As students of all ages begin planning registration for upcoming classes, I have received many messages asking questions about choosing virtual classes and how to figure out whether a class will be accessible or not for students with disabilities or other access needs. As a student who has taken over 40 virtual classes over the years, I have become highly proficient at scanning syllabi and determining whether a class will be a good fit for me and my low vision, and today I will be sharing ten questions to ask when choosing a virtual class. While this post is based on my experiences choosing virtual classes in high school and college, the information listed is beneficial for virtual learners of all ages that are trying to figure out if a class will be a good fit for them.
What types of graded activities will there be?
In my virtual classes, students complete a variety of graded activities including discussion board prompts, written assignments, multiple-choice quizzes, projects, and tests. While some of my classes don’t have all of these items, it’s important to know what types of graded activities each class has, and how much each type of activity counts towards the overall grade. This is also helpful for students who know that they do not feel comfortable doing certain types of graded activities- for example, I have a friend who does not like taking timed tests and will look for classes that have a higher emphasis on assignments and projects. This information can be found on the syllabus for the class, which I recommend asking for prior to the first day of class.
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Will I need to use any special software or websites? Are they accessible?
For a business class I had to take, all of the graded assignments and tests were assigned and graded on a third-party platform, instead of within the traditional course website. I found out about this in advance and was able to do some research about the accessibility of this third party platform, and talk to an assistive technology specialist at my college to ensure that I would be able to do my homework without any issues. If I hadn’t been able to use this platform, I would have asked for a modification so that I could get my assignments in an accessible format- more on that later.
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How is course content delivered?
All of my virtual classes delivered course content in one of three ways:
- Live or pre-recorded video lectures
- Slideshows with all of the necessary information
- Transcripts or text-based notes
Many of my instructors would offer different ways to get information on course content and post notes in multiple formats, which is very helpful. When needed, I would ask them to make minor modifications to their lectures so that I can make sure that I fully understand materials. This can include simple things such as:
- Ensuring images have alt text
- Describing on-screen items during video lectures, or having them available for students to look at individually
- Making transcripts or text-based notes available in plain text or Word document formats
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What is the best way to contact the instructor?
Once upon a time, I had an instructor who did not answer emails and instead would ask students to come to their virtual office hours very early in the morning to get answers to their questions. This did not work out very well, and many students (me included) had lower grades because we couldn’t get in touch with our professor- as some put it, it felt like the instructor went out of their way to ensure they weren’t there when we needed them. After that experience, I made it a habit to check for the best way to contact the instructor, and make a note of when they were available so that I could get feedback on an assignment or get help with accessing a test or quiz. Some instructors may only accept messages from students on certain platforms, such as a course messaging system or through emails that contain specific information in the subject line. Again, the syllabus is a great way to find this information.
When are assignments due, and when are new assignments released?
Each of my virtual classes have assignments or assessments due on a certain day of the week, with new assignments posted either the same day or the day after. It’s important to document which assignments are due when so that students don’t have to worry about missing a deadline because they forgot what date something was due.
In addition to checking what date new assignments are due, I also highly recommend checking what time they are due. I’ve been surprised to discover assignments were due an hour earlier than I had originally thought, and while my professors have thankfully been very flexible, it’s no fun to have to send a message asking for the ability to turn in an assignment hours after it was originally due.
Can I work ahead in my class?
One of the reasons I prefer to take virtual classes over physical classes is because it is much easier for me to get ahead in my classes and complete assignments before they are due. While this won’t typically influence my decision as to whether to take a virtual class or not, it is helpful information to have so that if I need to get assignments in alternative formats in advance or request extended time, I have plenty of time to do so.
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Is the textbook available online or in an accessible format?
A lot of students would assume that since a class is online, the textbook would be available online as well, or at least in an accessible format. While this is typically the case, I’ve been surprised a few times to discover the textbook was not actually available- which tends to be more common for classes that are traditionally taught in a physical classroom. I recommend emailing the instructor to ask for the ISBN number prior to the first day of class so that the student has time to find or request an accessible copy of the textbook, and so they can avoid falling behind in class.
How do I take tests or quizzes?
Many virtual classes require students to take proctored quizzes and/or tests to ensure that no cheating takes place. However, I’ve run into issues with proctoring software that make it difficult for students to enlarge text or that doesn’t allow students to wear tinted prescription glasses to take an exam, since it keeps the software from tracking eye movement. For this reason, it’s helpful to talk to the instructor about testing accommodations such as extended time or use of assistive technology so that there are no surprises come test day. Plus, this gives students and professors time to find alternative testing options and to ensure that everything is working in advance.
Will I need to modify my disability accommodations?
For a majority of students, disability accommodations are written with physical classroom environments in mind, and may need to be modified to include accommodations for virtual classes. This can include information such as:
- Extended time, or additional extended time to account for eye fatigue or technology issues that may come up
- Additional assistive technology accommodations, i.e screen readers or magnification
- Different formats for assignments
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Do I need to ask the instructor for modifications in advance?
Whenever possible, it is best to address accessibility barriers in advance, or at least as soon as they happen. This can include requesting audio description for video content, receiving or submitting assignments in a different file format, or similar issues. I strongly recommend having a meeting with the instructor to talk about potential modifications that will be needed, and to go over the disability accommodations to ensure that the class materials can be made accessible. I am very fortunate to have professors that are open to giving reasonable accommodations and modifications so that I am able to fully participate in classes, and they have been able to create alternative assignments and assessments for me when the original formats were inaccessible. If students have issues getting accommodations met in a virtual classroom, make sure to contact the department or Disability Services office to see what can be done, and collect documentation for the issue as well.
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While there is no guarantee that a student won’t have a sudden accessibility issue during the course of their class, asking these ten questions can help tremendously with filtering out which classes will be a good fit for the student, and which classes will be a more challenging or frustrating experience. I hope that this post on ten questions to ask when choosing a virtual class is helpful for others as well!