There are few places on earth more obsessed with social justice, whatever that means for the next ten minutes, than the University of California, Berkeley. But even Berkeley must occasionally confront reality, and as every grown-up knows, reality bites. So Berkeley had to make its choice, and its choice was to shut down free online content.
The University of California, Berkeley has announced that it may eliminate free online content rather than comply with a U.S. Justice Department order that it make the content accessible to those with disabilities.
The content in question is all free and is for the general public to use. “The department’s findings do not implicate the accessibility of educational opportunities provided to our enrolled students,” said a statement on the situation by Cathy Koshland, vice chancellor for undergraduate education.
Aren’t people with disabilities entitled to the same access to free online education as everyone else? Well yes. Maybe. And not exactly. This has been a thrust of the DoJ, trying to make the world more socially just for all.
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.
MIT was willing to buy it’s way out of DoJ’s crosshairs with this settlement. And having beaten the big Kahuna, edX, DoJ was ready to take on the rest of higher ed and then the world.
“In many cases the requirements proposed by the department would require the university to implement extremely expensive measures to continue to make these resources available to the public for free,” she wrote. “We believe that in a time of substantial budget deficits and shrinking state financial support, our first obligation is to use our limited resources to support our enrolled students. Therefore, we must strongly consider the unenviable option of whether to remove content from public access.”
For every tear cried because there is someone, somewhere, whose circumstances requires special needs, there is a cost. Someone has to pay the price for every fix. Sometimes the price is quantified in dollars. Sometimes the price is quantified by the reduction of one person’s rights to increase the reach of someone else. TANSTAAFL.
The Department of Justice found that much of this online material is in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires colleges to make their offerings accessible to people with disabilities.
That’s accurate, the ADA requires colleges to accommodate the disabled. In a vacuum, it seems benign, fair, that colleges should not have barriers to those who endure challenges.
Berkeley released the Justice Department letter finding the university in violation of ADA. The letter outlined numerous concerns not only about issues related to those who are deaf but also those who have visual disabilities:
- Many videos do not have captions.
- Many videos lack “an alternative way to access images or visual information (e.g., graphs, charts, animations, or urls on slides), such as audio description, alternative text, PDF files, or Word documents.)
- Many documents “associated with online courses were inaccessible to individuals with vision disabilities who use screen readers because the document was not formatted properly.”
- Some videos that had automatically generated captions were ‘inaccurate and incomplete.”
This is true, and the list goes on. There are tons of things that go on in these free online educational courses that make them inaccessible to the disabled. And there are fixes, time-consuming and expensive, that could correct these deficits, most of the time. So what if colleges are offering these courses for free? The ADA isn’t limited to things people pay for, and why should the disabled be denied access to free content that is available to others?
All good questions. Except the result isn’t going to be unfettered access for the disabled. There are limits to how much colleges are willing to pay to make the accommodations necessary, and so Berkeley decided that if the DoJ wants to put a gun to its head to make its free online courses cost prohibitive, then it’s going to take the alternative path. Poof. No free online courses for anyone. Deaf or hearing. Blind or sighted. Nobody gets shit. Problem solved!
Who could have seen this coming?
The blog of Reason, a libertarian magazine, wrote: “Special thanks to the DOJ — fulfilling its role here as the Handicapper General — for ensuring equal access to public education, where ‘equal access’ is defined as ‘no access for anybody.’
And lest you think that’s where the matter dies, the ADA goes far beyond the content put out by colleges.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.
The scope of what constitutes public accommodations and commercial facilities is left to the bureaucrats to decide. as is the scope of what constitutes a disability. The implications are endless. MIT settled with DoJ, encouraging the government to pursue its goal of recreating the socially just world at other people’s expense. Berkeley says “bite me.” A sudden warm affection for Berkeley has arisen.
Should the letter from DoJ arrive at SJ World Headquarters, I will not be nearly as polite. It’s not that I hate the disabled. Not at all. But there’s only so much I’m willing to do to provide free content for anyone who cares to read it. And that’s over the line.
Update: Walter Olson at Overlawyered is on this as well.