Monday, June 24, 2013

Accessibility And Online Learning Materials: The Moral Conundrum, The Law, And The Likelihood - My Take

Instructors don't get to choose their students.  It's the students who choose, by registering for the particular course or not.  The expectation is that the instructor will teach all who enroll.

I sometimes wish the counter factual held.  My requirements for students would mainly be that they bring strong personal commitment to doing the work for the course and that they have something on the ball ahead of time which allows them to contribute to the class via their participation.  I don't want to get hung up here on how to identify whether students have those attributes or not.  I simply want to note here that when on occasion I've felt frustrated with a student over the last several years, invariably one or both of these attributes have been lacking.   So I think it reasonable for an instructor to expect (request) this from all students even if rational expectations (based on recent prior experience) suggests it is unrealistic. 

One might ask whether it is fair to add additional criteria.  I will pose that question here with a specific example, unrelated to the accessibility issue, so the reader can get a sense of the ethical dimension of the question without needing to consider legal ramifications.  A possible additional criterion is that the students can read, write, and speak English reasonably well.

As is well known, campuses such as mine at Illinois have witnessed a large increase in enrollment of Asian students, particularly from China and also South Korea.  Many of them pay full out of state tuition.  Their presence thereby helps to ensure the financial viability of the enterprise.  However, a good fraction of them have limited English skills at the time they begin their studies.  Indeed, one big reason for coming to the U.S. to study is for them to improve in this dimension. 

In my class, I encourage discussion in the live session via Socratic dialogue and I have the students do weekly writing assignments out-of-class via blogging.  I know that some students are intimidated by this approach and particularly those students who are not confident of their English are apt to drop the course during the first ten days, once they find out what is expected of them.

On the flip side, some of the students who have completed the course appreciate both the class discussion and the blogging.  Moreover, my general teaching philosophy is informed by a view that the learner can learn only if she can give voice to her formative thinking.  I do try to provide more than one venue for doing so.   So I can't see me abandoning my approach because some students will find it off putting up front.  But I can imagine some higher up telling me to change my teaching so more international students are willing to take my course, i.e., they want at the subject matter in a way that is accessible to them and since they are paying dearly in tuition we should satisfy their demands.

There is a tension between asking students to give voice to their early thinking and teaching students whose English is limited.  I believe a similar such tension exists in thinking about the accessibility issues, as I will try to explain below.

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There seems to be a general lack of leadership these days.  Problems get swept under the rug rather than be dealt with squarely because there are too many competing imperatives and nobody wants to step up and say which ones can be ignored for now so progress can be made on the others.

I'm not talking about accessibility here.  I'm talking about managing campus personnel.  I don't chat with folks on campus nearly as often as I used to.  But in the limited number of communications I still have, what is becoming apparent is that being overwhelmed by work is the new normal.   This is for folks who work in learning technology or in information technology more broadly.

The issue could have been anticipated.  Indeed in my penultimate column for Educause Quarterly from a few years ago, I did just that arguing that with fewer staff on board some of the service offerings should be shut down.  But doing the analysis is easy.  Implementing is very hard.  When we don't implement we instead get staff who are overwhelmed as the consequence, though that surely will prove myopic before too long, if it hasn't done so already. 

I know much less about how instructors have been impacted.  The above mentioned rise in the number of international students who are weak in English perhaps gives the tip of the iceberg.  I will guess at other changes where I don't have the detailed information at my fingertips.  One is the rise in the number of transfer students, particularly from Community Colleges.  I know there have been issues that although their credits articulate their actual prior coursework is not on a par with what they'd have gotten had they attended the U of I instead.  A different change might be with the volume of TA support.  Departments may have reduced this in an effort to save money.  Still another change, sections may have been consolidated and low enrollment courses entirely dropped, again as a cost saving.  How much of this has happened I really can't say.  My guess would be --- life is tough all over.

* * * * *

Let me turn to accessibility and give a non-technical view based on my own teaching experience.  There were two different episodes of rather intensive effort in the aim of accessibility.  In 1999 or so, I put all my PowerPoint lectures online.  There were many graphs (that's the the way I teach intermediate microeconomics).  I provided long text descriptions of the graphs in the Notes area.  My rationale for doing this at the time was that many students had difficulty reading the graphs.  So potential benefit might be broad, well beyond the benefit from serving visually impaired students.  Whether in fact the effort provides such benefit I do not know.  (Many of the students disliked the course - it is the analog for business students that organic chemistry provides for pre-med students.  Given that, it was hard to parse out the incremental benefit of this one tiny component.) 

After I retired I again taught intermediate micro for one semester - spring 2011.  I made simulations in Excel (this time the graphs were animated numerically).  Then I made screen capture movies of manipulating those graphs and provided voice over to annotate that, the end result a micro-lecture.  I produced transcripts of the audio and with that captioned the video.  YouTube has a nice tool for putting in the timings into the caption text given a transcript file.  As in the prior episode, I did this because I thought it would be broadly beneficial.  There is technical content here and seeing the economic jargon displayed on the screen as I say it has benefit for the student, in my view.  There is also that the captions can be translated into other languages, possibly a benefit for those who don't know English well.  The Analytics tool for YouTube creators does not track use of captions, so it is hard to know whether this benefit has been realized or not.

Each time I was also influenced by other considerations.  I wanted to know how onerous it was to do this on your own.  The Disability support services folks were pushing hard for these sort of accommodations.  I wanted to  understand via my own use how much I should advocate on their behalf and how much I should push back at them because what they wanted all of us instructors to do is not really reasonable.  My tentative conclusion on this score follows.

Accessibility can be regarded in at least two different ways.  The first is "getting at" the materials.  The second is producing a good understanding in the student based on the materials that have been accessed.  If you solve the first way but not the second, what have you really accomplished?  The first way is achieved via production of a text equivalent for the multimedia material.  Does the second way get resolved as a consequence?  I am much more likely to do the requisite work for making the content accessible if the answer to that question is yes.

Alas, for the "math track" of my current course on the economics of organizations, I have been much less successful in providing good understanding among the students.  (See this recent post.)  The issue has vexed me.  I'm aiming to try some new things.   In my way of thinking those experiments are primary.  Disability access of the experimental materials is secondary or even tertiary.  I'd want to know they are otherwise effective first.  I'd also want to know that I will continue to teach this course and there will be a hefty demand for it.  To date enrollments have been fairly low.  I can't see the Econ department continuing to offer it unless enrollments increase.

There is also that I have more affinity for hard of hearing students than I do for visually impaired students, because of my own experiences.  I know it is not exactly the same, but captioned micro-lectures are similar to foreign films with subtitles.  I've watched quite a lot of the latter and have some sense from that on both the strength and limits of captioning.  But I've never tried to understand an econ graph based purely on text description without drawing the graph myself or seeing a fully produced graph made by somebody else.  Indeed, if you go to this particular video on The Effect of a Tax, and read the student comments there, then it should be apparent that for those students they are getting an understanding from the visual demonstration provided in that video that they were not able to get from other sources - the textbooks they are using and the classes they are taking.  There is no guarantee that content will produce understanding.

I am aware that there are world class mathematicians who are blind.  So it is certainly possible that such materials might produce the desired understanding.  But if I had a blind student who was intellectually on a par with the other students in my class, would the text materials alone produce such an understanding?  I doubt it.  Put a different way, even if I made all my content so every student could get at it, regardless of any impairment they might have, they might still not learn the subject matter because it is too hard for them.  An ideal is that this should be their call, not mine.  That ideal abstracts from the effort it would take to produce such content. 

I never have had a blind student but in that 2011 spring course one of the students was color blind and we discussed my videos a bit.  He happened to be a very easy going guy and was actually one of the brightest kids in the class, so he did fine.  I did learn from this conversation that color shouldn't be the only differentiator of one curve from another.  (So vary thickness of the curves or have one be dashed or provide some other distinguishing features.)   I've taken this as a design goal in subsequent things I've produced.

Accessibility is but one imperative that instructors making online content operate under.  Copyright is another and student privacy yet a third.  Early on when I was an ed tech administrator, I tended to be a strict constuctionist on these matters and therefore was quite conservative in my approach.  I now think that is way too restrictive.  So on copyright, for example, I will take images posted on the Internet and paste into my PowerPoint, giving attribution via a backlink, unless there is a warning on the original site about not reproducing the materials, in which case I will respect the warning.  I have also used entire songs to provide musical accompaniment to these presentations.  The former may be fair use.  Is the latter?  Probably not.  But the distribution of this stuff is not broad, so who really cares?

My point is that I come to my own sense of the social good and social harm from the practice itself.  I go by that.  I'm not big on following rules blindly.  And as a general matter, I believe the type of tinkering I do in instruction should be encouraged broadly, because average quality of the course will improve as a consequence. 

But such encouragement doesn't appear to be what we are getting.  Instead we are getting mandates which stem from exposure to liability - disabled students might sue the university for violation of ADA or analogous state level laws.  Mandates are a top down approach that typically give a lip service solution to the problem because the real resources needed to address the problem haven't been provided and the people at the bottom really haven't been enlisted to help on this score.  Witness our ethics training, where a good deal of effort is put into assuring that each staff member has done the training, but essentially nothing is done to track whether the training has had a salient impact on staff behavior and where word of mouth communication suggests that many staff hold the entire process in contempt.

Further the liability risk is typically considered in isolation, apart from other competing risks.  So campus legal will argue for a strict construction approach, because all they see is the liability risk.  They entirely ignore possible chilling effects on creative efforts to improve instruction.   We therefore get requirements but no education on what sensible compromise looks like on the matter.  Alas, this tends to encourage us to ignore the mandates further.  The university is full of very intelligent people.  They don't appreciate being treated like children, but that seems to be what we are getting.

Let me wrap up.  I for one think universal design a noble aspiration and a goal worth pursuing.   But I also try to be a realist about what is feasible to accomplish and with that I think it important to retain the goodwill of instructors who try earnestly, even if they come up a bit short.  I'm not sure how one reconciles these tensions.  My purpose in this post wasn't to do that.  It was simply to draw out a bit that these tensions exist and give some shape to what they look like.

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