A Qualitative Study: Perceptions of Students with Blindness in Post-Graduate Distance Learning in STEM Fields

By Sathiyaprakash Ramdoss, Dongmei Liu, Shivaji Kumar, and Kaelin Lee

Sathiyaprakash Ramdoss, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Ashland University. Ramdoss’ research interests are related to the efficacy of assistive technology-based interventions in improving academic and functional outcomes of individuals with autism and other developmental and physical disabilities.

Dongmei Liu is a doctoral candidate at New Mexico State University. Liu’s research orientations are misrepresentation in special education and family perspectives on gifted education intersected with cultural identity of minority groups.

Shivaji Kumar is a digital accessibility specialist at Amherst College and researches impact of web content accessibility guidelines on accessibility regulations across countries.

Kaelin Lee is a doctoral candidate at Ashland University researching the perceptions of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and people with disabilities in mindfulness communities on social media.

Abstract

Using a method of semi-structured interviews, the main aim of the research is to delineate the central phenomenon of experience of two post-graduate students with low vision and blindness who have pursued STEM-related degrees at accredited post-secondary institutions in the United States. The focus is on exploration of the perceptions of post-secondary students with blindness regarding the quality and accessibility of online STEM curricula and instructional environments (i.e., either synchronous or asynchronous). Participants for this study were recruited through snowball sampling and the data was collected using qualitative interviews via the Zoom video conferencing platform. All interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed verbatim, and then analyzed for thematic content by using standard content analysis framework and coding methods. The findings offered significant insights into challenges students with low vision and blindness face in accessing distance-learning STEM curricula and the solutions digital accessibility standards and practices offer to overcome access barriers.

Keywords

Blindness, STEM, online learning

Introduction

The promise of “learning anything everywhere” that distance and online education offers is extremely attractive to contemporary learners, but a vast number of learners with certain disabilities remain beyond the purview of those benefits. In 2005, approximately 5% of college students with disabilities were enrolled in post-secondary institutions; that had grown in 2011 to 11- 12% (Snyder & Dillow, 2013). This increase in the enrollment of high school students with disabilities in secondary institutions can be attributed to federal legislation. For instance, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandated that persons with disabilities be allowed to attend secondary institutions. Additionally, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 provided additional civil rights protection for this population. Even though the enrollment of students with disabilities in post-secondary institutions is increasing due to federal mandates, very few students graduate.  In 2012, approximately 11% of the total population of secondary school students with disabilities enrolled in post-secondary institutions and 23.2% of those post-secondary students with disabilities enrolled in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields. This enrollment rate is more or less similar to the enrollment rate of students without disabilities (24.7%) (National Science Foundation, 2013). However, a large portion of students with disabilities enrolled in STEM fields quit post-secondary institutions without receiving a degree (Vogel et al., 2008). Challenges are even more pronounced for students with blindness pursuing STEM-related degrees because of limited resources that are fully accessible (Holt et al., 2019).

Even prior to their entrance to college or university, students with blindness are persuaded against pursuing a degree in STEM-related fields for several reasons. Whereas sighted students can easily access STEM curriculum, students with visual impairment and blindness experience significant difficulties accessing that curriculum. This is because most of the concepts in STEM fields are presented graphically and there are many concepts that cannot be accessed through tactile modalities (Design Science, 2011). Spatial ability is often reported as a fundamental skill that a student needs to acquire to be successful in STEM fields (National Research Council, 2005). For a student with blindness to pursue a STEM-related degree, more cognitive efforts are warranted to manipulate 3D-objects and environments, geographical locations, and/or the property of the given objects (Thinus-Blanc & Gaunet, 1997). Despite these challenges, many students with blindness choose to pursue post-secondary/graduate and post-graduate degrees in STEM-related disciplines (Vollmer, 2012). Accessibility and usability barriers abound when some of those students are required to take STEM courses online to fulfill their degree requirements.

To bridge this gap between blind students’ satisfaction with online courses, scholars have suggested several approaches to remedy the situation. To make online courses accessible, Wattenberg (2004) argued for going beyond legal compliance when institutions consider online course delivery. Wattenberg opines that ethical considerations of designing inclusive instructions and using accessible delivery means require a radical change in higher education. Indeed, Schmetzke (2001) advocated for a significant shift in approach in the design of online courses. In the absence of such a shift, students with disabilities such as blindness would be deprived of benefits of learning anything and everywhere. Edmonds (2004) focused on technical obstacles online courses pose for students with blindness. The technical obstacles can be resolved, argued Edmonds (2004), only to the extent or only when driven by the compulsions of legal compliance.

Similarly, awareness and training of instructors in designing and delivering accessible instructions becomes foci of other studies. Gladhart (2010) highlighted the lack of instructors’ knowledge and training in strategies for improving accessibility of their courses. Faculty in general do not consider digital accessibility in design of their courses and remain focused mainly on their course contents and disciplinary knowledge. This highlights a significant limitation of online and distance courses in that they underestimate the significance of the role of instructors in the design and delivery of content as well as use of delivery platforms to make available materials to all learners in a timely fashion. This leaves students with disabilities, and particularly students with blindness, unable to access those course contents.

Digital technology has revolutionized education, making distance learning part of the new norm and becoming a well-accepted medium of new learning for both students with and without disabilities.  For the 2012 fall semester, more than 25% of all students chose to pursue their higher education either exclusively or in part via distance learning (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014). The assistive technology tools used by individuals with low vision and blindness has grown by leaps and bounds in the recent years, but the exact number of students with blindness participating in online STEM-related courses is unknown. However, the number of blind students participating in online courses is large and it is projected to increase (Guercio et al., 2011). The success of any distance-learning program tends to be easily associated with a numerical increase of students with blindness and other disabilities enrolled in these programs. Less explored and implemented is a systemic change in curriculum and instruction that accommodate diverse learners, regardless of the category or severity of disabilities or gender, ethnic, or linguistic backgrounds. This study is extremely time-sensitive as there is a legal urgency for institutions of higher education to abide by the digital accessibility standards such as Section 504 and Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Section 255 of Telecommunication Act of 1996, and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 and 2.1.

An extensive review indicates a paucity of literature on the first-hand experiences of students with blindness and low vision when accessing STEM-related courses online using assistive technologies. In fact, little is known of the experiences of students with blindness and low vision when they face inaccessibility of course contents and other aspects of online learning. This qualitative study is primarily aimed at understanding the perceptions of two master’s degree students with blindness in accessing STEM courses online. Further, user perspective is an effective tool to gain an in-depth understanding about course design, content, delivery, implementation, and other issues surrounding accessibility (Horton & Sloan, 2014). This study seeks to fill this gap and add to the body of literature that currently exists. Study findings offer new directions and opportunities for colleges and universities to address the diverse range of accessibility issues surrounding distance learning, and design and implementation of effective accessibility policies.

In the next section, we will describe the research method and the approach we employed for data analysis. It is followed by a presentation of main findings of the research. The concluding section offers suggestions to advance this research agenda on STEM education for blind or low-vision students through the medium of online, distance-delivery method.

Research Methods

Participants

This study was conducted upon receiving permission from the relevant human subject research/ethics committee and the informed consent from the study participants. Two participants with blindness were recruited who had recently taken online courses in STEM-related degrees. Both pursued a master’s in computer-related fields and had taken a number of STEM courses online. The female participant graduated with her master’s degree in cyber security and the male participant graduated with a master’s degree in information technology. Both students completed their undergraduate education in their home country (India) and did not use assistive technology until they embarked on their master’s degree in the United States. The levels of education in India are primary school (elementary in the United States), secondary (middle and high school), post-secondary or graduate (bachelor’s degree), and post-graduate (any post-baccalaureate coursework, whether or not it led to a master’s degree).

Although the sample size was small, the chain, or snowball, sampling method was used to recruit the two participants, which inherently lends itself to finding referrals to information-rich cases (Creswell, 2013). The recruitment of blind STEM students taking online classes, a highly specific sampling pool considered difficult-to-impossible to source (Hesse-Biber, 2017), was assisted by one participant referring the other. As the aim of the study was primarily exploratory, qualitative, and descriptive, snowball sampling offered particular practical advantages (Hendriks et al., 1992). The researchers sent emails to the listservs of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) for participant recruitment. The first participant, who is a member of the NFB, referred the second participant. This snowballing recruitment strategy yielded the two-person participant pool.

Materials

A semi-structured interview schedule was used, consisting of 18 open-ended questions and 3 closed-ended questions. These questions covered the unique barriers and challenges that the learners with blindness experienced while accessing online STEM curriculum. In particular, the questions covered the types of browsers, operating systems, or assistive technologies that the learners were using for the fulfillment of their degree requirements. Interview questions also focused on the challenges that the learners experienced while interacting with their peers, course instructor, course content, and learning management systems (e.g., Moodle, Blackboard). These questions were developed in collaboration with two blind graduates experienced in using screen readers. The draft of the interview guide was piloted with one blind individual who has had some experience in teaching online courses. The feedback that we received from the pilot study participant suggested that the questions were comprehensive and easy to understand.

Study Procedure

Audio interviews for this study took place in October and November of 2019. Prior to the interview, participants received an email explaining the purpose and procedure of the study.  Those individuals who agreed to participate received informed consent forms in accessible formats. Participants were interviewed by the first two investigators who were trained in using qualitative interview schedule. Investigators used the Zoom platform to conduct and record the interviews and each interview lasted approximately for 60 minutes. Furthermore, investigators supplemented audio-recorded interviews with field notes to avoid data loss due to accidentally erased recordings or other technological failures.

Data Analysis

Investigators performed a verbatim transcription of the audio interviews that included all spoken words and non-verbal utterances. Recordings were reviewed several times and the transcripts were re-read and compared with recorded interviews to ensure 100% accuracy. The first two investigators used inductive process to independently code the data for subsequent thematic analysis. After completing initial coding, both investigators met to compare and revise the coding framework to further develop and finalize the themes. The disagreements that arose between the investigators were discussed and resolved.  After coding all the transcripts, the codes were categorized into broader themes and associated sub-themes.

Researcher Positionality

The first author, who is also a researcher of this study, is self-identified as a person with visual disability. He has matriculated through the public-school system and subsequent public higher-education institutions in his home country as well as the United States. The social stigmas associated with this disability rendered a limitation in his choice of educational discipline and constrained his active and full participation in social and educational activities. His lived experiences as a person with visual disability and his practical experiences working with a diverse range of physical, intellectual, and developmental disabilities and their families informed and guided his research in disabilities and special education. His membership and connections with the disability-related organizations such as the National Federation of the Blind facilitated recruiting and building rapport with the participants.

Results

Despite the widely ranging particular circumstances between the two participants, five major themes were recurring regarding the perception of online STEM courses from the analysis. The themes included (a) student perception of online courses, (b) student interaction with faculty, (c) student interaction with content, (d) coping with assistive technology and learning module system, and (e) effective strategies.

Theme 1: Student Perception of Online Courses

The first theme common to the participants’ responses was that both noted the advantages and disadvantages of online courses in comparison to traditional face-to-face courses. Both participants affirmed that online settings provided more flexibility and exempted them from struggles for physical presence:

I think what I like about online courses is that - one, I don't have to go or any of the infrastructure troubles, like sometimes it's so hard to get to a class or sometimes even when you are in the class, there could be other distractions around and things like that. With this, it doesn't happen when I am learning online. So, and then I can learn at my pace. And especially, like, if I'm working full-time or if I'm studying full-time, if I can listen to the video at my convenience, that is something that works out really good. (Participant 1)

So in that context, I would prefer online courses. They do really offer a lot of advantages; flexibility – being anywhere in the world and attend the class session. I used to travel a lot and I could I could still attend my sessions. So, families and things like that.  (Participant 2)

On the other hand, an online setting was at a disadvantage in terms of communicating needs and receiving feedback for which face-to-face classes furnished a smooth flow of real-time dialogues:

Because when I…when I attended face-to-face sessions, they were a lot more attentive to my needs. And also I would… I would not hesitate to ask them. Raise a question - what's that on the board? Can you read it out for me, please? (Participant 2)

Theme 2: Student Interaction with Faculty

Instructors were divided in attitude towards inclusion, which had a decisive effect on the learning experiences of the participants. Some instructors were described as being indifferent to the accommodation needs:

I have had all kinds of experiences. On one end are the instructors who are so busy with their research that they really don't care...they just don't care how they are performing, kind of a thing. It's all about sharing what their experiences are on it. (Participant 1)

Some were ready to accommodate, allowing flexibility of participation and multiple means of communication. This, in return, boosted students’ learning outcome and sense of fulfillment:

So, I remember one course in particular was education technology, and the faculty was so mindful and he was so hands-on in the sense that even if I couldn't write something in the chat box or I couldn't raise my hands, I could open my mic and talk to him directly. So, he would give the students speaking rights our presentation rights. So, he opened another modality for me. And, in fact, to everyone, whoever wants to talk can talk. Yeah, so that extra modality gave me a lot of opportunities to interact with the faculty and the rest of the class. (Participant 2)

With regard to content delivery, both participants identified that instructors were lacking in their knowledge of assistive technology and negligent of accessibility of content materials. Participant 2 noted the difficulties when instructors were using PowerPoint slides with minimal verbal illustration in instruction:

[Some] instructors are good about and describing stuff and others are pretty bad. And, for the most part, they're pretty bad. So, they would, without reading out what is on the slides, at least to start the conversation that we just talk about things around those points. So, it was really difficult until I managed to get hold of that slide to figure out what are the main points what and what are the things that they're just adding on to make those points simpler or to describe those points.

The limitation was not confined to awareness, but the knowledge of inclusive practices. Participant 1 mentioned having a heated discussion with an instructor on “accessibility” of course materials:

When I ask them, “Is your material accessible?”...They are like, “Yeah!”  But to them, material being accessible is material being electronic. Well, material being electronic is not material that is accessible. And people don't understand that…

Theme 3: Student Interaction with Content

In the efforts of managing learning content during the sessions of the online courses, challenges were reported to exist in getting access to content and participating to a full extent. Often used as an alternative or supplementary means of presenting content, videos posed challenges for the participants striving for maximum information retrieval. A lack of illustrative add-ons tremendously restricted access to content:

So, one of the biggest challenges that I faced learning online is...a lot of times when people make videos, okay, they often just start to point out things like “look at this” and “look at that.” And, you know, like, I obviously took technical courses. So, it's like someone is typing the code and showing it on the screen. Unless they make that available as a separate attachment or a transcript, it's very hard for me to understand what's going on if you just keep saying “look at this, look at that.” (Participant 1)

Participant 2 noted that the widely used PDF format for charts and graphs was another major challenge in any instructional setting, and that some faculty members had presumptions that PDF files were accessible with assistance of available technologies. The efficiency of processing information was restrained. Participant 1 said, “I can only listen unlike the way I see it through listening. I'm listening to someone talk. Then, there's not much I can do simultaneously,” and she often needed extra time to access some features and ended up missing out on what the person was talking or saying.

When asked about their online participation, both participants identified the difficulties of using chatbox features:

Moodle does not really allow basically the interaction with edit boxes... suppose there is a thread, right, five people are participating and it's a thread. Now if you want to respond to a - something written by the third person right out of those five. Now, figuring out where the third person - where to click to respond to that third person, that was challenging. So sometimes what happen was that if I wanted to respond to the third person for instance but I ended up responding to the fifth person. (Participant 2)

In addition, for them to meet the expectations of peer-grading assignments, submissions of all peers should all be in an accessible format.

Theme 4: Coping with Assistive Technology and Learning Module System

Both participants had rich experience with multiple operating systems and browsers. With Windows 10 and Google Chrome being the primary platforms, they were also familiar with Linux, Orca, and Firefox. The proficiency in managing the operating systems facilitated the class participation and learning outcomes.

They reported that the design of online platforms varies in accessibility. One uses Canvas; the other uses Moodle. Participant 1 highlighted the convenience brought by the automatic refreshing feature, and discussion forums that facilitate help-seeking process. Meanwhile, platforms that failed to conform to accessibility guidelines in design brought challenges:

[I] have seen some courses where, like, the sections would be divided into headings or things like that. It technically means that I have to listen through all the content every time I switch to a new page to get to the play button on the video. Crazy! (Participant 1)

Participant 2 noted that Moodle allowed the accessibility feature that users could jump from one heading to another, thus saving time and making navigation easier for someone who uses a screen reader.

As to major assistive technologies, both participants relied on screen readers and were adept at them after years of using it (10 years for Participant 1, 16 years for Participant 2). Participant 1 said that sometimes she switched between different screen-reading technologies to fulfill a course task:

I mainly rely on a Windows screen reading software called JAWS (Job Access with Speech). I also use NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) sometimes when JAWS doesn't work; like, somehow on my Windows 10, JAWS doesn’t seem to work with Excel. So, when I have to work with Excel, I have to use have NVDA.

Theme 5: Effective Strategies

Students in online courses often felt stressed and frustrated because of the lack of preparedness of the instructors to teach students with vision impairment:

My faculty could make their presentations and course materials more usable by people, like me, with vision impairment. So, there have been lots of charts and graphs my faculty has used. And obviously none of them paid any attention to making them accessible to someone who uses a screen reader. So that's been one major frustration for me in taking those online courses. (Participant 2)

Such frustration was accompanied by a feeling of indignation related to situations when instructors assumed that there was only one way to teach courses and stayed oblivious of the expectation from students:

It’s so hard. Like, I've sat through classes when I just don’t understand anything, like, sitting there for 1.5 hours and I don't gain anything out of that class. Those kinds of things have to change because I shouldn't be left behind just because I have a disability. If I'm sitting there in the class, that means I'm equally eligible as everyone else. So, why don't I get the equal opportunity? Whereas, when it comes to competing, like when it comes to grade, I'm evaluated in the same way as everyone else.(Participant 1)

To achieve success and benefit from online education, both participants perceived that they must possess strong self-motivational skills and persistence with their course agenda:

So, one thing that goes with online learning is [that] you obviously have to be very self-motivated. You know, it's a little hard to push yourself [in an online course] to that point that you can earn a certificate out of it. (Participant 1)

In addition to hard work, a high level of self-advocacy skills was essential for their academic success: “I visit my instructors and I tell them, like before the semester begins, tell them what would be my special requirements as part of this course” (Participant 1).

Discussion

This study explored the perceptions of students with blindness regarding the accessibility of online STEM courses. It explored how blind students perceived their interactions with the online learning settings, contents, instructors, and effective strategies of those instructors. Students perceived online education as an essential component of their higher education experience and, thus, critical for their professional success. They came to the realization that advancement in online teaching had opened new opportunities for effective learning. However, the conveniences and opportunities made available by the use of assistive technologies to students with blindness did not match with the perceptions of insufficient knowledge and lack of awareness of accessibility among faculty.

There was a simultaneous aspiration for the technical innovation of online learning platforms. Changes in the attitudes of online instructors, coupled with designs of distance education platforms, would significantly enhance their experiences.  A timely response and a well-designed course with accessible materials would spare a great deal of struggles from students’ perspective. While participants acknowledged the positive features that facilitate virtual communication, further improvements in assistive technologies would help them participate more fully in online learning environments and enhance their satisfaction. For instance, modification in the design and layout of the edit boxes could go a long way to facilitate student participation. Similarly, participants expressed strong preference for redesigning of accessible, screen-reader-friendly formatting features of the online platforms such as bold, highlighting, and italics. These technical challenges appear to be relatively easy to resolve with attention to design and adequate instructor training, but the unfortunate result is that it has not occurred. The impetus for digital accessibility initiatives seems limited, driven only by the compulsions of legal compliance (Edmonds, 2004). 

This study faced a few limitations and may be considered as pilot research. First, the data were collected from a small sample pool. This might compromise the salience of each theme and category from the inductive analysis. Second, data limitations prevented us from more fully accounting for unobserved aspects in learning that might bias our results. For example, it is uncertain how the combined factors of high motivation and strong self-advocacy skills contribute to success if they are contingent upon external support or challenges. An institutional difference in accessibility provision could yield a different result. Lastly, the level of education "post-graduate" as used in the title should be considered another limitation because the experiences of distance learning of the participants in pursuing a master's degree do not fully represent the post-graduate student population.

Considering the low-incidence nature of the target population and being the first in this particular line of study, the findings in this study provide insights into the academic experiences of students with blindness. Future research could expand the scope to a broader investigation of college experiences of this demographic. An examination of implementation of disability laws and teacher and peer biases would elucidate other factors that influence student satisfaction in college education. A longitudinal study consisting of both previous learning experience and career placement after graduation would certainly provide a more in-depth view.

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