Friday, October 01, 2021

Illinois Passes Law to Require Digital Accessibility in all K-12 Schools (from the DLC)

Here's a blog post I wrote for the Digital Learning Collaborative.

Illinois Passes Law to Require Digital Accessibility in all K-12 Schools 

Raymond Rose is the Public Policy Chair for the Texas Distance Learning Association, and a member of the development and implementation team for their Digital Accessibility Certificate program. He has been involved in online learning for almost three decades.

On September 2 Governor Pritzker signed Illinois House Bill 26. The new law is designed to make digital content on third-party curriculum used in K-12 schools fully accessible to individuals with disabilities. In some respects, it echoes the current federal legislation Title II of the ADA, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. But it doesn’t go as far as the Federal statues do.

HB 26 specifically applies to third-party curriculum provided through the Internet. It would appear that the law does not apply to digital resources or curriculum developed by the school.

Sec. 10-20.75.part (b) of the statute specifies the “school district must require that the Internet website or web service comply with Level AA of the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 or any revised version of those guidelines.” WCAG 2.1 AA is the current enforcement standard used by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). While Illinois HB 26 specifically applies to third-party digital content the Federal legislation, ADA and Section 504, applies to all digital content, both third-party and locally developed content, used by the schools.

I’ll be curious to see what the state will consider adequate for the requirement. OCR does not consider it sufficient that a school district simply includes in all contracts with third-party vendors that their product meets WCAG 2.1 AA standards. The expectation is that the academic institution be active in reviewing digital resources for accessibility. I am party to discussions from higher education accessibility folks. And, while a number of colleges and universities do include a contract requirement it appears that often the digital resource will only partially meet the standard and then the institution will work with the vendor to make the product accessible so they can purchase it.

I believe that to meet HB 26 school districts will need to create a vendor review process. Many school districts probably already do content and technical reviews of potential digital curriculum resources, but they will now need to have staff with the knowledge of accessibility and specifically WCAG 2.1 AA who review digital resources before a contract is signed.

In 2010 the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights sent a Dear Colleague letter to all school superintendents that describes their interpretation of the ADA and Section 504. OCR is responsible for enforcing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794, and its implementing regulation at 34 C.F.R. Part 104, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability by recipients of Federal financial assistance. OCR is also responsible for enforcing Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq., and its implementing regulation at 28 C.F.R. Part 35, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by public entities.

HB 26 goes into effect August 1, 2022. WCAG 3.0 is currently in draft and might be available before that. HB 26 says that the standard will be WCAG 2.1 AA or “any revised version of the guidelines”. As school districts develop their plans for review of digital resources, they should not avoid looking at the 3.0 standard.

There are resources to help accessibility reviews and there are organizations that provide training on digital accessibility and there are others that will, for a fee, conduct accessibility reviews. In addition, there are companies that offer overlays that are supposed to ensure that website content is fully accessible; but be very careful because there have been problems with some overlay services.

Given that HB 26 doesn’t go farther than current federal regulations, and in some ways doesn’t even go as far, it’s unclear as to why the state legislature passed the law. The law seems to have received some media attention, and the governor was quoted as saying “As online educational tools become further integrated into school curriculums, we need to be sure that these tools are properly addressing the needs of all the students and families they’re designed to serve.” Therefore, at the very least, the attention given to the law’s passage has raised the issue of accessibility for students with disabilities.

The bottom line, for all academic institutions across the United States is that all digital resources need to be accessible to all people with disabilities. While Illinois HB 26 focuses on third-party curriculum products, the Federal legislation applies to all digital resources, even if developed in-house.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Contacting Policy Makers -- Will it Make a Difference?

 I've been having a discussion with some colleagues about what it will take to get some changes in both the way we prepare folks to run our k-12 schools and how we get them to understand more about online learning. 

We've seen, over the past year and a half, that educational leaders in general, don't have a good idea of what high-quality online learning looks like, or what it takes to make it happen.  Our past experience with emergency remote instruction (sometimes called virtual education) was generally not the best experience.  

(I do try to mention, when I have the opportunity, that not all on-campus learning experiences are wonderful.)

What is clear, there's been little preparation in teacher preservice education or in educational leadership programs that helped to prepare the education community for a totally virtual experience.

One colleague suggested that the state legislative education committees might be a way to influence policy.  Hmmm.  So, this week I sent a message to every member of both the Texas Senate and House education committees.  But since I'm not in any of their districts it will be interesting to see if there's even an acknowledgment.

Here's the message:

Distance learning, correspondence course, virtual learning, online learning, emergency remote learning, Zoom school. Do those terms each bring to mind a different image of education? In 1960 a computer-based instruction, called Plato began. In 1995 I was part of the team that created the first virtual high school in the United States.  Virtual instruction has been well researched and has refined and improved in quality over the past two-plus decades. There are quality standards for virtual education.

Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic forced schools to abandon what they knew best how to do, and rushed into emergency remote learning, often with little though and planning. Students and teachers were asked to do things they were totally unfamiliar with. It is not surprising then that emergency remote learning was not as successful as on-campus instruction. 

But, emergency remote learning was not and will not be the same as virtual schooling. There are many different approaches to virtual education, some are synchronous, the longer established are more often asynchronous. There are studies of virtual education programs that report no significant difference in student learning between online and on-campus learning. There has been little research that evaluates the issues with emergency remote learning. Like with virtual education, there are many flavors of emergency remote learning and trying to paint them all with the same brush does a disservice to the field.

My purpose in writing is point out that policies that use the term virtual or online education as a catch-all, are mixing the good, long-established, and studied programs with the hurriedly put together emergency remote instruction.

Language is important. Quality is important. Experience contributes to high quality online learning. Not all online learning is of high quality. Not all on-campus learning is of high quality. But there are wonderful, high-quality examples of learning in both approaches. Please don’t prevent schools from replicating or creating high quality online learning programs. The students will benefit.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

In Massachusetts Vocational Schools Become The Latest Front In The Battle For Educational Equity


The headline in the Boston Globe magazine read Civil Rights groups urge state to change ‘discriminatory’ vocational school admissions policies to lottery. I had to read it. I was a Civil Rights Specialist with the Massachusetts Department of Education 1978-1980. I had a role in reviewing the admissions policies for the public regional vocational-technical high schools.

At the time, many of the VocTechs had a set of hoops students had to go thru to get accepted. One was a Differential Aptitude Test (DAT).  At the time, the test had separate scoring for males and females. It had been normed by having adults in a variety fields take the test and then creating profiles for them. It was never designed to be a screening test. That it had separate norms made its use questionable. That it was never designed to predict success in a field made its use questionable. That it had been normed on adults rather than junior high and senior high school students made its use questionable. As a result we said the DAT could not use as part of the admission screening process for VocTechs.

The Massachusetts Department of Education had a role then, in working to ensure that VocTech admissions were free of bias. We worked with those programs to ensure that all programs were open without regard to student’s race, sex, color, or national origin. The department was also working to ensure that students with IEPs were not arbitrarily excluded from admission.

At the time I was with the Department Greg Anrig was the Commissioner, and he wanted the Department to monitor LEA compliance. That approach didn’t sit well with the Superintendents who were on having to ensure that their programs were in compliance with state and federal legislation. The next Commissioner had been a Superintendent and was determined to take the Department out of the role of compliance monitor.

I believe that empowered Superintendents and significantly undermined the role of the Department. And, looking at the Globe report, I’d say the Dept of Education has continued to avoid protecting  students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners.

Friday, February 05, 2021

How to Become a Critical Reader of Online Research

Distance education has existed for a long time. Think correspondence courses and the pony express. Education at a distance has evolved as new technologies have been created. Radio and television played a role in distance education sometimes used to reach students who were unable to attend classes in a brick-and-mortar setting. Often the technology has been used to attempt to reflect as close as possible the traditional instructional brick-and-mortar models. Early email instruction resembled first correspondence and then lecture classes.  In the mid-90s a new approach to education at a distance provided an alternative to the synchronous satellite television and proliferation of satellite dishes that were used to show that the school was advanced.

Virtual education started, not as a replacement for the brick-and-mortar school but as a supplement. And primarily was asynchronous. Quick move to 2020 and the COVID pandemic where schools were closed to help prevent the spread of the disease. Because virtual education had grown from the first few programs to over thousands of schools and programs reaching millions of students and there were many different approaches to online learning in play, school leaders quickly instituted remote learning options generally with little thought to preparing or supporting teachers to operate in this new environment (and I use the term “remote learning,” and not “online learning” here purposefully). Sometimes they looked critically at the distance learning field, but more likely just felt if there were lots of virtual education programs it had to be easy.

Recently we’re seeing a good deal written about remote instruction with much of it being critical. Rightly so. What was missing, was the clear statements that online learning isn’t as simple as posting PowerPoint slides online or recreating the brick-and-mortar class activities in Zoom. And some of that needs to be owned by stakeholders in the field of virtual schooling at all levels who have been involved for over two decades, was what is actually required to provide quality online learning experiences. There are now a myriad of approaches to online learning. There is not a single instructional approach. But if you don’t study online learning broadly then it’s like the blindfolded feeling the elephant and having a limited experience but thinking they know what an elephant is like.

The educational research on distance education, online learning, and remote learning all suffers from the same problem. Many researchers will report their results as generic for all online or remote learning contexts. That paints the field with a very wide brush and the research tends to reflect the inherent biases of the researcher. There is a limited amount of research findings for many different approaches, but seldom does the research describe the approach used for the subject of the research.

Selective use of research to write about online, virtual, or remote learning can paint most any picture the writer wishes to portray.  And then, that research is used to present a generic view of the learning, without characterizing the specific approach or stating that they are not talking about the entire field. In many instances the author themselves have such limited knowledge of the broader field they don’t even know what they don’t know.

It is impossible, within the current range of research on online, virtual, or remote learning to make blanket statements about the field beyond the observation that online and hybrid instruction can deliver strong results, but like anything in education there is no guarantee of good outcomes. No matter what the claim, there’s always some study that shows a conflicting result. Any claim about the field, other than to point to the diversity, needs to be tempered with some qualifying statements. A critical look at the tenor of an article can actually provide the reader with a sense of the bias of the writer in most cases. A knowledgeable writer will state their bias or experiences to help provide transparency and provide the reader with perspective.