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In this episode, Phil Hill, Jeanette Wiseman, and Kevin Kelly discuss the issue of accessibility for emergency remote teaching and online education. Are we making problems worse for the fall?


  • Phil Hill
  • Jeanette Wiseman
  • Kevin Kelly


Phil: Hello. Welcome to another episode of COVID Transitions. I’m Phil Hill, and I’m here again with Kevin Kelly and Jeanette Wiseman. This week, what we wanted to talk about is the subject of accessibility. Accessibility for students to online learning environments, particularly given the transition, the remote transition of teaching the spring and leading into the fall and try to tease this out about what’s really happening. Do we have a problem here?

I had mentioned in a previous podcast that there’s a ticking time bomb of accessibility that’s not being addressed. If we go back to early April, there was an article that set a good context. It was at Inside Higher Ed, titled Accessibility Suffers during a Pandemic. It essentially said, quote, “And the quick shift by colleges from in-person to online instruction in response to the coronavirus pandemic. [00:01:00] The needs of students with disabilities can sometimes be overlooked.” It quotes an accessibility coordinator for Iowa State University saying, “Wiley said although some faculty members may have discussed digital accessibility in the past, they may not be aware of the importance of insuring it for all students and may not understand that it goes beyond making special accommodations for individual students that specifically request it.”

It really is talking about another quote or somebody saying what we worry about now is that in the rush to move everything online in light of COVID-19, universities are paying even less attention to whether it’s accessible or not. That’s the point that we wanted to focus on. Are we actually falling backwards in terms of accessibility because it’s always a challenge, but are things getting worse?

If we jump ahead to some of the surveys that we’ve been looking at, we certainly [00:02:00] saw in the Every Learner Everywhere, Time for Class report, where Tyton Partners had put this out. They talked a lot about how we need to ensure accessibility for all students. It’s showing that faculty are saying, we understand this needs to happen, but it’s not necessarily that it is happening. If you jump to the CHLOE report from Quality Matters and Eduventures, they essentially are saying little was spent on accessibility needs.

There was one chart where they were asking schools, when you did investments for the remote teaching, where did you spend that money? Accessibility accommodations across the whole gamut, only five percent of online officers reported that they invested in accessibility due to the increased need [00:03:00] for this subject. That’s really where we are or what the survey data and some of the analysis is telling us is that we have an issue that’s becoming a bigger problem because of this transition to remote learning.

Let’s start out with discussing a little bit more why is this happening. Faculty are saying, hey, we’re aware we need to do accessibility, but there are indications it’s not happening. So why is that?

Kevin: I think you talked about the quote, little attention’s being paid. I think it’s partly because there’s attention deficit disorder going on right now at an organizational level where they cannot focus on so many things at once. We need to think about ways to support institutions, individual faculty, the people who support faculty and students to make [00:04:00] this rise to the top so that it does get the attention it deserves.

When you’re thinking about the different aspects of accessibility for students and for faculty who may need accommodations as well, there are just quite a range of topics to consider. There’s captioning for videos, there’s accessibility accommodations in documents you upload to the learning management system. There are considerations on how you structure your course for students with different learning disabilities and many more.

Paying attention to all that while you’re in the middle of a crisis, trying to put a course online that was completely face to face, I think we missed the mark because it was an overload for those instructors who couldn’t focus on all of those things at once.

Phil: Ok, and Jeanette, give me some of your thoughts about why we are in this situation or why this is becoming an even bigger [00:05:00] challenge on properly providing environments that are accessible by all students.

Jeanette: I agree with Kevin. I think there’s ADD happening right now for good reason. I think that it was always a difficult thing to do for a majority of instructors, especially ones who maybe are directly affected by someone either that they love with a disability or that disability themselves. They don’t understand the implications of what it means to not have their course be accessible. It just takes more work. I think that everything we’ve seen is these people that do apply accessible and universal design techniques to their courses, that it benefits all learners, but it’s time consuming.

Phil: I would add to this, besides the overload, there’s also the nature of all the teachers that you’re talking about that haven’t taught online in particular. [00:06:00] I think there was likely a lack of appreciation of how much effort has already been applied to try to improve accessibility and accommodation for sight or hearing or various disabilities. Now that the faculty are thrust into it, it’s not just that it’s overwhelming. I question whether they really understood how much hard work was already happening in the community. That’s part of the problem as people say, well, I had no idea. You mean we have to do this, this and this? I didn’t even know that or I didn’t think about that very much.

Now, there’s a silver lining to the cloud, if that’s accurate, which is there could be a broader emphasis on increased accessibility because of the pandemic now, that could even potentially last after we get to whatever the new normal is. I think there are various reasons on the human level why [00:07:00] this is happening.

I would also argue that there are some technical reasons as well or pedagogical, is there’s such a predominant migration to synchronous video. Zoom U is the oversimplified but description of what’s happened. Well, once you go synchronous and live video, that’s actually quite difficult to handle. You can’t do alternative formats very easily. About the best that you can do is live transcriptions. If you look at Zoom, which is the most popular thing, you have to have it, enable it. But even there, Zoom hasn’t figured out all of the nuances of accessibility, such as enabling it for breakout rooms. It’s only recently you’ve been able to do live transcription. I don’t want to pick too much on Zoom, but I think part of the reason that we’re in this trouble is because of what became the default shift for so many people during remote transitions.

Kevin: Well, [00:08:00] I’d agree with that. I’d go a step further and say that automatic captioning or a transcription service that Zoom provides is usually not up to the standards that accessibility requires. If you have a student with a hearing disability in your class, then they would require a live captioning or an American sign language translator to be present. Then that student could pin the video of the translators so that they’re able to see that person signing the lecture. But you’re right that the technology hasn’t caught up with some of the demands that this puts on the infrastructure and the instructor.

Phil: If you get into where I’ve seen the most emphasis and higher education accessibility, at least from a technical standpoint, Blackboard Ally is the tool that’s most frequently [00:09:00] used to address the accessibility. That’s really set up for asynchronous pedagogical tools, detecting which files and which web pages, and what has accessibility issues and how to fix them. What they were really pushing at the Blackboard World conference this week, the ability to create alternative formats to documents. That sort of relies on the fact that you’re not just doing a live video conference class. I think that we’ve talked about the need for more emphasis on asynchronous elements of pedagogical, if not that being the default, but part of the reason is accessibility as well.

Kevin: I would say that equity needs to be a higher priority than the legal aspects of this conversation. The fact that we need to level the playing field so that every student has no barriers between them and the [00:10:00] learning should be the way we’re looking at this. There are groups out there right now that are providing guidance. The Association on Higher Education and Disability, the National Center for College Students with Disabilities, they’re all putting out different guides for the students themselves and for campuses and instructors. They’re important to know about.

Phil: From what we’re seeing, is the view that I describe from Inside Higher Ed, that was written back in April during the middle of the transition or right near the end of the initial transition, is it still an issue now that we’re into late July? Do we see this being a ticking time bomb for fall? I don’t know that we have a clear answer. 

Do these surveys indicate no, we’re not doing enough and this is really going to be a problem? Both, if you look at it in legal terms, from a Department of Justice setting up schools for lawsuits based on what’s happening in the fall or [00:11:00] as you’ve described, getting into equity.

Well, that gets into are students really able to succeed, which could show up in retention and student success numbers. Just based on what we’re seeing right now, what do you two think is going to happen in the fall? Do you think that we are going to have a growing problem that’s going to be more apparent both legally and equity based?

Jeanette: I do. I think that the spring, people were understanding of the transition that had to be made. At this point, students, instructors and institutions have been given the summer to figure this out. I think the schools that were best case scenario and thought everything could go back to normal are going to be the ones that are going to be caught flat footed at this point because they didn’t do the preparation that was needed. I think that’s across the board.

If you’re a student that needed those courses [00:12:00] to be online, needs to be accessible, or if you’re a student that had equity issues and your school didn’t provide that for you, they’re not going to be able to succeed and that’s not going to be their fault. I think that they are going to see a lot of issues come up.

Phil: Kevin, we’ve mentioned this before, but I think you have a unique role in how many faculty workshops and how involved you’ve been in the professional development of faculty across multiple schools. Are you seeing this as a well-known topic? Do you see any signs that people understand what needs to be done? What’s your view from the professional development trenches, if you will?

Kevin: Yeah, at San Francisco State, when I was in my role as an academic technology manager, we had the whole system wide initiative around accessible technology. They had three different components, procurement [00:13:00] and instructional materials and one more. The instructional materials aspect, we were training faculty how to make their documents accessible, their files. They’re also thinking about what’s beyond the technological to reducing those barriers for students that Jeanette brought up earlier and the professional development aspects, it’s woven into a lot of different tools.

The CVC, OEI, the California Virtual Campus Online Education Initiative, has a course design rubric for people putting their courses online and one of the four main sections, at least until 2018. I know they just revised a couple of months ago. One of the four core sections in that rubric was accessibility. They are making it so that people are aware of the need to make their courses accessible in a lot of different ways.

Phil: It’s almost part of [00:14:00] what I’m hearing, what I’m seeing also is we don’t need to reinvent the wheel in the situation we’re in right now. We’ve always needed improvements in accessibility and equity, but we’re in a situation where we don’t need new solutions per say.

What we need is broad adoptions of the solutions and the teaching practices that we already know about. This is not just a technology. It’s a practice adoption challenge that we face right now. Let’s at least apply the things that we already know about as opposed to how we’ve got a new problem and need to come up with a completely new solution. Does that sound right to you, too?

Kevin: It does. Even if you’re looking at articles like the June 17th article and campus technology where they said COVID-19 intensifies the need to tackle digital accessibility. That’s more recent than when we were in the thick [00:15:00] of it in the spring. They referenced landmark settlement with Harvard University and the National Association of the Deaf. They’re bringing to the forefront the concept that moving a ton of content and live activities into a virtual space requires more consideration for those people who need additional support or us to think about the barriers we may be putting in front of them.

Phil: I know that we prefer not to look at this purely as a legalistic method. I have to say in the area of accessibility, it’s taken DOJ lawsuits to wake a lot of schools up to the issues that they face. It’s certainly not what I would wish would be the preferred method happening. I’ve seen that actual legalistic lawsuits have been the trigger pre-pandemic to take this more seriously. Is that what’s [00:16:00] going to happen in the fall? Part of the challenge is does it need to be legalistic to push people forward, or is there enough emphasis right now to take care of it outside of legalistic concerns?

Kevin: Yeah, like I said before, it would be better if we looked at this through an equity lens than a legal lens, because that’s focusing on the students and not covering our ass.

The truth of the matter is, and it’s not just higher ed, Target had a big lawsuit because their online shopping cart wasn’t accessible. There’s a lot of different businesses that have to think about how the virtual experience needs to change to allow everyone to participate.

Jeanette: I think that we, of course, don’t want the legal aspect to happen, but I think it’s a really important tool for students and for consumers to be able to use when their needs aren’t being met.

Phil: Yeah.  [00:17:00]Well, let’s talk some specifics. Particularly for if you’re a faculty who’s new to teaching remotely or online or hybrid or just for people who aren’t fully versed in it, what needs to happen? In other words, what are the key things that instructors or course designers can do to make sure that courses are accessible?

Kevin, what are some of the things that you’ve seen in professional development or the rubric that are the starting place?

Kevin: Jeanette brought up universal design for learning, so providing multiple pathways to consume instructional materials and resources and videos to participate in instructional activities to assess your learning, either for your own purposes or for a grade. All of those need to be viewed as the more options we provide for students, the more accessibility accommodations [00:18:00] we’re making by default. As Jeanette brought up, that takes time because you’re doing multiple versions of different things.

The other thing is just to do a quick self check. If I were a student with visual impairment, would I be able to get all the information from this complex diagram? If not, do I have to create an audio recording of myself describing that diagram as if I were talking to a friend over the phone who couldn’t see it so that way that person is getting the same amount of information.

When I talk about it’s not just technological practices, it’s pedagogical practices. That includes knowing that some of the students are going to be watching a recorded version of something. Talking about where you are within the presentation here on slide two, I want to bring your attention to X or I’m going to ask you to press pause, go do something and come back. You’re creating audio versions of what people with sight would be able [00:19:00] to tell by looking at the screen. You need to make sure that information gets conveyed in multiple ways.

Phil: I would also add in, the ability for students to interact even as the recording is asynchronous video. If you’re not watching or doing something live synchronous, how do you engage and have a discussion? As an example, Jeanette and I both attended the virtual LMS conferences this week. One of the things I noticed for the sessions where I chose to do it on demand, after the fact, is the chat windows. While obviously I can’t participate in the chat windows because I’m watching it on demand, but the software did not do a good job of synching up the previous chat window along with the video itself. There’s an issue of the discussions as well. Is there an option [00:20:00] for students to have a meaningful engagement that they might have been able to do live?

Kevin: Well, that’s what HyFlex instructors are faced with, too, right? You have this live experience where people are either in the room or on Zoom or some other video conference solution. Then how do you engage those asynchronous students and equivalent activities that may not be the same? For that example you just gave, Phil, having the chat stream synchronized with the time code of the video is goos, but it puts students with vision impairments at a disadvantage because the screen reader can only focus on one thing at a time. They can’t hear the speaker and the chat being read to them simultaneously because it’s like trying to pick up conversations in a crowded cafe, once we get to have those again.

Jeanette: SKevin, are there any solutions to that?

Kevin: It’s all in [00:21:00] the preplanning. The article I wrote for Phil on EdTech about hybrid flexible course design, I thought through some ideas of what a 50 minute or a 75 minute course might look like. You have to be conscious of the fact that some of these people are going to be asynchronous. You have to create an equivalent activity. You might take that chat text and dump it into a discussion forum after cleaning it up and creating a summary version. Instead of having to read through an hour’s worth of chat, which some might be “great to see you online, Jeanette.” Instead, hey, these are the themes that emerge. These were the top questions. Here were the answers. Now add yours and then bring it up t the end of the session. Say, for those of you who are watching the recording, be sure to go to this discussion and we’re going to pick up the conversation where we left off. I’ll be sure to summarize all the key points. We want you to add your questions and comments to the discussion. You just [00:22:00] have to plan it ahead. You have to create a run of show that includes multiple channels of participation.

Jeanette: When you’re designing those courses,to me, it seems like people who’ve gone through educational training and pedagogical training know that there are sometimes these templates that you create with learning objectives and then what the activities are. Is there something similar for people that are designing HyFlex courses that it’s almost a grid, you are identifying the key elements that need to be captured for the different types of audiences?

Kevin: I don’t know if you’re throwing a softball for me to hit, but as part of that article I referenced, I did create a Google doc that’s open to the public that has columns for if you’re in the classroom, if you’re on video conference or if you’re asynchronous and it basically says what the instructor does, what the students do in each situation, how they wrap it up, [00:23:00] how they’re tied together.

It’s just meant to be a set of ideas for people to consider. How would I incorporate a poll activity in multiple channels of participation? How would I do think-pair-share and how much time would it take? It’s going to take longer than it might if I were just doing it with an in class group of students because I have to walk over and set up the breakout rooms in Zoom and I have to do all these extra tasks. You have to say maybe that means I’m going to record some of my lectures in advance and flip the classroom so we have more time for activities that are going to take longer. How do we do that in a room where people have to be six feet apart?

How do you do a think-pair-share when you’re shouting at your student neighbor who’s three seats away in the stadium seating fixed chairs? There’s a lot of things to think about. Accessibility is just one of those things that because there’s so much to consider, it hasn’t been on the list, but it has to be.

Phil: It’s difficult, but the planning aspect. This [00:24:00] can be done, but it takes some planning. Clearly, we didn’t have time in the spring for the vast majority of courses to have that type of planning. For the fall, this gets to Jeanette’s point, expectations are going to be different. We should have had time to make significant improvements in these issues and planning out activities for the various modalities. It’s going to be fascinating. Hopefully in a good way, but possibly in a cringeworthy way, once we get into September and October and we see actual results to find out just how much did do the teaching practices get improved in this area? I’ll have to say it’s not easy.

We’re not teaching courses here, but with the podcast, we go through a transcription and we provide full transcriptions. We use Sonix.AI. It does quite a good job of transcribing. However, every [00:25:00] episode I have to go back in and change things like it never understands LMS or even COVID, which is sort of funny that the software providers haven’t figured out that’s a key word these days. The grammar on adding commas and making the spoken word sound more structured in a transcription, it takes extra work. When we first started doing it, it was sort of fun for me because I was learning quite a bit about what it’s actually like and how much has to be changed. For a 30 minute episode, I would say that the transcription is automated. I just upload it. It takes about 15 minutes, but then it probably takes me 30 to 45 minutes to correct each transcription before it posts.

If you’re teaching now, the question is, are we asking the faculty members to do that type of work or should there be academic technology [00:26:00] support staff who do that for them? Just that one example, it really points out the resource needs to do this holistically, if you will. That’s got to be a challenge in the budget times, especially.

Kevin: You brought up the word I was about to bring up, because there are certain services. I know the California community college system has a limited budget for instructors who have students with hearing impairments to have their lectures captioned for an online course. I forget if it’s 3C media, it’s one of the groups that the system has a contract with. 

Kevin: When you put almost every course online and you have to consider the needs of where the students are and which courses get the transcription dollars, then you’re not making it so that every course is transcribed. You’re only thinking about the ones with students this semester that need that particular [00:27:00] accommodation. We definitely need to start following the chancellor’s statement that we can’t let COVID get in the way of learning equity. It means they might be putting some dollars behind that weren’t there before.

Phil: To wrap this up in a negative view, this gets back to why I called it a ticking time bomb. What I’m nervous about is if you go back to the CHLOE report, if it’s representative and accurate, they’re describing that only five percent of schools really invested more to deal with accessibility issues. You just gave one specific example of it, investing in a service that can do the transcription. We’re not seeing that investment.

That’s what makes me nervous. Maybe that fits back into what we’ve used a couple of times on this podcast, “Entering Darkness.” I think we’re going to see a lot of issues come up in September and October that are going to be quite stark [00:28:00] and how badly we’ve adapted for accessibility and equity. I’m hoping that since we know a lot of the potential solutions, that it will act as a way to spur schools and even instructors and course designers on to fix things and make that investment in time and effort to improve in this area. I hope I’m wrong, but that’s where we need to watch for what happens in the fall.

It’s going to be a different set of expectations. It’s an important topic to start looking at more seriously.

Kevin: Maybe we call this “exiting darkness”, planning for the fall.

Phil: Well, that’s the optimistic view. I hope you’re right. I expect this is something that we’re going to talk more about because it’s a subject that needs to be explored more thoroughly. If we’re right if some of these subjects are going to become very stark very soon, we need to understand them and what schools [00:29:00] could do.

It’s great talking to you guys. Sorry for ending on a negative note, but that’s what we’re looking at right now.