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E-Learning and Instructional Support.

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Digital accessibility is important to those with learning challenges

Wed Dec 15, 2021 at 04:10 PM

More than 7.3 million students received special education support, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s 14 percent of all public school students. When those students graduate high school and prepare for college, Oakland University’s Disability Support Services (DSS) helps them navigate and understand the accommodations available to them, including in their online classes. e-Learning and Instructional Support provides tools to make sure online classes are digitally accessible and meet the needs of those who require accommodations. 

Finding support for students

Christie Gough, DSS coordinator, said DSS works with students facing a variety of challenges, including, learning disabilities, psychological challenges, reading comprehension issues, sight and hearing limitations and physical disabilities. She said many of them have received assistance in K-12 and know they can come to DSS for support, but not all students use the service.

“They choose to go it alone. We have a lot of students who could benefit from our services, but the stigma or their culture prevent them from coming to us,” said Gough. She said students have to be proactive about asking for help. “Faculty can’t ask if a student has a disability. They can’t say, ‘you are doing poorly, go to DSS.’ We just have to put our information out there and hope that the students see it and come to us. 

Gough said DSS uses accommodations such as extended time for tests, reduced-distraction testing environments, readers and scribes, alternate tables and chairs, notetakers and accessible media and technology, to help students. However, she said, the experience is different from K-12 support. 

“K-12 support is based on success. College support is based on access. We have to make sure that you have the same, level playing field,” said Gough. 

To help establish that level playing field, e-LIS can help faculty design their courses with accessibility in mind. 

Designing courses for disability support

“I once observed a student who was legally blind. The student used tabs to move around the screen. The computer would read the text or the menu and she would hit the tab until she found the information she needed. In that instance, I saw how important the format and styles were to the page or document. Having the appropriate styles of headings and text allowed the student to navigate through the page without actually seeing it.” said Nic Bongers, senior instructional designer in e-LIS. 

e-LIS’s instructional designers spread the word to OU faculty that accessibility is an important component to their online classes. Bongers said they can design their courses to be accessible right from the start. 

“We tell faculty to be as proactive as possible and make their content accessible before students with learning needs get into the course. We encourage them to make proactive accommodations rather than reactive accommodations,” said Bongers. “Faculty who are aware of digital accessibility, create content with disabilities in mind. When you get in the habit of that, it stops being reactive and becomes preventative.” 

Bongers said accessibility can be as easy as using a spell checker for a document. OU uses the digital accessibility tool Blackboard Ally. It analyzes the course and provides an accessibility score. The application looks for things like alt text and headings, which guide screen readers, to create the accessibility score. Blackboard Ally also walks the instructors through their courses step-by-step to identify the accessibility limitations and how to fix them. Bongers said the users will see the accessibility score go up as they make the changes. 

“Sometimes the changes are not as easy, sometimes it is a little more work to complete, but with Blackboard Ally, the instructors can see what needs to be improved and get suggestions for improving it,” said Bongers. 

Blackboard Ally not only analyzes courses, it also offers students digitally accessible material, including HTML for improved reading on mobile phones, electronic Braille for the visually impaired, and audio. 

Bongers said that accessibility isn’t just something that is beneficial for students who require support, it can help lots of other students as well. 

“For example, when it comes to downloading, students can download in alternative formats, such as Braille or audio files, whatever works best for them and the way they learn,” said Bongers. “Those formats are not added based on need, they are available to everyone who uses Moodle.”

Student experience

“Students should not be aware that other students have disabilities and get accommodations or extra time,” said Bongers. He said that was not always the case. In previous versions of Moodle, students could see if a second quiz was available and knew only certain students had access to it. 

Now, instructors can seamlessly offer additional time or additional attempts. 

Gough said there are other things instructors can do to help students with various disabilities. She said live online lectures can be recorded for those who need to slow it down or hear it again. She said providing lecture notes to students can help those who write slower or who aren’t able to take notes during class. 

The Student Help Library provides a document on Blackboard Ally to introduce students to how to use the tool. While Blackboard Ally is designed for digital accessibility, there are many ways in which students can benefit from the services. e-LIS encourages all students to become familiar with it. 

Accessibility education

When it comes to learning about accessibility and online courses, Bongers said e-LIS and the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) team up once or twice a year for an accessibility workshop for faculty. He said these workshops provide awareness of digital accessibility and resources for those who want to learn more. CETL also offers a list of tools for accessibility in the classroom, including best practices, syllabus templates and even templates for student work.

“CETL also promotes the use of Universal Design for Learning, that is a teaching approach that basically adopts a lot of the main accessibility solutions. If you subscribe to the universal design for learning as a teaching approach, a lot of your accessibility issues will be covered,” said Bongers. 

e-LIS also offers on-demand resources. Bongers said there is also a digital accessibility eSpace, which provides an asynchronous course that can help faculty to learn about closed captions, colors, alt tags, headings and a video illustrating what it looks like to be legally blind. He said it offers a lot of cool stuff and faculty earn a digital badge of completion for working through it. 

There is also a section in the e-LIS help library for accessibility information. There are help documents for Blackboard Ally as well as digital accessibility best practice tips. 

“Accessibility is always evolving and we invite any faculty teaching any course to make an appointment with us if they have concerns about accessibility. We can review their content and help them learn what to look for and what habits to get into in the future,” said Bongers. 

For help with digital accessibility in your classes, contact e-LIS’ Instructional Design team at idteam@oakland.edu