In the following Q&A, NEBHE’s Fellow for Open Education Lindsey Gumb talks with Hannah Davidson, accessibility specialist at Plymouth State University and member of NEBHE’s OER (Open Educational Resources) Advisory Board, about redefining accessibility in Open Education.
Gumb: You’ve spoken about reconsidering the definition of “access” in Open Education. Can you elaborate on that?
Davidson: Sure. I think when Open Education started really gaining traction in the past decade, much of the focus was on cost savings through faculty adoption of Open Educational Resources (OER). This makes sense: Money talks, and demonstrating large dollar amounts of savings offered a tangible benefit to support Open Education initiatives at higher education institutions. We know students spend far too much on textbooks, and here is this opportunity to quite literally, give more people “access.” That is an amazing first step. But once these textbooks are in the hands of the students (or more commonly, on their screens), are the students able to access the knowledge the resources contain? Think about UDL principles such as perceivability. Can everyone see, read and understand the text? Are captions or transcripts included in streaming content?
Then, look beyond the OER, the textbooks and course materials themselves, and think about the kind of innovative pedagogy that often comes with using these resources. Are all students able to access learning? Are assignments designed in a way that allows for multiple means of demonstrating understanding? Are options available for people who are unable to participate verbally in group work to show their engagement? Are people from diverse backgrounds represented and honored in course materials as well as instructional design?
Lately, conversations I’ve engaged in around access and accessibility in Open Education have gone even a step further from my initial push to redefine or expand the notion of access, to question whether access is enough. Access gets you in the door, but what about being comfortable in the room, metaphorically speaking? Access is crucial, but is not the end point; rather, it is a stepping stone toward agency and inclusion, which I think are more meaningful end goals.
Gumb: How do we make accessibility a primary consideration and not just an afterthought?
Davidson: This is a great question, and I think there are both philosophical and pragmatic answers. Philosophically, it is a heavier lift, because we need to change the way we (as individuals, institutions, societies at large) view disability. The longstanding (yet deeply flawed, in my opinion) way of viewing disability is the medical model, where disability is seen as a deficit that resides in an individual, one that needs to be “fixed.” Fortunately that approach is slowly shifting toward the more equitable and humane social model of disability, that understands the ways environments are disabling. Rather than centering the individual as a problem, it is a societal problem. And if we recognize that environments—maybe even especially our classrooms—can be disabling, then we will be better equipped to confront that inequity. If we acknowledge that our spaces or content are inaccessible for many individuals, perhaps we will make design choices that are inclusive, rather than trying to retrofit accommodations when a problem comes up.
That said, there are practical things educators can do to make their courses more accessible, especially if they are new to thinking about designing for access and inclusion. I tell people new to this practice to ask themselves questions that are based in UDL frameworks such as:
- Do I have visual materials that present core concepts that not all students may be able to see or understand? Can my materials be used with a screen reader? Are there alt-text descriptions for images? Is there a consistent structure to my formatting of my materials?
- Do I have multimedia materials that present core concepts that not all students may be able to hear, see or otherwise access? Is there a transcript available for podcasts? Are all my videos captioned?
- Do I have a classroom that everyone can access? What is my seating plan? Do my chairs accommodate all bodies? Is my lighting adjustable?
For most of the accessibility features above, there are likely folks at your institution that can help. Librarians and academic technologists have been invaluable partners in my own efforts to make my classrooms and communities more accessible. I think it is important for educators to know that they do not have to take this all on themselves, because that can feel really overwhelming and lead to shortcuts that, in turn, make our classes less accessible.
Gumb: With the COVID-19 pandemic and a drastic transition to digital learning environments, have you noticed a change in the need for your services?
Davidson: COVID-19 has definitely altered the landscape of my day-to-day work as we have transitioned to working from home and fully online, and while that shift had many challenges, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the privilege inherent in being able to work from home. For so many people in the U.S., the nature of their work demands that they put themselves in harm’s way, while many of us stay safe at home. And what might be surprising is that in many ways, I think the shift to online learning spurred by the pandemic has made work easier for people who previously struggled to be physically present in class, or to participate in ways that center the most vocal and verbally confident students (which unsurprisingly favors folks with more societal privilege and power). The less confident students have benefited from the ability to learn asynchronously and to demonstrate their learning in ways that play to their individual strengths.
That said, there have been plenty of obstacles that we either had not previously faced or that had been out of plain view. The way schools manage exams comes to mind.
Gumb: With our country’s current racial reckoning, and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives blossoming in higher education, do you anticipate room for accessibility considerations to have a seat at the table?
Davidson: I certainly am hopeful that accessibility will be included in intersectional approaches to real, meaningful diversity, equity and inclusion advocacy on college campuses. I think inequities exposed by both very public examples of racial injustice as well as the COVID-19 pandemic have made space for advocacy workers to shed light on systemic barriers that people with various marginalized identities face. In my local context, we have about 600 students registered with our accessibility office, which is about 20% of the student body. Of those 600 students, about half also are first-generation college students or come from a family of origin with lower-than-average socioeconomic statuses. I think it is really important for folks in advocacy to acknowledge the complex intersectional struggles students may be facing.
Gumb: What is the most important thing you’d like practitioners to understand about accessibility with respect to selecting and utilizing OER?
Davidson: Start small. Using OER is an essential element in building more inclusive learning environments, but it is not a one-person job, and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight. Consider tackling just one element of your course at a time. And make use of partnerships between your teaching and learning centers, accessibility staff and librarians. You may find that these folks have done some of the legwork already.