This post by guest author, Lacy Murphy, PhD student in Art History and Archeology, is the outgrowth of a Summer 2019 internship as Accessibility Liaison where she collaborated with Betha Whitlow, Visual Resource Center, Libby Lessentine and Heather Stout, both formerly of Disability Resources, and Dr. Meg Gregory, The Center for Teaching and Learning, to learn more about how to implement accessible pedagogies in the classroom.
According to national data, nearly twenty percent of undergraduate students have one or more learning differences. With one of every five students bringing learning differences into our classrooms, we must address the overall weakness of accessibility awareness among instructors in higher education. The first step in tackling this important issue is instilling a culture of accessibility on campus. While this is not something that can happen overnight, there are some simple techniques that instructors can use as they are preparing their courses for the spring semester. The suggestions listed below enable instructors to share the responsibility of accommodating students with learning differences therefore contributing to a campus culture of accessibility.
1. Take the Accessibility 101 course that is offered through Canvas. This is an easy way to familiarize yourself with the issue of accessibility in higher education. The course takes 30-45 minutes and familiarizes faculty members with six distinct categories of disability (visual, auditory, motor, cognitive, seizure, and age-related) and provides resources for designing a more accessible course and classroom. To access the course, log in to your Canvas profile and select “Commons” on the toolbar located in the left margin. Search “Accessibility 101” and select the course designed by Todd Weissenberger. Note that there are several additional courses on accessibility available to instructors through Canvas.
Other recommended courses to take are:
Course Accessibility 101: Principles of Inclusive Design by Jess Thompson
Accessible PowerPoint by Marti Baker
Create an Accessible Syllabus by Marti Baker
2. Familiarize yourself with the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is a framework that seeks to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn. This means being flexible in means, method, and material and reconsidering the “why, what, and how” of learning. UDL optimizes learning for students of all backgrounds by:
Using multiple means to present content
Offering an array of learning contexts (individual, group learning, pair work, etc.)
Providing supplemental cognitive support (videos, images, objects, podcasts, etc.)
Providing a variety of assessments (written exams, oral exams, visual presentations, etc.)
3. Scaffold your course by making PowerPoint and lecture notes available to students on Canvas or a course website. Many accessibility experts recommend using a “before, during, and after” approach to communicate course content. Students with learning differences might need to interact with course information in more than one way or several times to master the same content as a student without a learning difference. While many disability resource offices at universities do provide notetakers, students with multiple learning differences do better when they have more than one way of interacting with course content and can circle back to it throughout the semester as needed.
4. Learn about and provide testing accommodations for students in your courses when you are able. For classes with few students needing testing accommodations (i.e. small seminars and lectures), the instructor should first evaluate whether or not it is reasonable for them to provide testing accommodations themselves without sending students to Disability Resources. When instructors offer accommodations themselves, they greatly assist Disability Resources during midterm and final exams. At WashU, Disability Resources is responsible for providing testing accommodations for over one thousand students. With finite space and resources at the testing facility, this is a mammoth task. However, some testing accommodations received by students, such as extra time on tests, are easier to implement than others. Therefore, it is up to each instructor to determine their capacity for providing testing accommodations.
5. Create a course website that you can update throughout the semester. It’s easier than it sounds! Creating a course website that consolidates all course information can help make course objectives clearer and information more readily accessible. A course website is a great way to implement UDL guidelines and create additional support for students with disabilities. While using Canvas is a great first step, instructors can also create and maintain a course website through WashU Sites. All you need is a valid WUSTL email address to request a site. WashU Sites also offers a user guide, tutorials, and a list of best practices for new users.