Understanding the Faculty Role in Digital Accessibility

How do campus officials responsible for the creation of digital instructional materials balance accessibility requirements with faculty independence and academic freedom? We asked a group of them.

March 15, 2017
 
Portland Community College's guide to accessible materials

The decision last week by the University of California, Berkeley, to take years' worth of video and audio lectures out of the public realm because of federal requirements on accessibility for people with disabilities was decried by many accessibility advocates. And many other universities told Inside Higher Ed this week that they would not be following suit

But Berkeley's response aside, colleges and universities must increasingly deal with the underlying issue of how to make their educational content -- more and more of which is taking digital form -- available to and usable by all.

And that's not an easy thing to ensure, given the many, diffuse players involved in the creation of instructional materials and the important principles of faculty independence and academic freedom that are deeply embedded in the content development process.

In the context of Berkeley's decision, Inside Digital Learning asked a group of digital accessibility experts how they balance the essential goal of making digital courseware accessible while respecting faculty independence and avoiding deterring professors who may already be daunted by the prospect of creating digital academic materials. Among the questions we asked them to address are:

  • Are there practices that you have found work (and don't) in assuring the creation of accessible digital materials?
  • Are there decisions to be made about what you have faculty members themselves do, versus the institution's technology specialists?
  • What issues should administrators and faculty members alike be thinking about as they navigate this terrain?

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Connie Johnson, chief academic officer and provost, Colorado Technical University

At Colorado Technical University, faculty are provided the opportunity to serve as the authors of course content and often include digital tools in their classes. For example, at CTU, courses may include adaptive learning technology, simulations and virtual labs. While faculty are provided the support of curriculum designers to ensure sound instructional design and to validate accessibility, the faculty are the ultimate decision makers about the digital tools implemented in CTU courses.

CTU’s philosophy is that faculty should be supported in a number of ways including training, curriculum design and the implementation of digital tools in the classroom. Equally important is student support for the technology in the classroom by providing faculty needed training in assisting students with technology issues, which allows students to focus on their coursework.

How does a faculty member sift through the many options available for digital tools, and more importantly, how does a faculty member know what might be effective in the classroom? At CTU, we strongly believe that collaboration not only of curriculum designers as mentioned previously, but of academic leaders in each college reduces the workload that is often involved in choosing and creating course content. Granted, there may be faculty who prefer to work alone, but our experience is that academic collaboration, including researching accessibility of digital tools, supports faculty embracing digital tools in online and blended courses.

Faculty culture also matters. The sizzle of a courseware product, no matter how impressive, loses its appeal when faculty culture does not embrace it. But when implementation of digital tools leverages faculty expertise and feedback during all stages, the culture shifts, and faculty move from being skeptical of technology to being advocates for it. We have trained over a thousand faculty members in adaptive learning technology over the past six years, and currently offer over 100 courses that incorporate the technology. Supporting faculty, including the provision of and guidance of accommodations, we believe, creates a culture of faculty embracing the often time consuming task of creating digital content.

Admittedly, academic administrators must embrace and be attuned to the changing educational landscape as well as the rules and regulations that are relevant for faculty and for students. With the growth of digital tools and vendors who provide these tools, the environment can be daunting.

However, the benefit of the science of learning, captured in the data from the digital tools provides faculty with information about their students and their classrooms that was simply not possible to measure without these tools. I had the opportunity to speak to CTU faculty recently who were using adaptive learning technology in the classroom and asked them if they would like to revert back to teaching and facilitating without digital tools and was met with a resounding no. The affirmation of the importance of digital tools in the classroom amplifies the administrative responsibility to support the faculty in all areas of implementation of digital learning.

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Paul Krause, CEO, eCornell, associate vice provost of online learning, Cornell University

Cornell University launched eCornell over 15 years ago to support design, development and marketing of online courses that reach students around the world. At eCornell, we aim to provide online learning solutions that are accessible, usable and welcoming to people with disabilities. Courses are designed to conform with Section 508 standards and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”) 2.0 AA published by the World Wide Web Consortium. Courses offer captioning for all videos, full-text transcripts and screen-reader compatibility.

When faculty develop courses with eCornell, they are essentially plugging into a system in which the requirements and demands for creating engaging, effective and accessible digital learning solutions are inherent in our DNA.

We've established standards, processes and platforms that leave the complexities related to course production, including accessibility requirements, in the hands of our expert staff, so our faculty can focus on their content and the creative ways it can be delivered online.

In practical terms, this means communicating and adhering to a set of standards that enable accessibility, and providing the faculty with the support they will need to meet those standards throughout every phase of our development process.   For example, we have a simple, low-cost process for adding video closed captioning.  We use standard templates within our online platform that have been tested to meet accessibility requirements.  And we provide an online help desk that solicits feedback from people with disabilities and can arrange additional support when needed.

What's worked for us:

1. Don't make accessibility a complicated and intimidating barrier for faculty to overcome. Provide expert consultation and systems that faculty can tap into to create effective and accessible online programs.

2. When designing the course experience, work from a place of possibility versus limitation.  

3. Solicit feedback from and provide support for people with disabilities to support an effective online learning experience.  

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Karen M. Sorensen, accessibility advocate in distance education, and Loraine Schmitt, dean of distance education, Portland Community College

Accessibility of online courses is a shared responsibility at Portland Community College. It is shared between distance education staff, including an accessibility advocate, an alternate format technician, a part-time screen reader tester and collaboration with disability services staff and faculty. Together, work is done to proactively create accessible, online courses. With a very large online program, this is a big task, one that could not be achieved by the small distance education team alone, even with the ongoing support of disability services.

To help clarify roles, a Who’s Responsible for Online Course Accessibility resource was developed. It outlines what instructors, distance education and disability services are responsible for in making online courses accessible.

The balance of responsibilities is key. The accessibility advocate trains faculty how to make and select accessible course materials while also considering what is reasonable and achievable. All online courses are reviewed for accessibility with a philosophy of “High Standards, but Easy Grading.” If something in the course is not up to the WCAG 2.0 AA standards but is merely a formatting issue, such as headings or lists not formatted properly, the faculty member is pointed to online resources (http://pcc.edu/access) on how to fix the issue.

But if there are barriers that prevent a student with a disability from accessing content in the course, often caused by inaccessible 3rd party, interactive web applications or a publisher’s platform, an equally effective alternative must be found or that the application or platform cannot be used.

But even this requirement is not left to the instructor alone to achieve. The distance education accessibility team puts the third-party applications and platforms through screen reader testing and other manual and automated accessibility reviews. The instructor and the vendor are invited to observe the testing. It’s often the first time an instructor has witnessed someone use a screen reader on their course content, which in itself can do a lot to build the instructor’s awareness of why accessibility is so important. PCC asks vendors to help develop the accessible alternative to the barrier that their product creates. (In addition, the hope is that sharing the testing with the vendor will lead them to eventually making their product more accessible.) The assistance of the college librarian for the subject area of the course and disability resources is also called upon. So the burden is not at all on the instructor alone.

Really sharing the responsibility of accessibility is what works for Portland Community College.

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Vincent J. Del Casino Jr., vice provost for digital learning and student engagement; Angela Gunder, associate director, Office of Digital Learning; Dawn Hunziker, IT accessibility consultant, Disability Resources Center; University of Arizona

The proliferation of digital content and new educational technologies has challenged higher educational institutions to think differently about questions of both accessibility and equity. Given this, the University of Arizona begins its conversations about digital learning in the context of universal design for learning (UDL) with the goal of providing the highest level of access with the least amount of modification at the individual user level. The university does this by working across the institution and in concert with its Disability Resources Center (DRC) and through an IT Accessibility Team to proactively evaluate teaching and learning software products, to quickly identify content that may remain inaccessible and modify it, and to generate innovative pedagogical strategies that work from the principles of UDL.

This is more than captioning spoken or visual material – something that the university does already – it is about working from the ground up to collectively involve stakeholders in conversations about building from a position of UDL. Put simply, the University of Arizona is building a learning technologies infrastructure that faculty can use so that they are not spending their time evaluating whether or not technology A or B is based in the principles of UDL.

What does this look like on the ground? In the space of our online courses, the university has developed mechanisms for faculty to easily engage IT accessibility experts and the DRC to better understand how to create an accessible and inclusive experience for all. Within both our Office of Digital Learning, which supports our UA Online campus programs, instructional designers and technologists as well as quality assurance coordinators work with faculty to identify improvements that support UDL.

This proactive approach insures that our UA Online courses do not need to be retrofitted to particular student needs, although individual accommodations are available when necessary. Similar conversations and workshops on UDL happen across the campus through our university’s Office of Instruction and Assessment. Indeed, we encourage faculty to be creative in their teaching strategies and feel strongly that innovations in teaching and/or course design can model increased learning, engagement and access for all students.

Because questions around accessibility need to be addressed just as often as security, the university commitment to UDL is also represented through our work with third-party vendors, such as publishers or classroom technology developers. Our university’s dedicated IT Accessibility team addresses the accessibility of technology and provides resources  regarding accessible content and technology. This helps leverage the university’s central resources to offer tools that already meet the standards of UDL.

This team collaborates across campus and works closely with faculty, instructional designers, administrators and IT personnel to make sure accessibility is part of the discussion from the beginning of any implementation of new learning technologies. In the big picture, the university IT Accessibility team members encourage innovation while collaborating to ensure that innovation is accessible and available for all participants.

No matter what the process, maintaining a culture of UDL takes active work and participation from across the campus. It demands constant vigilance in evaluating digital learning content across the life cycle of the curriculum, which also requires dedicated resources to support that vigilance. There remain many challenges, including questions of how innovation in teaching and learning may be creating opportunity but also generating new challenges for accessibility.

Furthermore, in the rapid-fire pace of curricular and course development in online education, the institution has to force itself to pause and reflect on its practices. Without doing so, we may fail to maintain the networks across the campus that are necessary to keep pace with the ever-changing nature of teaching and learning.

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Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor of online learning, University of Illinois at Springfield

The faculty members who teach online at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) are committed to best practices in online learning. These include finding effective technology, appropriate pedagogy and engaging approaches to make the learning experience effective and relevant in the 21st century. As it turns out, they are also committed to making their classes accessible. This past week we held a workshop on online accessibility; it attracted three times the largest number of faculty we had seen at our previous faculty development sessions this year. 

The first key to engaging faculty members in accessibility is to explain the value of universal design in making their classes part of an environment that is effective for everyone. It goes well beyond access for the disabled. We emphasize the research that shows captioning enhances learning outcomes for all learners, not just the visually impaired. Seeing the text and being able to review the text affords clarity for difficult concepts for all students. And, it opens the door to automatic translation for students for whom English is not their first language.

Choosing the layout, colors, fonts and other aspects of the online classroom within universal design principles empowers the faculty choice as their refresh their classes. Universal design does not have to be cookie cutter; it can enable a wide array of options.

The second key is to find the most efficient way to implement effective universal design. Faculty members sincerely want to serve all of their students; they recognize that the student is the center of the teaching profession. At UIS, our instructional design/faculty development staff members are schooled in universal design. They form a close partnership with the faculty members in the colleges they serve. 

In fact, the designers all are teaching part-time or have recently taught online. They draw upon their own work to share with their partner faculty members. Approaching the topic as both busy teachers and designers themselves, the staff members share effective, but also highly efficient, ways of achieving universal design.

The process becomes far less about jumping through the accessibility hoops than it is about creating interesting and engaging learning environments that are universally accessible. By making this effort a partnership between the staff and the faculty, we collaboratively create online environments that are both supportive and credible. Working together, sharing techniques and practices, we see some of the very best work is done. 

Over time, as faculty members envision their distant students, they see an array of students both young and old; fully sighted and vision-impaired; hearing capable and hearing-impaired; native English speakers and those with English as a second (or third) language; and more. They see their course as a unique patch of a very large universally designed patchwork quilt of classes that fit together into a comfortably accessible whole.   

***

Sheryl Burgstahler, director, accessible technology services, University of Washington

Captioning videos is no doubt expensive if you wait until you have the daunting task of captioning 20,000 all at once.(Rewind: Imagine in the '70s when it dawned on older campuses that they needed to ramp the curbs on all of their sidewalks!)

However, creating an individual video has a cost in terms of time and possibly direct funding that far outweighs the additional time or cost of captioning it during the creation process. (Curbcuts built into the design of new sidewalks add little to the total cost.) For example, many video creators do not know that YouTube offers a video editor that allows them to improve the accuracy of the automatic captioning YouTube creates. For new videos created by a professional team, the script can be used as the first draft for the captions, minimizing the cost of captions to the production. And, of course, companies abound that will compete for your business to caption videos for a fee.

 

 

A campus just becoming aware of captioning requirements may want to first make sure directions for how to request captioning and other disability-related accommodations are clearly presented on key campus websites, and to ensure that specific requests for captioning from deaf students, faculty, staff and the public are addressed immediately. They may wish to employ a campus-wide task force to identify systematic ways to deal with an existing inventory of uncaptioned videos on public websites. This group could also identify processes for the creation of new videos. One promising practice is to use central funds coordinated by a central unit to caption public-facing videos.

The process used for this captioning service can be used to build awareness about captioning options on the part of those units receiving the service. In addition, clear policies should be set and promoted, and guidelines for captioning videos and otherwise making IT accessible to people with disabilities should be provided prominently online and shared with all campus units and support staff. Such efforts should be integrated with other efforts toward creating an inclusive campus culture that demonstrates in actions that the engagement of all students, faculty, staff and visitors is valued.

Simply removing all videos from public view could take a campus down a slippery slope. What next? Pull down all public websites and documents that are not fully accessible via a screen reader used by a person who is blind? Instead, we can use the captioning issue to reflect more broadly on practicing what we preach when we say we want our institution to be inclusive. Captions, after all, are just electronic curbcuts!

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