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Navigating Online Courses for Blind/Visually Impaired College Students - COVID-19 Edition

Categories: Blind or Visually Impaired, Students

By Kristen Witucki, Learning Ally's College Success Program Curriculum and Content Editor

The world is becoming more virtual, and college courses are no exception. With the advent of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, colleges are all virtually virtual - bad pun intended.

Online courses offer students the benefits of convenience and flexibility. Depending on the course structure, distance learning 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 challenges. Accessibility can very 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. In a higher pressure situation like the change to an online platform mid-semester, it may feel especially terrifying. However, it is sometimes the only way, and Learning Ally's College Success Program (CSP) is here to help you!

As you navigate your online courses, keep the following tips in mind.

Start early!
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. Especially if you feel unfamiliar with or apprehensive about the platform, do not wait until the last minute to submit a discussion message, assignment or quiz.

Take time to "play" and learn.
Log into the course platform as soon as you can, 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 without pressing the submit button to post it into the forum.

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. The tutorial 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 if you get stuck. CSP mentors can also help with these kinds of challenges!

Learn how the platform interacts with your technology.
When accessing online course material, you should always know 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 of course platforms are always changing.

After you learn this information, 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 effectively. 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 pay off in the long run when you are not frantically trying to figure out how to submit your final exam.

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 platform 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 or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer, for instance, doesn't cost anything except time and some practice. 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. Now more than ever, different VR's will be able to offer different levels of support and adaptability.

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 social/emotional 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 resources entitled "Making Connections" within the College Success Program curriculum, and look for help from our blog entries or support from our mentors to apply these tips to a virtual setting.

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.