How Colleges Can Improve Accessibility In Remote Courses


How Colleges Can Improve Accessibility In Remote Courses

By Rebecca Koenig     Apr 30, 2020

How Colleges Can Improve Accessibility In Remote Courses

This article is part of the guide: Sustaining Higher Education in the Coronavirus Crisis.

Colleges have long had offices designed to support students who have learning disabilities and to encourage broader accessibility in the classroom and beyond. But now that so many students are taking courses remotely, in improvised environments that may not be especially conducive to learning, it may take some extra effort to redesign instruction, assignments and assessments to address everyone’s needs.

After all, “it's not just enough to put materials in Blackboard if it's not going to be accessible,” says Jennifer Albat, instructional designer at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.

On the latest installment of our monthly online discussion forum, EdSurge Live, we explored accessibility in this unusual era of emergency remote teaching. We heard from Albat and Stephanie Del Tufo, assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of Delaware, who studies individual differences in learning, language and literacy.

They dug into the principles of universal design for learning, how instructions can use rubrics to empower students to demonstrate knowledge in many different ways, and how to break up class sessions to make it easier for everyone to participate fully. They also addressed audience questions about how to get faculty motivated to adjust their courses to improve accessibility.

Listen to the conversation below, or read a partial transcript, lightly edited for clarity. For a full transcript, please email

EdSurge: In terms of accessibility during this time, what have you learned? Is it going pretty smoothly? Has it been a little rough?

Jennifer Albat: I feel our institution has done a really great job. Our administration has done well at communicating, and the faculty have done a really great job of moving online quickly. They've been really receptive to learning new technologies and being very patient with us as we're trying to assist all of them. Luckily our team had a lot of resources already put out there for them, but we did do a special curation of those on a teaching and learning continuity page. And then we did some webinars for Blackboard Basic, Zoom, TechSmith Relay, and even Microsoft Teams. Then we also have continued our webinars series with our Center for Faculty Development and Innovation. We've done some webinars for engagement, doing synchronous sessions, different assessments and then how to teach synchronously or asynchronously.

So one of the challenges we've really been dealing with is test security because of course everyone wants to go right to ProctorU and have that live proctoring experience. However, that is obviously very costly. So we were able to extend our Respondus Monitor license, which monitors the students during an exam. But even then, we've still tried to have conversations with faculty and entire departments into making them think back about [their] students. We're already in a stressful situation. They may not have access to technology or even a webcam, for that matter, to do synchronous sessions or to be monitored during exams. And most of them have been willing to compromise and think about other ways to do assessment.

I feel like that's what I've really learned in this situation. Sometimes instructional designers vilify faculty a little bit and think they always want to take the quickest and the shortest way to get things done. And I've just seen faculty persist and just be so flexible and understanding and be really empathetic with their students. And even faculty that have taught online, they have struggled taking their face-to-face courses online.

Stephanie, what has it been like for you at your institution?

Stephanie Del Tufo: So I actually think that our IT people have really been the heroes. … I think there was an IT workshop every single day for two weeks helping us make our core courses synchronous or asynchronous so that our students can access them. And if they hadn't done that, there are a lot of professors who would have been in big trouble.

What are some of the accessibility needs college students have that instructors, researchers and course designers should be thinking about when moving courses online?

Del Tufo: When we talk about accessibility, we're actually talking about two prongs that were a problem, right? Physical accessibility. Do the students have computers? Do they have access to the software they need? Can we get it to them? Do they have internet connections? [That’s] one of the biggest problems we face. We have a lot of very remotely located students and there is no Wi-Fi in their town. And so we've had to coordinate to set up Wi-Fi hotspots outside of their local libraries [and] town council halls. It's honestly been the biggest challenge with getting everything online.

And then the second component I think is the one that people more commonly talk about, which is that pedagogical accessibility. How do we leverage the technology that we now have in place to help our students have the most optimized learning experience, especially those who are learning disabled or who need special accommodations that we previously gave them on an ad hoc basis and now they need to keep them with them.

And are there any common ones that pop up in many classrooms or that instructors maybe encounter more often?

Del Tufo: Reading is probably the most prevalent one that I see. Students who struggle because they have reading disabilities or struggle to read on a computer screen because of blurred vision. [For that,] a text-to-speech software saves us. And likewise, speech-to-text software saves us. And one of the great things about our IT office is that they've implemented it across our Canvas web pages. It's already built in for us and has been prior to going into COVID lockdown.

Jennifer, as an instructional designer, are there particular concerns that you look out for?

Albat: As Stephanie mentioned, reading is one of them. So we really look at the universal design for learning framework, but even before that, it's really important for students, faculty and instructional designers to have a really close relationship with their office for accessibility on campus. We were fortunate to have an office called ACCESS and it's “accessible campus community and equitable student support.” So we have a very close relationship with them, and they do a really great job of ensuring that everyone has a level playing field when it comes to learning.

Second, I really believe that everyone's quick to believe that accessibility is equivalent to disability, when in fact accessibility is about access for all, inclusiveness [and] universal design for learning.

So we need to try to follow those UDL guidelines to ensure that our course materials are accessible for all, for all learners. It allows those learners to choose their own path for their preferred method of learning, whether they have a disability or maybe they just prefer to read text over watching a video.

So one of the first things that we can do as faculty and designers is to ensure that videos are captioned. At SIUE we were really fortunate to have TechSmith Relay, which we just adopted last fall. It generates a 90 percent accuracy rate on closed captioning on videos, and that's just right out of the box. So that's just auto captioning. And it also alerts you if your captions are ADA compliant. Another great feature.

So captioning can provide new learning opportunities for all students. It's for those with hearing impairments, for those in noisy environments if they're on a long bus commute. It's one of the areas where institutions probably struggle with compliance.

But those automated captions are not perfect, and they can be time consuming to fix. So it's not the final answer, but it's a really good starting point.

This is also a really good place where I could kind of talk about some clear universal design for learning guidelines, how you can do universal design in your course.

So if you're not familiar with UDL, universal design for learning, it's a framework that was developed back in the ’90s by a group of neuroscientists, and they discovered that each person learns in a unique way. You know, it's as unique as your thumbprint. By designing your course, following these guidelines, you can optimize learning for everyone.

So first we were just talking about the closed captioning. And another thing you can do with your videos is to provide a transcript. So most of those closed captions you can download and put those into a transcript. This helps students who have, you know, a low internet connection or stream quality is really poor on a video. It's also really great because they can go back and search. It's a searchable document so they can go back if they want to look at a certain point. Also, if you're recording with a voiceover [over a] PowerPoint or if you're doing PowerPoint in your video, it's also really great to include that PowerPoint presentation along with your video so students can download that and they can make notes on it. They can refer back to different slides if they'd like.

But the most important thing is if students do have low vision, alternative text on those files are really going to help students understand the graphics better.

Also, we're really fortunate to have Blackboard Ally at our institution as an add-on to our learning management system. And this makes it really easy for faculty to remediate files for accessibility. So anyone can download word documents, PowerPoints, PDFs in a multitude of formats. So HTML tagged, PDFs, braille, even audio formats, which is really cool for students. So those are things we can do to ensure that the UDL guidelines for multiple means of representation are being followed.

How much should professors be worried about this by themselves? Where can they turn internally at a university to kind of get support and answers?

Albat: So most of the time you are going to have an IT department or an instructional design team. We've provided virtual trainings also. So if faculty are comfortable learning the tools on their own, then that's out there. But we also try to include the pedagogies behind it and how they should be using them in their courses. So not just, ‘Here's how you use the tool,’ but ‘Here's how you use it in practice and then in your courses.’ And we provide those best practices as we go.

Del Tufo: So I can tell you that we have both a center for teaching and learning and IT support and an office of disability support services here, and they're amazing and they all have each other on speed dial. so that when one of us has an issue, they're like, OK, we know how this physically works. How does this apply to ADA laws? How do we actually integrate this using pedagogy? Somebody will get back to us and they'll talk to all of those people. We also have faculty Zoom meetings once every two weeks where we basically have an informal Q and A to figure out who's learned what so that we can share it amongst ourselves and we aren't just calling Jennifer constantly.

[Audience question]: So I had a question about students with ADHD. ADHD students, sometimes they need those noise cancellation headphones and such. I know a few cases where professors have said “take those off.” And so how are we preparing professors to accommodate for this?

Del Tufo: That's a great question. So if we had the headphones that they needed, we provided them to them. If we could get them to them before they left campus in the cases where we couldn't, we've encouraged shorter modules. So instead of having a three-hour class, we've tried to break our lectures down into 10 minutes, followed by an interactive short activity. And the activity is just a content check. It's not like we're grading it for huge stakes. It's, “Did you miss the video? You should go back.” And so techniques like that worked really well for that particular population of students.

[Audience question]: I'm a doctoral student in digital education leadership. I'm wondering, are members of the schools of education who might have these expertise being tapped for helping their colleagues even though they might be busy themselves? How are they being tapped to help out with remote learning?

Del Tufo: They are spectacularly volunteering, and it's not just at our university. They are so excited to help. We've learned so much from them. It's just crazy.

[Audience question]: How would you phrase things if we have faculty who are very overwhelmed. A large group of them are overwhelmed to [switch from] teaching face-to-face and moving online very suddenly and abruptly and having to adapt for summer and possibly fall for the privilege of keeping your job. There's a lot of things that we've talked about which are great, but the reality is it's just one more thing we aren't going to help you with and you have to go figure out.

Albat: That's my battle every day. I totally understand that one. So my answer to that, and again, going back to Thomas Tobin's 20-minute talk, is find one thing. So find the one thing in your course where you know students always get stuck, or they always have a muddiest point or problem, and start with that. Start with the one thing that, you know, they could possibly use multiple formats of.

Start with your syllabus, make your syllabus accessible and then do one document per week. And then by the time they're done, then their whole course is accessible for the next semester.

Del Tufo: I feel your pain so much. It's not an easy transition, and as faculty, people don't always realize that our entire job isn't teaching. It's a percentage of the job, and that percentage differs university to university and faculty member to faculty member. And so while 25 percent of my job might be teaching, I might also have two grants due next week. And that's another 25 percent of my job. And so if I'm given the choice between turning grades on time or answering three students' panicked emails, I'm going to answer their emails. I'm probably going to post them so the rest of the class can see that that's what I did. And then I'm going to tell them that their grades are going to be pushed back to the next week, and that it's not going to impact anything negatively moving forward. But that's the amount of time I had, and this is the most important thing I can give them right now.

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