For reasons that currently escape me, I seem to have found myself on three different module teams where I have some responsibility for accessibility. The first two are design modules (design and innovation qualification) that are currently being developed by the university. The third is M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design, a module that I have tutored since its launch in 2006.
I've been asked to write what is called an accessibility guide for the design modules. For M364, I was asked to attend an accessibility workshop that was held on 17 October 2012 at the university in Milton Keynes. This blog post is a rough set of notes that relate to this event (which was intended to inform and help those who are charged with writing an accessibility guide). As well as being an aide memoir for on-going work, I hope that it might be useful for my H810 Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students groups who may be confronted with similar challenges. Furthermore, I hope that the summary may be of use to come of my colleagues.
Setting the scene
The workshop began with a bit of scene setting. Accessibility and support for students with disabilities is provided by a number of different parts of the university. These include Disabled Student Services, the Institute of Educational Technology (IET) who offer internal consultancy and advice, and the Library. Responsibility also lies with faculties, such as the Faculty of Mathematics Computing and Technology in which I am primarily based. Accessibility, it is said, is closely connected with one of the key objectives of the university: to be open to people.
We were all reminded for the fundamental need to anticipate the needs of students during the module production process. This is especially important at the moment since there are a significant number of modules that are currently in production. We were also reminded that a tension between content and accessibility can sometimes arise. Academics may wish to present materials and suggest activities that may be difficult for some learners to engage with, for example. There is the need to consider the implications of module design choices.
The types of anticipatory adjustments that could be made include figure descriptions, transcripts for videos, subtitling, alternative learning activities and the provision of alternative formats. It should always be remembered that alternative formats, such as documents supplied in Word, PDFs and ePub formats have the potential to help all students. Alternative formats (as well as standard provision of materials, such as those offered through the university virtual learning environment) can be consumed and manipulated by assistive technologies, such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, for example. Other relevant assistive technologies that can be applied include voice recognition software and mobile devices.
Further scene setting consisted of painting a rough picture of the different types of disabilities that are declared by students. I was interested to learn that only a relatively small number of broad categories make up the majority of declarations. Although putting people in boxes or categories can be useful in terms of understanding the bigger picture, it's always important to remember that the challenges and conditions that people face can be very varied. By way of additional information (and guidelines) I also remember a reference to a document by the Quality assurance agency (QAA) entitled code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education, Section 3: Disabled students (QAA website). This might be worth a look if you are especially interested in these kinds of policy documents and guidance that relate to higher education.
It was also stated that it is important to consider accessibility as early as possible in the module design process. The reason for this should be obvious: it is far easier to include accessibility during the early stages of the design of a new module than to it is to retrofit accessibility into an existing structure. This takes us onto one of the aims of the workshop; to explore the role of a dedicated accessibility co-ordinator who sits on a module team. One of the responsibilities of a co-ordinator is to write an accessibility guide for a module.
Responsibilities of a module team accessibility co-ordinator
Our first main activity of the day was to consider and discuss the different responsibilities of an accessibility co-ordinator. Working in a small group, we quickly got stuck in. We soon discovered that we had pretty different roles and responsibilities within the university.
The responsibilities that we considered were important were the necessity supporting module authors and liaise with colleagues, keeping track of what learning materials are being produced within a module and actively obtain support and guidance from different departments where necessary. A fundamental responsibility was, of course, to produce an accessibility guide (which is now an important part of the module production process).
A co-ordinator must have an understanding of different sources of information, know how modules are produced, know something about the module material and have some facilitating and project management skills. An ability to write clearly and succinctly is also important too!
Looking and some guides
After a period of discussion about the role of the co-ordinator, we then went onto have a look at a set of different accessibility guides with a view to trying to summarise what works well and what could be done better.
Accessibility guides for individual modules are now being written for every new module. The first module that had an accessibility guide was U116 Environment: journeys through a changing world. This was followed by TU100 My digital life. A very detailed accessibility guide is also available for H810.
A fundamental question is: what is the purpose of the guide and who is it aimed for? My understanding is that it can be used by a number of different people, ranging from learning support advisors who help students to choose modules, through to tutors and students. It is a document for different audiences.
One thing that struck me that we don't yet have the perfect document, structure or system to provide all the information that everyone needs. This very much reflects my own understanding that accessibility isn't producing a document or a standard or set of instructions. Instead, it is more of a process where the artefacts can mediate and reflect interaction between people who work together to provide effective support.
One of the key difficulties that we uncovered was that there is an obvious tension between generic and specific advice. There is a clear risk of offering too much information which has the potential to overwhelm the reader, but in some instances potential students may have very specific questions about the accessibility of certain aspects of a module.
I've made a note of some of the shared conclusions and assumptions about the purpose of a module accessibility guide. Firstly, the guide is there to highlight accessibility challenges. It should also say something about what alternative resources are available and also offer information and guidance about how to support students.
One really important question that was asked was: at what point in the module production should we create this? The answer is writing the guide should happen during the module production process. This allows the co-ordinator to be involved with the module development and allow potential accessibility problems to be addressed early.
I found the workshop useful. One of the main conclusions was that there needed to be more clarity about the role of an accessibility co-ordinator. I understand that the results from the discussions have been noted and there may well be follow up meetings.
Accessibility (as well as support for individual students) is something that needs to be owned by individuals. Reflecting my understanding that it is a process, the guide is needed to be something that needs to be refreshed as a module team gains more experience over the years in which a module is delivered.
One thing is very clear for me. Given my role as co-ordinator on a couple of modules, I clearly need to get more of an appreciation as to what is going on so I can then consider the kinds of potential challenges that students may face.
A key challenge is to understand the (sometimes implicit) assumptions that module teams make about the extent of adjustments that can be made and present them in a way that can be understood to different audiences. This strikes me as a pretty tough challenge, but one that is very important.