Leaving Visalia and the familiarity of California for Minnesota in 2006 was a continuation of my journey through higher education. That spring, I had completed my master’s degree at Fresno State. My thesis addressed the promises and failures of online education within the language arts.

The University of Minnesota offered me a Diversity of Views and Experiences (DOVE) fellowship for doctoral studies. My research continued to address online education design versus educational goals. For my dissertation, I narrowed my research to special needs students and writing courses. Again, I found a disconnect between the goals of educators and what technology provided.

In theory, online spaces should be more accessible than physical classes. The theory and the idealism that led to federal regulations on accessibility for online courses simply does not match the reality of experience.

Schools are bound by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title II (access to public services); Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act; the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Higher Education Opportunity Act, among other laws and their associated regulations.

Early on, I learned that many schools and colleges use online education as an alternative to the physical classrooms. If a student cannot easily enter a space, why not suggest the student study online? An online course, no matter how well designed, seldom features the same interactions that occur face-to-face. Telling students they belong online is also suggesting they do not belong on the physical school campus.

My doctoral research was limited to analyzing the experiences of students in existing online courses. What I learned was that students with special needs face different challenges online than in physical spaces, but the challenges still result in high attrition rates and dissatisfaction with courses. I completed my dissertation in 2010. At that time, half of the students I interviewed with special needs were quitting their college courses and a significant number, more than a third, did not finish their degrees.

Students quitting online college courses are left with debt and despair. The fading promise of a degree and a better life becomes a heavy burden.

Analyzing data was useful, but analyzing a problem with statistical methods does not solve the problem. Knowing that online education is failing students from challenging situations does not lead to better courses. Someone has to design those better courses and teach them.

Online courses fail because the designs privilege a subset of students. My colleagues and I found that students need access to a good computer, not only a tablet or phone. Students need to be familiar with the way a learning management system (LMS) works. The online systems require skills many “digital natives” lack; an LMS is not Facebook or Twitter. Users need to understand technologies that, curiously, were more popular 10 years ago within online communities.

The greatest disappoint for me was that colleges and universities produced inaccessible videos, without transcripts or captions. Most of the videos lacked the supplemental audio for vision-impaired students. The schools created audio podcasts without texts, too. Non-native speakers, those with vision or auditory impairments, and those students without adaptive technologies all struggled. Course designs ignored colorblindness in their designs, assigning red, green, and blue text special meanings or using color schemes that were difficult to read. Text sizes could not be changed. The issues with most online courses required complete redesigns if colleges wanted to comply not only with the letter of the law, but with the spirit of equal access.

I could analyze the problems, but I could not solve some of them. I needed to learn more about media content, beyond the skills I possessed with HTML, JavaScript, PHP, and other website technologies. I didn’t know how to add readable captions to videos. I didn’t know how to remix podcast audio to work better for the hearing impaired. The online courses I had taught as a graduate student failed some usability tests.

This realization led me to pursue a master of fine arts degree in film and digital technology, emphasizing digital media accessibility. I hope to teach others how to design better media and online spaces for educational purposes. Ideally, we should empower our students to create content, too.

My MFA thesis paper and final film should be submitted this August. In 11 years, I have gone from idealistic computer geek with faith in technology to realizing that we need to start over with online course designs and philosophies if we want to serve students from marginalized communities.

Online courses favor middle-class and upper-class students with access to technology. These students also have internalized the important skills necessary for self-directed study. They quickly adapt to the interfaces of LMS platforms. They locate the content folders, discussion forums, and other components of online courses.

I spend a lot of my time teaching students how to navigate online spaces. How did those of us familiar with Word learn what the align left, center, and align right icons meant? How did we learn which “A” is text color and which is a special effect? There is a symbolic language to computer interfaces we master over time. When students don’t have this symbolic language, it is yet one more barrier to success.

I assumed icon-based interfaces were a challenge for the vision impaired. I had imagined they might be a problem for students from various cultures and generations. How do you explain a floppy disk icon to a young person today? A movie projector? The icons were designed long ago, in computer time, and now have fading meanings. Even colors mean different things to some students. Red and green are not “bad” and “good” in all cultures, so systems that assume colors convey obvious data are badly designed.

We need to design systems that have as few barriers as possible. This means asking many questions about who the students are, and who they could be, in online courses. Systems need to be as customizable by the student as possible, too, so students can set font sizes, screen colors, and change icons to text buttons if necessary.

Any online educational technology should make accommodations for mobility, vision, hearing, and cognitive challenges. Ensuring access is an ongoing process, from the concept of a course through the final evaluation of students. Schools need to hire and retain online course experts with knowledge of technology and pedagogy.

The promise of online education was more access and opportunity. The reality has been disappointing.

About the Author: Visalia native Scott Wyatt is currently completing his Master of Fine Arts in Film and Digital Technology at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Scott has several additional graduate degrees and was a visiting professor of business communication at Carnegie Mellon University.