Over the last two days I have attended 2 different #MyFest22 presentations (Accessibility Crowdsourcing for Digital Literacies Toolkit and Open Learning Journey Week 2 Kickoff) where the heart of the discussion was the question: what happens if a student or community is unable to access learning (tools, resources, content, courses)? In short, the student or students in a community will not be able to learn at the same level as those that have no trouble access the learning as it was designed.
What is Learning Accessibility in a Digital Environment?
So let's start by identifying what is meant by accessibility. Often, in higher education, accessibility is often a medical condition that prevents a person from learning in a traditional way (labeled "disabled") thus requiring accommodations. Digitally, there are accommodations or finished products that must meet a certain standard when designing an online resource or course. There are tools that an instructional designer can use to ensure a learning object is accessible (for those that are identified as disabled). For the most part, these tools look at the design for those with hearing or vision impairment. However, there are many more impairments that might need accommodations such as neuro-diversity, chronic illnesses/pain such as back, neck, or limb pain, headaches, blurred vision, seizures due to or triggered by time on a electronic devise. There are impairments that can be amplified such as ADHD/ADD, speech impediments, audio processing disorder, light or sound sensitivity, dyslexia, or dysgraphia, or machine augmented speech/hearing.
In most of the checklists I have seen for accessibility, these disabilities are not included. In some cases, typed writing (e.g. dyslexia or dysgraphia) may be a better learning environment for the student, with a minimum of changes (ensuring dictation software can be used or the font and spacing is accessible). But as other times the solution is in the instructional design (giving tool options, excluding timed tests). This is rarely given in a checklist.
Another area of inaccessibility often overlooked is made up of cultural, linguistic, epistemological, or technical differences. The first 3 are especially important to consider for international education. This is problem not only in distance/online education, but also for international students who attend a university outside of their home country. This could also be a problem from those from other regions of a country where the learning norms are different. In online education, it may not be obvious for an instructor (unless it is made explicit in the course design) that a student is from a community in which the basis of learning and how to learn, understanding of what "information" or "knowledge" is, and/or the rhetorical style is different from the standards of the educator/educational system.
Take for example the definition of plagiarism and the technology used to identify plagiarism. This technology assumes a student comes from a culture in which the norms for quoting and using others work are the same as those in the US or Western cultures. When I taught in Costa Rica, my students had difficulty writing in their own voice at the university level, because they had been taught that only those with the highest education and experience (professors) had that right. While this may be changing globally, there still are cultural differences that a anglo/western tool will privilege those from anglo/western societies.
Another accessibility issue is based on technological constraints, either due to official policies (government, university) or infrastructure. Believe it or not, in New York state, there is an internet "dessert" in approximately 1/4 of the state, often in the mountainous, rural areas. Even students using cell service may have to go to a location from their home to actually use their phones/devises. In New York City, the cell demand, especially during the day, can result in some older areas having slower or intermittent internet service. This means that students from rural or poorer neighborhoods may have difficulty accessing large files, downloading or uploading multimedia, or participating in video conferences.
Why is accessibility important?
We often hear instructors, instructional designers, and policy makers/administrators claim that it is impossible to meet everyone's demands. There is a push for a standard design that will meet all needs. However, many times this becomes a standard template that does not take into consideration students' diverse needs.
As one person mentioned in our Accessibility Crowdsourcing for Digital Literacies Toolkit, assessing learning is the difficulty. This is where the idea that assessment should be equal rather than equitable. Equal assessment will use the same measure for each student regardless of their barriers to access learning. This is especially egregious in online learning/activities. Time, culture, technology, and ableness (health) all are amplified when using the same metrics to assess learning.
Without support, either within the instructional design, the technology, or support systems and staff, those that cannot access learning, will fail assessments that are based on their having accessed the learning resources and environment.
However, there are many solutions to making learning accessible to all, some through technology use or choice, others through instructional design. At the core of this is an instructor/instructional designer's awareness of the needs of students and an understanding of the community they come from.
As Lauren Lechtman said in the Open Learning Journey Week 2 Kick-off, it is important to engage in the community so there will be by-in. Often they have developed their own resources which means a student will be able to better access learning using resources developed within their community.
Some Ideas about Solutions
As this is not a new problem, it is important to look at what solutions are already being used. When it comes to technology, many of the software companies have already extended packages that can be used with standard technology. Most of these packages address audio and visual impairments.
In addition, Universal Design (link) is one way to offer students with accessibility issues choices in learning. There are some shortcomings to this, such as course policies which may limit access. However, working through the process will help someone new to course accessibility an outline of what to consider.
Another thing to consider is to limit the amount of visuals. If you have a student that needs to have visuals, you might want to consider embedding a link to an alternative site that contains visuals.
I also would like to see a directory of technology where an instructor or instructional designer can go to identify the accessibility features (including accessibility extensions) for a technology. As someone who is an instructional designer, I myself am never sure if the technology I use is accessible, and if so, for which disabilities. I am still learning how to make my work more accessible and need to reach out to those whose disabilities are different from my own to get feedback on how to make my work more accessible. Having a directory with icons next to technology (as you have on travel sites for features at hotel) would make choosing the technology easier. These icons should include design orientation (i.e. reading right to left for non-western languages, using easily read fonts in multiple languages, color combinations that make it easy for those with colorblindness), audio extensions, visual extensions, eye strain/seizure warnings, low cognitive load/or cognitive load ratings, interaction with disability devises (text reading, dictation devices, alt text for visuals, audio or visual controls), and upload/download speed/internet capacity.
Finally, it is important that when designing online learning we include opportunities for student support such as choice of media, flexible or long time frames for online work completion, working in pairs or groups (making sure that someone who may have access difficulties is paired or grouped with others that do not), options for alternative technology in case of lack of internet or devise, and access to technology support 24/7 outside of the instructor led class.