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Access to Technology

Ensuring that all students have access to the technology necessary for online learning is obviously a prerequisite for a successful program. Although this issue is typically most significant in program serving impoverished or rural student, all programs need to ensure that all students can access their courses through suitable networks and hardware. Policies can define a program’s commitment to equitable access as well as strategies for accomplishing it.

Issues vary considerably depending on the governance of your program. If your program is run by a local school and students are accessing the courses at that same school, students need access to a computer sometime during the school day such as a period designated for independent study, study hall, or possibly even in a classroom where the rest of the students are taking a traditional course. For example, an advanced seventh grade student might take Algebra II online while the rest of the class is studying pre-algebra. This raises very few policy issues and requires relatively little planning.

The opposite end of the spectrum is a program that serves a large number of students statewide in rural, suburban, and urban areas. In such cases, access often becomes a matter of individualized problem solving and policy issues abound. For example:

  • In regions with limited Internet access, how might you partner with school districts, local libraries, local businesses or other community organizations to provide a place for students to access computers and the Internet? In such cases, you’ll want to develop a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) based on your policies that answers such questions as:
    • Who will be responsible for student supervision and safety?
    • What hours will the computers be available for student use and are there time limits?
    • Who is responsible for any filtering software or other hardware or software needs?
    • Will the local organization be responsible for enforcing the Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) and other school policies?
  • Will your program have computers to lend out to students, and if so, who will be responsible for periodic maintenance and how often will that occur?

In the case of a program run by a consortium of schools and serving students from the consortium’s member school districts, as well as some state virtual schools, the most typical scenario is that each student’s resident district is responsible for providing technology access. The consortium may wish to include that responsibility in the MOU or contract between the consortium and the member districts. Depending on the nature of the consortium, it may also wish to have a number of computers available for participating students of the member districts. To ensure consistency across the consortium, the MOU should clearly describe how the districts will be responsible for providing technology access, such as open computer labs or independent study periods.

Accessibility of Content Through Technology

For students with physical handicaps such as impaired vision or sight, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act provides standards for accessibility with which all web-based content must comply. Compliant content includes written descriptions of images or video for screen readers and captioning of any audio clips (or the audio portion of a video clip). If content does not comply and cannot be modified, equivalent alternatives should be provided. For some students, the school may need to replace the mouse and keyboard with a user interface suitable for those individuals with limited motor skills. Policies should address:

  • How purchased or locally-created content will be reviewed for accessibility
  • How the technology department, curriculum department, special education department, and other relevant individuals or departments will share the duties necessary to ensure compliance
It is important to be aware of the legal obligations that are associated with access & equity issues.