Technology and Online Learning: Barrier or Blessing

I was asked this week to blog about the differences and similarities between the face-to-face lessons designed by my classmates and the online lessons they prepared on the same topic. Unfortunately a migraine headache tore me from our synchronous class meeting after watching only a few presentations, and even what I saw was lost to the pain and fog that was already starting to overtake me at that point. I wanted to view the presentations on the recording of the class, but in two different links sent out by my instructor, the audio was so chopped up it was impossible to follow.

I thought perhaps it might be my internet connection causing the video not to buffer, but I turned off all other devices in the house, used the computer hard-wired by Ethernet cable to the modem and got the same results on two different browsers. I even tried lowering the video’s streaming speed down to 144p. At that speed I could no longer make out details on the screen well enough to see the lessons being displayed, but the audio did not improve. My internet speed clocked out at 12.77 mbps, so my internet speed was not the issue, and on Chrome I could see that the video was indeed buffering. It had buffered out to about 15 minutes but the audio became choppy and difficult to follow after only two minutes. So, not the internet; both copies of the video were bad.

Unable to follow the directions for the week at this point, I found myself frustrated. I could try to blog about the two lessons to which I had physical access, one of which was the one my partner and I prepared, or I could find an off-topic posting that might satisfy the spirit of the posting requirement. I decided to blog about the ways that technology can both benefit and become a barrier to online learning.

In a face-to-face setting, if I had to miss a class or leave class early due to illness, there would not be a way to “record” the lesson. If I was not attendance, I might be able to count on the notes of a good friend or get copies of the handouts from the instructor, but for the most part, what was presented in class would be lost to me. In an online synchronous class, the ability to record the sessions is a huge benefit to students that miss class. Even students that attended the session can go back and review the recording, pausing and replaying sections which they found confusing or difficult until they felt they understood the concept being presented. While a face-to-face instructor is usually happy to review a concept with a struggling student, a student may be embarrassed to admit they find a concept difficult and would rather learn it in the privacy of their own home than in their instructor’s office.

Unfortunately, these opportunities are only as good as the technology. In this case, the recording failed to render correctly, leaving a student like me without the opportunity to participate in the lesson. In my life, two uninterrupted hours of quiet to watch a lesson is something that must be scheduled, so by the time I discovered the video was unusable, my time to find alternatives was pretty much up.

Technology can become a barrier and a blessing in other instances as well. I’ve been working with the faculty at my school to raise awareness of online accessibility for students with disabilities. While the advent of online education has opened opportunities for some students who had never considered attending college before because of the logistical challenges they would face attending school, online classes also have some disadvantages when educators do not take the time to ensure their materials are accessible to all students.

Examples of some barriers faced by students with disabilities could include PDF documents which are not readable by screen readers or improperly tagged, images without alternative descriptions, online forms without meaningful labels, poor color contrast, small font size, uncaptioned videos, webpages that do not provide multiple means of navigation, and video and audio used without transcripts provided. In the case of this lesson, even had the audio been adequate, a hearing impaired or visually impaired student would be at a disadvantage because the only captions available to those students were the ones automatically generated by YouTube. While YouTube’s speech-to-text feature is much improved over tools like this from the past, it is still very inaccurate. Captioning is possible with web conferencing tools such as Adobe Captivate but must be completed by an after-market vendor and it is very expensive. Educators find themselves caught in a vicious cycle; by law, the course must be accessible to everyone, whether they have a known student with disabilities enrolled in the course or not, but some aspects of accessibility such as captioning are too expensive to complete unless a student specifically requests it. Fortunately, the law does allow for exceptions when the cost of accessibility puts an unreasonable burden on the school, but the educator must apply for the exception and get it approved.

Flexibility in the online environment can also help keep technology from becoming a barrier. Different students learn best in different ways. By offering multiple means of presenting the same information, each student, including students with disabilities, can pick the method of learning that works best for them.

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