Accessibility as a Pillar for Promoting Equal Opportunities in Educational Processes
Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Jun 26, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version
Although accessibility awareness is increasing, putting theory into practice may pose a big challenge for educational institutions. With the aim of better understanding some of the best practices involved in making education accessible for every student, Blackboard took advantage of Global Accessibility Awareness Day to talk to one of the most renowned universities in Latin America, Universidad Nacional Andrés Bello, in Chile, a member of the Laureate International Universities network.
Meet the Interviewees
Verónica Águila Moenne works as director of the Inclusive Education Office for the General Teaching Department in the Academic Vice-presidency, Universidad Nacional Andrés Bello (UNAB).
Paola Olivares Díaz is director of Education Design, Development and Teaching at UNAB Online.
- Could you tell us about your work at UNAB?
Our work at UNAB is developed by the General Teaching Department at the Office for Inclusive Education and is mainly focused on moving forward the creation of an inclusive community. As a team, we face challenges, including advancing the development of an inclusive culture that is set and evidenced through policies, processes and practices that respect and promote diversity. In this context, accessibility in terms of infrastructure and information becomes an essential pillar of our work.
At UNAB Online, we are focused on the creation of online learning experiences for both undergraduate students – whose courses are based on a face-to-face modality – and professionals who wish to reinforce their knowledge and professional development through fully online postgraduate courses.
With more than six years now of constant work learning how to design these experiences, and now along with the university’s Office for Inclusive Education, we are moving forward towards a cross-sectional integration of inclusive thinking. This way, we are responding to the recognition and value of diversity and making a sustainable contribution to content accessibility for all our users.
Integrating technologies into everyday life, together with the increasing connectivity and expansion in the supply of postgraduate courses, has positioned us as an ally favoring inclusion from the perspective of providing education and development alternatives to those who due to different reasons, such as geographic, health-related, etc., have not had access to them in the past. We should also remember that due to Chile’s geography, many communities and people are far from educational centers in the country. From that perspective, online education is undoubtedly a significant contribution.
- Awareness is the first step toward providing students with a truly inclusive and accessible learning experience. Why should educational institutions consider accessibility one of its strategic priorities?
Both accessibility and universal design become fundamental pillars regarding people’s right to be fully involved in their studies and are part of our mission as a university. Going in this direction will allow higher education institutions to meet the ethical requirements of providing equal opportunities for all. It is worth noting that according to our legal framework, accessibility is “the condition to be met by environments, processes, goods, products and services, as well as objects or instruments, tools and devices to be understandable, usable and practicable by all individuals, under safe and comfortable conditions and in the most autonomous and natural possible manner.” (Art. 3, Law N°20,422). We are implementing this from a teaching standpoint, in both curriculum design and teaching development processes.
First, higher education institutions should never treat their students as clients. We should recognize them more as diverse individuals with unique dreams, fears, and aspirations. Secondly, higher education institutions should ask many questions before continuing to search for answers. One of the first questions to consider when talking about inclusion and accessibility is: How can we offer a quality educational experience for such a large and diverse group of students?
UNAB Online’s contribution in this regard consists of promoting and projecting that, through the conscious use of technology, we can provide greater and better opportunities for personal and professional development. Certainly, having a robust online offering of diverse study and professional development programs will expand opportunities for individuals who cannot access higher education in person, either due to geographic, employment, social, or health-related factors.
This is why we believe that today, technology is a strategic ally not only for disabled people to access content and information, but also for all learners to feel recognized despite differences or challenges, which can be reflected through the various learning styles, academic records and admissions profiles.
- How would you evaluate accessibility and inclusive education in higher education institutions in Latin America? What are the main challenges in this region?
We could say that significant progress has been made in the region in terms of conceiving education as a right, strongly driven by the different treaties and projects being developed in the region, as per the Virtual Higher Education – Latin America (ESVI-AL in Spanish) treaty. According to the study “Web Accessibility: A Challenge for the Developers of Latin America (2017),” at least 45% of the countries in the region do not have a specific policy in terms of web accessibility, which certainly is a big challenge. For the university, the challenge lies in preparing curriculums consistent with accessibility guidelines, and for graduates to understand that accessibility refers to much more than just mere infrastructure.
From an inclusive education perspective, one of the challenges faced by higher education institutions consists of contributing to reduce the barriers existing in our educational environments. In this regard, the work developed by UNAB has helped us identify the barriers that we have built over time so that we can bring them down.
In addition, through a direct link with each academic unit, UNAB Online has been able to understand with greater detail the challenges, needs and opportunities of each school with regards to their students and offer help.
This is precisely the biggest challenge for the region: recognizing the particular political, social and economic contexts in Latin America to ensure that the solutions offered through technology become real, contextual, and have local significance and impact. The next challenge is taking that local experience out to the world.
At this point, we could also ask ourselves the following question: How can we move from recognizing and appraising local experiences to a global academic context? This is precisely where technology plays an essential role for higher education institutions.
- What is UNAB’s approach regarding accessibility? How has it evolved over recent years?
At UNAB, accessibility is an essential part of its inclusive education approach. This view has strongly evolved over the recent years and is strongly associated with UNAB as we are a diverse institution, as well as reinforces our educational mission/offering. As an institution, we have progressively advanced toward inclusion processes through the work related to infrastructure, support and curriculum adjustments for disabled students, the incorporation of accessibility and universal design criteria for graduating students, special admission for disabled students, as well as the consolidation and integration of accessibility into the institutional policy regarding inclusion.
- How does UNAB take advantage of the tools and resources offered by Blackboard to attain its goal of improving access to education in Latin America?
Since beginning our work at UNAB Online, we have developed our institutional model, perfecting it with what we have learnt throughout these years. Along the way, we have rediscovered our LMS and have been slowly and progressively empowering ourselves with all its resources. We have recognized that the use of tools positively contributes to both the global design of learning experiences and the capacity of analysis it provides to the institution’s management team.
With regards to platform adoption, we are in a learning process and are relying on Blackboard’s team to maximize their knowledge and experience. We expect that our courses will progressively meet the minimum accessibility standards that allow students and faculty to access information and the learning experience in the most simple and realistic manner.
- Which would you describe as the best accessibility practices at UNAB that other institutions could draw on and learn from? Could you give us some examples?
We are permanently learning and building from our own experiences, as well as from our mistakes. We are aware that integrating the inclusive approach does not begin or end by developing courses and adaptive resources, but it entails an institutional transformation that should start by questioning and raising issues in relation to our everyday practices with the aim of establishing an inclusive culture.
Therefore, just as we promote having insight in our practice, it has also been important knowing what other institutions have done, but never with the intention of making comparisons. It is clear to us that it is impossible to develop an inclusive view without the due respect and knowledge for each institution’s specific characteristics. Each one has its own story and has travelled its own path. However, each experience undoubtedly inspires us, guides us, and generates more ideas – that is, more opportunities. For example, recently an opportunity came up to work on accessibility in relation to the design of our first MOOC, where we had the opportunity to design accessible learning resources, in addition to using Blackboard Learn tools, directly on the Open Education platform.
This experience also trained us in the development of inclusive thinking and we applied the premise that “designing with others in mind leads to the inclusion of all.” Working on this MOOC design was different; many individuals were involved in the design, review and validation, among them a visually disabled student. With his feedback and diagnosis, our future designs will certainly favor accessibility even more. This is another example that reinforces the statement that producing work taking into account all needs and perspectives favors inclusion. We want to continue to work with many and to highlight the nuances of the educational environment in Chile and the region. And, yes, we want to work with disabled people, not only to comply with the rules, but also to consider usability criteria so that everybody feels invited to a fluid learning experience.
- Which trends do you see in this area that will define accessibility in the upcoming years?
We believe that the challenge we have ahead is being able to include the criteria and perspective of accessibility into all of our processes, especially in the academic areas. At the General Teaching Department, we are working to incorporate these criteria into curriculum designs and redesigns, so that they can be developed as “Understandable and usable elements available to all persons, under safe and comfortable conditions, in the most autonomous and natural manner possible,” as established in the national legal framework and in our own internal policy.
Technology will always be at the forefront and we will always find more and better technological solutions that favor accessibility. What motivates us is being aware of the trends that will make an impact in our processes, and to ensure that curriculum and institutional designs are increasingly integrating inclusive thinking into the development of the academic experience. The worst that can happen in this advent of technological development is losing the ability to ask questions before assuming the use of cutting-edge technology. Asking ‘Why?’, ‘For what?’, ‘With whom?’ and ‘For whom?’ is important.
Photos by: AFP – Pablo Vera Lisperguer