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How to Create Accessible Learning Environments in Higher Ed

The University of Phoenix’s Kelly Hermann shares her thoughts on creating accessible and equitable learning environments in higher ed.

Kelly Hermann is the vice president for accessibility, equity and inclusion at the University of Phoenix, an adult learner-focused institution. Approximately 60% of their students come from underrepresented backgrounds and are not served well by traditional higher education offerings. As a higher educational institution that prioritizes accessibility, the University of Phoenix offers a path for these students to complete their degrees and achieve their career goals. 

We sat down with Kelly at our annual Fusion conference to discuss her role, the meaning of accessibility, and the three most important things to keep in mind when creating more inclusive learning environments. 

Building Accessible Learning Environments is Challenging

One of these challenges is the technology. Does it do what we expect it to do? Does it work for somebody who has a disability and might be using assistive technology? This is something we think about all the time, because with every new release of a product, there’s an opportunity to make accessibility better or to make it worse. 

Another challenge is the stigma around the word “disability.” We’ve had over 15,000 students request and receive accommodations from the University of Phoenix in the last year. Oftentimes, people assume it means they can’t do certain things. And while certainly that’s part of the definition of disability, the reality of it is our students are still quite capable of doing a lot of things, and they find creative ways to think outside the box and accomplish tasks they have. 

One last major challenge is the attitudinal issues around course creation. When we say things like “Hey, you’re putting this digital content into your course and we need you to make that accessible,” the gut reaction from others will sometimes be “That is so difficult.” But there are a few simple steps that we can take to make that content more accessible—it doesn’t have to be this overwhelming lift. 

When Higher Ed Institutions Think About Disability, They Tend to Focus on Students

When we do the work that we do for accessibility, we don’t narrowly focus on our students. We also include faculty and staff considerations. That means when we’re talking with potential vendor partners and assessing the viability of a tool that we might want to integrate, we’re not just asking about the student interface. We’re also asking about the faculty and the staff interface and what happens on the backend. That sometimes leads to fruitful conversations because our vendor partners will then say, “Oh, we’ve spent so much time thinking about the students, we didn’t think about the other users.” 

Our faculty and staff appreciate this approach. They also appreciate that we walk the walk. In my role, I have a lot of engagement with faculty. So, I know that when we’re sending them PowerPoint files, we’re ensuring that they’re accessible. When we’re providing a webinar or doing a live meeting with them, we make sure things are captioned. We really are taking those steps to ensure that our faculty and staff who have disabilities feel that they’ve been thought of and that they also have the support that they need.  

How Accommodating Students Impacts Retention

Retention and academic success are really important parts of creating access. Our job is to make sure the student has the access they need to be able to earn their credits, skills and degrees. So, retention is really important for us.  

Working with a like minded LMS provider or vendor who prioritizes accessibility takes some of the initial barriers for participation out of the equation. So, we can do some really cool and innovative things in terms of allowing our students to find out how to connect with us without spending a lot of time being upset that something’s not working the way they would expect it to. That allows the students to put their focus and energy on mastering their course content and demonstrating what they have learned, which is exactly where their focus should be.

Advice for Making Your Institution More Accessible

First and foremost, assess where you are. Do you have any policies or procedures in place that directly reference accessibility? Are you intentionally mentioning disability or accessibility in your policies and procedures? The most important one to start with is procurement. Because everything that you purchase for your institution has that ability to either make it more inclusive or make it so that your students are encountering barriers. 

The second piece of advice is to ask yourself, “Who are your new dance partners?” For those of us who have worked in disability services and are used to providing accommodations for students with disabilities and especially at traditional campuses, we know to say things like, “Well, if our students are in the dorms, we have to talk to Residential Life.” If you live in a climate where you might have to deal with inclement weather, you have to talk with facilities and security. You’re thinking a lot about physical access.  

But when you start talking about digital learning environments, you need some new dance partners. You need to have a better understanding of what’s happening in the IT world, what’s happening with curriculum and instructional design, and what learning support is available. What do you need to do with your faculty? Your conversations with faculty must be different than what they are on a more traditional campus as they prepare to digital content to share with students. 

The third piece of advice is to take the time to understand your students. I am taking a different approach to how I provide access at the University of Phoenix than when I was at my previous two institutions because I have a different set of students and they have a different set of needs. 

The average University of Phoenix student is in their mid-30s. They’re working. They’ve had different—and sometimes not so positive—educational experiences before that. The older student tends to acquire their disability later in life and this may be their first experience with formal learning after a diagnosis. They haven’t necessarily been accommodated in K through 12 environments. So, I need to take all of that into account and ensure that my approach to those students is tailored to their needs because they are different than those of a more traditional 18- to 22-year-old population. 

I’ve Spent My Career Being an Ally and Advocate for Students with Disabilities

One of the things that I learned early on is that when you talk about accessibility, the way that you need to situate it is that it is a journey. It is not a destination.  

But I also think that as we look at the journey of accessibility, we are learning more every day. That means our vendor partners are also learning more every day, and the technology is evolving. We’ve put more emphasis on the collaborative nature of the conversations we have with our vendor partners instead of thinking that we represent different sides. We’re partners.

Partnership for me doesn’t just mean we’re going to our vendors asking for something. It also means running a continuous feedback loop. We’re helping each other to learn and improve. And when I help a vendor partner make their product more accessible, I’m influencing not only the accessibility for our students, but also the accessibility for students in higher education in general—and that’s pretty cool.  

This interview has been condensed for clarity.  

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Table of Contents
  1. Building Accessible Learning Environments is Challenging
  2. When Higher Ed Institutions Think About Disability, They Tend to Focus on Students
  3. How Accommodating Students Impacts Retention
  4. Advice for Making Your Institution More Accessible
  5. I’ve Spent My Career Being an Ally and Advocate for Students with Disabilities