edX to Improve Access to MOOCs for People With Disabilities (CHE)

April 3, 2015

By Casey Fabris

[full article here.]

Under a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice announced on Thursday, edX, the nonprofit MOOC provider created by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has agreed to make its offerings more accessible to people with disabilities.

The settlement agreement, which marks the department’s first effort to challenge the accessibility of massive open online courses, affects the colleges that are members of edX as well as the nonprofit consortium itself.

The agreement calls for a number of changes, such as making edX’s website, mobile applications, and learning-management system fully accessible in the next 18 months; providing guidance to course creators on best practices for making online courses fully accessible; hiring a web-accessibility coordinator with specific responsibilities; and developing a web-accessibility policy.

The settlement notes that edX maintains that it was not inaccessible to people with disabilities and that the group did not admit any wrongdoing.

The changes were prompted by a compliance review begun by the Department of Justice.

“We were very aware in 2012 or so about the emergence of MOOCs and the importance, or the potential importance, that they offer to students who have distance barriers and cost barriers to getting good educational content,” said Eve L. Hill, the department’s deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights. “And they offer a potentially really good avenue for students with disabilities.”

But if those platforms are inaccessible, she added, it closes off that opportunity for students with disabilities.

Though Ms. Hill would not share details about the problems with the edX platform, she said they were common website-accessibility problems. She gave examples of those, including videos that lack captions, pop-up windows that aren’t recognized by screen-reader applications used by visually impaired people, and tables of data that lack header information or aren’t organized in a way that screen readers can translate.

The settlement occurred as part of the Justice Department’s broader efforts to make many websites more accessible to people with disabilities. Those efforts have included reaching settlement agreements or filing statements of interest in cases involving Netflix,H&R Block, and Louisiana Tech University, to name a few.

But the agreement with edX, Ms. Hill said, is different because it concerns both platform technology, created by edX, and the content itself, which is largely created by the consortium’s member colleges.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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