At the U of Montana, OCR complaint viewed as a 'positive'
Moodle a willing partner in reaching online accessibility
A student can't get a degree without successfully interacting with online technology. Learning management systems give students access to course content but before that, students use online systems to apply to schools, register for classes, pay tuition, check their grades, and order transcripts.
By law, every system must be accessible to people with disabilities. And just as universal design standardized accessibility throughout the country, universal design principles for electronic environments have opened up online access to people who can't see or hear.
At the University of Montana, a complaint to the Office of Civil Rights was viewed as a bit of a blessing to people who had been working to improve accessibility within the school's learning management system.
"We viewed the complaint as a really positive way for us to get traction and really move forward with accessibility," said Marlene Zentz, senior instructional designer and accessibility specialist at the university.
Zentz and others in the IT department, disability services and UM Online say they all had been focused on accessibility before the 2012 complaint alleged the university was discriminating against students with disabilities by using inaccessible content in its learning management system from Moodle. The range of inaccessible content addressed by a resolution agreement included class assignments and materials as well as live chat and discussion board functions in Moodlerooms. It also pointed to scanned images on university webpages, uncaptioned videos, library database materials, course registration processes, and classroom clickers that were not accessible for students with disabilities.
As it turns out, the complaint led to improvements and Moodlerooms proved a ready and willing partner to confront the challenge.
"We've presented with them at conferences and it's been really great to hear them speak about how accessibility at first was kind of a daunting task to take on and now they've just built it into their workflow," Zentz said.
Moodlerooms developed an advanced forum with a single view that met the needs of all students and was tested by University of Montana student accessibility specialist Aaron Page, who is blind. Page has also conducted trainings with Zentz to teach faculty how to use the learning management system in accessible ways and how to upload accessible content.
Page uses a screen reader for web-based resources and can show faculty how limiting their content can be. Even those who conduct in-person classes have increased their use of online supplements. Both Page and Zentz encourage that.
Blackboard Learn and Blackboard Collaborate underwent redesigns in late 2008 that incorporated more accessibility features, including a function that prompts faculty to think about accessible design. Blackboard Accessibility Manager Joanna Hunt said many teachers do not realize they should be doing things like typing in alternative text on images or uploading transcriptions for video files.
More recently, Blackboard's browser-based web conferencing tool got another upgrade, making its accessibility options even better and framing them in a more elegant interface Zentz is anxious to roll out next semester at the University of Montana. Hunt said one future upgrade could be integrated support for sign language interpretation.
Besides Montana, Hunt said the University of Cincinnati, Boise State, Syracuse University, the University of Illinois and the entire California State University system have consistently been leaders in making accessibility central to their online operations.
One lesson learned from the University of Montana's process has been the importance of campus leadership embracing accessibility. Sure, it's the law so any institution accepting federal funding is at risk of an OCR complaint if it doesn't ensure access. But Zentz said it's a major commitment, too.
"It's not like a campus achieves accessibility and then they're there," Zentz said. "It's always a state of becoming because there's always new technologies and new challenges."
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