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How One University Tackles Accessibility in MOOCs

Written by Laurie Pickard
5 minute read
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As MOOCs move from an experimental technology to a more standard learning resource, course developers and MOOC platforms alike are spending more time thinking about how to make MOOCs accessible. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, colleges and universities are required to make their offerings accessible to people with disabilities. This includes MOOCs, as the University of California, Berkeley learned painfully in 2016 when the U.S. Justice Department issued an order that it revise its courses on edX.

Still, designing accessible online courses is no easy feat, especially when you take into account the wide range of accommodations that might be necessary for learners in a course whose enrollments may number in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. Consider a standard MOOC, which relies on video, audio, text, and graphics to deliver content.  A multitude of technological and design considerations are required to make such content accessible to an audience that may include members with visual or auditory impairments, learning disabilities, or conditions such as PTSD or epilepsy. Creating an accessible course that meets the needs of these learners (and others) can encompass everything from page design to keyboard navigation to closed captioning to allowing extra time on assignments.

At the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the digital media for eLearning team has stepped up to the challenge of creating accessible content. The team is working to roll out a “master transcript” to accompany all the MOOCs from Geis Business available on Coursera. These include all the courses that make up the iMBA and the new iMSA. According to the director of the digital media for eLearning team, John Tubbs, making online content accessible is not only the law of the land, it’s also good business. “The iMBA and iMSA programs are planned with accessibility as part of the budget, rather than a bolt-on afterthought,” he says. “Our online programs try to differentiate themselves from the other programs out there. We also see accessibility and universally designed content as a competitive advantage in the crowded online degree program market.”

To make the course content accessible, the team, that also included instructional designer Jinhee Choo and disability specialist Juliana Garcia Jaramillo, started by proactively creating universal and usable MOOC content. This was a departure from the usual reactionary focus on an individual with a disability in a “traditional” on-campus course. A standard strategy for making web pages accessible to people with visual or physical impairments is to use the “Tab” key to move among various elements on the page. However, in a course platform like Coursera, each page has a lot going on, making it difficult or confusing for a visually or physically impaired person to navigate the page using only the keyboard. Furthermore, the Coursera video player doesn’t support standard Audio Description (AD), Extended Audio or text descriptions of critical non-verbal information.

The solution the digital media for eLearning team came up with was to create an extended transcript to accompany every learning module. With such a transcript, a visually impaired person could, through assistive technology, experience virtually every aspect of the video-based content of the course, with effective tabbed navigation. The video player experience is handled by a link to the AutomaticSync SmartPlayer that provides captions, extended audio, and text description that are presented during automatic pauses, and a scrolling transcript window that can be read by a screen reader with or without the text descriptions.

As Tubbs acknowledges, the preferred accommodations that work for an individual student won’t necessarily meet the equal access to content requirements for all students. “In the MOOC world, the instructors, course designers, and media producers have no idea what all the accommodation needs are for audiences of that size,” he says. “It’s safe to say that in the Illinois MOOCs we have 50,000-plus people with some sort of disability, and we most likely will never know who they are. We need to build content for ‘a group of unknown learners that we call ‘Accommodations Anonymous.’”

So, the digital media for eLearning team worked to design the extended transcript to be accessible not only to visually impaired people but to learners with different kinds of disabilities. The process starts with the course videos, since video makes up the bulk of instruction in most MOOCs. The transcript is divided into “scenes”, each of which corresponds to a small segment of a video. For each scene, the transcript includes text from any slides, descriptions of locations or images, citation information, and words that are spoken during the video. Business courses like the ones the team is striving to make accessible often contain a lot of visual content –  particularly charts, tables, and graphs. “Creating descriptive text for images and graphics is not easy,” Tubbs says. “This is one of the artistic aspects of making accessible content.”

The extended transcript is made available as a resource to accompany each course module and delivered in a ZIP file that holds written transcripts, documents, and images. Additional resources such as cases, articles, readings, and accompanying documents such spreadsheets are also included, along with text descriptions where appropriate. The final result, according to Tubbs, is “a very complete experience for most accommodations.” Yet, learners who don’t require any accommodations may not even be aware that they are in an accessible course.

The first courses on Coursera to feature the extended transcript will be those in the Illinois’ Strategic Leadership and Management Specialization from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Gies College of Business on Coursera. The extended transcript will be made available in the Resources area of each course.