Mar 15 2021

Rethinking Technology Accessibility in Higher Ed

To address digital equity, higher education should approach technology accessibility issues from a systemic framework.

To ensure everyone in higher education has technology access, it’s important to recognize the unique distinctions among various underserved populations. Educational access problems for low-income students might differ greatly from the challenges faced by a student with hearing impairment. For university IT teams, this means addressing digital equity from a systemic level.

Eric Moore, a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and accessibility specialist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, says the problem lies with the fact that high-level conversations surrounding technology accessibility often stem from a faulty foundation: a focus on tools rather than outcomes, and a focus on individual students rather than systemic issues.

More often than not, universities prioritize making technology accessible, without considering that nontechnological tools — such as pencils and printed textbooks — can be just as inaccessible.

“We have an assumption that lower-tech tools are accessible, which is not necessarily true,” Moore says. “A design approach to accessibility is to consider the outcome, then learners’ needs, and then how learners can get to the outcome without unnecessary barriers. When we choose options or provide flexibility for learners, we enhance accessibility.”

Get Rid of Flawed Technology Accessibility Assumptions

Higher education institutions often consider technology inaccessibility as a problem that only affects a few student populations.

As a result, learning environments are not designed for these students. Many universities, instead, retrofit existing course content to address accessibility after problems arise.

And there are certainly tools that can help with that. For example, Microsoft Office has a built-in accessibility checker that can indicate when a Word document needs headers to improve its readability, or when a PowerPoint presentation needs greater text and background color contrasts. Learning management systems and cloud-based tools such as Google Workspace have similar accessibility features.

Eric Moore
Can all learners who need to access the material access it? If they can’t, it’s not accessible."

Eric Moore a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and accessibility specialist, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Meanwhile, Blackboard Ally is an AI-enabled tool that scans course content for accessibility issues, and it integrates with most LMSs. Siteimprove and Tenon.io are similar tools that can help institutions audit websites for accessibility red flags.

While such tools can serve as helpful guides, they are evaluating materials that have been created without universal design in mind, so they won’t be able to catch every accessibility issue. “Nothing exists anywhere that’s fully accessible to all people,” Moore says.

MORE ON EDTECH: Improving accessibility for students and faculty with disabilities.

Avoid Complex Processes That Encumber Students with Disabilities

Another major flaw in this retroactive approach is that it places a tremendous burden on students.

When students with dyslexia, for example, struggle with assigned readings, instructors typically refer them to disability services. The students then go through a cumbersome process where they must document their disabilities, apply for disability services and wait for course materials to become accessible.

“Educators need to think about accessibility at the origin of content creation. Otherwise, you’re reporting on inaccessibility that already exists, as opposed to preventing it,” says Kyle Shachmut, co-chair of the EDUCAUSE IT Accessibility group and assistant director of digital accessibility services at Harvard University. 

Rather than creating content for an assumed student population without barriers, before retrofitting that content for other groups with barriers, faculty and staff should instead focus on creating content that’s accessible for every student population from the start.

LEARN MORE: How can universities help disabled students with remote learning?

To prioritize digital inclusion on a systemic level, universities must ask: Are all students — regardless of whether they’re students with disabilities, students from low-income families or students who live in rural areas — able to access their educational materials?

“Can all learners who need to access the material access it? If they can’t, it’s not accessible,” Moore says.

Moore also recommends that colleges and universities form multidisciplinary teams that support the procurement and evaluation of accessible technologies. Such a specialized team could also do accessibility training for faculty and staff. “It’s the best thing for institutions of higher education to do if they’re serious about accessibility,” he says.

Achieve Digital Inclusion by Creating Courses in More Formats

“Instead of saying the barrier is the student with dyslexia, we say the barrier is that class materials have been bottlenecked through one means of representation,” Moore says.

It would help if instructors made course content available in a variety of formats: text and audio, or text and video or graphics.

That way, the content serves students with different disabilities, as well as students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. A student who has to commute long distances to get to school, for instance, would benefit from an audio recording of a text. Meanwhile, a student with limited resources can avoid buying expensive textbooks if he or she can access content through cheaper (or possibly free) alternative formats.

DIVE DEEPER: Learn how to solve remote learning struggles for students with vision and hearing loss.

Reducing the number of hoops that students must jump through to access learning materials “benefits everyone more broadly,” Moore says.

“Variability in the human population isn’t the exception, it’s the norm,” Moore says. “We should provide for accessibility up front, rather than punting to specialized departments like disability services. This is the new frontier for accessibility and Universal Design for Learning.”