Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on March 27, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version
In order for higher education institutions to be effective and accomplish the purpose of teaching everyone, it is crucial to ensure that students with all types of abilities have access to inclusive learning experiences. Providing universal, accessible digital course content is one of the main challenges. With a vast amount of content being continuously created by many different people, it’s nearly impossible for an institution to understand how it is performing regarding accessibility and where improvements need to be made.
California State University – Chico, commonly known as “Chico State,” began to tackle the accessibility challenge in 2004, when CSU issued an executive order that established the university’s policy on disability support and accommodations. Founded in 1887, CSU – Chico is the second oldest among the 23 campuses in the CSU system across the state of California. CSU is the largest public four-year university system in the United States.
In order to “make information technology resources and services accessible to all CSU students, faculty, staff and the general public regardless of disability,”1 as outlined in the policy, an Accessibility Technology Initiative (ATI) team was formed.
According to Jeremy Olguin, Accessible Technology Manager at CSU – Chico, initially the goal for every CSU campus was to do the minimum necessary to ensure they were in compliance with the policy and consequently with federal and state accessibility guidelines.
“However, when you start to get past that and build an area where you are supported and you have a strong accessibility environment, which is what we have at Chico now, the goal then becomes how we can get past accessibility and make it more of a meaningful design aspect that benefits the entire campus and not just a certain population,” says Olguin.
Although CSU – Chico is only the thirteenth biggest CSU campus, with 17,000 students enrolled, it is leading change within the CSU system when it comes to accessibility. Over the past few years, CSU – Chico has demonstrated that it is possible to take inventory of a massive amount of content items, find tools to address accessibility concerns, and work within funding constraints.
How are they doing that? With a great deal of collaboration, manageable goals, strategic partnerships and executive level support. “Accessibility is a very broad topic that has several facets to it. A lot of people get hung up with the size as opposed to breaking it down into smaller pieces and then tackle them one at a time. We are showing that we can do that even in a larger organization,” says David Rowe, manager of distributed learning technologies.
Challenges All the Way
One of the first challenges CSU – Chico had to face was the decentralization of accessibility efforts across the campus. “You tend to have people that work in silos. People take small pieces of accessibility in multiple departments, which makes it hard to create a positive, inclusive environment for students, because everyone is doing something different. That was one of the main things that we changed from the very beginning. We established a centralized office,” says Olguin.
The next challenge was measuring the level of content accessibility and taking inventory of millions of content items in different formats, which was an impossible task to complete manually. They’ve tackled this problem by decomposing the systems down to user file type levels, and then rebuilding new process for managing video within Kaltura and managing the remaining LMS Content using Blackboard Ally, a solution capable of automatically scanning a wide variety of content items within an LMS.
According to Rowe, they have embraced these technologies to do inventory management and understand the content, and the size and scope of what they were trying to do. “I like to say you cannot manage what you do not measure. The reality is that our goal has been to try and assess the organizational climate and figure out where all this content lives, so that we can systematically prioritize where we can make improvements to that content that have the biggest impact for student success,” he explains.
Blackboard Ally made it possible not only to assess the level of accessibility in all course content, but also to raise that level by providing automatic alternative accessible versions of the content items to students. Olguin estimates this solution has cut down content remediation time by 25%.
On top of that, having content items immediately available in multiple formats, such as semantic HTML, audio, ePub, and electronic Braille, ended up benefiting all students, since those alternative versions tend to support different learning styles, not to mention students with English as their second language, or those with undeclared or hidden disabilities. These results are consistent with the Accessible Technology Initiative’s vision of creating a culture of access for an inclusive learning and working environment.
According to Rowe, another key aspect about Blackboard Ally resources had to do with allowing the team to easily identify where the content items lived and ultimately who was responsible for them. Instructors can greatly benefit from the automatic feedback the system provides regarding accessibility levels within all content items, as well as how to fix specific issues before students begin using the content.
Blackboard Ally automatically runs all course files through an accessibility checklist that looks for common issues. Each file is compared to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 standards.2 The instructor then receives the feedback along with step-by-step instructions on how to fix the identified accessibility issues, all within the context of the learning management system.
“Learning requires feedback, to know how you are doing what you are doing. That is how we grow as people, that is how we learn. Technology has facilitated what I would call a rapid feedback loop to students, faculty and administrators as to their course of action, and it has helped us have a different discussion about what our goal is and what we have to do to move the needle in that direction. Without those feedback loops, without the ability to understand what our accessibility status was, compared to what it should be, we were lacking the catalyst needed to propel the organization forward,” says Rowe.
Creating manageable goals is an important part of CSU – Chico’s accessibility strategy. The idea is to generate incremental growth and continuous improvement in phases. “You have got to keep it manageable. By creating smaller, more manageable pilots we are able to assess data and build it as it grows, and so we can create manageable goals,” says Olguin.
Over the course of the year they would like to see a 7% increase in the Ally total accessibility score of 40 classes. “It might not seem much to someone on the outside of accessibility, but 7% is actually a pretty lofty goal.”
Rowe agrees. “When you have a population of 1,000 faculty and 17,000 students, the last thing you want to do is initiate a full software roll out and have a negative experience,” he says. “These phases allow us to capture feedback and the experience prior to full release to fine tune the approach, to fine tune the communication, to build out the training, and to provide the support material in a way that is scalable overtime.”
Olguin says that the first two phases showed results better than expected. They started phase one with an overall content accessibility score of approximately 35%, which is close to the national average. In six weeks of work with a pilot group, that number has grew to 80%, a huge increase in such a short period. Phase three will begin in fall 2018, when Blackboard Ally will become available to all faculty.
According to Olguin, communication and collaboration are the secret to their success. “Communication is the biggest driver of promoting collaboration. We show that accessibility is not something scary, but something that will help students, staff, faculty, across the board. The people that get involved want to collaborate and they end up holding their peers accountable as well,” tells Olguin.
The success of CSU – Chico’s initiative demonstrates that being in alignment with state and federal policies is possible. “We have done this within budget, under time, and ahead of expectations demonstrating that big projects and big goals can be accomplished,” says Rowe.
“We are leading by example. We are not just saying what our plan is, we are demonstrating what our plan is, we are collecting feedback about how it is going, and we are adjusting our plan accordingly, showing that continuous improvement in phased approaches based on feedback and transparency can help us tackle some of the hardest projects and problems out there in an organization, and that leads to higher levels of accountability and, ultimately, effectiveness,” Rowe adds.
CSU – Chico’s team was heavily consulted when CSU bought their system-wide Blackboard Ally license, which now covers all 23 campuses. They have given national presentations on their work with accessibility and they were able to secure continuous investment for the initiative.
Nevertheless, Olguin says that all the work they have done so far are just the first steps on a long journey. “I want to be very clear that we are in no way a finished product when it comes to accessibility, but that we are doing everything we can with the support that we have to push this message as far and wide as possible.”
One billion people experience some type of physical, visual, hearing or cognitive disability worldwide — approximately 15% of the world’s population. On average, those with disabilities have less education, lower employment rates and higher levels of poverty.4 Accessibility is a key component to deliver excellence in teaching and learning to all students, to provide them with inclusive educational experiences and equal opportunities, and to enhance academic effectiveness overall.
Key points in CSU – Chico’s accessibility strategy
1. Create manageable goals
2. Foster communication and collaboration
3. Use technology to: Measure accessibility, generate automatic alternative accessible formats to content items, provide feedback to instructors
Graduation Initiative 2025
California State University has created Graduation Initiative 2025 to increase graduation rates for all CSU students while eliminating opportunity and achievement gaps. Through this initiative, the CSU will ensure that all students have the opportunity to graduate in a timely manner according to their personal goals.3 Accessibility is an important factor in order to achieve these results.
1 The California State University. (2004, December 20). Executive Order 926 – The California State University Policy on Disability Support and Accommodations. Retrieved January 31, 2018, from http://www.calstate.edu/eo/EO-926.html.
2 Blackboard. (2017, July 21). Retrieved January 31, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2iI210FUzk.
3 California State University. (n.d.). Graduation Initiative 2025. Retrieved February 01, 2018, from https://www2.calstate.edu/csu-system/why-the-csu-matters/graduation-initiative-2025#.
4 World Bank. (n.d.). Disability Inclusion Overview. Retrieved February 06, 2018, from http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/disability.
Photo by: AFP – Don Feria