Classroom teachers know not all students come from the same backgrounds, so they anticipate problems that students may bring to school and alleviate sources of stress and frustration. Many outside factors can impact a student’s access to classroom instruction and the ability to participate fully. Now that teachers use technology for instruction, student participation, and evaluation of students’ work, they must also consider a student’s access to the digital community. While many classroom teachers are equipped with backup plans for when technology fails and schools frequently have staff to repair Internet connections and dead devices, online instructors must foresee possible barriers to the digital community students may face, and they must strategically plan to remove those barriers.
There are two types of these barriers that might block students’ access to online instruction: limited access to the Internet and a student’s disability. Usually, classroom teachers don’t worry about their school losing access to high-speed Internet, and while they may choose not to assign videos or projects as homework, since not every student has access to a computer, they can rely on the school’s network. Virtual instructors, however, must consider a student’s access to broadband connectivity.
The digital divide is a serious problem for online teachers who plan for access among both urban and rural students. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) defines a basic broadband speed as 3 mbps downstream (downloading information) and 768 upstream (uploading), but Table 2 of this report published for the U.S. Small Business Administration shows
distance learning and telecommuting activities require download speeds of at least 25 Mbps in order for a single user to have an “OK” experience, and 50 Mbps for a “Good” experience….wireless download speeds of 50 Mbps, broadband availability varies from 14 percent (Very Rural), 32 percent (Exurban), 35 percent (Small Town), 62 percent (Central City), to 67 percent (Suburban), even though the overall broadband availability was 63 percent in urban areas compared to 23 percent in rural areas.
If teachers want students to have a good learning experience, this speed matters.
Furthermore, teachers must also consider students’ devices. Smartphones can provide access to higher speed Internet, and indeed, as of May 2011, Pew Research Internet Project found that “adults, minorities, those with no college experience, and those with lower household income levels who owned smartphones were more likely to say that their phone was their main source of internet access.” This may be good news for educators who hope to reach a larger audience, but then the instructor should consider that a website or tool will look and work differently when on a phone as opposed to a desktop or laptop. Granted, instructors can do little to fix these digital divides, but they can test how well their resources work and look on different platforms.
The other barrier to student learning is a student’s disability. WebAIM provides a good summary of issues for users:
“Despite the web’s great potential for people with disabilities, this potential is still largely unrealized. For example, some sites can only be navigated using a mouse, and only a very small percentage of video or multimedia content has been captioned for the Deaf. What if the internet content is only accessible by using a mouse? What do people do if they can’t use a mouse? And what if web developers use graphics instead of text? If screen readers can only read text, how would they read the graphics to people who are blind?”
Moving forward, digital instructors should remove as many obstacles as possible for students. Regarding students with limited access to high-speed Internet, an instructor could use resources that take less time to download and offer a variety of tools and websites for completing assignments. Long videos take more time to download, so instead of relying on one twenty-minute video, an instructor could splice it into five different four-minute blocks.
Regarding potential students’ disabilities, instructors should seek out resources that are easy to access for all students. Teachers can start to account for accessibility by taking inventory of resources and easily modified content and build templates that will speed up the process of modifying content on a case-by-case basis. For example, required reading could be supported by an audio file, and videos should have captions or transcripts. WebAIM “Principles of Accessible Design” offers design principles to consider in the beginning, and Georgia Tech Research on Accessible Distance Education (GRADE) offers a tutorial called Access E-Learning. It comprises 10 modules that “offer information, instructional techniques, and practice labs” on modifying distance education content. Although Access E-Learning focuses on accommodating individuals with disabilities, all students can benefit from these extra supports.
The goal of online learning is to make education more accessible to more people; we should not let that very technology prevent good learning from happening.
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