Universal Design & Online Education: Ensuring Access & Engagement for all Students

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On Friday, a small group of faculty and staff attended this webinar sponsored by Education Technology Services (ETS). The presenters were Kristen Betts and Jenny Dugger, both from Drexel University. While the focus was on students with disabilities, we quickly realized a few things, and wondered about a few others:
  • A high number of disabled students do not self-identify with our Office of Disability Services, but are still in our classes trying to learn.
  • Some barriers to self-identification include the cost of acceptable tests and the mound of paperwork required. The burden is quite great.
  • By proactively designing our courses to be accessible, we could be impacting the learning for many more of our students than we might realize.
  • Are we doing enough to increase students' awareness of the resources available to them (syllabi, marketing, etc.)?
  • What happens when accommodations are simply a part of our course design, and not something special we need to do differently or retrofit?
  • Does our definition of disability include the barriers WE create?
So, what might Universal Design mean for our work in designing courses (online and face-to-face)? A list of guidelines and best practices culled from Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) was provided that gives us a great starting point.
  1. Text Alternatives: Use text alternatives for any non-text content (i.e., images).
  2. Adaptable: Create content that can be presented in different ways.
  3. Distinguishable: Clearly differentiate between elements (i.e., separate foreground and background - contrast).
  4. Keyboard Accessible: Users should be able to navigate everything from a keyboard.
  5. Enough time: Provide enough time to complete tasks.
  6. Seizures: Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures (i.e., flashing lights).
  7. Readable: Text needs to be readable and understandable.
  8. Predictable: Consistency helps with navigation.
  9. Input Assistance: Be proactive in avoiding and correcting mistakes.
  10. Compatible: Able to use with assistive technologies and other agents.
These are all great reminders for designers, and are guidelines that benefit all learners.

Additional resources:
7 Principles of Universal Design, from Sloan
Dr. Sean Zdenek's Accessible Rhetoric Blog
National Center for Universal Design for Learning
List of assistive technologies

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