In the Online Environment, Nothing Is Until It Is
J. Williams

I, as well, felt a bit befuddled by the scope of the accommodation discussion.  There is a lot that needs doing.  I am happy to see that I have many successes, according to the best practices we have been introduced to in the reading, in addition to the improvements I am committed to making.  I do well with making my course easy to navigate and the information easy to consume for many kinds of readers.  I don’t hide information behind a cascade of clicks, I don’t wall it off in ways that might confuse a screen reader, and I label links in descriptive ways.  I need to be better at communicating feedback in multiple modalities.

Reading through the first two articles we have been presented with for this week’s thinking, I was reminded, again, of a topic that came up in our last session of Writing with Machines: In the online classroom, everything must be manufactured.  One way to consider this is in terms of our online persona.  As instructors in a traditional classroom, our persona emits as a function of our presence.  We don’t really have to consciously create it.  We are who we are.  Mannerisms, tone of voice, the way we walk a room, our handwriting — these all communicate something about us.  In the online environment, these cues don’t exist, for the most part.  If we want to have a personality when teaching online (and all of the literature suggests we do), then we have to manufacture it, quite consciously, in addition to teaching, rather than as a byproduct of teaching.  Community was another element that required manufacturing.  Whereas in the classroom there are opportunities for community building that just happen because we all inhabit the same space once or twice a week, in the online environment, neither the space nor the inhabiting exist unless they are manufactured by the instructor.

I find this discussion relevant when considering accommodation, as well.  In the traditional classroom, there are elements of accommodation that are, in essence, automatic, either through institutional support or the ease with which the accommodation can be met in person.  I recall a student I had my first semester as a teacher … er, some number of years ago.  She was, essentially, deaf, though she could make out some sounds.  She stopped me after class one day and told me that she could do without an interpreter if I would make sure to face the class, rather than the white board, when lecturing.  I, at times, like to scribble while I talk.  Turns out she was a top-rate lip reader.  In the span of time it took to have the conversation, the accommodation had been made.  Now, in an online environment, if I post a PowerPoint, for example, with a voice over lecture, I need to manufacture the accommodation by captioning the presentation.  And, when I read through the list of effective practices in this week’s reading, I see that, for the most part, accommodation requires manufacturing, and the manufacturing is largely left to the instructor.

Accessibility is a compelling topic.  We have moral and legal obligations to meet the accessibility needs of our students, and I believe that, as educators, this is something we are committed to doing.  However, the online environment creates both opportunities and perils for students in need of accommodation — and for instructors trying to meet those needs.

Our reading appropriately acknowledges this, and acknowledges the strange situation that most online instructors face when moving from on-the-ground teaching to online: that when they leave the comfort of the classroom, they also leave behind a suite of institutional support for ensuring that students get the accommodations they need.  Such inequities exist across numerous forms of needed accommodation in the online environment, and in most cases sorting them out falls to the instructor, where the same wouldn’t be true in a traditional, on campus teaching assignment.

Why this is, I do not know.