Monday, January 05, 2015

Two Universities Settle with OCR

The end of the year had a couple of interesting OCR agreements made public.  University of Cincinnati and Youngstown State University both were found to have websites and online courses that were not completely accessible and in violation of federal civil rights legislation.

The findings were of course very similar to other findings reported by OCR against other community colleges and universities.  I'm posting the excerpts from the letter of findings below because there was a comment on a Chronicle article from someone who was asking for more detail: "I have no idea how a website would be less accessible to those with disabilities. Since I occassionally work on a website, I would like to know if I am similarly overlooking an important compliance issue."

Excerpts from the OCR Youngstown State University Letter of Findings
The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced an agreement with Youngstown (Ohio) State University to ensure equal access to its websites for individual s with disabilities December 12, 2014.

The following sections have been taken directly from the OCR letter of findings and may be useful in reviewing institutional policies and standards.

Blackboard is a separate system that the IT Department does not work with; it is a “black box” or proprietary system used to deliver online learning, and the University uses it “as is.” IT staff do not create, build, or control the content on that system, and University staff interviewed stated that the University does not actively make sure Blackboard is in compliance with laws such as Section 504 or Title II; rather, a staff member deals with exceptions when things are brought to his attention. In such a case, if a course does not meet accessibility guidelines, the faculty member involved would be contacted

Distance Education Program
The University has developed its own process, known as the “eYSU Rubric Checklist,” for creation of distance education courses. The checklist provides guidelines to faculty for  developing online courses. The final standard required by the eYSU rubric is that “[c]ourse materials are provided in accessible formats.” The rubric states that, “[t]o the extent possible, equivalent alternatives are provided for audio and visual content (a transcript of audio and a transcript or closed captioning for video).” The rubric also states that course creators should consult with the DSO on steps to take to make a course accessible. 

The eYSU guidelines require that course creators use the Distance Education department’s template and that courses applying for re-design are re-worked so that these “incorporate newer technologies to ensure equal access to all.” The eYSU rubric contains links to electronic documents; including links to the University’s accessibility guidelines, web accessibility guidelines, and Section 508 compliance documents. 
The distance education course creation/re-design policy includes requirements that course creators participate in appropriate training as provided by Quality Matters or the YSU Office of Distance Education. Trainings include but are not limited to: eYSU Rubric Training, Apply the Quality Matters Rubric Workshop (required by all developers), and LMS (Blackboard) training.

Distance Learning courses are also required to undergo a Quality Matters (QM) review: a determination of whether the course is accessible to persons with disabilities. This accessibility requirement is cited on the University’s Distance Education website at Included in the 2011-2013 QM guidelines are accessibility standards that require courses to employ accessible technologies and information as to how to obtain accommodations, to contain alternatives to auditory and visual content, to use design that facilitates readability and reduces distractions, and to accommodate the use of assistive technology. 

A University staff member informed OCR that the majority of the time online videos are used for distance learning. The staff member stated that it was not clear if the training for those creating distance learning courses included instructions on how to make videos accessible, but presumably so. 

University staff stated that distance education course creation is done by different departments. Faculty members use the standard course template if they request a distance education course for a term, which includes a statement on disability requirements. An instructional designer on staff, who is trained in accessibility and is also a master reviewer for QM, is available to any faculty member; and the Distance Education department recommends that any faculty member thinking about putting a course online should speak with the instructional designer for guidance. 

University review of distance learning courses is required. The review includes the instructional designer, the content editor for the specific department, and the faculty member who designed  the course. The eYSU rubric has 16 standards, with requirements and guidelines. The QM rubric has 32 standards, some that are required and some that are recommended. Courses have to meet all of the requirements of both, and many of the recommendations/guidelines, to pass review and be approved. Faculty can use the rubric, QM, or both. Faculty members also have to go through training with QM; that training discusses accessibility and how to put courses in an accessible format. 

The Distance Education department offers training to all faculty on how to make material accessible under the eYSU rubric, but the training is not required except for the information about the rubric included during new faculty orientation.

Distance Education staff stated that the IT Department responds to complaints about accessibility that are web-related; if a complaint is course-related, the complaint would probably start with the Distance Education department. For complaints about website inaccessibility, Distance Education defers to IT unless the issue is with Distance Education’s specific web page. Distance Education staff stated that the Distance Education department monitors its own site; its web editor and the instructional designer are responsible for making sure that the campus accessibility policies are implemented. All of the department’s web pages and courses are created and then reviewed before these go live. An OCR review of the Distance Education website demonstrated that, nonetheless, many links included on that page lead to documents that exhibit inaccessible features.