As technology increasingly wends its way into college-level learning -- roughly a third of all students are now taking at least one course online, and more professors are embedding digital materials into their classroom work, too -- the issue of digital accessibility of instructional materials grows more important.
The topic was turbocharged early last year when the University of California, Berkeley, decided to restrict access to free online content months after the U.S. Justice Department found that the university had failed to make thousands of videos and other freely available content accessible.
It has been widely assumed that higher education's focus on digital accessibility -- which, like many things, is influenced in part by external pressures like lawsuits and the federal regulatory environment -- might fade if the Trump administration took a more laissez-faire approach than its predecessor, as has happened on numerous other campus matters.
Offering their views on those and other issues are Kelly Hermann, vice president for accessibility strategy at the University of Phoenix, and Kate Sonka, assistant director for academic technology at Michigan State University. Their interview with Doug Lederman, editor of Inside Higher Ed, was one of several conducted at the Online Learning Consortium's Accelerate conference in Orlando, Fla., in November.
The interviews were sponsored by OLC and “Inside Digital Learning” and conducted via the Shindig video platform.
A partial, edited transcript of the conversation with Hermann and Sonka appears below.
IDL: Before we start, just give me a little sense of what you're primarily looking for out of, and what you've seen so far, at OLC Accelerate and what the meeting means, what draws you here and what you get from it.
Hermann: I love the fact that as I look through the schedule, there's so many strands and topics and sessions on accessibility. I haven't attended the conference for the last couple years, and you know, to see multiple options in many of the sessions has been fantastic.
But I think for me it's about staying on top of what's new and coming in online education and distance ed because that's all the stuff that we're going to have to accommodate in the near future.
I want to know what my content developers, what my faculty are going to see in that exhibit hall so that I know what those shiny, new fire trucks are that they’re going to find under their tree Christmas morning to try to figure out, how do I make sure that that's actually going to work for our students with disabilities.
Sonka: I'm actually in a different role here this year. I'm co-chair of the technology test kitchen, which is down in the exhibit hall. The best way to describe it for those who aren't familiar, is kind of a maker space/innovation/thinking lab/partner sort of collaboration thing. We have a lot of great programming, including Iron Chef. So I'm actually spending all of my time in TTK, as we call it for short. This is a really nice place to interact with people and really get some good ideas flowing and thinking about challenges and how do we solve them.
IDL: The explosion of sessions on this topic reflects the fact that the landscape, the questions about digital accessibility in higher education, are really changing. People really interested in it, concerned about it maybe, both positively and negatively, knowing that there are regulatory questions and making education most accessible to students.
Let's start off, because it's in the minds of a lot of people, about the regulatory environment. In general in the switch to a Trump administration, we've seen them pull back on certain things, narrow their focus on other things. Maybe help us understand what the landscape is looking like from the federal administration. What are we seeing so far and expecting?
Hermann: One of the national conferences that I attend every year, we have members from the [U.S. Education Department's] Office for Civil Rights, you know, come and talk to us about what they've seen in terms of their year-end review. They're not necessarily rolling back on the Section 504 regulations.
But what they have said as an office, that when a complaint comes in, they really want them to stick to what the details and the facts are in that case, not necessarily using that as an open door to look at everything within the institution.
So that means that we can be a little bit more focused in how we respond to any investigation or any complaints that happen. But for the most part, it's business as usual when it comes to the accessibility regulations. And OCR has been very up front and honest with us that they are seeing 1,000 or more complaints regarding web accessibility across the nation.
That's a huge volume for them. There are several things that we've been able to pick out of that in terms of best practices that you do to prepare yourself for the eventuality of a complaint or how to deal with a complaint once you get that. You can look to the resolution agreements and see some of those things.
But for the most part, from my experience, and at the University of Phoenix we do have an active resolution agreement, it's been pretty much what I would say is business as usual. They're not emphasizing so much on monitoring, so they're not up in our hair all the time. But yet we still know that we have certain benchmarks that we need to hit in order to make sure we are doing the best by our students.
IDL: We know that institutions, like most of us, are most likely to change when there is some compulsion to. To the extent that [the federal rules] are relaxing, you don't see that easing the tendency and the push by colleges themselves to make their digital instructional materials accessible? You think that train has left the station, and it's going to drive ahead no matter what. What's primarily driving it? Is it mostly questions about student success?
Sonka: I can speak to what I've seen at Michigan State University. One of the core values of Michigan State University is inclusivity and inclusion. So for us we really talk about it, position it with our faculty and staff and other content creators, as a student success, as a social justice inclusive approach. So certainly litigation, lawsuits, that's a thing. But for us, it's most effective, and really speaks to the values of MSU, that we want our students to be successful. We're in education because we care about our students, all of our students.
And what are things we can do to help them be successful. And certainly there's so much information out there about, when you design with accessibility in mind or you're doing universal design for learning, UDL, you might be thinking, well, I'm doing it for this population. But so often what you do then ends up positively affecting many, many more students. So for us, yes, maybe there isn't as much overbearingness. But for us it's really about, we want students to be successful.
IDL: So more of a moral/educational push?
Hermann: Since we had the Kindle lawsuits that the National Federation for the Blind kind of got this train rolling, with those five students that they worked with at those different campuses, we've seen a raising of awareness. We build in and we bake in accessibility as we're see designing our courses, as we’re using these new tools. No. 1 it's going to be less costly, and it's going to work better.
All of those actions have raised awareness on all of our campuses that this population of students is still here, they still have a right to an education. And they need that access. And by the way, when you follow the web content accessibility guideline standards, it may have benefit for other students as well.
When we talk about captions on videos, that benefits an adult learner or nontraditional learner who is trying to do their work on their lunch hour in a cubicle and forgot their headphones. They can watch that video and use the captions. It helps the English language learner to be able to see and hear at the same time what those words are. That helps the language-acquisition skills.
There are so many other benefits.
You can optimize your mobile, things become reflowable. All of those things make it better for all of our students, not just our students with disabilities.
IDL: The history, it seems, and this is true of a lot of things, is that the institutions have historically been reactive to a complaint. Have we entered a period where it's just becoming the norm, at least at your institutions? And do you think your institutions are typical based on what you hear from peers? Do you think it is sort of just in the water now? Is this something that you're just doing from the start when you're creating materials?
Sonka: I'm in the college of arts and letters at Michigan State University. And I also interface quite a bit with our central IT and other offices on campus. We have a group that we call the web accessibility policy liaisons. Every major administrative unit on our campus -- so that includes colleges but also things like libraries, infrastructure planning facilities -- so everybody has named at least one policy liaison in their unit. We meet monthly to talk about accessibility on our campus.
And out of that, all of us have had to create a five-year plan for how we are going to address and continue working toward meeting the web accessibility policy that we have at MSU. We're currently in year two.
So for me that feels very proactive.
Hermann: I think for the institutions that have the resources, yes. A lot of us are getting on board and saying this is something that we need to do. It's going to be easier for us to do that. But there are a lot of institutions out there that are small; their disabilities services may be one person. And they're trying to keep up with accommodations and may not have the skill set to be able to really feel that they have a skill set to talk technically about accessibility. So it is a little bit different.
I would say, having attended the Association on Higher Education and Disability conference, it’s probably 50-50. And even the 50 percent of those who aren't able to do it right now, they want to get there. They just aren't sure how.
I was on a panel on Wednesday to kick off this conference, a joint panel with OLC and [WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies], in talking about accessibility. A lot of questions were, how do you make folks accountable? Who is accountable? How do we do this with limited resources? And I think those are the questions that a lot of us are grappling with.
IDL: Any change in higher education, because of the tendency toward decentralization and the fact that so many of the folks on the ground are individuals, faculty, the question comes down to whether you make faculty members individually responsible for this or whether there are centralized operations that do it. What are your strategies for dealing with that diffusion?
Hermann: Almost all of our faculty are contingent faculty, adjuncts. So I work with almost 12,000 faculty a year.
IDL: You talk to every one of them, right?
Hermann: Sometimes it feels that way, I've got to tell you. But part of our resolution agreement to creating a culture of accessibility at the University of Phoenix was that we were going to provide required annual training for our faculty every year.
And we take a different aspect of accessibility that would impact them in the classroom … This past year, we did a whole bunch of things on how do you put alternative text on images? How do you make sure that your PDFs are accessible? And where are the resources that you would go to get assistance with this?
We're unique in the aspect that we can do that. We don't deal with faculty governments. They are all at-will employees. So we have a little bit of a different way of doing that.
But I think what has been really important is raising the awareness and making it simple. Showing people what are the simple things that they can do as they're creating a document to make it more accessible for their students, and then they're done. And then providing them with those tools and giving them some practice.
IDL: The other difference, or maybe advantage in this realm, is you have a more centralized curriculum development process, too … You have individual faculty members that are creating certain resources. But the overall course design is more centralized that it would be at a place like Michigan State.
Hermann: Absolutely. And the concerns that I typically hear that are reminiscent at faculty at Michigan State probably come from the instructional designers and the content developers. And they're like, what are you making me do? Remember, we're doing these for students.
IDL: So you would have [a lot more] faculty who are free agents. So you probably have less centralized authority in certain ways?
Sonka: I mean, really for our whole campus, I think it's a top down and bottom up and the central. We're trying to hit it from all sides. But specifically in our college, we find the early adopters, as you do with many things, and work with them and help them understand that it is truly a social justice, it's a value thing. And then have them help us spread the word.
And then definitely when we have new people coming in, so we will go to first-year writing meetings, faculty meetings at the beginning of the school year. If we can get in in front of faculty in other ways. I also started the accessible learning conference on our campus, which is a way to bring people together to talk about accessibility. We're not unique. I mean, AHEAD has a great one, Accessing Higher Ground. CSUN. We're not alone in having a conversation. But one of the key parts of ours is that we bring students into the mix. So we encourage them to participate, to attend.
So for us we're trying to hit it from as many angles as we can. And always go back to, it's about student success. That's what we're here for. So having students a part of the conversation is just as important to us as well.
IDL: There were some data published from Blackboard in May, and … our headline in Inside Higher Ed was talking about "glacial" progress. There's a lot of slow change in higher education. In general, it's not a terrible thing. Although on an issue like this where there really are potential consequences … what are the biggest impediments to faster adoption of accessible digital materials and courseware in higher ed?
Hermann: I think one of the biggest challenges has been that so many of us who do this work go to the vendors and we’re asking for different things. So we're all kind much putting it underneath the umbrella of accessibility. But somebody might be talking about Section 508. Somebody might be talking about WCAG 2.0AA compliance. Somebody else might not even know one of those institute things and just [be] saying, hey, are you ADA compliant? Which doesn't exist, because there's no regulations in ADA for them to map to.
So I think there are so many of these terms that people throw out that they think are interchangeable, and they're really not. They really do mean different things. And I think we've done a really good job of thoroughly confusing our vendors and making our vendors crazy in terms of what it is we're asking for.
So I think the upcoming implementation of the 508 refresh is going to help with that. It's going to more closely align with 508 with WCAG standards. And the WCAG standards are truly becoming the industry gold standard, if you will, in terms of what should we be doing to say to the masses, this is the most accessible environment we can get. And I think that that's important.
And I think the other is raising that awareness that students are taking these courses. That just because it's online doesn't mean that it's actually going to work with the screen reader. There are actually ways that you can screw that up.
The language that's being used, are we leaving those students who have difficulty processing language for any number of cognitive reasons, are we leaving them behind as well? We focus so much on blind and deaf and hard of hearing, but there are other students with disabilities who might struggle as well. And just kind of thinking that through and building that in from the beginning of a project … We did an investigation two and a half years ago, signed our resolution agreement, there are still times that I don't get called about having a member of my team come into a project until they're ready to launch. And it's like, OK, wait a minute. Now we've got to dial back. We've got to figure out what's not accessible, what is, how you're going to fix it and how do we move forward? So it's constantly reminding folks that this exists and it's easier and it's better for all of us if we get in the forefront.
IDL: You both talked about creating content. To the extent that there are requirements [about accessibility, it’s related to all content that exists. So how much of your focus is on the new content versus revising and improving the existing content? Especially places like Phoenix that have been online for a long time, there's a lot of stuff there. What's the mix there? And how much of your focus is on revising versus creating?
Hermann: For us, we work with the teams that look at postproduction quality control and quality assessment to say, let's make sure that we're building accessibility into that as well. So we can see, we went into it with this idea, did we actually hit the mark? Did we do what we said we were going to do?
So we do a 10 percent quality audit, QA audit, every quarter, where we go back and look at old courses to see, are we hitting the accessibility benchmarks that we thought we did?
And then in terms of as we're looking at revising courses, so the one benefit we have with having this kind of centralized created curriculum that our faculty facilitate, is the fact that we have a revision schedule that we go through. And you're going back and looking at old courses to bring them up to speed, whether that's because content has changed, new developments have hit the field. We're very practitioner focused in the University of Phoenix. And our courses go through a course revision schedule quite a bit. So it's building that accessibility into that mechanism.
Sonka: Yeah, ours is a combo approach. So new faculty coming in, instructors, we tell them what's going on, we work with them. But then we do have a plan for remediation for older courses. You know, some courses maybe won't be taught again. Or they only need to change a few things.
But the hope is, as we talk to you about creating a new course, keep this in mind for when you're ready to review your course to be taught again. Certainly we have people, instructors who come in for one course. They're graduate students. But it's still just as important to us that we're talking to them because they'll continue to teach, at MSU or somewhere else. And unless you were elsewhere … ensuring that we're continuing this conversation is what we're looking to do.
IDL: So we have a text question that came in. Can you please outline the most important components to accessibility for vendors and lecture capture?
Hermann: We don't do lecture capture at the University of Phoenix, so I can't necessarily talk specifically about that so much. What I can say is, what we need to look at is why are we using the tool? What learning objective is it helping us to meet? What is the interface and the experience like so that then I know, am I more worried about the experience that a student who can't see is going to have, or am I more worried about the experience somebody who can't hear is going to have? Or am I worried about the way that the directions are there and how intuitive is the interface? And how can that student actually be able to interact with it? And that kind of guides what I'm going to talk to the vendor about.
IDL: What are the biggest areas of pushback to the extent that you're hearing it? I imagine you wouldn't get a lot of people saying, I don't care about this. This is important. But what are the limitations … that you hear, is it lack of training? Is it lack of time?
Sonka: Time, yeah. Going to a faculty member and saying, here's what you need to do to prepare for your course. And then [the professor] coming in and saying, hey, class starts in two weeks, I don't have time to do this because … we weren't able to schedule two weeks out or whatever it may be. Or, hey, we have to go back and remediate your prior course before you get ready. So it's time. But then that's a conversation to have with faculty. It's OK, we're going to work through this together. We'll get it done for this semester. Now you know, so for next semester, keep this in mind when you're designing. If you forget, call me.
So time … because they're strapped for time. They're dealing with other things as well. So we're always sensitive to that and do our best with work with them and help them kind of tackle that.
Hermann: What I’d add to that, I just started at the University of Phoenix in January. So one of the questions that I was frequently asked was, Kelly, why are we prioritizing the needs of a few students at the expense of the many? And a lot of times people think that … if I’m doing this for accessibility and for this small population of students, somehow you're taking away from all of the other students. No, that's not the case, because these things are going to benefit all of our students.