Curriculum Development and Accessibility in Online Learning for Students with Disabilities

Concurrent Session 9

Brief Abstract

This panel invites discussion about course development and accessibility for administrators, advocacy groups, and researchers interested in service delivery for students with disabilities as they work online. These panelists represent diverse parts of the country. Two panelists are experts K-12 online learning and two panelists represent higher education.


Nicola Wayer is an experienced educator with extensive teaching and instructional design experience in both K-12 and higher education settings. She is currently the Director of Instructional Design and Training for the Tennessee Board of Regents and is also on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. Previously, she has served as a teacher and curriculum specialist at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, an instructor, instructional designer, and faculty developer at University of Florida, and helped to found the Center for eLearning at Florida State College at Jacksonville, and was Director of Instructional Design at Champlain College in Vermont. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Florida in curriculum and instruction with a concentration in educational technology; an M.Ed. from the University of North Florida in secondary education; and a B.A. from Flagler College in deaf education and elementary education. Dr. Wayer’s research interests include serving students with disabilities in blended and online courses and teacher professional development for blended and online learning.
Kathryn Kennedy, Ph. D., is the Director of MVU’s Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI). Dr. Kennedy has extensive experience with online and blended learning in higher education and K-12 as a former assistant professor at Georgia Southern University and as the Director of Research for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). She coordinates and oversees projects at MVLRI, networks and onboards MVLRI Fellows, and conducts qualitative research. She is involved in national and international efforts in quality assurance for K-12 online and blended learning, including holding leadership roles in the development of new and the enhancement of existing ISTE and iNACOL standards. She has published in various venues her work, which primarily focuses broadly on education professionals and their preparation for next generation learning models, including but not limited to online and blended learning environments.

Additional Authors

Mark E. Deschaine is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership in the College of Education and Human Services at Central Michigan University. He has extensive local, state, and national experience in training and development of faculty in the integration of technology into their curriculum, special education issues, and effective instructional practices. He holds Michigan certification and endorsements as a teacher, a special educator, and building as well as central office administrator. His research agenda focuses on how theory, policy, and processes support effective differentiated instruction.

Extended Abstract

While online learning has the potential to provide unprecedented opportunities for students with disabilities, efforts to realize those opportunities and new directives from federal agencies have revealed gaps in guidance and support. The purpose of this panel is to invite discussion about course development and accessibility for administrators, advocacy groups, and researchers interested in service delivery for students with disabilities as they work online. These panelists are from diverse parts of the country (Kansas, New Mexico, Michigan, and Florida) and they work in different types of institutions (size, research intensity, and student demographics). Two panelists have expertise in online learning for K-12 students and two panelists have a higher education focus.

Panelist #1

Mary Rice, University of New Mexico

An adequate, sustainable force of educators with strong preparation for working with students with disabilities has been difficult to secure in the traditional settings and that shortage exists in the online setting as well. However, whereas course design in the traditional setting is still highly likely to fall to the instructor (teacher), online courses are planned by one set of individuals and then taught by another set of individuals. Since this is the case, both groups (designers and instructors) need to consider the needs of students with disabilities in their work. While there are nascent understandings about instructor work with students with disabilities in K-12 online settings, understandings about course design for diverse learners, including those with disabilities is lacking. It is unfortunate that there is a gap because research on online instructors has found that they lean heavily—sometimes exclusively—on the course curriculum materials and resources provided to them by designers and they have trouble seeing how to deliver individualized instruction to students using those materials. Course designers, by contrast, have reported that they feel their work is to design a reasonably accessible template of curriculum materials for a general population of students and that instructors must be the ones to individualize for students with special needs, even when other personalization features are embedded in the course.

With these understandings, the panelist speak from her expertise in course development activities where she followed of two course design teams, paying particular attention to the ways in which they conceptualized and accounted for both personalization as a manifestation of learner difference and preference and individualization elements necessary to meet federal laws such as Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Free and Appropriate Education principle of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). This study was carried out using ethnographic participant/observer techniques and artifact collection and analysis over the course of nearly six months. The panelist will invite participants to rate their perceived severity of the 10 barriers course designers experienced that precluded them from embedding individualization elements for students with disabilities.

Panelist #2

Nicola Wayer, Florida State University--Jacksonville

Together, accessibility, cross-platform usability, and copyright issues present challenges to developers of online courses. At the Center for eLearning (CeL) at FSCJ, a team of three instructional designers (IDs), a media designer, and a web developer came together to create the CeL’s Learning Object to build more accessible online courses. The proposed panelist will speak from her work in creating these courses.

As IDs worked with faculty subject matter experts, or SMEs, to identify learning objectives and develop the knowledge content for each course, they gathered ideas for different ways the content should be displayed and interactive features that would be useful to have in the LO. Based on their input, the web developer created the framework for the LO and templates for different ways of displaying content using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Throughout the web development process, it was considered key that the code is compliant with WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative - Accessible Rich Internet Applications) standards and all pages were tested using JAWS Screen Reading software from Freedom Scientific; therefore, navigation features were built in to make it more accessible to screen readers. As the media designer added graphical and multimedia elements to each LO, alt tags were used for each image element and captions and/or transcripts were added for audio and video resources. The resulting LOs meet web standards as well as being compliant with sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Another priority during the web development process was to make the LO usable to students and faculty accessing courses via a mobile device such as a cell phone or tablet computer while still being usable to students using desktop computers with different platforms and varying screen sizes. To accomplish this goal, responsive web design was used. Responsive design ensures that all elements resized themselves based on the display size and orientation using CSS queries. Together, the features of the LO allowed for rapid development of content and the building of a repository of reusable learning objects that can be used college-wide and not just in CeL-developed courses. By bringing together the disciplines of instructional design, media design, and web development, the Center for eLearning created a template for dynamic, accessible faculty-authored RLOs that are device agnostic and usable across platforms. The panelist will valuable for answering highly technical questions about course design in online learning and for discussing the collaborative process in developing a course curriculum that is truly accessible.34

Panelist #3

Kathryn Kennedy, Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Concerns about supporting students with disabilities in higher education classes provided online have received increased attention as more faculty and administrators wrestle with the issue of providing reasonable instructional accommodations while ensuring that their technology meets guidelines and regulations. The proposed panelist has been actively involved in working with colleges and universities wanting to better prepare their staff and faculty to meet the individualized needs that students with disabilities bring to the online learning environments. He will share his expertise in cross-institutional collaboration as well as program development.

The panelist also speaks from a position where concern for students with disabilities in higher education usually stems from a greater concern about being out of compliance with Section 508, the technological access online requirements, and soon morphs into a discussion about Section 504, the programmatic requirements for educational accommodations. However, in many cases, the technological concerns are so pressing and publicly apparent, that these discussions often take precedence, and frankly, overshadow the need to discuss the issues related to educational adequacy, appropriateness, and effectiveness of the instructional methodologies utilized by instructors.

The intent of interventions is to provide support and awareness activities necessary to begin discussions about ways to effectively meet the learning needs of students with disabilities in online courses through the integration of interventions commonly utilized effectively in K12 face-to-face learning environments. Students with disabilities have some familiarity with these interventions and have often only successfully graduated because of these interventions. The proposed panelist will be prepared to ask and answer questions about various interventions and provide practical and common sense strategies for that faculty, instructional designers, and administrators as they work to support Section 504 programmatic needs of their higher education students in online environments.


Panelist #4

Kelsey Ortiz, The University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning