Tag Archives: instructional design

Whether synchronous online course activities meet accessibility guidelines may depend on how you use them.

Man web-conferencing using an iPhone

CC-BY Public.Resource.Org on Flickr

Adding synchronous activities to your asynchronous online class can help to foster social presence and instructor immediacy. Using such tools as Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom, etc. can add an element of interactivity and engagement to the online course that might otherwise be missing. Web-conferencing can be used to prepare students for upcoming assignments, review recent material, offer virtual office hours, and more…

but what about accessibility?

Our campus recently adopted a policy that essentially requires all online instruction meet accessibility guidelines. While our facilities department is well versed in ensuring campus physical learning spaces meet ADA requirements, faculty may struggle with how to approach accessibility within the virtual learning environment. When the disabilities office notifies an instructor that a student in their class needs further accommodation they also provide the direction and support necessary to meet the student’s needs.

Universal design vs. Accommodation

To accommodate a specific student with a disability is to retrofit instruction to meet that student’s needs. However, by applying Universal Design principles we anticipate a wide range of learners’ needs and design the instruction and learning environment accordingly.

Universal design for learning is achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide alternatives for students with differing abilities.

Employing universal design principles in instruction does not eliminate the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities. There will always be the need for some specific accommodations, such as sign language interpreters for students who are deaf. However, applying universal design concepts in course planning will assure full access to the content for most students and minimize the need for specific accommodations. DOIT Center

So how can we go about ensuring online synchronous activities are accessible to all students regardless of ability? Part of the answer may depend on how the synchronous tools are being used.

Several web-conferencing solutions permit attendees to participate by dialing in on their phones rather than using computer VoIP. A phone connection may be used with other devices and services – such as Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) – to translate voice to text. Also by dialing in for the web-conference rather than using the browser or app, students can avoid exceeding their data cap when they are not connected via WiFi.

When presenting to the entire class in real-time, provide links to accessible digital materials in advance for participants to review and follow along during the session. Provide detailed descriptions and annotations to go along with any images, charts and graphs used within the presentation. Take the time to describe the significance of each graphic in detail during the presentation. These practices will also help when transcribing or captioning the session for recordings after the event.

By using the chat feature provided in most web-conferencing solutions all participants can submit questions. Assign a moderator to keep track of the chat window and type in the presenter’s answers to posted questions. Whether a question is being asked by someone in the lecture hall or via chat, it is always a good idea to repeat the question before responding.

Rather than using only video and voice features, offer chat and/or text messaging as options for conferences with individual students. Be sure the information on how and when to connect is also made accessible. Web links should provide a description and any further instructions in plain text (as opposed to images, arrows, highlighted text, etc.) to be read by screen-reader software. Include a phone number in the invite as well in the event description for hearing impaired students to access via TRS services.

By taking the time to create accessible web-conferences we not only accommodate the student with a visual or hearing impairment, we make the presentation more usable for all participants.


DOIT Center: Universal design vs. accommodation

Federal Communications Commission: Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS)

W3C: Understanding WCAG 2.0 – Time-based Media

IBM Human Ability & Accessibility Center: Overcoming accessibility challenges of web-conferencing



Closing the gap between online and classroom student outcomes

For the past few years community colleges have shifted their focus from one of access to one of completion. Offering online programming is a great way to provide access to higher education but closing the gap between online and classroom student outcomes is an ongoing challenge.

Student studying at computer

eLearning CC-BY Wolfgang Greller on Flickr

Efforts on bridging the gap have mostly centered around learner characteristics: GPA / SAT scores, whether students have previous experience with online learning, their capacity for self-regulated learning (self-efficacy, time management, organizational skills), etc.. Although these can be helpful indicators in predicting online student achievement, another approach that offers promise focuses on the at-risk course.

Ferris State University has been offering Structured Learning Assistance (SLA) for the past 25 years focusing not on the at-risk student, but on the high-risk for failure course. Although this has not been offered as an online option the impact on student success has consistently meant better than a 10% higher pass rate than of those sections without supplemental instruction. By focusing on courses with a history of high failure and withdrawal rates SLA has been able to support students with an additional 45 hours of supplemental instruction.

A recent study at Borough of Manhattan Community College at CUNY looks at online course-level predictors of learning outcomes (Wladis et al 2015). The study found that there was a significant gap in course completion between online courses taken as electives and those that were required for a given major. Also lower-level courses had a much higher attrition rate than higher-level courses. The study suggests that interventions such as embedded supplemental instructional support (tutoring, mentoring, advising, extra technical assistance) within the more challenging courses could significantly improve – and possibly even eliminate – the performance gap between online and face-to-face outcomes.

A few years ago I attended the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) conference and sat in on a panel presentation describing strategies to keep students enrolled in online learning. The panel was represented by faculty and staff from Penn State World Campus. The strategies included embedding tutors in some of the more challenging online courses. A single embedded tutor might support as many as eight sections of the course.

Tutors meet virtually with students one-on-one or with groups by appointment as many as five to six days a week – including evening and weekend hours. The tutors also scheduled “drop-in sessions” when they would go over some of the more challenging concepts, answer questions, and provide more detail on upcoming course assignments. In addition to the virtual meetings, tutors posted helpful tips on study skills and supplemental web resources. The goal of the initiative was to increase retention by 2% per year over a five year period. However, the results showed a 75% reduction in withdrawal and late drops, and a 15% reduction in course failure rates.

Implementing an online supplemental instruction program sounds like a big undertaking but focusing on the most challenging online courses sounds like a great place to begin.


C. Wladis, K. Conway, A. C. Hachey (2015). Using course-level factors as predictors of online course outcomes: A multilevel analysis at a U.S. urban community college. Studies in Higher Education. Vol 42 (1). Taylor & Francis Online. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03075079.2015.1045478

Teen on Smarphone

Smartphone Learning

For the past several years the Horizon Report has listed mobile learning, in one form or another, as an emerging educational technology (e.g. mobile computing, mobile apps, social media, BYOD, mobile learning). Mobile technologies have changed over the years: from the early PDAs, Blackberrys and feature phones with texting capability and cameras, to tablets and eReaders to the ubiquitous smartphones of today. According to the ECAR 2016 Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 96% of undergraduate students now own a smartphone. Smartphones have clearly emerged as the mobile technology of choice, while the tablet, eReader and wearable technology ownership has dropped off.

Chart showing rate of undergraduate smartphone ownership

Undergraduate Smartphone Ownership

Considering that community college students oftentimes have access to fewer resources, it seems at first that this would be counter-intuitive. However, when you consider that the smartphone may be the main source of Internet access, it begins to make more sense. The cost of the smartphone is usually spread out over monthly payments within a contract. This means lower costs up-front and lower costs overall when compared to the combined costs of cellular and monthly broadband Internet service to the home.

Despite near universal device ownership, students have yet to fully embrace the smartphone as a tool for learning. The ECAR study indicates that most students (appx 80%) do use their smartphones for one or more classes while only 46% consider them “essential for coursework” compared to their laptops at 93%. This is understandable considering the fact that many online courses tend to be reading and writing intensive. The size of the screen and necessity of “typing” with a virtual keyboard, can mean reading and writing with the smartphone a laborious task.

The top three ways listed by students for using academic technology include making it easier to access coursework (72%), increasing communication with other students (65%), as well as with their instructors (60%) – in other words, student-to-content, student-to-student, and student-to-instructor interactivity. Anderson’s Interaction Equivalency Theorem states that “deep and meaningful formal learning is supported as long as one (or more) of the three forms of interaction is at a high level”.

What if we were to design the course with the smartphone learner in mind? Not necessarily that the course must be taken using a smartphone, but that the learner who uses a smartphone as their primary technology would not be disadvantaged. What would we then need to do differently?

Rather than delivering content primarily in the form of text, the use of video and/or audio formats might prove more mobile-friendly. Smartphones are great for watching short videos or listing to music. Video and audio files (podcasts) can can be easily created using various mobile apps or web-conferencing solutions (e.g. Voice Recorder, Zoom.us, Skype). By using Google Drive or Archive.org, media can be made available for students to download offline, when they may be without a WiFi connection as well as for those students with limited data plans.

The ability to take photos, record and share images, audio and video via the smartphone camera can be a powerful tool for both student-to-content and student-to-student interactivity. By sharing or attaching photos, screenshots, video or audio files, learners can create authentic artifacts. Such media can be submitted to an e-portfolio or blog (e.g. Tumblr) for peer review or assessment of learning.

Most social media technologies (SMT) are designed to work with the smartphone as well as with desktop browsers. By replacing LMS threaded discussion with SMT (e.g. GroupMe), messaging, engaging in group discussions, as well as sharing news, scholarly articles, video, etc. becomes a simple and familiar process.

Scheduling virtual office hours using Skype, Zoom, or Hangouts can increase student-to-instructor interactivity and improve student satisfaction. Skype also can be used for asynchronous video and audio communication, supporting teaching presence and instructor immediacy.

Despite the pervasiveness of smartphone ownership by today’s undergraduate students, their use of the technology for academic purposes has not kept up with the rate of adoption. One reason students may not leverage their mobile devices for formal learning is educators have yet to fully “harness” the affordances of the technology for teaching and learning.


Brooks, D.C. (2016). ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology 2016. EDUCAUSE.

ANDERSON, T (2003). Getting the Mix Right Again: An Updated and Theoretical Rationale for Interaction. IRRODL

Cochrane, T., Bateman, R. (2010). Smartphones give you wings: Pedagogical
affordances of mobile Web 2.0. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.