Dear Commons Community,
David Cillay, a colleague from the Online Learning Consortium, first alerted me that advocates for the deaf filed federal lawsuits against Harvard and M.I.T. yesterday, saying both universities violated antidiscrimination laws by failing to provide closed captioning in their online lectures, courses, podcasts and other educational materials. The New York Times reported:
“Much of Harvard’s online content is either not captioned or is inaccurately or unintelligibly captioned, making it inaccessible for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing,” the complaint said, echoing language used in the M.I.T. complaint. “Just as buildings without ramps bar people who use wheelchairs, online content without captions excludes individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.”
Jeff Neal, a spokesman for Harvard, said that while he could not comment on the litigation, Harvard expected the Justice Department to propose rules this year “to provide much-needed guidance in this area,” and that the university would follow whatever rules were adopted.
A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said the university was committed to making its materials accessible to its students and online learners who are hearing-impaired, and included captioning in all new course videos and its most popular online courses.
The case highlights the increasingly important role of online materials in higher education. M.I.T. and Harvard have extensive materials available free online, on platforms like YouTube, iTunesU, Harvard@Home and MIT OpenCourseWare. In addition, the two universities are the founding partners of edX, a nonprofit that offers dozens of MOOCs, or massive open online courses, free to students around the world.
The complaints say Harvard and M.I.T. violated both the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and seek a permanent injunction requiring them to include closed captioning, which provides a text version of the words being spoken, in their online materials. Despite repeated requests by the association, the complaints say, the two universities provide captioning in only a fraction of the materials, “and even then, inadequately.”
The lawsuits, filed by the National Association of the Deaf, which is seeking class-action status, say the universities have “largely denied access to this content to the approximately 48 million — nearly one out of five — Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing.”
The ramifications from this lawsuit can be quite significant and will be watched closely by colleges and schools that develop and provide online course materials.