The Michigan State University Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives funds ‘Creating Inclusive Excellence Grants’ that support a variety of different programs, including faculty development to research inclusion practices. One recent grant, which involved the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, is supporting a series of workshops, some instructional support and two years of attendance at MSU’s Accessible Learning Conference (ALC) for academic faculty and staff members. It also contributes to the promotion and development of accessible teaching and learning through the Faculty Accessibility Fellows Program for the College of Arts & Letters, College of Natural Science and Eli Broad College of Business.
The Faculty Accessibility Fellows (FAF) Program, an initiative created by the University through a Creating Inclusive Excellence grant, provided funding to each participating college faculty member to train and create a learning environment that was accessible to all students. Faculty members included Antoinette Tessmer, an Assistant Professor in Finance from the College of Business. Teaching courses that require heavy Microsoft Excel usage, Tessmer wanted to utilize her funding toward learning how to make Excel more accessible to screen readers used by blind and visually impaired students.
“The ‘Financial Modeling’ course that I teach is essential to find a better job in the financial industry.” said Tessmer. "Even though it is an elective course, more than 80% of finance graduates choose to enroll. About two years ago, a blind student graduated with a Finance degree. The student did not enroll in my course for good reasons: two years ago, it would have been extremely challenging for the student to succeed. Since that event, I have felt that I was responsible for not offering an equal chance to that particular student to land a greater job,” states Tessmer. “That is the reason why I petitioned to be part of FAF and that was the start of great changes in my course material.”
From there, Leslie Johnson, RCPD Assistant Director for Assistive Technology Innovation and ALC Planning Committee Member, connected Professor Antoinette Tessmer with student Anna F. for collaboration during summer 2020. With further involvement from another student, Alexandra A., this team worked to render over 80 Excel files, hours of video footage, and decks of slides accessible to screen reader users for Tessmer’s ‘Financial Modeling’ course. In preparation for this FAF project, Tessmer took an online course in Excel Accessibility from DeQue University and read all the most recent publications she could find.
Tessmer shares: “I asked Anna and Alexandra to test the accessible content that I prepared for them. At the beginning, it was really a trial-and-error process with the two ladies, honestly, letting me know whether my descriptions were helpful, or not, at understanding the file content. Anna and Alexandra, effectively worked as if they were taking the course, although Excel and Finance are not their forte.”
Together, the group worked to brainstorm on a standard method that would increase the likelihood that accessibility content would be as user-friendly and as helpful as possible. At the 2020 Accessible Learning Conference event, they conducted a presentation, focused on embracing accessibility in the classroom.
Anna shares: “We presented our findings to the broader audience. It was great to see other people were getting engaged, especially the professors, in making their coursework accessible.” “I can’t stress to people enough, it’s so important to start out with accessibility in mind, rather than trying to go back and make a course accessible once you’ve already made it. It’s a lot easier and takes a lot less time, and you don’t need to rework content if you start with accessibility off the bat.”
“The presentation was quite symbolic for me.” expressed Tessmer. "It was the first time that we shared our work with our peers. It was a first attempt to formally state what our Excel accessibility method is, why it was designed that way, and what we learned while building and testing the method. I also inserted the presentation in my course introduction. Enrolled students can thus better understand the why and how of Excel accessibility that they are about to experience.”
According to Leslie, "When they presented at the Accessible Learning Conference, it was so great to see that Professor Tessmer’s idea, what she wanted to do, and working with Anna (and Alexandra) all summer really produced a great thing! They’ve really changed her course for the better, so it was great to see that all come together.”
Since fall semester 2020, all students who’ve enrolled in one of the Broad College of Business ‘Financial Modeling’ courses are exposed to Excel accessibility content from the beginning. From seeing an opportunity for scholarly contribution to the field by testing and proposing accessibility methods and standards for Excel models, to the ability to identify a course as 99% accessible for all students, including screen reader users, has been a rewarding experience for Professor Tessmer. She says:
“On the first day of class, I take pride at announcing that the course is 99% accessible to all! Indeed, the accessibility content, which was first designed for screen reader users, now serves the whole course community. I encourage the student to be respectful of but also curious about the A11Y (accessibility) descriptions that are provided in each Excel file. Many students have shared with me that those descriptions made it easier to understand the file content. Additionally, video scripts and closed captions are used by sighted users more often than we think!”
“What started as an initiative aimed at helping the Finance alum who could not take my course two years ago became a much more general improvement of the course material for the better learning of every single student! I firmly believe that students’ exposure to Excel A11Y provides a unique expertise that our graduates bring to the workplace! I count on my students to keep propagating Excel A11Y in Corporate America!”
“The faculty that were in the fellowship program have all learned a lot. There was a session at the Accessible Learning Conference where several of them presented about what they have done differently and taken from the fellowship program. It’s always a great opportunity—especially when faculty can hear from other faculty what they are able to do, but to hear first-hand how others have done it is always a great opportunity,” says Johnson.
The Faculty Accessibility Fellows (FAF) Program is a great opportunity for instructors to learn how to build accessibility and incorporate it into their coursework. By stressing the importance of making coursework accessible, it explores the ability to provide solutions in higher education. The benefit of an inclusive environment is far greater through the collaboration of students and staff.