student online course

Accessibility Shouldn’t Limit Public Online Courses

Recently UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Education Cathy Koshland issued a statement on the accessibility of the university’s public online courses. The Department of Justice has concluded that the courses are not fully compliant with Title II of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). Title II of the ADA requires full and equal access to public accommodations for individuals who are deaf, blind or who have physical disabilities. For public video, this means providing closed captioning, visual descriptions, and a platform that allows those with dexterity disabilities to access the videos equally.

In the statement Koshland asserted that the expense of making these courses accessible may outweigh the university’s resources, and that the University may need to reduce its public course offerings in the future as a result.

A 2015 settlement the DOJ reached with edX, a nonprofit platform from MIT and Harvard offering massive open online courses (MOOCs), outlined the requirements to make the platform compliant. Over a four year period edX will make all the necessary changes, including bringing their platform up to accessibility standards within 18 months.

Accessibility is a rapidly evolving field, but the number of tools and trained experts available to help guide the creation of accessible digital content has also grown dramatically in recent years.  When the right resources are available educators should no longer be discouraged from providing public educational content. With accessible technology coordinators who understand the requirements, educational institutions wishing to offer online courses should be able to put together solutions at a reasonable cost. Discounts are often offered to nonprofit educational entities for closed captioning and other web services needed to reach the requirements.

Catching up to accessibility standards with an existing platform is not an impossible task, but it is important that accessibility be a core part of the initial planning process instead of a later add-on feature. U.S. Attorney Ortiz articulates this point in the edX settlement press release, “This new, educational online world readily can, and should be, built from the outset in a way that does not discriminate against those with disabilities.”

We encourage Universities to not cut back on their public course offerings. MOOCs let people from all over the world access educational content that they would not otherwise have available. With the right steps taken early in the process, including accessibility features like captioning and audio description should be an straightforward, affordable and integral part of the workflow.

Examples of Accessible Online Courses (MOOCs)


1 Comment

  1. Update: UC Berkeley decided last week to take down the inaccessible publicly available lecture content cited in the ADA complaint described above, rather than improve the content to make it compliant with ADA guidelines. They offered two new reasons for their decision, in addition to the cost argument that they put forth last September: a) much of the video and audio content is “legacy content,” and as such is not used very often any longer, and b) by putting the lectures in a password-protected site they can better protect the intellectual property of the instructors.

    See U.C. Berkeley’s complete statement here:

    And an article from Inside Higher Ed published today that provides additional background:

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