Specialist area 1. Accessibility

Declaration: Adapted from previous portfolio update to Core Area 3. Wider Context.

Higher education institutions have a legal duty under the Equality Act 2010(s.91) to make reasonable adjustments so that disabled students are not discriminated against in the way it provides education. In my previous role, my approach to increasing accessibility awareness and improving practice for teaching staff has been informed by my MA studies. Seale (2006) refers to the need for responsibility for accessibility to involve all stakeholders in education:

If accessible e-learning practice is to develop, strategic partnerships between these different stakeholders will probably need to be formed and this cannot happen successfully unless each stakeholder understands the different perspectives of each of the other stakeholders. (Seale, 2006, p.4)

As a learning technologist, I considered my role as a bridge (Swaffield and MacBeath, 2013) between these stakeholders, learning myself the needs of disabled students, drawing upon disability expertise and conveying this in a practical way to colleagues. Thus, aiming to empower teaching staff to draw upon advice, as appropriate for their students.

What practitioners are finding is that such checklists cannot always be followed rigidly. Frequently, practitioners are required to make judgements based on the local contexts in which they are working and the results of those judgements introduce a flexibility and adaptability into accessibility practices. (Seale, 2006, p.47)

In terms of how my understanding has impacted practice, instead of treating accessibility like a separate check list of actions, I aimed to encourage all staff to consider it as an embedded and integral part of professional practice and delivering education. This approach is all the more important when factoring in that not all students will choose to declare a disability (including for cultural reasons) (Matthews, 2009). In writing the York TEL Handbook, I have taken accessibility considerations from discrete documents and incorporated them within the practical guidance. This aims to embed accessibility from programme, through to module, through to activity level:

My own accessible practice is further demonstrated through inclusion of subtitles and text-equivalents for the multimedia resources I develop for staff training and in the York TEL Handbook. The text-equivalent provides the content in an accessible way for students with specific impairments, such as subtitles for hearing impairments, text descriptions of images or diagrams for visual impairments.

As further examples of my understanding of accessibility and how I convey this to others, see the following webinar recording and tutorials.

Accessibility and lecture capture

In leading lecture capture, I have discussed the issue of text equivalents for video recordings with the University’s E-Accessibility Forum. This was in response to a senior committee expressing concerns, though not fully aware of the lecture capture system’s capabilities. However, even though accessibility for recordings was technically possible, I was conscious of the time and cost requirement of subtitling all recordings. Therefore an approach that was congruous to existing teaching practices, but capable of positive impact, was needed.

My recommendation was that any multimedia resource that is the sole means for conveying content must be fully accessible, so that a student may not be disadvantaged through lack of access to the content. Accessibility may take the form of subtitles, but other equivalents such as bullet summaries would be applicable in some cases. I included specific examples in the lecture capture policy document.

  • E-Accessibility Forum Minutes (15 Jan 2015; p.3) [Redacted for public portfolio]
  • E-Accessibility Forum Minutes (30 April 2015; p.4) [Redacted for public portfolio]
  • Replay Lecture Capture Guidelines (April 2016; p.2)

My work in the Forum also contributed to a revision of the University Guidance for Recording of Teaching Sessions by Students. As lecture capture service manager, I often had difficult discussions with colleagues who were unaware of students making recordings for accessibility reasons. This raised issues over intellectual property and risk associated with sharing recordings on other platforms (such as YouTube). Such issues became a blocker to adoption of lecture capture. Disabled students (including specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, which accounted for a 47% of disabled students according to HESA in 2014), may have impairments which restrict their ability to take notes (Boyle & Rivera, 2012). Lecture capture provides a means for disable students to supplement their notes, and as such has been shown to support accessibility and also inclusion for students who have English as an additional language (Mortimore & Crozier, 2006; Shaw & Molnar, 2011; Newton et al., 2014).

I provided feedback to the Chair of the E-Accessibility Forum, including recommendations for the Guidance and then had to negotiate university committees, discussing the appropriateness of this document as formal policy or guidance, to ensure that the recommendations were accepted. The revisions aimed to reassure all colleagues about recordings both for accessibility reasons and more broadly as part of the lecture capture service. This policy development crossed both accessibility and intellectual property through attempting to balance the concerns of colleagues, concerns which may act as barriers to adoption of accessible practices.

The document below provides a summary of recommendations, which although the document remains guidance rather than policy, reflects how I explored the issue.

  • Advisory note re Guidelines for Recordings Made by Students [PDF] [Redacted for public portfolio]

Evidence of impact

“The accessibility information including the 16 minute video is very helpful. Also the justification for a consistent departmental approach to VLE module use/content. I appreciate the variety of staff opinion on the latter, and the potential difficulties in making material accessible, again from the perspective of staff time. It’s therefore helpful to articulate the benefits so clearly.” – Feedback from York TEL Handbook reviewer

As I have since left the University, I am unable to provide specific cases of direct impact of my work on accessibility on colleague’s practice, aside from my contributions to institutional policies and working with disabled students.

Much of my work, beyond the creation of the York TEL Handbook, was the individual support provided to lecturers in their creation of learning materials and online activities, where accessibility would be included in all discussions. When training new colleagues, the simple steps of file names and titles, image descriptions, clear signposting and consistent site structure were the main take-away messages for them. When consulting on specific learning technologies, such as the use of screencasting or embedding Padlets within the VLE, I went through the accessibility constraints of each to allow colleagues to factor in the needs of any of their students.

Measuring impact in terms of the net benefits to disabled students is ethically and pragmatically challenging. Surveying of disabled students would require identification of all disabled students, though would need to allow for those who do and do not declare a disability. The assumption that all disabled students benefit from accessibility measures overlooks issues of pedagogical inclusivity (i.e. that the task itself is inclusive). Though the access to learning for all students is the most important impact measure, I can only realistically comment upon changes to institutional viewpoints and policy.

In addition to the examples above, I deputised for my line manager at an institutional working group on the withdrawal of certain levels of support through the Disabled Students’ Allowance. In this, I had to reiterate the technical and financial challenges of ‘bolt-on’ accessibility through subtitles for all lecture captures, and instead campaigned for approaches that were appropriate to the needs of each disabled student. Certainly, this could include text equivalents, but also different forms of learning that didn’t depend upon writing extensive lecture notes.

In lieu of specific communications with colleagues or records of impact, I refer to my former line manager’s reference for my successful FHEA application, highlighting accessibility and usability work across the institution.

  • Reference for FHEA application [PDF] [Redacted for public portfolio]

Reflection on context

Accessibility has previously not been included within key national policies for higher education. The UKPSF does not explicitly mention disabled students or accessible practice, though does refer to “Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners” as a professional value. However, I argue that this obscures the proactive requirement expected of educators to be accessible for all students. Similarly, the key government white paper for HE reform, Higher Education: Success as a knowledge economy, talks much of disadvantaged backgrounds, but does not explicitly refer to inclusive teaching for disabled students. As this policy document directly related to the Teaching Excellence Framework, and consequently HE funding, the lack of emphasis on disability equality makes it harder for inclusive teaching to be championed in institutions.

A more recent independent report to government, ‘Inclusive Teaching and Learning in Higher Education’, does raise the profile of accessibility to senior managers. Of note is the emphasis on the social model of disability, which immediately sets a more inclusive tone, that it is societal or organisational barriers that introduce disabilities, not impairments that an individual may have.

Reflection on practice

By embedding accessibility considerations in all learning technology guidance the effect is to encourage staff to consider the different students in their cohorts as they develop and design programmes and learning resources. This is different from bolt-on approaches which tend to give rise to problems of comparable learning experiences or late adjustments to assessment processes.

Recent legislation in the form of The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018, which enacts the EU Web Accessibility Directive, does not, according to some, apply to closed websites such as VLEs (Sanchez-Graells, 2018). However, with open education where materials are publicly available, both content and learning experience needs to be considered in the context of this regulation. It will be interesting to see whether this will impact on how digital learning materials from degree courses are shared on open environments, with a possible restriction of learning content being shared if the cost of retrofitting accessibility is perceived as being too high. By adopting an accessible-by-design approach from the outset for all learning materials and activities, institutions (universities or other publicly funded organisations) are therefore able to repurpose content without limitation, and thus expand the impact of their educational remit.

In my current role, I continue to maintain accessible standards for learners and similarly come across the need for compromise. For example, video diaries may be made available online within a few days of recording to ensure relevance for the majority of users, however the captions and transcript may not yet have been processed. For users wishing to use the transcript, I advise that the page is open and can be accessed even after their course expiry. This is a tension caused by resource limitations  and the need to publish new content before learner access to courses expire.

References

Boyle, J. R. and Rivera, T. Z. (2012) ‘Note-Taking Techniques for Students With Disabilities: A Systematic Review of the Research’, Learning Disability Quarterly, vol.35, no.3, pp.131-143.

Matthews, N. (2009) ‘Teaching the ‘invisible’ disabled students in the classroom: disclosure, inclusion and the social model of disability’, Teaching in Higher Education, vol.14, no.3, pp.229-
239.

Mortimore, T. and Crozier, W. R. (2006) ‘Dyslexia and difficulties with study skills in higher education’, Studies in Higher Education, vol.31, no.2, pp.235-251.

Newton, G., Tucker, T., Dawson, J. and Currie, E. (2014) ‘Use of Lecture Capture in Higher Education – Lessons from the Trenches’, TechTrends, vol.58, no.2, pp.32-45.

Sanchez-Graells, A. (2018). UK Universities must soon comply with the EU Web Accessibility Directive. University of Bristol Law School Blog.

Seale, J. (2006) E-Learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research and Practice. Abingdon, Routledge.

Shaw, G. P. and Molnar, D. (2011) ‘Non-native English Language Speakers Benefit Most from the Use of Lecture Capture in Medical School’, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, vol.39, no.6, pp.416-420.

Swaffield, S. and MacBeath, J. (2013) ‘Leadership for Learning’, in Wise, C., Bradshaw, P. and Cartwright, M. (eds.) (2013) Leading Professional Practice in Education, London, Sage Publications.

Next: Specialist Area 2. MOOC design

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