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Reimagined Series: How Accessibility Shapes the Student Experience

  • 10 Min Read

Learn more about the roles of accessibility, inclusivity, equity and diversity in higher education.


Inclusivity, diversity, equity and accessibility (IDEA) are discussion topics that many higher education institutions are bringing to the table, if they didn’t have a seat there already. But how can they be made into actionable items that drive real change?

Dr. Jeff Borden, former vice president of academic affairs at D2L, discussed these questions and more in the recent D2L webinar The Student Experience: Reimagined.

Over 300 attendees joined the live event to hear the panelists—Dr. Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College; Kim Scalzo, executive director of The State University of New York (SUNY); and John Baker, president and chief executive officer of D2L—tackle questions on how IDEA topics are shaping the student experience.

IDEA in Higher Education

Dr. Borden began the webinar with a one-on-one talk with Dr. Sorrell, asking for his thoughts on social justice, inclusivity, diversity, equity and accessibility.

“It is very difficult for someone who has lived his life simply, just trying to do right by people, to give credence to individuals who all of a sudden have fallen in love with these ideas,” said Dr. Sorrell. “There’s nothing revolutionary about simply being nice to people, being kind to people, being aware of others in your space.”

He continued to say he’s not dismissive of people who work in areas promoting diversity and inclusion, but said, “It is a mighty sad state of affairs that we have to focus on these things in order for us to make people feel seen and heard and respected.”

The audience was asked what they felt was the most important way to support diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education institutions. Nearly half agreed that the best way was through having diverse representation across the institution.

A graph showing survey results from the webinar.

While having diversity reflected throughout an entire institution is important, implementing a plan to do so will not be easy or comfortable.

At Paul Quinn College, Dr. Sorrell explained, they have an institutional ethos called “we over me” where the needs of their community replace the desires of an individual. The college’s culture supports the notion of the common good.

“Your talent is for the good of the whole. And that’s uncomfortable for people who just want to be relevant in their particular area,” said Sorrell. “You don’t get to do your own thing here because, I would argue, you shouldn’t get to do your own thing anywhere in higher education.”

Similarly, Kim Scalzo said there is a strong value on servant leadership at SUNY.

“Those of us who have any role in the organization look at how our role is about serving the greater good of the broader organization,” she said. “We really look to position and focus the work that we do in service to our students, faculty, staff and the citizens of the state of New York.”

Community can have a large influence on inclusion and diversity in higher education institutions. But what role does technology play in advancing these notions?

How Technology Can Support IDEA

According to John Baker, who is also a systems engineer, empathy is at the heart of design thinking.

“It’s critical as you build these types of technologies to have empathy, to really focus on building out the personas in a way that enables you to capture all the different experiences that you need to support the best possible outcomes for people.”

Scalzo mentioned that SUNY has a standard to check new tools to ensure that they meet their accessibility standards before they’re adopted, mitigating some work for their faculty.

Both Baker and Scalzo agreed on the positive impact of having accessibility already baked into platforms and solutions before they’re adopted by institutions.

Baker cited examples of accessibility being inherently present in D2L Brightspace, such as:

  • automatically providing closed-captioning in uploaded videos in multiple languages
  • using responsive design to improve the experience on mobile devices
  • checking color contrast
  • building out templates that are already accessible and available for use in the platform

Despite the many advantages of technology that can promote accessibility in higher education, we must keep in mind the diversity of students accessing the technology.

The Digital Divide

While schools can plan for and adapt to emerging situations, sometimes the situations go beyond the scope of the institution. As Dr. Sorrell said, it’s important for an institution’s leaders to know when they’ve reached their ability to assist in a situation and instead need to become advocates for doing the right thing.

When Paul Quinn College closed during the pandemic, the school provided students with laptops and wireless connectivity points. While these choices benefited many students, the situation also highlighted the ongoing issue that many communities still don’t have access to broadband internet, even though it’s often now considered a necessity. While having equal access to internet wasn’t something the school could change, it was something they could advocate for.

“What we could do was draw attention to the fact that even when you’ve created a bridge, there’s a gate at the other end of the bridge that we couldn’t control,” said Dr. Sorrell. “We needed communities to advocate, or we needed elected officials and cities to do their part. The best thing I think that we can do as institutions in situations like this is work with the municipalities to find ways to make sure that the good we do is fully maximized because, all too often, that just isn’t happening.”

Scalzo echoed how the digital divide focuses on the availability of bandwidth and devices. She also recalled how during the pandemic, some SUNY students just needed a quiet place to study. In response, SUNY expanded their Wi-Fi to public places on their campuses, including parking lots.

“I think it was a big wake-up call for many of us about how the digital divide is alive and well. And well, I don’t pretend to think that we’ve solved it,” she said.

Scalzo continued to say that many SUNY students are returning to campus but still want to engage in online studies through blended learning. To help, she has a team putting together a proposal from SUNY to the state of New York on how to address the comprehensive digital transformation this would require.

Baker also acknowledged the struggle the digital divide presents regarding access to the internet and the drive to find a solution.

“When the pandemic hit, I sat on a federal commission that tried to map out how do we actually recover from the pandemic, both economically and otherwise,” Baker said. “One of the key recommendations was getting broadband everywhere, making it so that 99% of the population could access broadband easily, including low earth-orbit satellites … let’s get the technology rolling so that we can make sure that everyone has access as best we can.”

Baker also touted the use of responsive design to help open access to software and technology on more devices. He noted how doing so can provide a more equitable and user-friendly experience for everybody.

For example, if you usually use a laptop and your power goes out, responsive design would allow you to use your phone to access the same materials, whether you’re grading a paper or submitting an assignment.

When it came to the audience’s thoughts on the best way technology can help support diversity, equity and inclusion, responses were divided among the top three options:

A graphic showing the results of a survey done during the webinar.

The divided results reflect the various topics the panel discussed and further show that there are many areas that require focus when it comes to using technology to support IDEA in higher education.

The Relationship Between Data and Accessibility

Data captured through a student information system or learning management system can provide insight into student performance. However, it’s important to be objective when analyzing this type of data and to make sure it’s being used for the right purposes.

“I think it is really important that we talk about how to guard against using data to prejudge someone’s potential for success,” said Scalzo. Instead, she suggests using student performance data to indicate when a student may be in trouble and preparing a plan of action.

She suggested the data collected on students should be looked at holistically to determine when an intervention may be required and decide what kind of intervention would be most likely to get them back on track.

While this predictive technology can indicate when a student may be struggling, Baker reminded us that it’s important to maintain a human element.

“You might get a weather report saying it might rain tomorrow, but someone’s still got to make a judgment call,” said Baker. “And the judgment call is better [made by] a human than [by] the machine.”

In the end, it’s up to faculty—those who truly know their students—to decide when and how to intervene.

When it comes to making higher education more accessible and inclusive, it’s also important to consider the students’ input as well.

The Student Experience: Reimagined

Today’s student population is the most diverse in history, distinguished by intersections of race, age, economic status, gender, sexual orientation and many others. While research shows that diversity can increase…

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Include Student Input and Support

Scalzo believes that when it comes to providing equitable access to programs and software, students are our best teachers.

She recalled working with students who had visual or hearing impairments as they started to enroll at SUNY. She said that having students be a part of the decision-making process was what helped faculty and staff understand what really worked.

For some of D2L’s clients, students have provided positive input around being able to access predictive data about their performance.

“Clients that have turned [predictive data] on for pilots of a small number of courses have had students clamoring to have it for all courses because students are trying to sharpen their evaluative judgment skills as well,” said Baker.

This kind of data has been used to “close gaps for low-quartile students in terms of economic class, where we’ve seen it have a big impact in terms of improving completion rates and retention [for] some of our clients. I think we have a moral obligation, if you will, to pursue this data now that it exists, to improve educational outcomes,” he said.

Baker acknowledged that predictive data can be a challenging territory to approach, but it needs to be considered due to the impact it can have on improving educational outcomes.

Another element of making higher education more accessible to all students is considering how to help students prepare for success when choosing to study online.

“Not all students are adequately prepared to be successful online,” said Scalzo. “We have to think about things like orientation and student support. What does it mean to be a successful online student?”

She also noted that we can’t forget support services for online students. We should ask and answer questions about how to make those services available in digital formats.

Scalzo and her team have been working with a lot of SUNY campus student life offices to critically look at what having these services online means and what that could look like.

Next Steps to Reimagine the Student Experience

No matter which lens we use to approach IDEA in higher education, it’s important to come together and use the power of community to work toward creating more inclusive institutions.

For Dr. Sorrell, while he recognizes and respects that inclusivity, diversity and equity are complicated and complex, he often finds that the genius is in the simplification of complex ideas.

“I just want to encourage people to demystify the ideas of accessibility and equity,” said Dr. Sorrell. “If we would all just start from a really simple place of just trying to treat each other the way we would want to be treated and owning the fact that we’re going to make mistakes, but those mistakes don’t define us unless we stop evolving, I think we could get to much, much better places.”

Want to see the whole webinar? Check out the on-demand recording of The Student Experience: Reimagined.
Watch the webinar now

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Table of Contents
  1. IDEA in Higher Education
  2. How Technology Can Support IDEA
  3. The Relationship Between Data and Accessibility
  4. Include Student Input and Support
  5. Next Steps to Reimagine the Student Experience