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MADISON, Wis. -- Kelly Paynter and Jimmy Barnes have been teaching online courses for nearly two decades. They consider themselves veterans of the modality at this point. But when their boss, the dean of the School of Education at Jacksonville State University, in Alabama, not so subtly requested that they enroll in the institution’s new certificate course in online instruction, they had no choice but to confront what they didn’t know.

They quickly discovered they had a lot to learn, particularly on the value of a proactive approach to ensuring that digital courses and curricular materials are fully accessible to all students.

“It’s a lot easier to make something accessible up front than to go back and fix it later,” Paynter said during a discussion session at the Distance Teaching & Learning conference last week. “It’s almost easier to do it and get in the habit and then you’re fine.”

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Many attendees at this conference likely experienced an echo of the journey Paynter and Barnes took during their certification class. Accessibility popped up in a few places on the conference schedule, and the topic was top of mind even in sessions that weren’t explicitly focused on it. Comments from attendees reflected a wide range of progress and perspectives, from a full-throated embrace of accessibility efforts to lingering concern over the best path to implementation.

For accessibility advocates like Kate Sonka, assistant director of academic technology at Michigan State University, frank conversation around the topic is a step in the right direction.

“Give a round of applause to yourselves, high-five yourselves, pat yourself on the back for being in a session around accessibility and inclusion,” Sonka told attendees at one panel. “I think people sometimes feel intimidated by coming to talk about or hearing about it -- not sure what’s going on in your campuses or how to handle it. I always want to begin by saying, ‘Welcome. You’re here; you’re among friends.’”

Three Steps

The session featuring Sonka outlined three steps in an institution’s evolution of improving accessibility. According to Heidi Pettyjohn, electronic and information technology accessibility coordinator at the University of Cincinnati, some institutions can reach one step with one part of their efforts, while at the same time they’re at another step on a different part.

  • Compliance: Understanding relevant federal, local and internal policies.
  • Commitment: Understanding the spirit of the law; investing in tools and resources; securing buy-in from affected offices.
  • Culture: Understanding the need for accessibility as part of a commitment to inclusion; intentionally designing courses and programs to promote inclusion; providing full support to staff and faculty on accessibility efforts.

Moving from one step to the next, according to Pettyjohn, requires snappy answers to a question accessibility proponents often hear from skeptics: What’s in it for me? (Advocates have taken to abbreviating the question WIIFM, pronounced “wiffem.”)

For senior leadership, it’s keeping the institution out of court at a reasonable price. For supervisors and directors, it’s streamlining their procedures and widening the pool of potential students. For professors and instructional designers, it’s the opportunity to improve the learning experience for all students, not just the ones with disabilities.

“We’re talking about it as a social justice issue and a student success initiative,” Sonka said. “It’s a lot harder for faculty to look me in my eyes and say, ‘I don’t care about these things,’ rather than, ‘Oh, this is a thing we have to do because of a policy.’”

Those questions can be asked in a variety of ways. Starting in spring 2017, Megan Wuebker, an instructional designer at Cincinnati, helped lead a yearlong pilot of Blackboard Ally, a tool that integrates with an institution’s learning management system and roots out areas of text, images and multimedia that might be difficult for some students to access. Wuebker found that giving instructors something tangible to do over a long period of time, rather than explaining in one sitting the importance of accessibility, helped them feel more involved and engaged in the process.

Wuebker said she heard one faculty member participating in the pilot say the experienced helped them more clearly understand what it takes to make courses accessible, rather than leaving workshops on accessibility ready to take action and then quickly forgetting about it.

Some faculty members latched onto the colored gauge icon on the Ally tool that indicates whether a course is not that accessible (red) or very accessible (green). “It turned into a game -- how can I get the dial green,” Wuebker said.

One audience member pointed out that some hands-on programs like nursing pose accessibility challenges inherent to the course content. Pettyjohn recommended that this attendee reach out to her institution’s Americans With Disabilities Act coordinator and reminded her that the institution is obligated to provide access to all program content once it admits a student to a particular program.

Practical Applications

Installing a culture of accessibility requires time and money -- but over time, it can help an institution save both. At another conference session, Jordan Cameron, assistant director for academic accessibility at Kennesaw State University, in Georgia, outlined her less-than-fond memory of the institution’s old process for captioning online courses. Faculty members uploaded videos to a closed server, and student assistants edited the captions before sending them back to the instructor, who had to complete 12 steps by the time the process was complete.

Student assistants could only work 19.5 hours each week. Some faculty members submitted videos between 50 and 90 minutes long. A clip on the latter end of that spectrum could take two weeks to several months to caption. “It was a really terrible situation,” Cameron said.

A year later, the institution had subscribed to a media platform (Kaltura) and a corporate subscription service (Cielo24) that streamlined the process and minimized the amount of effort instructors had to put in. During fiscal year 2016, Kennesaw State completed 240 hours of professional captioning, followed by 160 the following year. “Anything above 100 hours is a ton,” Cameron said. Cielo24 also created a tool that allows faculty members to efficiently write their own captions without having to send individual videos to another office.

Cameron said accessibility efforts on her campus can even serve students who don't have learning disabilities but learn better from reading text than hearing it out loud, or struggle to make sense of a professor's thick accent.

During the same session, John Raible, associate instructional designer at the University of Central Florida, offered a preview of his institution’s major captioning effort, which began last week and will cost $20,000 worth of students’ distance learning fees over the next year. The institution will use a video accessibility scanning tool to identify media files that need captioning, all of which will be sent to a vendor (Rev) for processing. The goal is for 10,000 minutes to be captioned this fall, followed by 7,500 more in the spring and 2,500 next summer.

Until this year, the institution had mainly worked on captioning on a case-by-case basis. If this year's initial efforts are a success, Raible hopes funding can be extended for future years. As his institution's enrollment continues to soar, scrutiny will only increase, he said.

"The bigger the footprint, the bigger the binoculars looking at you," Raible said.

Lessons Learned

Back at Jacksonville State, the two online instructors who thought they had it all figured out now admit that they're still learning, too, thanks to a course led by the institution's two instructional designers and two educational technologists. Paynter found just-released accessibility features on Microsoft Word, like a table tool that automatically treats the top row as a header, as well as key principles like maintaining a plain-text printing option on each page and embedding a link within a description rather than writing out a cumbersome URL that would sound clunky through a screen reader. Barnes now sees the value of creating videos that augment existing written content, and added a Little Prompter to his repertoire to help smooth out his delivery.

"The moral of our story is old dogs can learn new tricks," Paynter said. "Even though we went into it that we weren’t going to get anything out of it, we actually did."

Perhaps that's why Sonka took time out of her Aug. 8 presentation to ask the crowd a leading question.

"Are we ever done with accessibility?" she asked. There was no doubt which answer she hoped to hear.

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