Technology

edX to Improve Access to MOOCs for People With Disabilities

April 03, 2015

Under a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice announced on Thursday, edX, the nonprofit MOOC provider created by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has agreed to make its offerings more accessible to people with disabilities.

The settlement agreement, which marks the department’s first effort to challenge the accessibility of massive open online courses, affects the colleges that are members of edX as well as the nonprofit consortium itself.

The agreement calls for a number of changes, such as making edX’s website, mobile applications, and learning-management system fully accessible in the next 18 months; providing guidance to course creators on best practices for making online courses fully accessible; hiring a web-accessibility coordinator with specific responsibilities; and developing a web-accessibility policy.

The settlement notes that edX maintains that it was not inaccessible to people with disabilities and that the group did not admit any wrongdoing.

The changes were prompted by a compliance review begun by the Department of Justice.

"We were very aware in 2012 or so about the emergence of MOOCs and the importance, or the potential importance, that they offer to students who have distance barriers and cost barriers to getting good educational content," said Eve L. Hill, the department’s deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights. "And they offer a potentially really good avenue for students with disabilities."

But if those platforms are inaccessible, she added, it closes off that opportunity for students with disabilities.

Though Ms. Hill would not share details about the problems with the edX platform, she said they were common website-accessibility problems. She gave examples of those, including videos that lack captions, pop-up windows that aren’t recognized by screen-reader applications used by visually impaired people, and tables of data that lack header information or aren’t organized in a way that screen readers can translate.

The settlement occurred as part of the Justice Department’s broader efforts to make many websites more accessible to people with disabilities. Those efforts have included reaching settlement agreements or filing statements of interest in cases involving Netflix, H&R Block, and Louisiana Tech University, to name a few.

But the agreement with edX, Ms. Hill said, is different because it concerns both platform technology, created by edX, and the content itself, which is largely created by the consortium’s member colleges.

Room for Improvement

The settlement acknowledges that edX has taken steps to make its programs accessible to people with disabilities, but it says there is still room for improvement.

Anant Agarwal, edX's chief executive, said accessibility had always been a priority for the nonprofit organization.

"Our mission has been to provide learning to anyone, anywhere, including people with disabilities," Mr. Agarwal said. edX and the Justice Department worked together to develop a "road map" to accessibility that will help edX to "continue to stay on that path."

Mr. Agarwal said users of edX will see continuous improvements, not sudden, sweeping changes. As an example, he cited an accessible text-annotation tool called Student Notes, which has custom keyboard controls to assist students who are visually impaired. Mr. Agarwal said the program would be released in a few weeks. He also mentioned improvements in edX’s mobile platform.

The settlement also requires edX to appoint a web-accessibility coordinator. Ms. Hill explained that this person would be responsible for monitoring compliance, conducting regular audits, and making sure the settlement agreement was being carried out.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that edX must create a new position — Mr. Agarwal said the nonprofit already employs an accessibility coordinator — but rather it outlines the responsibilities of an accessibility coordinator.

Ms. Hill would not say whether the Justice Department was looking into any other MOOC providers, but she said she hoped that others took note of the settlement with edX, adding that her office "will be watching."

Peter Blanck, chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University and author of eQuality: The Struggle for Web Accessibility by Persons With Cognitive Disabilities (Cambridge University Press, 2014), said edX was part of a new generation of services that are essentially content-management services rather than content providers. The settlement acknowledges that, he said.

"It’s reflective of a recognition of the responsibility of these new content-provider management systems to enable a platform that is accessible with content," said Mr. Blanck.

The settlement also acknowledges "the responsibility of all parties to work together," he added, in that it holds edX and its member colleges accountable.