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7 Questions on Engaging Faculty in Digital Accessibility

We asked the Technical College System of Georgia's accessibility champions how they help instructors create a more inclusive learning experience for all students.

Recently, more than 85 colleges and universities around the world spent 24 hours making nearly 90,000 accessibility fixes to digital course content. They were participating in Anthology's fourth annual Fix Your Content Day challenge, a competition devoted to creating more inclusive learning environments for students. This year, the leaderboard was dominated by the Technical College System of Georgia: Not only did TCSG colleges take first, second, and third place for the number of files fixed per number of students enrolled on campus, but 13 TCSG institutions finished in the top 20 overall.

Campus Technology sat down with TCSG accessibility champions Robert Keown and Erica Roberson to find out how they engage instructors to improve accessibility across the system and drive a better student experience. Keown is executive director and Roberson is educational technology coordinator for Georgia Virtual Technical Connection, the system's online learning division, where they provide distance education training and resources to faculty at all 22 TCSG colleges.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

7 questions on engaging faculty in digital accessibility

Campus Technology: What changes in the higher education landscape are bringing accessibility issues into the spotlight right now?

Robert Keown: We have always prided ourselves in ensuring that we are ADA and WCAG 2.1 compliant within the Georgia Virtual Technical Connection, which is pure distance learning. But in the pandemic, we had a whole lot of people across TCSG who went into a hybrid mode. And when they stepped into that environment, I don't think they were as conscious of the need to ensure that all of their curriculum, their documents, materials, presentations, and so forth were up to accessibility standards, because they parked that in our learning environment and delivered it from our learning environment, whereas before they were just doing it in the classroom.

Erica Roberson: To add to what Robert was saying, the student population now is so diverse. It's not just your average college student anymore. There are adult students of all ages attending college, some with full-time jobs, kids, other situations — and then you also have students with different learning styles. Making digital files accessible and providing multiple formats of digital files allow students to learn in the way that's best for them, that's going to benefit them the most. Anthology Ally, and its alternative formats, has helped us out a lot with that.

CT: When you have people moving from materials they previously used in the classroom to digital materials, what are some common misconceptions or mistakes they make in terms of accessibility?

Roberson: One of the biggest misconceptions is that accessibility is only for those with disabilities. When we began our initiative on making our content more accessible, that's something we had to put a lot of focus on — to get people to understand how accessibility benefits us all. When I do training, one of the examples I like to give is elevators: Elevators were created for people with disabilities, but we all use them. Being able to have examples of how accessibility benefits us all helps bring that to the forefront and get people to understand.

Keown: As a particular example, when we first started going into this realm, people weren't used to using alt text for images and having to explain it so that a JAWS or a screen reader could tell a blind person that hey, this is a picture of a lake.  

Roberson: One mistake that we noticed with the alt text was that at first people thought they had to write a long paragraph explaining an image. We had to let them know that no, you don't have to write every single thing about an image in detail. Just write what is important — what information you want people to gain from the image. It can be short and sweet. It doesn't have to be a paragraph or two. Then again, you have the ability to mark images as "decorative," and I used to have to go in hard on that with people — do not mark every image as decorative. You have to put a description on those important images.

Keown: We encourage the faculty to think, why do you even have that image there? If it's needed for instructional purposes, then that's great. And every now and then we do like for stuff to look pretty. But students nowadays want stuff streamlined, they want it simple, they want to be able to look at it on their phones. So we just try to encourage faculty to create that best learning environment that's not going to frustrate the students.

CT: How you engage faculty in accessibility training? Is it geared more toward building awareness, enforcing policies, or probably a little bit of both?

Keown: When we started this five or six years ago, we front-loaded a lot of this stuff. We wanted to prove to faculty the benefit of ensuring that their classroom was accessible, their virtual space was accessible. But we also showed them the requirements. This isn't just something that we made up; this is something that has standards that are out there, that have to be met. We wanted to ensure that they understood the importance of it, and so we stressed that from the get-go. That gave us a great foundation to build on.

Roberson: We have provided lots and lots of training for faculty in the form of webinars, tutorials, office hours, workshops, handouts — anything you can name, just to get the resources out there. A few years back, we also did Universal Design for Learning workshops with Blackboard (now Anthology), where the trainer would visit some of our colleges to conduct sessions. And we're constantly building awareness of accessibility with the help of Anthology Ally. Their Fix Your Content Day event has helped us a lot to bring awareness and enthusiasm to accessibility. That event is a very big day for our colleges, so we look forward to it every year.

From the time they send out the notification of when Fix Your Content Day is going to be, I start promoting it heavily. I do marketing materials for it, push it out there, let faculty know it's coming, get them ready. I set up different trainings and webinars for faculty to attend ahead of the event so that they understand what we're doing on that day. I'm also in constant contact with our Blackboard administrators at our colleges about what's going on. I go through each college's Ally report, see what their accessibility scores currently are and what their top issues are, and then send those to them so they know where they stand on Fix Your Content Day and can get their strategies together to tackle those issues. So a lot of planning goes into to Fix Your Content Day, but the colleges are always excited. They're always ready to go. And we just look to dominate that leaderboard every year.

CT: Is it hard to get people to change their practices for the long term, and rethink the way they're doing things to make them more accessible?

Roberson: In the beginning, we did get a little pushback from faculty because of the time it would take to make all of their digital files accessible. But we try to push the fact that once they get it done, then moving forward, we can just be proactive in making the files accessible as they are created. It just takes a lot of encouraging and getting them to understand that it's not hard — it can be done very quickly. We tell them, okay, tackle these easy fixes first — put your alt text in there. Once they fix those and see those files drop off of their accessibility report, then they're like, okay, this isn't that bad — I can get through this.

Keown: What is so great about it is that as they're walking through the easy fixes, they'll notice other stuff — maybe the heavier lifts or the harder fixes, like a video that doesn't have closed captioning — and make a note to come back to it.  

We also do an outbrief from Fix Your Content Day: We'll all come together and say, "What did you find?" And a lot of us are going to say, "Alt text, alt text, alt text … okay, we got those, now what?" Then we can share something that we found that maybe someone else hadn't been thinking about, that wasn't on their radar yet. So we all benefit from those lessons learned, and that gives us stuff to look at over the coming months or coming year, depending upon the severity of what needs to be fixed.

CT: How you build awareness among students of the resources that are available to them?

Keown: We hold our physical and virtual classrooms to the same standards. So our virtual classroom has to be just as accessible as a physical, on-campus classroom — already pre-loaded for individuals who might have an accessibility need. With Ally being within our Blackboard Learn learning management system, it provides multiple tools that students immediately have access to. And one of the key things has been making sure our faculty understands that that stuff's there. A lot of times when we first started this, faculty didn't realize the capabilities of what Ally produced in terms of alternative formats that students can go in and download.

Roberson: What we did notice is that students were accessing those alternative formats before faculty even told them they were there — without faculty even knowing they were using them. They see that little "A" icon, they're like, "What's this?" and they click on it. So students are finding them on their own.

Keown: Students are not shy about clicking on anything. But we do try our best to make sure faculty know about the resources — because once they learn about it, they start infusing it into their syllabus and their lesson plans, and let students know about it.

CT: What emerging technologies might come into play in accessibility moving forward? What gets you excited about the potential of technology in this realm?

Roberson: I'm excited about whatever they come up with, as long as it works and it's going to be beneficial to everyone. And I like when new technologies come out and they have accessibility in mind already — that accessibility piece is built in.

Keown: I can remember back when closed captioning was 70%-75% accurate. Now you're upwards of 90%-95% accurate, and it even recognizes our "southern-ese" sometimes, when we have our slang, our accents, and so forth. Just that in itself is going to be beneficial.

I'm a member of an instructional system design group on LinkedIn, and they are talking about how AI is going to be changing the ed tech world. For example, they are using AI to build a virtual classroom space — give you an outline, build your format, build your structure. So I see that that's already a benefit. I can even see where AI could pick up on a student's profile, and if that student is deaf, the virtual classroom will automatically provide every tool available according to that identifying need. That's going to be one of those slippery slopes where you have to be very careful to protect individual privacy. But AI, emerging technologies, whatever that might be, it's going to be an excellent, powerful tool. We just have to make sure that we're staying as much up to speed as possible, to provide students the best learning experience that we can. And that's not only in the classroom, that's walking in from registration to graduation.

CT: What would be your advice for others who are trying to expand their digital accessibility efforts? Any lessons learned that you can share?

Roberson: My advice would be to consistently promote accessibility and its importance, provide lots of training opportunities, take advantage of any accessibility events that you might have access to — or create your own. One of the biggest things is to stress how accessibility is not only for those with disabilities — it benefits every one of us, in ways we don't even realize.

Keown: You have to understand the non-negotiables. You have to look at the standards. There are things that we're supposed to be doing, that we have to be doing, and so you need to make sure that you're doing those as a minimum. The WCAG 2.1 standard is a great place to start. Especially if you're just getting started and it looks like a heavy lift, it looks hard, it looks difficult, but you've got to start somewhere. So start with those standards, start with the policy. And then realize, hey, okay, we're doing a lot of this already. We just need to go through and align it up.

And then it's a matter of promoting, communicating, and just maintaining that constant push on the importance of accessibility. Where we gained a whole lot of ground was when faculty realized this isn't just about disabilities. This is just about making your classroom more accessible. The accessibility that you're putting into that environment isn't just for one or two people. A lot of your students will use that. That was an aha moment for a lot of our faculty.

Look for your champions. Look for those who are willing to go ahead and get there with you and start promoting along with you. And build off of each other. If anybody comes up with a great idea, share it. Once you get everyone on board and you get it going, then it's just a matter of having fun with it. And just realize that the end product is a learning environment that's going to allow students to step into the career they want to get to.

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