Author: Austin Craven, UNCG Accessibility Fellow

A11y Corner logoIn my 9+ years as a lecturer in the UNCG Biology Department, I’ve learned a little about planning ahead.  This year I’m working as a faculty fellow on accessibility, and proactive planning is an essential component in the message I share with faculty about online accessibility. This position has a strong focus on improving awareness of online accessibility practices among the faculty here at UNCG. I’ve always tried to be mindful of making my content accessible to my students and prided myself on working to make biology as accessible to our diverse student body as possible.  A recurring topic in this process has been attempting to discover my own bias so I can minimize the impact they have on my successful communication with my students. Speaking as someone who has worked in the lab, I can say that biases are often obvious after they’ve been found but can also require a lot of work to remove once they are. In the lab this may mean retooling an experimental design. In education this may mean reworking vital resources that your entire semester is built around.

These reworks often require a lot of effort. However, if the issues are addressed in development, it’s much easier to design around them, saving ourselves the time of stress of a redesign and redevelopment. This reminds me of the adage, a stitch in time saves nine.

To highlight this point regarding web accessibility I want to recount one of my experiences during the pandemic. During the switch to online education, I generated more than 30 hours of video lecture material for one of my courses. This obviously took quite a bit of time learning which program I wanted to record on and setting up a stable recording environment at home. As I learned early in that process, having an error early on such as an inappropriate background required quite a bit of re-recording.

The next semester while teaching the same lecture, I received an OARS accommodation letter for a student who required transcripts and/or captions for audio materials. This caused a similar issue as the inappropriate background. Considering students with accommodations must have the same amount of time with the course material as other students, I had to rapidly create captions for my 30+ hours of lecture material to stay ahead of the delivery dates of these materials to the class. While developing new techniques to combat the current learning challenges of the pandemic I now had to learn about the generation of captions, and the re-rendering of video with a caption file added. Luckily, I was assisted by the UTLC with funds for paid captioning services which allowed for the creation of high accuracy captions. This saved me an immense amount of time in the editing or generation of the captions myself.  Even still, considering the material was moving through a third party vendor and that I was on a deadline to deliver the material to the student, it still involved quite a few late nights of work. While the captioning vendor generated the caption files, I still had to upload these files to each video. Learning how to do this was a process, but it was not a difficult one. But it still required extra time, and often I was under a time crunch to upload the files. Between the extra time needed for uploading the files and the pressure to have them added by the deadlines, this semester was quite stressful. If I had only employed the best practice of captioning when I created my videos, I could have paced my workload much more efficiently.

After this experience, I began the journey of learning more about online accessibility with educational content. This journey included completing the Web Accessibility 101 Canvas course offered here through the UTLC. Through this process I’ve learned about many best practices with online content such as heading structures coded into word processors and alternative text for images allowing them to be read by screen readers. These best practices, and others found on the Accessibility Resources site, are of most benefit when implemented during the development of material and becomes second nature after only a little practice. Which brings me back to my main point, that when it comes to online accessibility practices, a stitch in time will always save nine.

Author: Heather Moorefield Lang, UNCG Accessibility Fellow

A11y Corner logoI’d like to share my own accessibility journey, and how I’ve worked to include accessibility into my online courses. I have been teaching online full-time for eight years, and I’m currently a professor in the Department of Library and Information Science. In my department, I’m able to teach a variety of online master’s level courses including Introduction to Technology Resources, Storytelling/Digital Storytelling, and Makerspaces. All of my online courses have a synchronous component which is always scheduled in the evening; this is a huge benefit to all of my students because they are also working professionals in addition to being graduate students. 

Before I was a part of the faculty here at UNC Greensboro, I was a faculty member at The University of South Carolina (U of SC). There I taught very similar courses, but U of SC and their School of Library and Information Science is asynchronous. I’ve also taught in K-12 and other academic settings, but it was at U of SC where my accessibility and universal design journey began. At U of SC, I began to proactively incorporate accessibility into my courses at the postsecondary level.

Accessible Design Basics – Then vs. Now

When it comes to accessibility in online instruction there are a wide range of basic accessible design elements instructors can build into their courses and resources. Some of them include:

  • Headings/Lists – Identifying headings and lists in your documents and lists for screen readers for blind and visually impaired students.
  • Descriptive Links – These describe where the link takes your students or users
  • Text – Use text that is readable, legible, and make sure explain acronyms
  • Color – Avoid color contrast that is hard to read or illegible
  • Alternative Text – Provide descriptions for images and graphics using alt text
  • Captions/Transcripts for Media – Offer captions and/or transcripts for your video and media
  • Consistent Layout: Make the layout of your courses consistent for ease of use

All of these design elements are easy to provide for students and users. Many are built into programs like Word, Google Docs, PowerPoint, Canvas, YouTube, Google Slides, Teams, Zoom, and more. When I first started teaching online in 2014 this was not the case – it was much harder to include accessible design into my courses. Alternative Text was more difficult to include in presentations, and was not available across all tools and software. Creating captions and transcripts was exclusively a manual, often cumbersome process (auto-generated captions were generally not an option), or you sent them to a specific office on campus – one that was typically already overworked. Outsourcing to a vendor wasn’t a viable option for most because it was more expensive than the DIY alternative, sometimes with subpar results. All of these elements have become more cost efficient, easier to find, and simpler to do yourself. And in many cases you will find these and other accessible design features integrated into the platforms we’re using in our courses.

Accessible Design – Essential for Some, Beneficial for All

This year is my 25th year teaching, (started out in K-12 and later moved into higher education), and I constantly look for ways to best serve my students. When I first started teaching online full time, I knew I needed to figure out ways to best meet my student’s needs. I had students who had a variety of disabilities including vision disabilities, hearing disabilities, and neurodivergent disabilities. I also had students who were working full time with families at home. All of the accessible design elements mentioned previously are necessary and helpful to my students, but if I had to choose one that seems to have the most impact consistently in my courses, I’d have to choose captions/transcripts for videos. Having captions for videos helps my students who were deaf/hard of hearing but also helps my students who want to watch my videos at night after the kids go to bed. Having transcripts helps my students who like to read my lecture and watch the video because of their ADHD but also helps those without ADHD clarify what I said in class because they were unable to hear something I said, or they want to make sure their class notes match with what I said in class. 

Accessibility helps all of our students with and without recognized disabilities. I’ve learned throughout my accessibility journey in creating online classes that for some of my students, accessibility is essential, and without it, they will be excluded from some or all of my content. I’ve also come to learn that accessibility is a great benefit for many of my students without disabilities because it can make the act of learning a bit easier and more convenient. I continue to learn and grow in my accessibility journey with every class that I build and every student I teach.

Neurodiversity is a term that has been around since the 1990’s, but it has recently resurged as a topic of interest, especially as educators consider strategies for reaching learners of various abilities. But what exactly is neurodiversity? 

What is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity takes a different approach when it comes to framing how some developmental diagnoses affect learning and how an individual operates. While it now includes multiple diagnoses, the term originated from the autism community, in an effort to remove the stigma that often comes with having autism. The concept suggests that there isn’t a “normal” or one “right type” of brain. While some brains may have some cognitive differences, these differences aren’t deficits to what’s considered to be a “typical” brain.

Neurodiversity supports the idea that some neurological developmental conditions are actually normal variations within the brain, and while these variations could present some challenges, they also have certain features that can be considered strengths. If cultivated, these strengths can be used to the individual’s advantage. Neurodiversity advocates have increasingly pushed to shift the focus away from solely equating neurodiversity to disability, although individuals who are neurodivergent often need accommodations in their classes or work setting. The current thought is to embrace and uplift  the positive aspects of neurodivergent conditions, while also leaving room for accommodations as needed for individuals whose conditions require more support.

Types of Neurodiversity

The depth of what we know about the human brain is still rather limited – there’s much we’ve yet to learn. As such, the list of diagnoses most commonly categorized under neurodiversity is not a finite list. We also know that a diagnosis is not a one size fits all situation for people. It is very common for people who share a diagnosis of the same condition to have different experiences with how that condition affects their daily lives. As with disabilities, the severity of the condition will also impact each person differently, and can affect how they operate and function differently when compared to others with the same condition.

Here are some common diagnoses that are considered to be neurodivergent:

  • Autism
  • ADHD
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Bipolar/Manic Depression
  • Tourette Syndrome
  • Epilepsy
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Neurodiversity & UDL

UDL is a natural option for reaching students who are neurodivergent. The focus of UDL is to design courses in a way that gives students options for how they receive information, how they  engage, and how they show what they’ve learned. It also promotes course design that maximizes reaching as many students as possible from the outset. Neurodivergent learners fit perfectly into the UDL framework – these learners often respond favorably when UDL strategies are used. The UDL strategies shown in these examples actually benefit all learners, including those who are neurodivergent.

Sources:

About the A11Y Corner

The A11Y Corner is all about accessibility, with a specific focus on accessibility-related pedagogies that also support overall equity and inclusiveness. A11Y (pronounced “A-one-one-Y”, or A-eleven-Y”) is a numeronym for the word “accessibility”. It is used most often as shorthand, especially on social media platforms such as Twitter. When you see it, remember A11Y=Accessibility.

We’ll post content about once a month to highlight ideas, resources, and other information that address accessibility. In our first post, the spotlight on is Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and how it’s promotion of self-empowered learning impacts student retention. UDL and accessibility are often connected, and share the idea that information has to be shared in a variety of ways to ensure that we reach all students.

The Satisfaction of Self-Empowered Learning through UDL

As individuals, we want the freedom to make our own choices. Just as we are more satisfied when we get to choose the toppings on our pizza, we’ll also be more satisfied if we can choose how we learn. I personally would hate to be served pineapple pizza with no other options – not only would I be dissatisfied, I’d also be disappointed and hungry (I just can’t eat pineapples on pizza). 

And when it comes to learning, students who are allowed to choose from a variety of ways to learn, engage, and express themselves are more satisfied with the outcome of the course and they will more likely feel that they’ve actually learned something of value from the course. 

UDL focuses on empowering student learning through choice and options. Providing multiple ways to engage with course information stimulates students’ interest in learning. Basically, the more interested they are in learning, the more likely they will stay engaged. Research shows there’s a definite link between student engagement and retention (Kuh et al, 2008, Chen, Lattica & Hamilton, 2008; Conner, 2011; Hattie, & Anderman, 2013).

Thinking more about engagement in the classroom – it’s vital to learning because if we are engaged, it’s easier to make connections and relate what we’re learning to other relevant information. Making connections and relating to existing information is how we give new information meaning, which leads to a deeper understanding of what we’re learning. We need this deep understanding if we want to store the information in our long-term memory. Long-term memory storage is the goal – if it’s there, we’ve retained it and can retrieve it for later use. 

As UDL suggests, giving options when teaching a new concept and during assessments further empowers students because they get to choose how they receive information and then show what they’ve learned. There are many ways to include options in your course – a very easy one for teaching a new concept is to provide both articles and videos that address the topic you’re teaching, and let students choose which one they prefer to use to learn. For assessments, you could give students the option to write, record, or present (through slides, infographics, etc) their responses to an assessment.

What’s really great about UDL is that it thrives on self-empowerment. Students are given options, but they are responsible for choosing what works best for them. The instructor is there to guide self-reflection to help the student understand why the choice was correct or incorrect and how to use this reflection to determine future choices for learning.

Providing choices through UDL gives students access to the tools they need for learning, and the opportunity to learn in the way that’s best for them. It makes for a satisfied student who will be more likely to persist in completing their educational goals.

Sources:

  • Chen, H, Lattica, L, & Hamilton. (2008). Conceptualizing engagement: Contributions of faculty to Student Engagement in Engineering.  Journal of Engineering Education, 97(3): 339-352.
  • Conner, T. (2011). Academic engagement ratings and instructional preferences: Comparing behavioral, cognitive, and emotional engagement among three school-age student cohorts. Review of Higher Education and Self-Learning, 4(13): 52-62.
  • Hattie, J., & Anderman, E. M. (2013). International guide to student achievement. New York: Routledge.
  • Kuh, G, Cruce, T, Shoup, R, Kinzie, J, and Gonyea, R (2008) Unmasking the Effects of Student Engagement on First-year College Grades and Persistence. Journal of Higher Education, 79, 5, pp. 540-563.

ITS Learning Technology (ITS LT) in partnership with the University Teaching and Learning Commons (UTLC) has appointed two faculty to its new accessibility fellowship program. Austin Craven, Biology Lecturer, and Heather Moorefield-Lang, Library and Information Studies Associate Professor, are the 2022-2023 Accessibility Fellows. Both fellows will be tasked with supporting and coordinating digital accessibility initiatives for the campus during the 2022-2023 academic year, with the option to continue these efforts through an additional term in 2023-2024.

UNCG has committed to improving campus digital accessibility, and this new fellowship is an opportunity to directly address this within the academic campus environment. Craven and Moorefield-Lang will work with Melanie Eley, UTLC’s Associate Director of Learning Innovations & Accessibility, to provide educational opportunities to increase awareness, collaborate with accessibility campus partners, and develop resources that will improve online course accessibility.

Both fellows will dedicate approximately 30% of their time to their accessibility fellow role, and their remaining time will be spent teaching in their respective home departments.