Penn State World Campus leads in making online education accessible

Michael Miller returned to college two years ago at age 58, determined to get the business degree that had eluded him.

But degenerative joint disease and vision problems caused by a training accident while Miller was an army flight instructor made keeping up with classwork a challenge, and Miller considered giving up.

“I wasn’t meeting my academic standards,” Miller said. “I was thinking, this isn’t working out.”

Then Miller connected with Terry Watson, academic adviser and disability contact liaison for Penn State’s online World Campus, who helped him find accommodations he didn’t know existed, such as Kurzweil software that can enlarge fonts and help pace reading by highlighting or reading aloud texts. Miller is also allowed to delay exams and quizzes on days when his pain gets too bad. “It’s made an incredible difference,” said Miller, who expects to graduate this month. “Within one semester I went on the dean’s list and I’ve been on it ever since.”

World Campus, which has a greater percentage of students with hearing or vision impairments than any other Penn State campus, is nationally recognized as a leader in making online education accessible to students with disabilities.

About 200 World Campus students, including a growing number of veterans, are identified as needing some kind of accommodation, many of them for vision or hearing impairments or psychological disabilities. While students may assume that online classes are automatically accessible to students with disabilities, in fact a lot of work goes into making that true, said Anita Colyer Graham, manager of access for Penn State World Campus. “All that magic happens behind the scenes,” she said.

Special software helps students with vision or other impairments by enlarging fonts and highlighting or reading aloud texts. Penn State's online World Campus has a greater percentage of students with hearing or vision impairments than any other Penn State campus.

Image: Trish Hummer

The World Campus learning design team works to make new classes as accessible as possible from the start — captioning all videos and making sure that graphics, charts and mathematical formulas can be read by screen readers, for example. If a student with a hearing impairment or other accommodation registers for an older course, the accessibility team goes back and makes sure, for example, that there is "alternate text" for every image, and that the text fits the context of the course. If a course includes live interactions such as a faculty review session or live lecture, live captioners may be arranged.

Penn State works actively with its vendors to make sure that products and programs are accessible, said Michael Brooks, a World Campus educational technology consultant.

Many students, especially older ones, don’t realize what is available for them, Watson said. “They might think they have to find their own accommodations. I make sure they’re referred to the appropriate resources.”

Miller still faces challenges, such as when professors announce new course material at the last minute and he has to wait for it to be scanned. But he has made a point of letting faculty know about any such problems so that students who come after him will benefit. And he hasn’t let bumps in the road deter him from completing his degree, which he hopes will help him get consulting work in future.

“This is a life’s goal that I’m trying to get done.”

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Last Updated August 12, 2014