In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, universities across the nation have shifted to remote instruction. In order to ensure that students with disabilities retain equal access to the same content as their peers, it is vital that online environments remain just as accessible as the physical environments were.
Accessible technology refers to digital landscapes which can be interacted with and understood by people with disabilities, either directly or through the use of assistive technology. Accessible technology provides equal access to information, in various formats that work for a range of individuals. Without accessibility, technology fails to cater to every person.
Created to provide digital experiences that are accessible for everyone, the MSU Digital Experience (DigitalX) team works to ensure equal academic participation. As an extension of MSU’s Information Technology (IT) department, DigitalX has worked to ensure that technology doesn’t pose a barrier. Focusing on accessible technology not only brings understanding and clarity but emphasizes greater access and inclusion for student success.
“We’re founded on this notion that we provide opportunity based on merit. When you think about the modern educational landscape, you can’t provide an educational experience without technology, and COVID-19 emphasizes this, and the reality is that technology is a doorway to provide that opportunity to our students,” says Nate Evans, Senior Manager and Digital Accessibility Coordinator for DigitalX. “If we are truly serious about our land grant mission and vision at MSU, we have to take seriously the opportunity that technology affords us in providing opportunities to so many people.”
Many educators aren’t always aware of what accessibility should look like, whether that be catering to learning abilities or physical abilities, but as they gather content and different formats of teaching, instructors can continue to implement accessible interactions among students. Instructors can further provide an opportunity to design online course content and materials, using these online spaces to effectively teach, organize, and disseminate knowledge.
For the upcoming semester, the DigitalX team will be launching a new tool, Spartan Ally. Integrated through Desire2Learn (D2L), Spartan Ally will provide students with on-demand alternative format creation capabilities. Course content can be converted into other accommodating outlets, for example, Word documents or PowerPoint presentations can be transformed into mp3 or electronic Braille. Another feature includes offering faculty tips and tricks for creating accessible content, with faculty- centric language. Considering accessibility training has been typically geared toward technical staff in the past, faculty are now receiving the needed guidance to make course content accessible. Spartan Ally will also be able to provide institutional reports, seeing trends across MSU regarding what works for students and what doesn’t.
“Educating faculty is always our focus. There’s this huge misunderstanding about accessibility, that it is super difficult and impedes creativity, but we just want faculty to have a better understanding of what that means and what it takes to make accessible documents,” says Brooke Knapp, Digital Accessibility Analyst for DigitalX. “Accessible technology is never telling a professor what content they can teach, but rather the form or method in which they’re delivering that content.”
Working directly with the RCPD, MSU Libraries has provided an array of accessibility guidance for students. As part of the largest computer lab on campus, the Library’s computers feature assistive technology (screen readers, screen magnifiers, etc.) for users, and the provided on-demand remediation service allows students to request accessible versions of files from e-journals, e-books, and other library resources. MSU Libraries is also finalizing a captioning procedure for virtual meetings, sessions, tutorials, and events. MSU Libraries has readily provided accessibly technology initiatives on campus and has made themselves available to ensure a more accessible space.
“To assist RCPD during COVID-19, we have made ourselves available to scan textbooks for RCPD students,” says Heidi Schroeder, Accessibility Coordinator for MSU Libraries and RCPD Library Liaison. “Since the MSU Libraries have had essential staff working/scanning at the Main Library throughout COVID, we’re happy to assist RCPD with these efforts.”
Outside of the RCPD, the MSU College of Arts & Letters (CAL) has provided courses and projects related to accessibility, such as the Study Away Silicon Valley program or enrollment in the new Fall 2020 course “AL 111: Introduction to Accessibility”, while also offering a variety of direct support to departments and programs looking for information on creating accessible materials and learning experiences. For the last five years, MSU CAL has hosted the Accessible Learning Conference (ALC), a campus-wide accessibility network, providing “a forum for students, educators, community members, and leaders to connect, share knowledge, and foster innovation in accessibility in higher education.” The CAL Academic Technology office continues to work with students to generate course accessibility reviews, website creation, and more. As we move into fall, CAL will further assist with faculty on how to consider and implement accessibility in whatever modality they are teaching.
“Sometimes we know exactly what accommodations should be made if an MSU student has registered with RCPD, but often times we do not have this information,” says Kate Sonka, Assistant Director of Academic Technology at CAL. “Therefore, approaching course design, development, and delivery with accessibility in mind ensures we’re doing our best to establish a meaningful classroom space regardless of who is in our class.”
Accessibility starts with the creation of good content and benefits from a creator who approaches their work with inclusion in mind. For example, by providing a syllabus with clearly formatted text and headings, an instructor makes it easier for screen-reader users to navigate content. Or, by allowing a class to be pre-recorded and/or live-captioned, students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can have equal access to the lecture. Ultimately the goal is to provide fluid interaction to students who rely on accessibility to ensure they have the same academic experience as their peers.
In the wake of the pandemic, moving academics and institutional services online have highlighted the need for content and interactions to be accessible to promote success for students with disabilities. More educators have learned to anticipate the diversity of needs and challenges in advance by making their course more navigable, which is a great step toward ensuring accessibility across campus.