Creating accessibility and inclusive online learning experiences ensures that all students can fully participate in online and hybrid learning

3 keys to ensuring accessibility for all students

Creating inclusive online learning experiences ensures that all students can fully participate in online and hybrid learning

When instruction moved online during the early stages of the pandemic, colleges and universities very quickly learned how important accessibility is for learning.

Many students with physical impairments or other learning disabilities were left behind in the shift to remote learning because they couldn’t access course materials in an online or hybrid format.

These learning modalities aren‘t going away. Surveys suggest that many students prefer the flexibility of hybrid and online learning—and for working professionals, learning online might be the only option that fits in with their busy schedule.

Creating inclusive online learning experiences ensures that all students can fully participate in online and hybrid learning. This means building accessibility into the design of online and hybrid courses.

At Los Angeles Pacific University, we are an online institution serving more than 3,000 nontraditional adult learners, and accessibility is integral to our mission. All of our courses are completely accessible, even for students who are visually or hearing impaired. As a result, we’re able to provide a fully inclusive learning experience that meets the needs of all students.

Here are three key lessons that other institutions can learn from our experience.

Embrace accessibility as a core value.

As a faith-based organization, we care for everybody, regardless of their abilities—and we want to see them succeed. We publicly state that accessibility and digital inclusion are among our core values, and we are constantly looking for opportunities to deliver on those values.

Starting at a place like this makes accessibility part of the fabric of who you are, instead of just an afterthought. Consequently, all our course offerings are developed with this mindset as our anchor, which drives how we choose technology and how we build courses.

Build accessibility into every course during the design phase.

For us, accessibility isn’t just bolted onto instruction; it’s part of the actual build process when we design new courses and programs.

For example, I was recently tasked by our president to create an affordable, high-value online graduate degree program that would lead to better employability without forcing students to take on more debt. 

We formed a cross-functional design team with representation from various departments. After researching our options, we decided to create a competency-based Masters in Instructional Design program that would cost no more than $10,000 for students to complete.

Working backwards from the skills and competencies that we wanted students to learn, we designed a series of projects for students to complete in order to demonstrate their knowledge. We also created instructional units that involved practical, hands-on learning opportunities. Our goal was to make learning fun again. We recently received approval for the program through the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), and we’re looking to begin offering courses in the spring 2023 semester.

Throughout this design process, we considered accessibility at every step. For every task and learning activity, we asked ourselves: Is this accessible to every student? If not, can we build in accommodations so that all students can participate equally?

When accessibility is intentionally addressed like this as part of the course design process, then instructional leaders can be sure that it’s integrated in a thoughtful and comprehensive manner.

Invest in solutions that fill accessibility gaps.

Every document and instructional video that we create ourselves is inclusive. For instance, we include captioning and read-aloud functionality when developing our course content. However, we know that other resources students find when they’re doing research online might not have the same built-in accessibility. To account for this disparity, we use text-to-speech technology. 

The text-to-speech learning tool we chose to integrate is ReadSpeaker, which is embedded directly into the learning management system we use for our online courses. As students access course materials and other online resources, there is a prompt within the margin of the LMS that says: “Listen to this page.” When students click on the “listen” button, they can hear the text read aloud, regardless of its source.

The software reads the characters and then converts the text into what sounds like a human talking. Students can listen to any text on the page, and they can speed up or slow down the audio. They can enlarge the text, pick from a list of different voices or translate it. They can even download an audio file to listen to on their phone like they would with a podcast. 

What we found was that giving all of our students these voice-enhanced tools helps us fill in the accessibility gaps that exist between content we create ourselves and content that students find online. 

Accessibility leads to engagement—and success

If inclusivity is an important goal of colleges and universities, then all students must be able to engage fully with course materials and resources, even in online and hybrid learning environments. 

In fact, enabling voice capabilities for study tools and curriculum is just as important from an engagement standpoint as it is for accessibility. All students engage more deeply with course materials when these capabilities are added; we’ve seen this time and time again. And better engagement leads to greater student success—which is our ultimate aim as higher-education institutions.

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