In 2014, the Australian government committed to reaching AA standards of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This is a huge step in the right direction. However, we know that many university online courses still don’t even meet A standards. I sat down with Dr Erin Leif, BCBA-D, Senior Lecturer at Monash University (Inclusive Education and Educational Psychology) to hear about what she is doing to bring her units up to WCAG standards.
Bianca: Good morning and thank you for joining me today, Erin. For this discussion about web content accessibility. My first question for you is, “What is it that your department is doing to increase accessibility for your learners?”
Erin: That is a great question and a very relevant question, especially today, where we know that more and more universities are offering flexible and online learning options to students. We also know that more students with disabilities are accessing higher education than ever before, which is amazing and exciting.
We also know that students with disabilities report that they actually prefer online learning for a number of different reasons. But what this means is that we, as lecturers and educational designers, have a responsibility to make sure that our online content is accessible. So, in our department here at Monash, we’re trying to better understand where we sit with all of this.
Are we offering accessible online learning spaces? What more can we do to make our learning spaces more accessible? So, we’ve undertaken a pilot project to assess different units that we offer against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Essentially, we’re just looking at how we stack up with the current available guidelines and best practice recommendations for designing accessible content.
What we found through our pilot project is that we are falling short in a couple of areas. There are a couple of areas where we can do better. So, the next step in this project is to use this data to meet with other stakeholders. We want to meet with our tech team and Disability Services and even our students and find out how we can improve in several of these key areas.
Bianca: Awesome. It’s such a proactive approach, and it’s something that Oppida has been really, really excited to work with you on. So, what do you see as the biggest challenges for universities to improve their accessibility? Because it isn’t just Monash that is having this trouble.
Bianca: It’s everybody’s trying to look under the hood and find out that they’re not as accessible as they thought they were. So, what are the challenges?
Erin: As somebody who’s worked with people with disabilities for most of my career, I know that people with disabilities all have really diverse and individualised needs. Therefore, our students are likely to need very individualised modifications or solutions that will allow them to fully participate in learning.
So, you sort of take that level of individualisation that our students need and combine that with the level of creative control that our academic staff have over the design and delivery of their content. And it’s really exciting because we see that many of our academics are starting to use new and cutting-edge technology in their units, but that means it’s difficult to find solutions which are going to be optimal for everyone.
I think the real challenge is that we need to find solutions that suit multiple diverse needs. We need to embed accessibility into the framework of everything we do, without stifling creativity and innovation, while trying to meet the needs of as many diverse learners as possible, and make sure that our learning environments are personalised and dynamic and interactive. That’s hard work…
Bianca: It is.
Erin: …but I think the payoff is worth it because what we know is that accessible learning spaces don’t just benefit students with disabilities. It benefits everyone.
Erin: It benefits all, and so, I think it’s a worthwhile endeavour.
Bianca: Absolutely. I mean, if you have an accessible environment, most of the time, that means you’ve also done a lot of consideration around the user experience. So, it’s a win for everybody.
Now finally, at Oppida we really like to think about all the things we’re excited about in digital. So, what are you personally excited about in digital education?
Erin: I’m excited about so many things!
In my current teaching, I’m a really big proponent of giving students lots of opportunities to actively respond. I’m a big proponent of helping students engage in behaviour, put their behaviour out there, and get a lot of feedback every step of the way on their own learning.
So, I’ve designed my online content to incorporate a lot of active responding and a lot of embedded feedback for students every step of the way, through different types of knowledge checks, using different quiz functions, different forums.
That has been really successful, and I’ve gotten a lot of really positive feedback from students about how much they’ve enjoyed that approach, which has been fantastic.
Erin: So, I’d like to do more of that, but I think there’s so much we could be doing. There are so many more intelligent technologies out there. We’ve got cloud computing, learning analytics, big data. The trick, I think, moving forward, is going to be, “How can we use all of the data that these platforms allow us to generate and analyse to improve the student experience?”
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So, can we ultimately use more smart design, use more predictive technology, so that our online teaching understands where the students are at, at each point in time in their learning journey. Teaching can then be customised on the spot, for example, providing prompts or hints, or bringing in new material, previous material, resources and feedback, to allow them to have a really unique and personalised learning experience.
And that is something that I’m really passionate about and that I am excited about in this space. I really want to be able to use data to inform my own teaching. What does the data tell us about how students learn most effectively and efficiently? What does the data tell us about the types of activities that they spend the most time on? What does the data tell us about the teaching approaches that they most prefer? And ultimately, how can we use that to make ourselves better teachers? That is an area that for me is super exciting.
Bianca: It is and you’re speaking like a true learning designer, Erin.
Erin: I know! Haha
Bianca: So, if you ever find yourself out of a job… come and work with Oppida!
Erin: Can I move to Bali?
Bianca: Of course!
Well, thank you so much for your time today. I know you’re a very busy woman with a lot of exciting projects on the go. So, we really appreciate the opportunity to work with you at Monash and also to hear your thoughts on how we can all work together to increase the accessibility of our higher education space. Thanks, Erin.
Erin: Thank you.