The “New Normal” and Reflections on Accessibility
Published by: WCET Frontiers | 4/7/2022
WCET welcomes Kara Monroe, President and Founder of Monarch Strategies LLC. In partnership with her, WCET is launching a new article series on the continued shifts in leadership in higher education and educational technology. This is the second blog post in the series that will be featured at the start of each month. Enjoy her first post “Shifting from Covid-normal to New Normal.”
Thank you Kara for the thoughtful post.
~Russ Poulin, WCET
Accessibility has many meanings in the higher education vernacular. First, we must get clear on how we’re talking about accessibility and then we can analyze how we can improve accessibility in each of the areas where it is critical to do so.
In this essay reflection, we will look at accessibility from its most traditional meaning–accessibility for those who are otherly abled. Then we’ll look at accessibility from the outside of our institutions inward, and finally we’ll consider accessibility in relation to our colleagues.
We often talk about accessibility in the framework of legal access to content, services, and the overall educational experience. In my experience, institutions still spend a significant amount of time focusing on ways to make content accessible.
President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on July 26, 1990. More than two decades later, however, higher education faculty and students still face many challenges in accessing versions of various course materials (books, online learning tools, etc.). While major publishers have adopted accessibility statements or at least put together accessibility guides to their content (like Oxford University Press, Pearson, Cengage, McGraw-Hill, Wiley), these efforts do not always address the needs of students and faculty.
From faculty-authored content to content written by much smaller publishers and professional organizations, obtaining accessible content is still a time-consuming process for higher education staff that leaves students without access to the tools that they need to learn. Fortunately, tools like Blackboard Ally can help faculty identify and fix inaccessible content in their courses as well as learn to build more accessible content from here forward.
All institutions need to develop programs or services that help faculty and students learn about making content accessible and how to do it. For institutions unsure of where to start, aligning with Quality Matters(™) on its 8th course rubric standard and using training provided by Quality Matters are excellent places to begin.
Who does our institution serve? The answer to this question is defined in many ways. When answering this question, we often think about the following:
As leaders in higher education, we can alter some of these objectives to change our accessibility, like dials on a machine. For example, we might hold tuition stable or offer “free” courses or even “free” tuition. Perhaps your institution has recently gone test optional or, if you’re a community college, you are exploring new pathways to corequisites and program level courses like math and English. Maybe you even add new programs to serve new or emerging markets.
Although we all turn these dials, what we’re doing doesn’t seem to be working. College going rates since 2009 have been declining overall. This is especially true amongst America’s fastest growing demographic groups. Fewer black students attend college, and the same is true for Hispanic populations.
Perhaps the reason this isn’t working is a lack of focus on our goal. When we move these dials, we often talk about our goal in terms of adding enrollment–primarily from underserved or underrepresented populations. We do need to add enrollment from underserved and underrepresented populations–both because we have not served these populations well but also because smaller. That said, we also need to make sure the product we are offering students is going to help make their lives better.
However, if we go back to the reason each of our institutions exists, it isn’t to enroll students–it is to help students complete something. So, if you are turning those dials to bring more students into the institution, you must also add the tools and support services all students need to help your institution, AND the students you serve, reach their end goal. For the institution, the end goal is typically more successful graduates, and for students, the broad goal is simply the means to create a better life.
As your institution reviews programs, how do you ensure that the process is a meaningful exercise that results in the growth of the student experience and student population rather than simply a way to preserve the status quo within your institution?
Prior to March 2020, we had daily patterns and rhythms that helped us keep time during the day. As nearly all of us shifted to fully remote work, those rhythms were destroyed. We took a few days to get, as one colleague called them, our “sea legs.” Once we did, however, we “were rocking.”
We are, however, in the midst of another change of rhythms, one of the worst kinds of change–one that is unstable and of an uncertain length of time.
Issues with daycare and schools are causing additional strain for our colleagues with children as they rearrange their daily lives, more than previously required. Supply chain issues cause what used to be a minor inconvenience like a fridge going out to become a multi-week saga that throws off a person’s flow for weeks. While these things seem minor in the moment, the compounding effect of them is weighing on all of us.
Institutions are also struggling with how often they want employees to be in the office and employees are struggling too with why they need to be in the office some arbitrary percentage of the time when they were incredibly productive from home. When employees are in the office working in open office environments, they are often fighting over limited focus room space because everyone is still on video chats rather than meeting in person. This results in more distractions and decreased productivity.
The one thing I have heard unanimously from my higher education colleagues is that their institution’s work from home policies–or lack thereof–are void of emotional intelligence. There is no doubt that many jobs in higher education are best–and perhaps even only–performed with students and faculty/staff in the same physical location. However, it appears that rather than learning from the pandemic and pushing new ways of serving students, many institutional leaders are simply trying to go back to “the way things were.” As learning organizations, sometimes we refuse to learn that there are multiple ways of achieving outcomes successfully.
We need to be vigilant about improving accessibility to and within our institutions, and we need to keep looking at accessibility through a variety of lenses.
Here are a few suggestions and take-aways for you to improve accessibility immediately and long term:
We must continue to make our institutions and our content more accessible while also keeping a close eye on the health and well being of our students, faculty, and staff. Accessibility should be viewed as a step in the path while keeping the ultimate shared goal in mind. In the words of one colleague, “Accessibility is no longer enough. We must focus on social mobility.” This is true for our students as well as for our fellow faculty and staff.