Content Editor Christine Scherer and Learning Designer Krissy Wilson joined Rutgers University Continuing Education for a six-week course: Accessibility and Compliance in Online Education. The course focused on “basic concepts, issues, approaches, strategies, beneficiaries, and resources with regard to the creation and delivery of online courses that are accessible to all students, including those with disabilities.” In this post, they describe their three key takeaways and reflect on their time in the course.
Sheryl Bergstahler, founder and director of the DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center at the University of Washington, was the course instructor. The students in the course included undergraduate and graduate faculty, instructional designers, and academic support staff, and they came with various levels of familiarity with web accessibility and technology. It made for some truly engaging discussions as everyone was able to share different experiences and knowledge on the topics.
Web accessibility is about more than sensory disabilities.
Many web accessibility resources focus on sensory disabilities, such as blindness, deafness, etc. However, true web accessibility encompasses far more than just these two areas. Students with physical/mobility disabilities, learning disabilities, and mental health issues should also be considered when designing a course.
While all these populations may seem overwhelming, many web accessibility measures benefit students in multiple groups. Deaf or hard-of-hearing students and non-native English-speaking students can both benefit from captions on videos, for example. In both cases, the students gain greater comprehension by being able to read along with what is being said in the video.
In the beginning, focus on doing the most good quickly.
Web accessibility is a vast field, one that can seem quite daunting to someone just starting out. But this course emphasized the idea that it’s better to focus on “low-hanging fruit” at first–simple, easy things that improve accessibility in some way. It may take a considerable amount of time to put captions on all the videos for a program, for example, but adding alt-text to embedded images and using proper heading tags is much more achievable–and provides a tangible benefit to students with disabilities. Once these easier tasks have been incorporated into a course site, developers can turn their attention to more complex, time-intensive accessibility measures.
Involve stakeholders at all levels.
In order to create an accessible online course, involve stakeholders at all levels, from AccessibleNU down to the students in your online class each quarter.
AccessibleNU: Formerly the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities, AccessibleNU is full of resources! These might take the form of reviewing your rights and responsibilities as a faculty member, brushing up on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) strategies or by consulting directly with your learning designer and Jim Stachowiak, Director of Assistive Technology. It’s always great to meet others who are working to meet the needs of students with disabilities.
Departmental staff: The Distance Learning staff are well-trained in web accessibility and compliance. If you have a question about the accessibility of an instructional resource, an innovative assignment, or a new technology, there’s a great chance that we can answer it! Our Content Editor (who walks faculty through accessibility expectations at the beginning of the development process and reviews your course for accessibility as the development cycle comes to a close), Learning Designers (who monitor your course for web accessibility throughout development), and Instructional Technologists (who can consult with you about current and accessible online course technologies) are at your disposal.
Faculty peers: When your faculty peers ask about how the process of developing, revising, or teaching an online class went, be sure to highlight the considerations you made to ensure that your course was accessible, be that in the form of web accessibility or UDL. Word of mouth can be the best way to get your peers to make the same considerations you did.
Students in your class: Any class can be used to teach brief accessibility strategies! If your students are turning in a Word document as part of their final project, ask them to use the Styles feature to apply headings rather than formatting headings in bold or italics. If your students are turning in a short video presentation, ask them to script their videos, upload the videos to YouTube, and upload the transcript to be used as captions for the video before sharing it with their peers. Along with the topic of your course, students will hone digital literacy skills and soak up web accessibility best practices.
The course as a whole was a valuable learning experience. The course itself practiced what it preached–it had been clearly designed with web accessibility as a core consideration. Not only were alternate formats, such as captions or transcripts, readily available, but there were clear instructions on how to access the alternatives. It was very helpful to be able to see the things that Dr. Bergstahler wrote about put into practice.
Dr. Bergstahler also typified best practices in teaching online, for students of all abilities. She regularly participated on the discussion boards in order to connect our comments, ask challenging questions, and link us to additional resources, such as specific accessible technology videos and brochures provided by DO-IT.