The digital age has acted as a catalyst for developments in learning tools. We can see innovations in content design, programme implementation and LMS taking place – but all of this is pointless if it’s not going to include everyone. Accessibility is just as important to learning as engagement, but getting the best of both worlds is challenging.
The OEB Conference has a clear main theme this year: ‘Re-imagining our Vision for Learning’. One of the key approaches to re-imagining and re-evaluating this vision is through making learning opportunities that reach and engage everyone. Let’s look at how we can ensure the learning materials we’re creating are accessible to all.
Create learning opportunities for all
Not everyone learns the same way, just as not everyone teaches the same way. It’s imperative that higher education institutions recognise this, because if they don’t, they could lose half their student body. Accessibility should be the first step in creating eLearning pathways because if the initial aim isn’t to include everybody, the meaning is lost. Higher education in particular needs to recognise every student as an individual and build learning tools that reflect this.
The first vital tip is this: discover who your learners are. You can’t even begin to think about content design before you know who you’re designing for, which is especially important when it comes to designing accessible learning tools. The stakes are higher in terms of learning engagement, with everybody having vastly different values and requirements.
Involve unique student populations
In order to implement accessibility into your institution, you must first evaluate the type of student population you are reaching out to. The doors to universities have opened wider across the globe, with progression in inclusion, financial help and travel connections all allowing more people to engage in higher education studies. As admission to higher education expands its accessibility, the learning must do well to keep up. If you work at a higher education institution, you’re going to have to meet the needs of students with special learning needs and physical disabilities, mental health circumstances and disadvantaged backgrounds. You need to reach and engage all.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), one billion people experience a form of disability. This was pointed out by Michael Osborne, an experienced Learning Designer and speaker dedicated to the need for increased learning accessibility. It’s important to remember that disabilities are not always visible or obvious – for example, providing audio tools for blind students is a massive help, and only requires you to record a presentation. Communicating with your group helps you to encourage an understanding, so if a student requires a wheelchair and more space in the classroom, fellow classmates can accommodate to show support. Fostering equity and inclusivity in higher education is a challenge, but it’s important that accessibility is not just about opening doors, but ensuring that they remain open.
Optimise your lectures
It’s important to analyse how each type of content within learning and teaching is different. Creating accessible lectures is going to differentiate from designing accessible videos, so how can we do this? Let’s look at the well-known spoken method first. The traditional lecture style is evolving, recognising and addressing the fact it lacks accessibility. If someone is unable to attend a lecture due to health reasons, travel restrictions or other personal circumstances, they have no access to the content. Easily upgrade lectures by recording them and uploading them online, and give full access to those paying tuition fees for the course, so your content is available to everyone entitled to it.
Further issues come into play when someone has missed the in-person lecture, and now has no internet connection to access the uploaded recording. This calls for an opportunity of reinforcing team-building activities, such as seminars, so everyone can share notes from the lecture. Also, if the organisation’s budget allows for it, you can provide technological tools to the students that need help acquiring the online learning elements.
Transform your video and audio content
Videos and clips are a great way of teaching and can serve as microlearning tools if a limited timeframe is required. They’re a great asset to any classroom, but how can we make them more accessible? The first tip is to ensure you have subtitles for those hard of hearing. This is a simple way to engage every watcher to have full access to the video content, as it can also be of help to those who struggle to process moving content quickly.
A way to optimise this further is to generate a complimentary audio description of your original video, which is like copying the video and pasting it into a written format. Another source is to write up a transcript which works for podcasts, webinars and other means of audio content. This acts as a permanent document of subtitles that students can look at later for reference. You can implement further accessibility and record yourself reading this transcript aloud for blind students to use later on too. Panopto Express is a free video recording tool, so you don’t have to worry about a paid subscription, and doesn’t require you to make an account or install anything to your laptop. Screencast-O-Matic is also a free video recording tool, and a good asset to your flipped classroom as it supports captions for those hard of hearing.
Delve into the details
Written pieces of content come in all shapes and sizes, varying from quizzes to articles. The students’ Written pieces of digital content come in all shapes and sizes, varying from quizzes to articles. The students’ experience cannot be bound to the activities of the classroom or lecture hall, they need resources to take away and study in their own time, in their own way. The best way to ensure they’re engaging, and not just anything your students can stumble across on the internet, is of course for you to create it yourself. You know your students better than the internet, and this means you can encourage a level of personalisation to the pieces you create. Let’s look at how you can ensure your wide range of written digital content is optimised to be accessible to all.
Before you even start to write the main body of content, plan your layout. If it’s an article, ensure each heading correlates to the information within that section. For a handout, limit yourself to a set number of pages so it’s not too long and ensure a range of resources are presented, such as graphs, tables and images to elevate the message of the written words. When it comes to images, make them relevant and clear, but also incorporate humour where possible to retain your students’ attention. When it comes to the words, make sure there’s clarity to everything you write. For example, when using URL and other links, make sure you label them and avoid generic ‘click here’ and ‘continue’ phrases, as these won’t get any clicks. Explain what each link is as you would answer a question in a lecture.
What does the future hold for accessibility?
We’ve seen a rapid response from the world of learning and education in answer to the pandemic’s challenges. The impact of Covid-19 meant people had to teach, learn and work in different conditions, which led to a lot of digital advancement. This subsequently opened up more opportunities to design better learning experiences, and with the need for further accessibility on the rise, the future looks bright. What often holds progress back is a lack of awareness and communication. We need to keep the conversation of learning accessibility going, so be sure to secure your pass to the OEB Conference 2022.
Written for OEB 2022 by Chloë Sibley.