In the second instalment of the Digital Pedagogy Toolbox Series, Jamie Drozda from Thompson Rivers University underscores the significance of embracing technology and championing accessible practices within classrooms. Jamie sheds light on the hurdles encountered by certain students and advocates for the integration of accessibility and usability considerations in educational settings.
By Jamie Drozda, coordinator, Educational Technologies, Thompson Rivers University
In today’s digital age, engaging with technology and promoting accessible practices is not just a matter of convenience; it’s a fundamental aspect of fostering inclusivity and dismantling the stigma surrounding accessibility requests. Technology has seamlessly woven itself into the fabric of our daily lives, shaping how we communicate, work, and access information. Yet as we embrace technology, we must remain aware of the challenges many people experience in both the face-to-face classroom and online spaces.
There are likely more accessibility needs in your classroom than you know. It’s not easy for someone to come forward with an accessibility needs request: it can feel like singling yourself out and subjecting yourself to negative attitudes, putting yourself at more of a disadvantage than if they had not disclosed their needs.
Here’s an example. A common debate is whether to allow students to use laptops in the classroom for note-taking. While there are many advantages to having students handwrite notes, what about students who rely on assistive technologies for note-taking? Banning laptops from the classroom will mean those students need an official accommodation, and “if an instructor honors official accommodation requests and lets the student be the exception with a screen, it forces students to out themselves as a person with a disability, which can come with considerable stigma” (Godden & Womack, 2016).
I have first-hand experience being outed as a person with a disability. And I can tell you, it sucks.
When I was six years old, I lost 98 per cent of my hearing in my right ear and about 10 per cent in my left ear. On returning to school, I was moved from my desk near my friends at the back of the classroom to the front with the younger kids. (This was in a small town, so each class had more than one grade.) Throughout elementary school, year after year, I would start off sitting in the back of the class with my friends, but when the teacher learned that I was hard of hearing, I would instantly be moved to the front of the classroom. I was embarrassed and humiliated every time, and I was often teased.
I couldn’t tell anyone what I was feeling. But I did put my feelings into action. Never wanting to go to school, I would often tell my mom that my ears hurt, whether they did or not, and she’d keep me at home. If she took me to the doctor, the diagnosis would be an ear infection, which would get me a few more days off school. When I did go to school, I would often tell the teacher I was sick so I could go home.
Things got worse in high school, when I went from a class of about 15 students in mixed grades and a total school population of about 60 students to a school with hundreds of students and every classroom over-full. Hello, anxiety! As I walked out of the crowded classrooms into hallways even more packed with shouting teenagers, my heart would race, my skin would get clammy, and I would sign myself out at the office with some excuse or other. (Most of the time, I would pop a brace off one of my teeth and say I was going to the orthodontist to have it glued back on; then I’d actually go to the orthodontist to have it glued back on.)
Every day, I begged my parents to let me quit. Eventually, much to their dismay, I got a full-time job and dropped out. Back then, anxiety, disability, and accessibility just weren’t recognized or even thought about. I sure hope it’s different for children and teenagers now.
Things were much better when I returned to school as an adult because I had more control over my anxiety. It wasn’t until I was 35 years old that I had the confidence to state my needs in the classroom; still, I have only ever done it once. Then, as now, it’s embarrassing for me to speak of my hearing impairment.
A lot of stigma comes from a lack of education around disability. Once, after I had slurred a word, my sister asked me if I was stupid because I was deaf. Another time, my aunt said that she didn’t think I was really hard of hearing and that I was loud because I wanted attention. Comments like those really hurt, and I haven’t forgotten my despair when they were made. I’m still uncomfortable disclosing my disability and asking for accommodation.
When I think of inaccessible spaces, I think of large lecture halls. For me, large lecture halls are terrible. I miss a lot of what is being said and struggle to keep up with the lesson. Learning becomes less of a struggle for me in smaller, more intimate spaces, and easier still when I can go back and reread or relisten as many times as I need to.
Lecture halls can make students feel anonymous. And while they “seemingly make information more accessible to ever greater numbers, [they also] make it less accessible to many, many individual students” (Godden & Womack, 2016). In other words, lecture halls maximize space, but at the cost of accessibility. They assume that the kinds of people who work within them “have the ability to climb stairs, see and hear across long distances, maintain focus amidst large crowds and stay awake in a darkened room” (Godden & Womack, 2016). In addition, while “participation does not require a particular design . . . a particular design can prohibit participation” (Holmes, 2018).
Alberta’s former education minister wrote in 1995 that he wanted
lectures given by professors to be replaced by videos scripted by academics but delivered by professional actors. We can hardly ignore the efficiency of students consulting videos that they could play and rewind, and professors then being free to spend their time updating scripts rather than spending hours delivering those scripts in front of students. (Frank, 1995)
Almost 30 years later, lecture halls are still very much alive and well. If we turned all lectures into videos and replaced faculty with actors, I think a certain amount of pedagogy would be lost—in addition to the improvisational asides. But I still can’t help but wonder if we learn better through personal delivery and presence than through written text and audio or video.
So what do we do? It’s not practical to replace the face-to-face classroom with recorded lectures. but it’s nearly impossible to find a set of examples and design standards to follow when looking for best practices for accessibility in the classroom—at least in part because classroom design will differ for different disciplines and populations. For example, a trades classroom will look very different from a lecture hall, which will look different from small writing-intensive classes. Students’ needs will also differ across different contexts. Whether your classroom is face-to-face, online, blended, or hyflex, a good place to start is universal design or, even better, inclusive design.
Inclusive design means “designing a diversity of ways to participate so that everyone has a sense of belonging” (Holmes, 2018). Since inclusive design is about usability for everyone, we need to consider accessibility and usability together, not separately. A common example of the relationship between accessibility and usability is curb cuts—those small ramps that make it easier for people using wheelchairs to get from the sidewalk to the road. I remember a time when there were no curb cuts, and later I never really gave them much thought. But now I see that they help far more people than those with disabilities: think people pushing strollers, delivery workers with dollies, tourists wheeling their luggage. “Inclusive design acknowledges the essential nature of accessibility and proactively seeks to provide user-friendly experiences for people with and without disabilities” (Phillips & Colton, 2021).
Another common example of the relationship of accessibility and usability is captions. My first experience with a captions was the Swedish TV series The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It was amazing—I didn’t miss anything! Captions aren’t only for the deaf and hard of hearing. They also help those who are listening to audio that is not their native language, children and adults who are learning to read, learners who access videos in noisy or sound-sensitive environments, and learners who comprehend material better when text is available (Gernsbacher, 2015; Phillips & Colton, 2021).
Captioning your videos or creating a transcript for audio doesn’t need to be onerous. At Thompson Rivers University, we use Kaltura as our video hosting server, and captions are automatically generated when videos and audio are uploaded. It’s important to edit the captions, though, as they are machine generated and will have errors; since the transcript is generated from the captions, editing the captions edits the transcript. You can also upload your video to YouTube to have captions and a transcript automatically created for you.
Another way to be more inclusive is to consider how you are uploading content to your learning management system (LMS). When you upload PowerPoints, Word documents, spreadsheets, and so on, you are assuming students have access to the appropriate software needed to open those documents. Converting them to PDFs is a standard solution to this problem because they open on all devices. But many PDFs are not responsive to all device sizes and can be inconsistent, depending on the browser used. If the PDF has been created from a scanner, the content is likely delivered as an image, which is completely inaccessible for students who use screen readers (Phillips & Colton, 2021).
To avoid some of the issues with PDFs, whenever possible add your content to a page or text space in your LMS. Pages and other text spaces are responsive by default and they keep your students in the LMS. This is important: When we pop students out into a new tab, or to YouTube if the resource is a video, they are leaving the LMS and going into the internet, where the overabundance of information and distractions can lead to information overload. Keeping students in the LMS takes their digital well-being into account, helping to manage digital stimuli, excessive multi-tasking, and overconsumption of new media (Gui et al., 2017).
A great resource for designing for accessibility for the web is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Founded in 1994 and currently led by Tim Berners-Lee, W3C is the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web. If you want to take a deep dive, look at the Web Accessibility Initiative’s main page. The section of the website most relevant to this post is Making Events Accessible: it has intuitive information and much of it can be applied online as well as in the face-to-face classroom. In Everyone: Understanding the Basics, we are reminded that, for example, some people might need to take breaks at specific times for insulin injections. Breaks can easily be added to both online and in-person sessions without too much effort and without waiting for a needs request. We’re also reminded that “someone with a physical disability who cannot take notes might need to record the session.” A former classmate of mine recorded lectures with his laptop. He said the audio was not always perfect but he was happy that he could go back and relisten whenever he wanted. I often wonder how many other students would benefit from lecture audio recordings.
I encourage all of us to learn from one another so we can create online and face-to-face spaces that are truly inclusive. If we think of learning as a social construct, we might just create an ongoing interaction that will allow us to co-construct knowledge regarding the importance of inclusive learning spaces (Kharbach, 2023).
Frank A. W. (1995) Lecturing and transference: The undercover work of pedagogy. In J. Gallop (Ed.), Pedagogy: The question of impersonation (pp. 28–37). Indiana University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1zxxzt3
Gernsbacher, M. A. (2015). Video captions benefit everyone. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain sciences, 2(1), 195–202. https://doi.org/10.1177/2372732215602130
Godden, R., & Womack, A.-M. (2016, May 12). Making disability part of the conversation: Combatting inaccessible spaces and logics. Hybrid Pedagogy. https://hybridpedagogy.org/making-disability-part-of-the-conversation/
Gui, M., Fasoli, M., & Carradore, R. (2017). “Digital well-being”: Developing a new theoretical tool for media literacy research. Italian Journal of Sociology of Education, 9(1), 155–173.
Holmes, K. (2018, October 16). The no. 1 thing you’re getting wrong about inclusive design. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/90243282/the-no-1-thing-youre-getting-wrong-about-inclusive-design
Kharbach, M. (2023, May 23). What is peeragogy? A quick overview. Educators Technology. https://www.educatorstechnology.com/2022/06/a-must-have-free-handbook-for-learning.html
Phillips, C., & Colton, J. S. (2021, June 7). A new normal in inclusive, usable online learning experiences. In T. N. Thurston, K. Lundstrom, & C. González (Eds.), Resilient pedagogy: Practical teaching strategies to overcome distance, disruption, and distraction (pp. 169–186). Utah State University. https://doi.org/10.26079/a516-fb24
World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) (2022, August 31). Making events accessible: Checklist for meetings, conferences, training, and presentations that are remote/virtual, in-person, or hybrid. W3C WAI. https://www.w3.org/WAI/teach-advocate/accessible-presentations/
About the Author
Jamie is a Coordinator, Educational Technologies at Thompson Rivers University. She enjoys researching and analyzing the effectiveness of current learning technologies and assessing the challenges in adapting new technologies. She strives to address interaction and assessment issues along with integrating technology with classroom pedagogy.