Accessibility & the Web | Features

Making Education Accessible

Accessibility for all students is a key concern in IT in higher education, one tied to the core mission of education and underscored by recent federal activity reinforcing the need for compliance in all aspects of technology implementations. Yet institutions are scratching their collective heads over how to make digital information accessible to students with visual and auditory impairments while keeping technology at the cutting edge.

Dartmouth College isn't alone in its ongoing efforts to address accessibility, but it has recently ramped up those efforts to meet the goal of addressing the needs of all students across its online media. Sarah Horton, director of Web strategy, design, and instruction, said digital accessibility has been top of mind for campus administrators and educators for several years, but a new wave of accessibility initiatives is bringing its goal closer to realization.

Designing an Accessible Presence
Last fall, Dartmouth's Arts and Sciences Faculty's Committee of Chairs formed an  "Accessibility Steering Committee" that is now working to identify strategic initiatives to improve the overall student experience.

Comprising 28 faculty, staff, administrators and presidential fellows, the committee is looking closely at the college's digital environment, Web site, and other online components and finding places where improvements can be made, said Horton.

The committee's initial review produced several key recommendations, according to Horton. The first move will be to hire a staff member within Dartmouth's Web services team who will focus on designing an accessible user experience for the school's online presence.

"We are currently interviewing for that position," said Horton. "We think it's pretty innovative to have someone on staff whose primary responsibility is to look at our digital campus accessibility."

Closed-Captioning All Video-Based Materials
The next recommendation concerns the closed captioning of online videos, based on the premise that much of Dartmouth's media is uploaded to sites like YouTube.

"We use those channels extensively," said Horton. To accommodate students who are hearing impaired or deaf, the college will initially caption its "priority videos," said Horton, "and then request a budget line for ongoing captioning."

To handle the captioning, Dartmouth is using an automated service that allows the school to submit a URL for a YouTube video, and then have the video transcribed, with closed captions and time codes added to the clip.

Horton said Dartmouth tested out several options before going with the automated service.

"We tried using only the transcript with YouTube's timing feature, which cost less," said Horton. "That worked pretty well for short, straightforward audio, but when we got into longer-duration captioning it didn't work very well."

Changes in Web Services, Building Awareness
The Web services team's Web site and the online presence of the registrar's office will both undergo changes as a result of the committee's recommendations, said Horton. Targeting mainly those students, prospects, and parents who are visually impaired, Horton said, the two departments rely on code that's already embedded in their Web sites to make global changes to its Web presence.

Those changes will impact accessibility options such as screen readers, settings adjustments (such as enlarged fonts) and other issues that directly impact visually impaired users.

Later this year, Dartmouth's Web services team will roll out a site checking tool that will run reports on the school's other Web sites (besides those of the Web services team and the registrar, both of which run on a single type of code), and report on potential issues that could hamper a disabled student's ability to access and use the related content.

"We've dabbled with the site tool in our own department, and now we're looking at how to make it meaningful for those site owners who are not technologists," said Horton, "so that they can go in and mediate on their pages."

Creating a campus-wide awareness of the need for accessibility hasn't been easy for the Web services team, which is challenged by the sheer number of diverse site owners who are using dozens of different types of software and systems. "There are a lot of systems out there that we can't influence because we didn't build them," said Horton.

Dartmouth is tackling that challenge on a step-by-step basis, beginning with a focus on those sites that its Web services team can work with directly to adjust and fix. Eager to get started, Horton said the new full-time employee will be hired sometime in June, and will kick off the initiative by examining Web services' Web site template.

"That will be a big bang for our buck, since that template powers about 80 percent of (Dartmouth's) ... Web presence," said Horton. "We'll gain a lot by simply bringing that up to date, and then we'll go from there."

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