There is a reason why we can’t have nice things. The reason is us. Or, as my pal dissent likes to remind us,
EdX is one of those few, those proud, those brave, those actually useful endeavors coming from the wellspring of technology that can actually contribute to the benefit of mankind.
EdX is a massive open online course provider and online learning platform. It hosts online university-level courses in a wide range of disciplines to a worldwide audience.
Some classes are free. Some cost money. But you too can go to MIT if you so choose. Well, maybe not.
EdX has entered into a settlement with the Department of Justice over allegations that the online course provider was not fully accessible to people with disabilities, in violation of federal law.
The settlement comes during a separate, ongoing lawsuit between MIT and the National Association for the Deaf (NAD) over a lack of closed captioning in online course videos and educational materials.
The idea of including closed captioning in online videos doesn’t seem unduly burdensome or unreasonable at first blush. After all, TV does it, so how big a deal could it be? And certainly deaf people are worthy of an education as well as the hearing, and there is no reason to exclude them from the ability to benefit from edX, right?
Except, to the extent edX is a free, cooperative venture, offered as a means of sharing knowledge to the world, requiring it to include closed captioning means adding a cost factor that cannot be recouped without charging a fee. For those who are unable to pay the fee, but would otherwise be able to benefit from edX, the price of requiring closed captioning will be borne by them. Somebody has to pay.
But this is merely one step in a problem that goes much farther.
In particular, the settlement will require edX to make its website “fully accessible” within 18 months of April 2, the date the settlement was reached. This will entail providing “accurate captioning for the deaf, oral navigation signals for the blind, and programming changes so those with dexterity disabilities can navigate content without struggling with a hand-operated mouse,” according to the release.
So it’s not just the deaf, but the blind and the dexterity challenged. Again, people who are challenged just want to be able to gain access to the same knowledge as anyone else, and there is nothing wrong with that. Nor is there any reason for them not to be worthy of the knowledge otherwise available. This isn’t about denying anyone the ability to benefit from edX.
Yet, edX wasn’t some conspiracy designed to enlighten the abled at the expense of the disabled. It was a good thing to do, a nice thing, to share knowledge with the world for free. It was a good deed, and as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished:
The settlement came after a compliance review undertaken by the Department of Justice found edX to be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Specifically, edX was found to violate Title III of the ADA, which prohibits “public accommodations” — including privately owned places of education — from discriminating against people with disabilities or barring people with disabilities from full and equal enjoyment of the services they provide.
The Americans with Disabilities Act is similarly well intended, requiring “public accommodations” to welcome all despite their limitations. But is there a line, a limit, to what is required to achieve those accommodations? Will the only videos available on edX come from Harrison Bergeron University?
To its credit, the head of edX appears to be embracing the challenge. And if they can pull it off, and thereby provide access to everyone without regard to ability, greater still.
“The laws regarding website accessibility should be clear and uniformly applied,” [edX general counsel Tena] Herlihy wrote in a statement. “While the law and policy catch up, we are very proud to be a leader in website accessibility for learners across the globe.”
“We are excited about where we are going,” Herlihy said.
Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, echoed this sentiment. “Our vision — quality education for everyone, everywhere — can only be achieved when our site is accessible to all users, including people with disabilities.”
That’s wonderful. Of course, if by wonderful it means that fees will be charged to pay the cost of the accommodations, thus precluding those unable to pay the fees from enjoying the benefits, then maybe it’s only kinda wonderful for some and not so wonderful for others.
The problem is that there are many initiatives for free online information and education that begin with a vision of providing a free benefit to all, only to find out that even dreams cost money. Consider, for example, the Cornell LII initiative to provide free access to law online, which is now scrambling for funding.
And yet, the question remains whether additional demands and requirements will be imposed on edX, because there is an essentially inexhaustible supply of people with challenges, each of which is just as worthy of accommodation as any other.
What about the intellectually challenged, who need education using alternative methodology? Will professors be required to restructure their lectures to include scaffolding? Everyone learns differently due to personal strengths and weaknesses. Will edX be constrained to employ all 150 teaching best practices to satisfy the needs of every type of learner?
That the internet affords us the opportunity to gain educational benefits in ways that were never possible before is, indeed, wonderful, and commendable. But we could kill this opportunity by requiring it to meet every demand, every accommodation by every person with alternative needs out there.
The continual overlaying of demands on every well-intended effort will dissuade some from starting and destroy those that can’t afford or manage the accommodation. To do less would mean that someone, somewhere, won’t be able to enjoy the benefits that others do. To do more may mean that no one gets to enjoy them. Is that what we’re trying to accomplish, because that will invariably be the outcome of good intentions.