Udacity, San Jose State, and Disability

An article in today’s New York Times by Tamar Levin “Colleges Adapt Online Courses to Ease Burden” describes the rapid rise of companies providing distance learning courses for colleges. As the number of students who are unprepared for college rise, and cutbacks to public education grow, the advent of new online course providers seems like a natural development and even, perhaps, an egalitarian one, for surely lowering the costs associated with the pursuit of a college degree is laudable.

But reading Levin’s article I found myself wondering if one of the highlighted companies now being contracted by San Jose State, (Udacity) has any provisions for assuring courses are accessible for students with disabilities. A quick look online reveals that Udacity currently is not accessible but, given its new state contract with San Jose State they’re vowing to become accessible. Once again a major academic institution has blundered into systemic digital ableism, a story that seems repeated ad nauseum. What precisely is it about digital environments that causes college administrators to abandon equal access to education?

The president of San Jose State is quoted by Ms. Levin as saying:

“We’re in Silicon Valley, we breathe that entrepreneurial air, so it makes sense that we are the first university to try this,” said Mohammad Qayoumi, the university’s president. “In academia, people are scared to fail, but we know that innovation always comes with the possibility of failure. And if it doesn’t work the first time, we’ll figure out what went wrong and do better.”

How does “entrepreneurial spirit” become a metaphor for ADA non-compliance? One answer lies in the country club nature of IT inside higher education–a provincialism which guarantees designers and engineers are insufficiently engaged with what we broadly call diversity and, in a stricter sense call compliance.

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