Online learning has emerged as an increasingly important method for universities to provide course content. Today, it is virtually impossible for a university student to avoid interacting with an online learning environment, even for those courses that are delivered on-campus.
The value of a tertiary education is increasing, and there is a clear connection between tertiary education and employment. People who are blind or have low vision and who have obtained a tertiary qualification have a much greater chance of finding employment than those who have not.
Over the past three years Vision Australia staff have spoken with a number of university students who are blind or have low vision. Without exception they have reported that they have experienced numerous accessibility barriers when using online learning environments. In some cases, these barriers have prevented them from continuing their studies.
In the absence of research in this area, Vision Australia conducted a small-scale research project in 2017 to assess the prevalence and nature of barriers to online learning experienced by current and recent university students who are blind or have low vision. 35 participants, using a range of assistive technologies and studying at 24 of Australia's 37 public universities, completed an online survey and/or participated in telephone conversations about their experiences.
With few exceptions, participants reported that they had encountered significant accessibility barriers when using online learning environments. In some cases these barriers had resulted in participants abandoning their studies altogether, while many others found studying extremely stressful, difficult and unrewarding.
The accessibility barriers reported by participants include:
- Inaccessibility of key components of online learning environments, such as discussion boards and collaborative tools, to the most common assistive technology used by people who are blind or have low vision;
- Lack of understanding and timely support from disability services staff;
- Unwillingness of lecturers to make changes to course delivery formats to make them more accessible;
- Inconsistency in the provision of reasonable adjustments