Education

Virtual Reality in Education & the ADA: More Accessibility or Less Accessibility?

Yvie Yao, MJLST Staffer 

Imagine that students no longer need to go to a lab to have a lab experience or go to France to visit the Eiffel Tower. Though sounding impossible, edtech companies that integrate virtual reality (“VR”) technology into the classroom learning experience have enabled these activities.

Copenhagen-based company, Labster, plans to use VR to create virtual labs that will allow students to perform experiments and hone their skills in a risk-free environment. U.S.-based companies, like Nearpod and Alchemy Learning, can take students on virtual field trips to learn about everything from the Amazon rainforest to ancient Roman ruins.

While kids love VR technologies, edtech companies ought to be careful about creating content or products within legal boundaries. After edX’s settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”), edtech companies may face increased scrutiny under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). DOJ claimed that edX’s website, as well as the open online courses offered on its platform, were not fully accessible to individuals with disabilities, thus violating the ADA.

“Massive open online courses have the potential to increase access to high-quality education for people facing income, distance, and other barriers, but only if they are truly open to everyone” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Gupta.

The same can be said for VR applications in education. Courses with the aid of VR technology provide access to high-quality education for students facing different barriers. Yet, the technology itself is less accessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision, who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by public accomodations, which include places of education and requires these places to take necessary steps to ensure individuals with disabilities are not treated differently. In the edX settlement, DOJ appeared to interpret edX itself as a place of education within the ADA’s definition of public accommodation. This has two implications. First, purely online educational entities without any physical location qualify as places of education. Second, other web-based education-related service providers might fit the definition of a place of education.

With the law in mind, edtech companies providing online learning content using VR that integrate the content into school curriculums, should be aware of the implications of the ADA and take necessary steps to provide auxiliary aids and services sufficient to enable disabled students to fully participate in the technology.


MJLST for Kids: How the ESSA Promotes K-12 Edtech

Nolan Hudalla, MJLST Staffer

The Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, and Technology is frequently at the forefront of current technological advances. The journal’s publications often address the emerging systems and devices that are changing society, as well as the legal constructs that can be employed to optimize technology’s use. But the next generation is not yet old enough to read MJLST and understand its implications. So how are today’s young students empowered to learn about and keep pace with technology that is advancing so quickly? Additionally, how is such cutting-edge technology being provided to teachers to help them maximize student potential?

Federal funding for K-12 education is largely provided by the Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESSA”). The ESSA is a major education reform bill that was passed with bipartisan support in December 2015. It is the immediate successor to the highly controversial No Child Left Behind Act (“NCLB”), and there is great anticipation for the ESSA to finally take full effect in the 2017-2018 school year. In fact, Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, recently remarked that the new law “will unleash a flood of innovation and student achievement across America.” One specific way that the ESSA is trying to “unleash innovation” is through educational technology (“edtech”).

There are two primary ESSA-provided mechanisms that will impact K-12 edtech. First, Title IV of the ESSA authorizes the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant program. The program empowers states and districts to pursue their own edtech initiatives. Second, Title I – the nation’s largest source of federal funding to K-12 education – now makes it easier for schools to use existing funds for edtech than it was under the NCLB.

The Title IV grant program authorizes $1.65 billion dollars for states to dedicate to local priorities. Such priorities could include, for example, counseling, Advanced Placement classes, and edtech. Nearly $900 million of the grant program is permitted to go toward innovative edtech strategies, demonstrating Congress’s commitment to advancing technology in schools. In fact, this authorization is approximately 4 percent of the ESSA’s total funding provision.

Title I of the ESSA gives states and localities greater flexibility and control over the benchmarks that must be met to receive the Title’s funding. The NCLB was heavily criticized because it set rigorous federally-determined standards, with harsh penalties for districts and schools that could not meet those standards. The ESSA allows school districts to now have a say in what they must do to meet the Title I requirements. For example, a state could demonstrate that they are making satisfactory progress in their school districts, and thus qualify for Title I funding, in part by providing a district-chosen level of edtech programs each year.

In addition, Title I now permits states to reserve certain Title I funding for specific learning activities such as edtech. In particular, 3 percent of their Title I funds can go toward “Direct Student Services,” which could include individualized edtech curriculum in districts that particularly require improvement. The ESSA also provides funds for an Education Innovation and Research program that can be similarly leveraged.

Through the ESSA, the federal government has provided the opportunities and tools to significantly advance edtech. The bill authorizes a lot of money for the states to put toward advancing education initiatives through both grants and Title I funding provisions. However, it remains up to the states and localities to implement the necessary tools to fully take advantage of the new opportunities created by Congress.


How Yuge Will Trump’s Influence Be on United States Science?

Daniel Baum, MJLST Staffer

Science was only a minute fragment of the candidates’ campaigns, but many researchers have expressed fears about Trump. “Trump will be the first anti-science president we have ever had,” Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society, told Nature. “The consequences are going to be very, very severe.” How severe, and which kinds of science will Trump influence?

One science topic that was explicitly discussed in the campaigns was climate change. Trump has long denied climate change, and as Trump turned to the Republican Party’s conservative base, he said that his administration will focus on “real environmental challenges, not phony ones.” However, Trump has expressed support for economically beneficial climate change research: he told Science Debate that “[p]erhaps we should be focused on developing energy sources and power production that alleviates the need for dependence on fossil fuels” and specified that those energy sources worth developing include wind, solar, nuclear, and bio-fuels.

Trump has also taken the Republican Party’s businessman’s approach to space and public health research. For space research, Trump thinks that we should seek global partners and would like to expand the role of the commercial space industry in the US space program. Discussing public health research, Trump told conservative radio host Michael Savage, “I hear so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible.” Trump told Science Debate that instead of giving the NIH all the funding it needs, “efforts to support research and public health initiatives will have to be balanced with other scarce resources” by Congress, where the Republicans now control both houses.

In order to do good science, the United States needs the best researchers. However, Trump’s strong anti-immigration stance may dissuade foreign scientists from coming to or staying in the United States to do research—why should a highly skilled researcher come to or stay in the U.S. if he or she will have to do research in an environment hostile to immigrants? With fewer noncitizen scientists, we’ll need to train our own scientists with great science education. Unfortunately, Trump has expressed essentially anti-education policies. He argues that some colleges and universities should bear the burden of students’ loan debt and that the federal government should stop making money off student loans. Trump also wants to pull federal funding from the Department of Education, or demolish it altogether, and make management of public education at the state and local level while removing federal funding for low-income public schools.

Overall, Trump will change science in the United States bigly. If he sticks to the points he made on the campaign trail, the United States will have fewer scientists, and they will mostly only receive federal funding to do research on things that the Republican Party thinks will make Americans money. That could include the development of new environmentally friendly energy sources, but most likely not space or public health research. But there is still hope: this change will only be so yuge if Trump sticks exactly to what he said while campaigning. Already, less than a week after being elected, Trump has backpedaled on his rabid anti-Obamacare stance, and maybe he’ll realize that the best way to make America great again is to make Americans and American science great again.