cognitive disabilities and online education
Update 2011.07.24: Since this was originally published, the case against the university was dismissed; and the university counter-sued for defamation. As part of the settlement the student has issued an apology and been ordered to remove posts made in a variety of places - including this page's comments.
The university's legal team brought this to my attention and requested I assist by removing the comments posted by the student. Since several replies didn't make sense without the original posts, I have removed all comments which directly discussed the legal fight.
The Chronicle: 8/12/2005: Lawsuit Charges Online University Does Not Accommodate Learning-Disabled Students (that's a terrible headline which translates to "online university gets sued by student with a learning disability").
A former Capella University student has filed a lawsuit against the online institution, claiming that it violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by using technology that does not accommodate his learning disabilities. ... Some experts say the student may have trouble winning the lawsuit because few clear guidelines exist dictating what assistive technologies colleges must provide to students with learning disabilities.
Murky to say the least. Learning disabilities are extremely varied and relatively hard to define, which poses significant problems for web developers. If a person can't see or can't hear, you know relatively clearly what you are dealing with. Screens can be magnified, colours can be changed, sounds can be cleaned up and amplified. The industry knows what it needs to do.
But what do you do, definably and repeatably, for people with learning disabilities? What standard can you lay down? What will work for each of ten different students? There is no
alt="" for memory or cognition. If it's possible for clear standards to be created - standards which would form a W3C specification for example - the people who know what to do have not been able to communicate it widely enough yet. The web industry does not know what to do.
What little I have seen involves content based strategies: for example writing 'simplified but not dumbed down' versions of documents, which is not the web developer's role. They are not the subject expert, they are the technical facilitator. Content authors need to be trained in advanced writing techniques which are compatible with advanced web development techniques. Even then, it's hard to find any hard data about whether it actually works.
All this and we haven't even touched on feasibility of implementation, budget constraints and the reality of modern tertiary education.
The student who filed the lawsuit, Jeffry La Marca, says his learning disabilities include short-term memory loss, which is recognized by the federal law he cited.
After he completed one quarter at the university, in 2004, the administration installed a new software system, made by WebCT, for managing online courses. Mr. La Marca says he found the new setup confusing and difficult to work with. "It was just a navigational nightmare," he says. "It made it impossible for me to study."
He complained to university officials and asked them to switch back to the old software, which they said they could not do. Mr. La Marca then asked for more time to complete his course work, and discussed with the officials how much more time he should be given. But when the discussions became heated, he said, he was suspended from the university. Mr. La Marca claims that his suspension was in retaliation for his complaints about the software.
Greg Thome, general counsel at Capella, says Mr. La Marca's suspension was for inappropriate behavior in online courses and had nothing to do with his accusations.
I don't think they were lying about the software. They almost certainly couldn't afford to roll back to the previous system, no matter what the reason. The investment of time and money involved in implementing large applications is generally a 'no return' decision for a large organisation. That's it, they're committed. No going back. They can't afford to change for X many years, nor can they afford to uninstall it and go back to the old system. The money is gone.
Ultimately, the system should - theoretically - benefit the majority without unfarily disadvantaging any minority. The reality is that current technology at most universities has not reached perfection, or even anything close. None of the big commercial software apps are seriously standards-compliant. With that as a given - at least for the moment - there should be enough majority benefit to justify using the system, provided the minority can still access the material in order to complete their studies.
In the meantime if the technology fails, then the people must step up and cover the shortfall. Which does involve some cooperation from the student - they have to communicate their needs and work with university staff who are trying to help them.
There's an awful lot to be done in this area of web-delivered content.