The Rochester Institute of Technology puts learning within reach

RIT's student base created a unique need for highly accessible software

Defining accessibility

Making content accessible is always important to teachers, but for Sandra Connelly, an assistant professor of Life Sciences at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), accessibility can take on different meanings. For one student, it meant literally being able to access the material. With videos being hosted on YouTube, he was unable to view them being based in China. This presented an interesting problem: while she’d been steadily moving her class material online, how would students, who have restrictions on materials, regardless of their location, be able to access everything?

Other students may be able to view the videos, but they need a different kind of accessibility. Connelly’s class, General Biology, tends to attract a number of students that require an extra bit of academic support. In a class with 100 students, 30 were deaf or hard of hearing, 16 were registered as requiring academic support, while another 35 self-identified as having learning difficulties, leaving 19 “unaided” learners.

More generally, there’s an urgent need, she says, to increase accessibility of science classes. And while there are plenty of digital teaching tools that help cast a wider net, they haven’t been used to the maximum benefit, particularly in STEM fields.

“Students at RIT today are not the same students RIT attracted 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago,” she says. “So we’ve had to shift gears to figure out how to engage these students and use technology to their benefits.”

An existing solution to a new problem

While she’s used Brightspace for years, last year she used the platform to create a more engaging, single point of reference class for her online students. The transition has been more than just a learning experience for Connelly’s students, she says. She herself has learned plenty along the way.
Her solution was to create short (five- to seven-minute) lecture videos, each hyper-focused on a single topic – 200 of them in fact.

The videos are multi-frame split between her presentation slides and an American Sign Language interpreter, while she delivers the mini lectures (all closed-captioned). After each video, students are given critical thinking questions to reinforce the material they just heard and encourage them to apply their learnings to problems outside biology (such as, “why might genetic testing alter the health insurance industry?”).

Students were able to turn off both the ASL interpreter and closed captions, however, Connelly quickly realized that the interpreter not only helped benefit the deaf and hard-of-hearing students, but also the rest of the class.

Working with an ASL interpreter forces Connelly to slow down in her speech and ensure each of her lessons are well-organized so they can be more easily translated. What’s more, students started watching the videos looking for visual cues in the sign language, which helped reinforce topics of conversation or lessons.

The videos also allow students to go back and re-watch the material at any time, which not only creates a more available learning environment, it’s been a huge time saver for Connelly. “It gives students access to a ‘virtual me.’”

Now, when her students want to ask her a question, she’s able to simply point them to the resources online to have it answered (and since each video is so short, they aren’t forced to sit through an entire hour-long lecture just to get their particular query). And for those who continue to struggle, using background data, she’s able to verify that they did indeed watch the material and participate in quizzes and discussions.

“Now, I don’t have to spend time walking 400 students through the material individually,” she says.


“Students at RIT today are not the same students RIT attracted 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago,” says Sandra Connelly. “So we’ve had to shift gears to figure out how to engage these students and use technology to their benefits.”
Sandra Connelly, assistant professor of Life Sciences at the Rochester Institute of Technology

A video for every need

This video-based approach also caters to a number of different learning styles, she adds – visual learners get cues from the ASL interpreter and captioning, while audio learners can sit back and watch, and those who require lots of repetition can watch the videos multiple times – which makes the class more accessible and inclusive for her variety of students without “dumbing it down.”

Publishers’ material and quizzes are also housed on the platform, with grading automatically linked to the gradebook (a huge time-saver, Connelly says) and this year she ran all of her exams through Brightspace, creating the true one-stop spot for learning that her students were asking for.

 

There when you need it

What’s more, the Brightspace platform offers her peace of mind: “The system is unlikely to go down,” she says, “When I’ve used other websites and structure tools, more frequently than I wanted, the material wouldn’t be available. That was nothing I or IT could control. If I had an assignment that wasn’t up for a weekend, I had to extend those deadlines to deal with it.”

“Brightspace is available when it says it’s going to be,” she says. “If students are going to work on something at 3 a.m., there’s no reason it’s not going to be available to them.”

Is it working? Her class is spending 60% more time with the material than they did in previous years, and most impressively there was a 10% increase in average class grades over previous years (not to mention that her classes have almost doubled in size as word spread). Connelly says, “You bet it is working.”

Brightspace Excellence Award winner Sandra Connelly with D2L CEO John Baker

 

This case was a Brightspace Excellence Accessibility Award Winner for 2016.