The world is becoming more virtual, and college courses are no exception. More and more colleges and universities offer online courses, sometimes called distance learning or E-learning. Even traditional face-to-face university classes often incorporate elements of e-learning platforms, such as discussion boards, open-book online quizzes and assignment submission.
Online courses offer students the benefits of convenience and flexibility. A student who lives far away from campus can learn comfortably from home. Depending on the course structure, distance learning also usually offers students greater time flexibility. For instance, you may have a whole week to participate in a discussion or an entire Sunday to turn in a quiz.
But like everything else, online courses present their own forms of challenge. Accessibility can vary greatly, depending on the platform your campus uses and the tools you use. Many online platform vendors are aware of blind students’ accessibility needs, but some have addressed them better than others.
Even if a course is accessible, you need to have or to acquire good computer skills to succeed in an online course. Don’t worry, though, if you haven’t had a lot of specific training. One of the fastest methods for success is just diving in and figuring it out.
As you navigate your first online course, keep the following tips in mind.
In other parts of our website, we’ve emphasized the importance of interacting with professors and getting your books as early as possible. Apply this tip to online courses. Getting early access to the course, especially if you are new to the platform, will allow you plenty of time to “play” before you have to submit formal discussion responses, assignments and quizzes. Along with the traditional early requests for books and your syllabus, you will need the following information:
The type of computer you’ll be using, either Mac or Windows;
The operating system;
The screen reader or magnification program and its version, if applicable;
The type of braille display, if applicable;
The online platform your campus uses—common platforms now are Blackboard and Canvas, but course platforms are always changing.
Once you have the information about your computer, approach your instructor, your disabilities office or your school’s technology help center. Explain that you are blind or visually impaired, and you’d like your username and password, as well as early access to the course platform, so you can learn the layout before the course starts.
Take Time to “play” and learn.
After your university enables your access, log into the course, and check out and practice the different features to find out how your course is laid out. Starting as early as possible will decrease any anxiety you may have about distance learning, because you’ll have time to learn by trying out the different sections of the course. For instance, you can practice using the discussion board on your course by writing a paragraph introducing yourself and posting it into the forum. Your instructor may require or recommend that all students introduce themselves anyway. If he or she doesn’t, you can always delete the thread after you’ve posted it or ask the instructor to remove it.
Most online platforms contain the following elements for you to explore and learn: a discussion board, where instructors or students can lead a discussion about a relevant topic; a module for taking open-book tests and quizzes; a place to submit assignments electronically; and a gradebook. Instructors may also post presentations and handouts from which you can learn each week.
Finally, find out whether your DSO or campus technology center offers a tutorial about your online course platform. These tutorials may or may not be helpful, depending on how visual the presentation is. Alternatively, you can find a support person at the university who might be available to walk through the program with you individually or to help you if you get stuck.
Learn how the platform interacts with your technology.
After you learn your screen reader or braille display type and the name of the online platform, search for any instructions which may help you to use that platform effectively. For instance, if you use Jaws for Windows, and your school uses Blackboard to host online courses, search for “Jaws Windows Blackboard” or “blind visually impaired Blackboard” in Google. Blackboard or specific campuses have written guides and tutorials to help you to learn the accessibility functions of the software or program. Then spend some time learning and practicing the basic commands which will help you to navigate the platform more efficiently. It may help you to focus on a few commands at a time, learn them well and then add a few more every couple of days. The small nuggets of time you invest in learning the platform will often apply to technology situations later in life.
Talk to Other Blind Students.
Unfortunately, not all course platforms earn an A for accessibility. They may seem completely inaccessible to you, just because you aren’t familiar with them. Or they may not be set up to operate well with some or all screen readers or web browsers. Reach out to other blind or visually impaired students to learn whether they’ve used these programs and what made accessibility easier for them.
Learn more than you thought you’d need, and Spend More Time Than You Wanted To.
This is yet another good reason to start learning your course early. While some accessibility problems are easy to solve with a quick question, you may find out that your platform works better in a different browser or with a different screen reader. Changing browsers, using Firefox instead of Internet Explorer, for instance, doesn’t cost anything except time and some practice. You may feel grumpy about practicing a slightly different layout, but learning more about your technology will help you to succeed in the course and will give you more technical knowledge in the long run.
Changing computers or screen readers may or may not cost money. If you find out that you need to make a costly change, contact your disabilities office or your state’s department of vocational rehabilitation to obtain the technology you need. Then invest time and practice to make it work.
In a similar vein, don’t assume that all presentations and handouts will be accessible, just because you could read the first one! Always allow yourself extra time to read course materials throughout the semester, so that you can convert your file or get additional help if you run into an unexpected accessibility snag.
Find Real Ways to Connect
While many students eventually find that online courses are accessible for them after some practice, they also find that participating online can sometimes prevent them from having “real” social interactions. Making an effort to become a genuine part of a community will help you to have meaningful connections with people and causes beyond your online course. For more tips about connecting to your community, consult our group of resources entitled “Making Connections.”
With time, preparation and practice, you will manage online courses effectively. You may even discover benefits to participating in distance learning opportunities over regular courses. Above all, they will help you to learn material in a meaningful way and to interact more with your technology.