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The evidence for the efficacy of accessible course design

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The evidence for the efficacy of accessible course design

Started by Sandra Law May 8, 2013 - 12:17pm Replies (1)

Given repeated requests for research verifying the efficacy of accessible course materials and activities I decided to conduct a search for such evidence in the form of a meta-analysis. I came across a blog posting that rejects evidence-based practice in education. The blogger argues that it is not possible to apply "evidence-based practice" (which originated in health care) in education because

  • educators cannot conduct "double-blind" trials, and
  • such trials involve withholding interventions which could be construed as malpractice.

Add to that the dearth of data on whether accessible course materials improve student achievement, retention, or satisfaction and one is left in a difficult position. There is Canadian data on what students, student support services, and academics consider to be accessibility deficits in course materials and/or activities. However, the analysis seems to stop at this level in most cases or to focus on particular groups of students (hard of hearing, dyslexic, learning disabled, blind) making the studies ungeneralizable. In some of my conversations with colleagues there is even a suggestion that students with disabilities aren't participating in post-secondary education in sufficient numbers to justify incorporating inclusive design in our processes. However, there is increasing evidence that students with disabilities are attending university/college in larger numbers. It is hard to compare their completion rates with traditional students as there are few comprehensive studies on this issue. Given that many students with disabilities may not self-identify (fear of stigma, lack of a diagnosis) the data that is available is likely not representative.


  • Jon Dron May 8, 2013 - 1:33pm

    'Evidence-based' does not necessarily mean the use of experimental designs, which are indeed pointless and misleading when looking at creative human designs, especially those involving the complex interactions of many people with different needs and the intent to produce complex, open-ended outcomes: education, in other words. Interpretive and qualitative methods work well in such circumstances, especially when conducted as part of an action-research or design-based-research methodology, and I still count those as evidence (though I take issue with the author of the post above that grounded theory is a good solution - that's about theory building, as the name implies, not evidence). Either way, it's not about numbers. If there are unwarranted barriers excluding at least some people then that's all we need to know in order to make a decision to do something about it. 

    Ultimately, it's a question of ethics. As an open university we should be ashamed if we are not at least trying to be as inclusive as we can. With nearly 15% of people in Canada declaring some disability and, perhaps, most of us suffering some impairment, such as age-related sight and hearing loss, that does not warrant declaring as a disability but that is definitely an impediment, it would also be stupid to ignore. But that's not the main point.  Whether we have conducted quantitative studies or not, common sense and decency suggests we should at the very least be trying to be as inclusive as we can.

    I understand the concerns of those who claim otherwise though: ethical decisions are only hard when two or more principles come into conflict. In these times of tightened purse-strings and penny-pinching cutbacks, it's a difficult call to have to decide whether to do something, even if it only satisfies the demands of a few, when the alternative is to do nothing at all for anyone or, at best, offer something less satisfactory for all. Unfortunately, accessibility often costs money, especially when we have to cope with bad historical decisions that are embedded in our tools. Notwithstanding the fact that accessible design often benefits everyone and not just those otherwise denied access, there is usually extra money and effort needed to cater for all, and that means money that cannot be spent on other things and therefore that other people are excluded. 

    Personally, though it is difficult, expensive and a never-ending uphill struggle, a battle we are unlikely to ever fully win, I think the moral principle to make our courses as accessible as we can is fairly clear here. We could justify non-accessible designs on the grounds that we could certainly help a lot more people by channeling resources into something else that offers more, whether in improved range or in quality, or in reduced costs that would allow currently financially excluded students to take them. But that ostensibly sensible and pragmatic kind of moral principle is a very close kissing cousin to the one that ultimately leads to eugenics. A good society (or organization) values all of its members equally and protects and nurtures them all without prejudice. 

    There's a slight irony in writing this on the Landing which, though it is not too awful (well, not as bad as an automated scan using WAVE would suggest), has some known weaknesses and probably quite a lot that are unknown, despite an avowed design principle of at least enabling accessible content to be created. Sometimes our aspirations are not matched by our achievements. It's a journey, not a destination :-)