Working as a Learning Designer within higher education means that a significant part of my work is built around establishing and checking online accessibility for people with disabilities according to the W3C recommendations. From making sure screen-readers can skip decorative images and recognise header levels to ensuring that the colour contrast of text on screen meets the 4:5:1 ratio. A recent report by Vision Australia into Australian universities (2018) highlights some of the accessibility challenges posed by online educational spaces. It also gives some very insightful feedback on user experiences and the challenges they face. Unfortunately, accessibility barriers in education can make it highly “stressful, difficult and unrewarding for people who are blind or have low vision to study”.
The importance of accessibility standards
The training I receive in my role not only helps me identify the standards that need to be met, but also the ethical principles underlying our push for Universal Design for Learning (UDL). In consultation with academics, it essential to discuss the university’s accessibility requirements but I also attempt to give them insight into why this isn’t simply about compliance with standards. Making education accessible is key to addressing the structural neglect that our society sets up for people with disabilities and other vulnerable learner groups.
I think a large part of that structural neglect can be tackled by making digital environments as accessible as possible. There are so many areas where universities set the standards for how a society as a whole starts to think and act. Accessibility should be another one of these areas.
Universal design in practice
As a start, this means supplying a variety of means of engagement by offering options for all students to interact with content in different ways. When speaking to subject coordinators, we can consider involving students in the design of tasks for authenticity, reducing the visual stimulation or density of content in one space and designing with consistency across their site to build in some level of routine to daily activities and changes.
Designing for authenticity means responding to complexity in student experience so that they can start to identify projects that are meaningful to them and also opening up the audience of student work beyond the boundaries of the academic realm. Digital educational technologies can provide more avenues for this along with personal response, evaluation and self-reflection to content and activities. These approaches can directly address the variety of manners in which we learn.
We also look at establishing better habits for the representation of information textually, graphically and audio-visually. This may involve the closed-captioning of videos, but also providing meaningful alternative text for important images and using appropriate text-headers for titles so that screen-readers are able to identify the purpose of particular text to the visually impaired. These aspects can initially be frustrating for already overworked teachers as they can seem like minuscule details that don’t really make a difference to those deemed ‘typically abled’. The idea to instil is that making things accessible isn’t just for people with disabilities; everyone benefits from having more functioning options for learning.
Screen-readers are also used by people without severe vision-impairment as much as closed captions are used by people without major hearing-impairment. Automatic accessibility checks have been designed into the LMS which the university uses but, on occasion, we may be unaware of how to use these features. Taking the time to go through these simple checks with colleagues often awakens a sense of what UDL is and how they can align the principles they believe in as educators with the digital platforms that they are expected to use. This is one step towards helping academics to develop more effective learning environments.
The action and expression of UDL is about giving all types of students the chance to engage with learning tasks and demonstrate their knowledge in multimodal ways. This can simply be allowing for alternative assessment formats and modes of feedback. For example, using an ePortfolio which reflects students progress back to them through the ‘live’ submissions of work can make a difference to their ability to self-reflect on the fluidity of progress. The challenge for students here is overcoming their fear of submitting an unfinished piece of work for their tutor to assess. Students, who come from backgrounds where formative assessment is rare and responding to criticism as a form of learning is uncommon, can find this a confronting but ultimately rewarding process. This involves a teacher having a sensitivity and responsiveness to their students by setting up a supportive digital space where work that is ‘incomplete’ does not equate to work that is a ‘failure’. Otherwise, these approaches often only favour students who already have a strong sense of autonomy and self-direction. I’ve found that exploring some of these options with academic teachers helps to develop their approaches to student support and guidance.
In ‘Complexity as a theory of education’ Davis and Sumara write “an education that is understood in complexity terms cannot be conceived in terms of preparation for the future. Rather, it must be construed in terms of participation in the creation of possible futures” (2008:43). Thus I would hope that our efforts in web accessibility and innovation in digital education design increase the participation of marginalised or overlooked learner groups in the ‘creation of possible futures’.