LAWRENCE — KU's Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities has developed a new tool to help schools and others involved in education identify online products that are accessible for students with disabilities.
The tool, Access for All Students: A Representative Sampling of Technologies Employed in K-12 Online Education, lists products that are frequently used in schools and identifies those for which accessibility information is readily available.
"Students with disabilities have the right to access the same online environments as their peers," said Diana Greer, KU assistant research professor and co-principal investigator for the project. "Retrofitting these environments for accessibility is costly and sometimes impossible, so online environments should be purchased with accessibility in mind."
One way educators can determine whether an online tool is accessible is through a document called a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, or VPAT, which is a standardized form companies can complete to provide information about their products' compliance with Section 508 accessibility requirements for federal government technology acquisitions.
The new web-based offering from the Center can make finding a product's VPAT easier. The Access for All Students tool is an at-a-glance reference to determine whether a company has made a VPAT or accessibility information available online. The Center's researchers reviewed company websites to compile links to VPATs as well as accessibility information. When they could not find a VPAT or accessibility information on a site, they contacted the company to inquire about the availability of the information.
The result is a table listing companies whose products are used in schools, with each product categorized in one of three ways: (1) products that have posted VPATs on their websites, (2) products that have made accessibility information available but do not have VPATs, or (3) products that do not have VPATs or list accessibility information on their websites. The researchers contacted each company listed to confirm their correct categorization.
School administrators, teachers, parents and others who purchase products for schools can use this table to compare and contrast availability of accessibility information for various online environments and curriculum resources. Skip Stahl, a policy analyst with CAST and Center co-director, notes that "schools need to attend to the civil rights mandates that digital materials and delivery systems need to provide equitable access for all students, including those with physical and sensory disabilities."
The Access for All Students table and its associated white paper are the first of many tools the Center plans to develop and offer for free on its website as part of its goal to explore whether online learning is working for students with disabilities.
The Center is a partnership of researchers at KU's Center for Research on Learning, the National Association of State Directors of Special Education and CAST (formerly the Center for Applied Special Technology). It is funded by a five-year, $7.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to study online learning for students with disabilities and to develop new methods of using technology to improve learning.