Using Collaboration and Technology to Overcome Growing Inequity in Digital and Blended Learning Post-Pandemic
Technology alone cannot solve the issue of growing inequity as an increasing number of institutions adopt more aggressive digital approaches to learning. We will share our experience managing the delicate balance between sophisticated technology, collaboration, workflows, and change management to drive affordable, effective, and scaled accessibility outcomes in STEM disciplines.
In March 2020, higher education institutions and content providers joined millions of businesses and individuals around the globe to rapidly transition to online and remote environments. Just as we were reconfiguring our lives – at home and at work – to fit into an ‘Online Only’ mode, there were hundreds of thousands of students and learners with disabilities or special needs being left behind.
While the silver lining of the pandemic has been the acceleration of online learning which ultimately will open doors to affordable and equitable education, having the Internet as the only learning format amplified the lack of even minimum accessibility in online courses. Institutions recognized the absence of foundational methods to align online content and course creation with the needs of disabled learners.
Thankfully there is more agreement now about the critical role accessibility initiatives play in higher education, and the impact that these initiatives will continue to have in the post-pandemic world of blended and online learning.
In this presentation, we explore the role of technology along with champions and community enabling accessibility in education. It is the marriage of effective change management and collaborative intelligence approaches (technologies built for humans to provide context) that lead to the ability to implement sophisticated accessibility technologies at scale and lift up thousands of learners who would otherwise be left behind.
True accessibility begins with the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) which enable flexible environments for learning and embracing differences in learning styles. Born accessible initiatives support UDL where additional formats are simply made available as part of every course or program, to support diverse learning needs, regardless of disability. While these are ideal practices for accessible and equitable design, due to the pandemic, we transitioned online overnight, force-fitting legacy content and courses online, including their inherent tendency to be inaccessible.
Pre-pandemic if we were beginning to see more attention to UDL and accessibility, the hasty transition to the online format as a result of the pandemic has led to a daunting task for equity and accessibility initiatives, even with the support of institutional leadership, access to resources, and specialists.
Authentic and meaningful accessibility initiatives in higher education often require a community of experts, champions, faculty and administrators who are well-supported by leaders aligned with the ultimate goals. Even this does not sufficiently address the expanse of the issue.
A better solution for affordable, scalable accessibility in higher education may lie in marrying revolutionary advancements in technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI) technology, machine learning, and automation, with human expertise and contextual decision-making. With an increasing number of companies investing in these innovations, we are seeing an influx of accessibility solutions that leverage tools, technologies, and workflow optimization to make content such as documents, images, videos, interactives, and other online course elements accessible.
These technology-based interventions promise efficiencies in cost and time but without insight, validation, adjustments to workflow, and buy-in from the community and key stakeholders, sophisticated tools or platforms are seldom the solution. This is especially true when the task at hand involves subject knowledge, contextual intelligence, and a myriad of stakeholders balancing often conflicting priorities.
For instance, in any single STEM course, thousands of images, figures, structures, and visuals, and hundreds of pages of content needs to be accessible for all learners. There are many considerations relating to time, expertise, workflow, and costs in making complex content accessible. This means that accessibility stakeholders, institutions, or content providers are often making decisions under immense cost and time pressures. Another innovative tool or technology will initially present a new challenge, rather than a practical or easy solution.
Institutions and organizations spend millions each year in adopting new technologies or innovations for accessibility. While several tried and tested solutions promise marginal improvements, what is the long-term view in identifying and implementing innovative technologies to accelerating accessibility initiatives?
There are several considerations involved in building and implementing an effective and pragmatic technology solution for accessibility. These include:
- Insight on the problem or challenge that the technology is addressing
- Adopting a technology that is pragmatic, robust with human-centered design that addresses the challenge while bringing exponential savings in cost, time, and eliminating manual steps involved in the process
- Validation from the community of accessibility departments, experts, and other users on the effectiveness of the solution
- Change management and buy-in from the community, and stakeholders involved to roll this out as a widely viable solution across the institution or organization
While many organizations and institutions experience success in the first three steps, the final step, which involves buy-in from the community to establish a working solution, can be the biggest hurdle to experiencing long-term impact in accessibility, affordability, and equity in higher education. This involves changing behavioral aspects which closely intersect with current workflows, and realizing measurable efficiencies in cost and time.
Therefore, the key to successful adoption and implementation of technology tools or solutions for accessibility is a combination of – great insight, good technology, and the support of the community.
Our talk covers the journey in the successful implementation of AI technology-based solutions for accessible images and documents across several large courses and programs. The differentiating components of successful implementation and adoption involve:
- Insight from a community of core accessibility experts and leaders
- Deep knowledge on existing workflows
- Understanding and guiding human behavioral changes across the adoption process
The ultimate success in large technology-based accessibility initiatives essentially involves how people interact with technology, harmony with new workflows, and the critical roles played by communities, leaders, administration and accessibility champions through the adoption process.
Long-term success in higher education accessibility and equity is to experience affordable, scalable, and measurable advancements by bringing together practical implementation of good technology with the help of the community. This can only be achieved by enabling pathways for the community to experience and trust that the technology can be truly transformational.
Level of Participation:
This session is an engaging, education session which will involve the audience participation on questions about accessibility goals and priorities, understanding the roles of key stakeholders involved in paving a pathway for accessibility and equity, and group discussions on approaches in leveraging technology solutions, and frequent challenges in expanding accessibility initiatives.
This session is open to students, accessibility champions and practitioners, faculty, instructional designers, higher education leaders, content providers, and publishers, and accessibility technology partners – all of whom form the ecosystem for accessibility-related innovations. The presenters will discuss important strategies for assessing technology solutions for accessibility, recommend approaches for gaining insight on current workflows, managing human behavioral change, influencing and guiding the community of stakeholders during accessibility, and finally leveraging data and success factors to seek support from leadership while making institution-wide or organizational adoptions for accessibility initiatives.