Mastering the Art of Accessibility
In pre-COVID times, educators were increasingly discussing the importance of making education more accessible to students from different backgrounds. But after COVID struck, accessibility became less an option and more a necessity. The pandemic highlighted our moral imperative to accommodate students as they cope with a wide range of complex issues, from financial hardship to family obligations to physical disabilities.
As educators, we must ask, how can we embrace accessibility even as we create high-quality educational experiences? To answer that question, we must develop a deeper understanding of what accessibility truly means in the context of higher education.
Accessibility Means Using Tech With Care
Many faculty approach course design with a sense of what is best for the most students. There is often a sense of, “If the majority of students prefer to move the course online, that’s what we will do.” But thinking only of the majority can be highly disruptive to students in ways that educators might not realize.
Think back to the spring of 2020, when we began to use platforms such as Zoom and WebEx for course delivery. At the time, these platforms didn’t have robust captioning features, which meant that students who were hearing impaired were left behind. This was a challenge that many schools did not expect, leaving them scrambling to find sign language interpreters who were comfortable using these new course delivery methods.
In addition, many of us tried using the latest, greatest tech to make our online courses as engaging and interactive as possible. But that tactic made us lose sight of our strategic teaching goals—we were a little too much “in the weeds” to ask whether a given technology was the best way to meet a course’s learning objectives.
It’s not to say that faculty should not experiment with new technology. But they must be aware that their experimentation with course content and delivery might unintentionally create barriers for students. Electronic textbooks, for instance, are a boon to higher education because they can save students hundreds of dollars. But if not chosen carefully, e-books can pose challenges to students with visual impairments and present additional (and often unforeseen) costs to be absorbed by campus disability services offices.
It’s not to say that faculty should not experiment. But their experimentation might unintentionally create barriers for students.
Before incorporating a new tool or new materials into their courses, faculty should explore whether the change will present barriers to any students. If it does, faculty must make any necessary accommodations—or, if accommodations are not possible, reconsider the change altogether.
Faculty should consider their school’s disability services office as a partner that can help them find and understand the tools and resources that some students depend on. With this support, faculty can avoid adopting a new method or tool that leaves some students at an unnecessary disadvantage.
Accessibility Often Takes Only Small Changes
Adaptive tech and resource customization can be expensive, but not always. Professors also can adopt smaller, more cost-effective solutions. One solution might be as simple as using a straightforward font on syllabi—fancy fonts might seem more visually appealing, but they can be impossible for adaptive readers to translate.
Many faculty also struggle the first time they need to accommodate visually impaired students. But professors can learn PowerPoint tricks to make their presentations more accessible. These tricks include giving each slide a clear heading, describing each visual with alternative text, and avoiding embedding text in graphics. Professors also can work with their school’s disability services office to find versions of videos that include audio descriptions of their content.
In addition, many learning management systems have tools built into them to help faculty evaluate their course materials for accessibility. For example, Blackboard has made available a tool called Ally, which will scan uploaded course material and create an infographic that red-flags any content that could present difficulty to students with disabilities. Canvas, too, integrates its own accessibility checker that works in a similar way.
Accessibility Means Promoting Balance
Even before the pandemic, many students wanted to pursue educational options that were more flexible and cost-effective. However, in our experience, it’s still common for some professors to tell students, “My course needs to be your top priority.”
But that attitude disregards the fact that it is often only students of financial or social privilege who can prioritize their educations over their jobs and families, afford to study abroad, or take unpaid internships. In reality, most students must balance their educations with other equally important obligations, even those at historically “traditional” institutions. This is true for our institutions: Quinnipiac University (QU), an established residential campus in Hamden, Connecticut, and Texas A&M University–San Antonio (A&M–SA), a young Hispanic-serving institution in a major metropolitan area.
A&M–SA, in particular, serves a large transfer student population; more than 70 percent of its students are first-generation, are Pell grant-eligible, and come from underrepresented populations. Like students at other institutions, many students at A&M–SA are supporting families as they try to better themselves through education.
In business, more employees than ever are walking away from jobs that they no longer view as worth it, as part of what is being called “The Great Resignation.” The pandemic has provided us all with a serious wakeup call, as more people seek to balance work and study with other personal obligations. What would happen if schools sent the message that students should prioritize their educations over all else?
We believe that schools would risk seeing a similar trend in higher education, in which students choose to drop out of school altogether. We want to provide rigorous educational experiences, but we also must acknowledge that while our courses are an important part of our students’ lives, they are not the only part.
Accessibility Extends to Faculty
Throughout the pandemic, faculty have risen to the challenge to teach in unimaginable circumstances. But they have limited bandwidth in terms of what they can do. We’re asking them to teach in new ways; we’re requiring them to take on course overloads while their schools cope with unfilled positions due to budget crises or unexpected retirements among their faculty. (“The Great Resignation” is happening with faculty, too.) Even now, as we are midway through our third academic year affected by COVID, many faculty are spread too thinly and are facing the effects of burnout.
Both of us have had to ask faculty members to do something they would prefer not to do. For example, in an ideal world we would not ask the night owl to teach the 8:00 a.m. class, and we would not ask any professor to prepare new materials at the last minute—but sometimes we have no choice to but make these assignments. At a minimum, we need to acknowledge that professors have made sacrifices for the good of the students and assure them that we will make every effort to accommodate their needs in the future.
Academic administrators must acknowledge that faculty’s lives are just as complex as those of students. While we must find ways to meet the learning objectives in our programs, we should balance that responsibility with compassion for our faculty and aim to respect their preferences when we can.
Accessibility Can Open Doors to Innovation
During the last year, faculty and students alike have had to be collaborative and innovative to make the online learning experience as valuable as possible. But we have seen how accessibility can transform one area of our programs in particular: study abroad.
At QU, a requirement for the MBA program is an immersive short-term international business experience. The pandemic forced program coordinators to become experimental very quickly, just as it did for faculty at other schools with robust study abroad programs. QU faculty had to rethink how they would provide international business content, meet learning objectives, and create an engaging experience for students in virtual environments.
For instance, one faculty member put an exciting spin on international study by connecting students virtually with professional contacts living abroad, as well as with a group of ex-pats living in New England. Another faculty member immersed students virtually in the local culture of another country. Students met with business leaders from that country via video conferencing and even participated in a live online cooking class to learn how to make classic local recipes.
Administrators should not say, “My students don’t deal with that difficulty, so we don’t need to worry about that.” They should ask, “How can we design our courses so that anyone can access them?”
While some international trips will resume at QU in the spring, the school’s faculty see the advantage of continuing to offer virtual study abroad opportunities. This creative solution enables all students to experience cultural immersions, even if they are unable to travel because of medical issues, caregiving responsibilities, financial hardship, or other reasons.
Accessibility Requires That We Pay Attention
Before the pandemic, we were doing our best to reduce the cost of textbooks for our students, through an expanded use of online or open educational resources. But beyond that, many of us were not fully aware of the struggles our students faced in completing their courses.
For example, pre-COVID, we might have thought nothing of asking students to go online to watch a video or read material before class. But we did not consider that some of our students might not own a laptop or have internet access at home. We might not have known that they were going to fast food parking lots to use public Wi-Fi to watch class recordings.
Now, our students want our support in making sure they have the tools they need to learn. For example, A&M–SA used some of the money that it received via the Cares Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in March 2020, to get devices such as laptops and wireless hotspots into students’ hands. None of our students should be sitting in parking lots trying to work.
Accessibility Can Benefit Everyone
Academic administrators should never assume that because their schools primarily serve certain student populations—be it residential students, transfer students, or working professionals—certain accessibility features aren’t necessary. They should never say, “My students don’t deal with that difficulty, so we don’t need to worry about that.” Rather, they should ask, “How can we design this course or these materials so that anyone can easily access them, regardless of the challenges they face?”
Even the most straightforward instructional choices can either create or eliminate barriers to learning. However, choices that eliminate barriers for a few students can benefit everyone. For example, a poorly scanned PDF or book chapter from 30 years ago will be impossible for adaptive readers to translate for the visually impaired—but even people with perfect vision will strain their eyes to read such materials. By being mindful of such challenges, and by working to reduce them, faculty can make it easier for everyone to learn.
Making such accommodations isn’t always easy—and as we saw last spring, some accommodations might not always be reasonable or feasible. But we are obligated to remove as many barriers to education as we can so that all of our learners can succeed. If we use what we’ve learned over the last 18 months to make education more accessible, we won’t just better serve our students. We’ll also make ourselves more resilient, no matter what crisis we’ll face next.