Category Archives: AccessED

AccessED Update

After a bit of a lull for the past week as we were sending emails and planning the next stage of our project, I am pleased to say that we are back in action.  We are particularly excited for this Friday, when we will be meeting Samantha Earp, Executive Director or HarvardX, to talk about their policies regarding accessibility in their online education platform.  I’m particularly interested in seeing how the policies of HarvardX, a private entity in the sphere of online education, differs from the policies and approach set by the Disability Services Office, which is part of Harvard University itself.

More on the outcome of our meeting in our next post!



AccessED Update

Midterm review/What we did
Last week, we presented a synopsis of our findings to the DPSI community. We went over some of the legal considerations for MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) providers as well as our meeting with the Harvard Disability Services Office.
What went well
Our presentation went pretty well and we were able to get some good feedback from the audience. Our two main questions for the audience were:

  • Given Harvard’s decentralized governance structure, what are some incentives (besides money!) that would encourage professors who develop MOOCs to consider and apply best practices for accessibility upfront?
  • We originally started thinking about MOOCs broadly, but have since focused our efforts on accessibility of Harvard’s MOOCs. Would a better final product be Harvard-focused (e.g., helping Harvard encourage its own MOOCs to apply accessibility standards upfront) or should we broaden to a work product that may be more broadly applied by other universities?

If anyone has thoughts on these two questions, please feel free to drop us a comment!

What was challenging
A big piece of the puzzle that we are missing is getting a soup to nuts overview of how a MOOC is developed.
What’s up next
We are hoping to set up a meeting with a MOOC provider soon!

AccessEd Team Update

What We Worked On

The AccessEd team met last week to:  (a) take stock where things stand in terms of background research and planned outputs for the project; and (b) discuss ways to best take advantage this week’s mid-semester review session to inform our work over the rest of the term.

What Went Well

The team continues to make progress on evaluating the landscape for online education and access and getting its collective arms around the scope of issues that learners with hearing and visual impairments face as course materials move online.   Conversations thus far with experts in this space have helped the team to understand key technical, policy, and resource concerns.

What Was Challenging

Identifying discrete tasks to be tackled within the scope and timeline of DPSI has been difficult.  Some of the technological challenges in this space are quite significant — e.g., challenges around development of fast and accurate captioning systems for audiovisual materials.  The team is perhaps more likely to have an impact as a resource (or aggregator of third-party resources) or perhaps codifier of best practices than as a technical engineering or development initiative.

What’s Up Next

The team looks forward to getting some feedback from the crowd at this week’s mid-semester review as we continue to develop our agenda for the coming weeks.

Update from AccessEd

What we worked on:

We met this week to discuss to reflect on what we’ve learned so far as well as next steps going forward. 

I also got to see a demo of HiSoftware’s Compliance Sheriff, which is a software tool that scans a webpage’s html code to see if it is compliant with web accessibility standards such as  Section 508 or WCAG 2.0. The tool is pretty easy to use and can spider through each link to check compliance. It can provide a high level view (e.g., what departments’/percentage of your website is compliant with web accessibility standards) as well as an in-depth view into non-compliant code. For example, Compliance Sheriff can highlight the exact portion of the code that is non-compliant and explain how it is non-compliant. One thing Compliance Sheriff does not do is go ahead and fix the code for a developer.

What went well:

It is heartening to know and understand that a variety of tools and technologies already exist to help make digital content accessible for persons with disabilities.

What’s been challenging:

The real difficulty is lack of consensus on specifics of accessibility. Based on our research so far, we haven’t found a best practices for captioning technology, for example.  We hope our research this week will shed light on that particular problem. We also hope to set up a meeting with some of the edX team to get an overview of how courses are put online as well as how edX deals with accessibility issues.


AccessED Update

Hi, I’m Jackie Martinez, a sophomore undergrad at Harvard and I’ll be writing this week’s post on behalf of the AccessED team! In case you haven’t been following this project, we’re working on making online education more accessible to students with disabilities.

This week’s progress has been more along the lines of collecting information and narrowing the focus of our project as we see the places this team can make a difference this fall.

One of the main challenges we’ve come up against in our research is that policies across different parts of even just one institution like Harvard are inconsistent and hard to keep track of, and this research challenge has pointed us in a great direction for our project.  At least one of our goals will be to propose and test alternatives to such a decentralized system for accessibility accommodation, especially because scaling resources for internet audiences presents extra challenges. The reason that this has become more of a focus is that, from our research, it seems that while there is a lot of developing and available technology, there are few guidelines for well-meaning institutions and professors for how to best use and provide this technology.

This week we’re continuing to refine what we as a group can do as we hear perspectives from the online education platforms themselves.
Thanks for reading and please keep following us!

AccessED 2nd update: Decentralization and Incentives

Hello from the AccessED team! A quick review: We are a group of Harvard students from across the university working on making online education more accessible to students with disabilities. I’m Michelle Sohn, a 3rd year Harvard Law Student, and I am writing this week’s update!

What we worked on:

This week, we met with Harvard’s Office of Disability Services. At our meeting, we got a robust overview of how the Office works on web accessibility  with different Harvard schools and libraries. They shared with us a number of exciting and innovative projects they are working on, including Sensus Access (a file conversion service) and the Assistive Technology Lending Library and Lab.

What went well:

The meeting went very well! It was informative and inspiring to hear from people who think about accessibility to education everyday. While we came prepared with questions, the conversation evolved organically.

What was challenging:

Three challenges:

1. Standards: As Curren mentioned in our last post, the standards for accessibility, especially the legal ones are unclear. A series of interesting cases have resulted in federal courts in different circuits differently deciding whether websites can be considered “public accommodations” under the Americans with Disabilities Act. If so, then the website must ensure an appropriate degree of accessibility so persons with disabilities can have full and equal enjoyment. I have written up a quick legal primer on the ADA and litigation over web accessibility under the ADA and would be happy to share upon request.

2. Cost: At our meeting with University Disability Services, we learned that a lot of the technology used to increase web accessibility is pretty expensive. For example, captioning services for videos is very costly.

3. DecentralizationHarvard’s online education ecosystem seems to be highly decentralized. On one hand, this is great, because it means approaches to online education can be organic and experimental. On the other hand, this makes creating consensus,  incentivizing, and even raising awareness around accessibility with faculty who are from a diverse array of schools difficult.

What’s up next

We need to brainstorm some more and come up with our project proposal!

Stay tuned and stay classy!


Introducing AccessED!

Hi there!

I’m Curren Iyer, a sophomore at Harvard College, and I am part of team AccessED! Our team name stems from the goal of our project, which is to find a way to make education more accessible to individuals with disabilities.  I can probably speak for my fellow teammates, as well as the other DPSI project groups, in saying that we are all very excited to participate in DPSI.

Our team members:

Michelle Sohn (Harvard Law School)

Yifan Wu (Harvard College)

Curren Iyer (Harvard College)

Jacqueline Martinez (Harvard College)

What we’ve worked on

So far, since the project is still in its early stages, much of the work that we are doing involves research into relevant past examples.

We’ve split the research into 3 categories:

  • Yifan: Relevant technology (i.e. screen readers for smartphones)
  • Curren & Jacqueline: Policies of some of the major online education programs, including those offered by private companies (i.e. coursera) as well as universities (i.e. HarvardX).
  • Michelle: Legal ramifications of accessibility.  This including relevant laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act) and legal cases (including a recent case in which a U.S. District Court in Massachusetts ruled that the ADA even applied to website-only businesses, such as Netflix).

What went well

So far I think one of the strengths of our team has been organization, in that the work has been divided among us relatively evenly such that it is manageable for all of us to tackle.

What was challenging

One of the biggest challenges that we have faced is that there are no overarching consistent standards for this issue, but instead a large degree of variance on a case-by-case basis.  For example, I have found that, because the ADA does not mandate a specific minimum standard for what accommodations should be made for disabled individuals, that responsibility is left to universities to handle.  As a result, these universities have handled the issue in varying degrees.  As for the legal ramifications, while there was one case that mandated Netflix to caption all its videos under the ADA, a court in California dismissed charges against Redbox Automated Retail for almost the same exact charges.

What’s up next

Looking in the short-term, we hope to visit Harvard’s own Accessible Education Office.  This visit will potentially give us more insight to see how educational accessibility is used in practice.  Looking in the long-term, one of our goals is to see what we want to create as our end result, whether that be a program that could facilitate solving the problem or a report advising what steps should be taken in the future.


Stay tuned for the next installment!