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Why We Make Accessibility Part of the Whole Student Approach

  • 5 Min Read

Why We Make Accessibility Part of the Whole Student Approach

John Baker

Improving accessibility has always been important at D2L.

Historically, if you were a person with disabilities, it was hard—sometimes impossible—to get the education you really wanted without someone literally being there to help you along the way. For me, technology can act as an enabler of equality. When implemented and used properly, it allows those with disabilities to gain an education and achieve more than they may have ever dreamed possible.

McClain Hermes is a great example of this. She went blind at the age of eight but was able to continue her education by using D2L Brightspace. It got her through high school, and at the same time, she became a Paralympic swimmer, an entrepreneur and a philanthropist. Her story is a perfect example of what can be done when those with disabilities are given tools to help them succeed.

And it works both ways. I’m sure her classmates all benefited from her sharing her experience and the empathy that comes along with that.

For me, accessibility goes beyond the classroom—it’s an important pillar to ensuring that we build a more equitable society.

Technology can open access to education for so many people.

What we’re trying to do with technology is reduce the barriers to access. We do this by giving learners advice on which courses to register for and by providing things such as competency-based education. This helps gauge the foundation that each of these individuals has at the start of the program so that educators can adapt learning pathways to help learners stay on the right track for success.

The technologies we’re building around adaptive learning and assessments do things such as give a learner a nudge at the right time to help them stay engaged, because there’s a chance they don’t have the same scaffolding as someone from a family that’s gone through the university experience before.

One of the things that we’ve discovered through our focus on accessibility and lessening these barriers is that it makes the learning experience better for everyone. How many times have you been in a situation where you want to listen to something instead of reading it? Or vice versa? Technology helps not just those who are at a disadvantage socioeconomically—it really helps everybody.

The pandemic made technology use more widespread.

One of the arguments against tech that people inevitably raise is how is it not useful for those without the correct hardware to run these programs. This is an issue—we’d be wrong to say otherwise—but the main point that I always make is that we’ve never been in a time where more people have better access than today. One thing that came out of the pandemic is it’s made the need to have access to technology a universal thing, so that everyone has a better chance to be successful.

One of the things that we’ve done is support responsive design. This means that you don’t need to own the latest iPhone or Android device; you can use one that’s second- or third-hand. That capability—to be able to use most older devices to access learning—opens more opportunities for people. Many software companies will only build for the newest versions of devices, but that restricts access.

The tide is shifting to more competency-based learning programs.

With competency-based learning, schools can assess new learners coming into programs and help them understand which learning gaps, if any, exist. And then they can tailor the program around those gaps. So, if they need some remediation or some foundational courses, schools can guide them in that direction.

Another model we’re seeing a lot of is one out of Australia called the “block model.” With it, you focus on one topic for a set number of weeks, then you move to the next topic and then the next one. You’re putting in more focused energy as a cohort to get through the program, which is similar to what we’ve seen in medical schools. By channeling energy into only one course, it reduces distractions and means the learner doesn’t have to switch between subjects all day long. They can build up a level of expertise in a course quite quickly because that’s their sole focus.

Like all educational methods, personalized learning is going through its own shifts.

A great example of personalized learning we’re seeing now is called “feed forward feedback,” but done through asynchronous audio or video.

An educator will record a message to a student. They might say something along the lines of “Okay, on the last assignment, I told you that I wanted to see X, Y and Z. I saw that you paid more attention to X, Y and Z on this assignment—that’s fantastic. Now it would be great to see you focus on A, B and C. I look forward to seeing that on your next assignment. Oh, and by the way, good luck at your volleyball game later today.”

With this type of feedback, students get a sense that their teacher really cares about them. A student, upon hearing this, will think, “Wow, they’re really helping me grow, they’re seeing where I’m coming from, they understand where I need to go and they’re connecting the dots for me.”

This type of authentic feedback has a big impact. What we’ve seen is that it improves both engagement and retention, which has an additional economic impact. Plus, leaving an audio or video note typically takes less time than writing. These new ways of doing things don’t just benefit the student—they can also save educators time and result in better learning outcomes.

D2L’s commitment to accessibility is stronger than ever.

We’ve always been on the cutting edge of accessibility and don’t have any plans to slow down. One of the features we just released is an artificial intelligence that creates closed captions for videos in multiple languages automatically.

The way it works is you upload a video and it will automatically generate captions. It also transcodes it for different devices, so no matter what device is in the hands of the student, they can watch very high-quality video. The closed captioning alone can save schools, universities and companies valuable time and money. And that’s just one example of one feature we’ve released recently.

I’m proud of our track record on continuing to serve our diverse students—it’s really one of our greatest strengths. Last year, we won an award for being the best learning solution for students with special needs as part of the annual Software & Information Industry Association CODiE Awards. We’ve been recently recognized as being Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2 Level AAA. That means we meet the highest accessibility standards when it comes to web accessibility.

Accessibility is always going to be a key piece of our technology. We’re constantly doing tune-ups and looking for ways in which we can improve. And now we’re working with organizations to implement new laws globally on accessibility. It was one of the driving factors behind this company first launching, and I look forward to our continued evolution and to making life better for diverse learners and educators everywhere.

Register for our upcoming webinar on accessibility and inclusion:

reimagined webinar series on accessibility


Join me for a discussion on accessibility in higher education. I’ll be in conversation with two of the industry’s top leaders: Kim A. Scalzo, executive director, SUNY Online, and interim executive director of academic technologies and information services, and Michael Sorrell, president, Paul Quinn College. This promises to be a powerful conversation on accessibility, equitability and supporting the whole student in higher education.

Watch the Student Experience Reimagined Webinar Now

Written by:

John Baker

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