Accessibility and Openness

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At Penn State, we have been looking seriously at how to make our online courses accessible to students with disabilities. We are doing this as a requirement based on an agreement with the National Federation of the Blind, as a competitive advantage in the higher education market, and also because it's just the right thing to do.

The College of Earth and Mineral Sciences is also one of the few Colleges at the University that releases most of its courseware as open educational resources. The intersection of these two activities has yielded us, I believe, an unexpected advantage on the accessibility front. 

When students with disabilities identify themselves to the University, they fill out paperwork through the Office of Disability Services and then are given letters to present to their course instructors. These letters do not identify the disability of the student, only the accommodations that the student is entitled to in his or her courses. Extra time on tests is the most frequent accommodation needed at the institution. For students with vision or hearing impairments, all course materials must have alternative text, captions, and proper layout so that the student can engage in all course activities. 

For online courses, mitigating accessibility issues can be a cost- and time-intensive effort. Captioning videos can cost money, and testing all course interactions can be extremely labor-intensive. In addition, if the necessary accommodations aren't known until just before the course begins, instructors and learning designers can be left scrambling to fix any issues in the course while the course is running.

For the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences' open courseware, however, we are able to partner with students seeking to enroll. Students can view most course materials prior to registering and let us know where they have issues prior to registering so that we can address them and make the student's course experience better. It gives us more time, and allows students with disabilities the knowledge that their courses will be ready for them to fully engage.

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