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MOOCs: Ensuring equal access to education for all

IF ONLINE courses are to play a key role in the future of higher education, they need to be usable by all students, including those with disabilities.

In a settlement with the US Department of Justice last week, the nonprofit edX, a joint project of Harvard and MIT, agreed to upgrade its website and mobile applications to allow access to people who are deaf or blind or have limited manual dexterity. In theory, so-called MOOCs — short for massive open online courses — should dramatically expand everyone’s educational options, but that’s only true in practice if the basic platform on which students interact with course materials works well for students with disabilities.


Mature brick-and-mortar universities tend to have compliance administrators who try to ensure that educational programs meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards, and the physical presence of students with disabilities offers a constant reminder of the need to provide adequate access. Even then, many institutions fail to plan for the variety of needs that their students show. The electronic textbooks and online software and course materials that are in routine use at universities often behave in buggy ways when, for instance, blind students use them with devices that read the text on a screen aloud.

Amid an explosion of online courses, it’s unfortunate but sadly predictable that accessibility issues might fall by the wayside. Tech startups routinely go public with what’s known as the minimum viable product — a lean version that proves that the idea works, rather than a fully built-out one that has all the features that the company eventually hopes to incorporate. That deaf students need different modifications from what blind students need — closed captions rather than compatibility with screen readers, for instance — adds to the complexity of serving these needs.


In the physical world, the ADA has promoted interest in universal design — that is, in designing buildings and machines in ways that make them equally useful for people with a variety of physical capabilities. Similarly, it’s in everyone’s interest for edX and similar providers of online learning to adhere to emerging standards that work reliably with a variety of devices.

In its deal with the Justice Department, edX admitted no wrongdoing — and indeed disputed that it is even subject to the provision of the ADA that the government thinks it violated. Still, at this early point in what could turn into a MOOC revolution, it’s better to set an inclusive standard and make sure all educational materials are designed in ways that work for everyone.


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Special section: The new U.