US university loses case after posting inaccessible MOOCs

21st September 2016 | by Sonia Purser

University of California at Berkeley loses accessibility case

A major American university offering free but inaccessible MOOCs (massive open online courses) has been found to have broken US law by failing to ensure individuals with disabilities have equal access to course content.

The case involved the University of California at Berkeley (Berkeley) which launched a programme of YouTube-based massive open online courses. 

What are MOOCs?

MOOCs offer free web-based distance learning programmes to students anywhere in the world. As the term massive open online courses suggests,  the surrounding culture is one that aims to see educational programmes extended to as many people as possible, so accessibility in the widest sense is a central concern.

MOOCs and accessibility

Laudably, much focus until now appears to have been on the provision of educational opportunities to demographics that have not previously been able to access high quality learning resources, with many of the students enrolling on MOOCs being based outside the country where the MOOC was created. However issues of technical and digital accessibility for people with cognitive impairments have received less attention.

Although recorded lectures are the main MOOC delivery method, other formats are also used, often to facilitate student assessment through tests and machine graded written assessments. This means that the provision of accessible written digital material is also something that MOOC providers should be looking at.

Focus on uncaptioned or poorly captioned video

The US Department of Justice took Berkeley to court and won following a complaint from the American Association for the Deaf. The Department of Justice reviewed the MOOCs and identified a number of deficiencies including videos that were not captioned,  or examples of automatically generated captions that were inaccurate and incomplete, or did not provide non-visual description of the content.

Whether the push to encourage inclusion and diversity will continue following the result of the US presidential election is an open question. However, as the rules appear to stand now, it looks like US institutions deemed to be in a position to ensure output is accessible, will be pulled-up if they fail to build accessibility into their plans.