Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Sep 04, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version
Founded in 1964, Gaston College is one of the largest community colleges in North Carolina, with three campuses that serve the Gaston and Lincoln counties. The institution offers over 170 programs of study and enrolls more than 16,000 students each year. Throughout its history, the college has remained dedicated to its mission of “promoting student success and lifelong learning through high caliber, affordable, and comprehensive educational programs and services responding to economic and workforce development needs.”1 In 2014, this student-centered institution started working on a five-year accessibility plan with the intent to create a more inclusive digital learning environment.
When Kimberly Gelsinger, director of distance education, started working at Gaston College in 1999, the institution offered a total of eight online courses via the college website.
“Today, we average over 1600 course sections in Blackboard Learn annually,” says Gelsinger, who is responsible for the overall management of the institution’s digital learning environment, providing support to students, faculty, staff and other directives involving distance education at the state and national level.
According to the director, Gaston’s programs are tailored to meet the needs of today’s learners – anytime, anywhere. There are 20 degrees, certificates and diplomas available completely online, and another 40 that can be completed 50% online.
The college also has a large population of high school students taking advantage of online offerings through its Career and College Promise (CCP) initiative. CCP provides eligible North Carolina high school students the opportunity to experience college courses. “Enrollment growth over the last couple of years has been in this area,” notes Gelsinger.
According to the director, the number of CCP students grew 13% between 2017 and 2018, while overall enrollments remained relatively steady.
Increasing Electronic Accessibility
Providing students with a better online learning experience is not a new concern for Gaston College. In 2011, the institution presented a Quality Enhancement Plan for the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACSCOC) accreditation called Strengthening Academic Internet Learning (SAIL).
The goal of SAIL was to provide a high-quality learning experience for students enrolled in online courses.
“We implemented quality standards for online courses based on research of existing quality standards, including accessibility, such as Blackboard Exemplary Course Program, Quality Matters, and other leading institutions’ standards,” explains Gelsinger. “Over 130 individual courses were reviewed for quality during the SAIL process from 2011 to 2016, which ‘jump started’ our accessibility initiative.”
In the fall of 2014, according to the director, the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) issued a mandate that required all community colleges to have a five-year accessibility plan for all websites and digital content to meet the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights requirements (sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act).
In 2015, the college formed the Gaston College ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Compliance Team, which developed the five-year accessibility plan.
“The mission of the ADA Compliance Team is to provide quality instruction and support services for all students, including students with disabilities and other special needs, to support success and completion of academic goals and to extend this mission to all services including accessibility of all digital and electronic content,” says Gelsinger.
Gaston’s Five-Year Plan Objectives
- Ensure websites and online learning content are compliant with all WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines)
- Apply the principles of universal (inclusive) design across all platforms
- Develop training materials and best practices for meeting accessibility standards
- Provide extensive training for faculty, staff, and content editors/owners
Implementing an accessibility plan can be incredibly challenging to a higher education institution as it involves several areas, processes, and a large number of people. At Gaston, according to Gelsinger, the lack of resources and instructor buy-in were the main challenges.
Gelsinger, along with the instructional design specialist and the webmaster, were responsible for moving the implementation plan forward. The first step was delivering face-to-face or online accessibility training to all college personnel.
Subsequently, they acquired transcription services from third-party vendors, employed work-study students, and had staff remediate documents and provide accessible multimedia. “Our first accomplishment was implementing an accessible syllabus for all courses campus-wide in 2017,” notes Gelsinger.
An Ally for Inclusion
In the same year, the college had its first contact with Blackboard Ally, an accessibility solution adopted by over 300 institutions worldwide.
Blackboard Ally has three main functions: (1) automatically checks all content uploaded to the digital learning environment for accessibility issues and generates alternative accessible formats; (2) provides instructor-specific feedback, guiding educators on how to improve the accessibility of their course content; and (3) provides institution-wide reporting on course content accessibility, which helps universities make informed decisions and track their progress.
“When we discovered Blackboard Ally at an LMS conference in July 2017, our jaws dropped! This was the answer to our main issue: How do we provide accessible formats in a timely fashion for all students, with limited resources?” Gelsinger explains.
Gaston’s implementation of Blackboard Ally began with a pilot in January 2018. “We identified 15 faculty and staff members to participate in the spring pilot on a test server. We included our webmaster in the pilot to review and remediate documents located on our website. Each participant received training from Blackboard and began utilizing Blackboard Ally for specific courses,” Gelsinger recounts.
Blackboard Ally was installed on the institution’s production server in May. “Our ‘pilot’ instructors are using it during the summer for a minimum number of courses and full deployment is planned for August. We absolutely love Blackboard Ally,” she says.
Other accessibility tools used by Gaston include the WCAG checklist, Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool (WAVE), Color Contrast Checker, Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel accessibility checkers, Adobe Accessibility Checker, and third-party services such as Equidox.
At Gaston College, faculty are required to attend nine hours of professional development annually, with two hours designated specifically for accessibility training.
“The instructional technology specialist is currently providing a series, ‘Tips, Tricks, and Triage,’ for faculty and staff. These are 30-minute sessions held weekly,” says Gelsinger.
Additionally, the college has a dedicated team of ADA personnel as well as Distance Education staff that assist faculty in the remediation of documents, images, and multi-media course content.
The journey to accessibility is unique for each higher education institution. With all the initiatives put in place in recent years, Gaston College is a few steps closer to accomplishing its vision of being recognized as the premier post-secondary educational resource in the region.
Gaston College Accessibility Best Practices
1. Involve stakeholders to gain support and raise awareness about accessibility and universal design for learning
2. Provide an accessible course template with general resources included
3. Hold faculty and staff accountable for providing accessible content
4. Use diverse resources such as accessibility tools, third-party vendors and employing work-study students
5. Implement an accessible syllabus for all courses
The North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) provides the Virtual Learning Community an online resource for all distance-learning administrators, faculty and students, which includes accessibility support documentation.
Gaston College Quick Facts2
24:1 Student/faculty ratio
27 Average student age
44% First-generation students
+170 programs of study, of which
20 are available completely online
40 are blended programs
1 Gaston College. (n.d.). About Us – History of the College. Retrieved July 12, 2018, from https://www.gaston.edu/about-us/history-of-the-college
2 Gaston College. (2017, September). Gaston College Quick Facts. Retrieved July 12, 2018, from http://www.gaston.edu/about-us/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2014/04/QuickFactSheet_0817S.pdf
Photos by: AFP – Scott A. Miller