lecture hall and not required accommodations. But now that he or she is in an online environment, it may be that the student does need certain accommodations because of the way the course is being delivered.

The disability resources offices on campuses have tried to provide as much information to both faculty and students with disabilities to figure out what they will need to do in the online environment. There’s been a learning curve for disability resources officers as well. They have had to learn how to move all classes to an online environment, which is different from helping faculty members who are choosing to teach online classes.

Many institutions have provided on their websites information to students with disabilities on accessing and managing classes online. How can an institution keep track that the students are actively accessing that information?

That’s hard to know, although there must be some way to do analytics.

At Texas A&M, we reached out to students early on during spring break to let them know what was happening, to encourage them to connect with their faculty members, and to think about the fact that they’re going to be learning in this new environment.

A week after the transition to online learning, we contacted the students again and reminded them that we are there for them if they need any help.

One of the hardest things for students and faculty members is that there’s so much information out there that it can be overwhelming. On social media, you’re inundated with information on how to take care of yourself. And if, on top of that, you are a student with a disability, it is a lot to absorb and figure out.

We need to find ways to provide just enough information and keep that information succinct and easy to read so that students can actually follow the guidance and benefit from it.

What advice do you have for faculty members to make sure that they provide equal learning opportunities to students with disabilities?

This is a great opportunity for faculty to take the time to plan and think of ways to build accessibility into classes as we continue with online learning in summer and possibly fall.

At Texas A&M, we have always encouraged faculty to use—even before the pandemic—universal design in their classes. And that means just thinking about the fact that there are students with different needs—some of them with disabilities and some related to socioeconomic status.

A good example of employing universal design is to include captions in videos. If you use captions in all your videos to begin with, then you don’t have to wait to receive a letter or an email saying that you’re going to have in your class a student who needs captions and then scramble to figure out how to make that work. This also helps other students as well. Some students are visual learners and read the captions while they listen. Some faculty members have an accent, making it harder for students to understand them. Some topics are technical and it is hard for students to understand certain terms and phrases. Having correct captions helps everyone in the class. This is an example of faculty members just thinking ahead and making their classes accessible from the get go instead of having to go back and figure out accommodations for a student with a disability.

Online classes can be designed well for students with disabilities. It’s a matter of thinking through and using this time as a learning opportunity to understand what isn’t going well and making improvements for providing better services in summer and fall.

How can the business office help ensure that students with disabilities can receive the best services online?

It’s important for the business office to know that it’s very hard to know what the expenses are going to be as they relate to providing online accommodations to students and making sure that courses are accessible to them.

One of the biggest expenses for most campuses is sign language interpretation and transcription. While there’s no in-person sign language interpreting going on, some students may have interpreters in their online classes or they may be using transcription when they were using interpreting before.

We’re exchanging some expenses for others. For instance, we’re not paying for travel time for interpreters, but there may be some other expenses that are taking that place.

We require an understanding and flexibility from the business office because we don’t have much control over accommodation expenses. This is usually the case, but even more so in this online environment.

In some areas, our expenses are going down. The physical testing center in our office is currently closed and expenses related to that have decreased. We can’t use the expenses this year to project the budget for the next year because we know that once the center opens, our expenses are going to go up again.

PREETI VASISHTHA is editor in chief, Business Officer magazine.

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