Are videos cognitively accessible? A caution to share with staff

Online videos can help enhance instruction in the classroom. Some attention-grabbing elements of videos, such as flashy graphics and fast-paced voiceovers, however, can make them cognitively inaccessible to students, said Sean Smith, professor of special education at the University of Kansas.

“My big caution [to districts] is that a lot of people will say video is accessible because it has things like closed captioning, which is great,” said Smith, who studies the integration of technology and special education. “They’re focusing on sensory and physical accessibility, but you also need to think, is it cognitively accessible?”

Excessive graphics, transitions, pop-up windows, and fast-paced voiceovers may make videos inaccessible to some students with social competence deficits, intellectual disabilities, executive functioning issues, or attention deficits, Smith said.

Smith said the universal design for learning framework can help educators identify tools that are physically and cognitively accessible to students.

What to watch for in videos

Consider these questions as you assess a video’s cognitive accessibility:

  • Does the video illustrate the concept clearly? “One of my considerations when I look at video is, does it illustrate the concept? Does it have a clear purpose? Does it represent what it’s actually trying to represent?” Smith said. An instructional video can be entertaining, but it should focus on the concept that you want the student to learn.
  • Does the narrator stay on topic? Pay attention to whether the speaker strays from the concept that he’s teaching, Smith said. Extraneous information can lead students’ minds to wander. “For instance, I look at a math video where the narrator draws avocados to represent numbers and starts giving facts about avocados and how much he likes avocados. Now as a student, I may be thinking about the avocado and thinking about lunch, not math,” Smith said. “The speaker is introducing a whole other element that has nothing to do with math that can be distracting.”
  • Is the pace too fast? Even though a student can pause and rewind video, the speed of the narrator’s voice and the pace of the slides can still be too fast when the student plays the video at full speed, Smith said. Ask, Does this video reduce cognitive load or does it create more cognitive load for the student?

Jennifer Herseim covers Section 504 and education technology as it relates to special education for LRP Publications.

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