It had always been a point of pride—Stephen F. Austin State University (SFASU) enjoyed a reputation for offering the most in accessibility. When it came to online learning, however, feedback was less than glowing. Students and faculty who needed accommodations, particularly the visually impaired, were regularly calling for help. Unfortunately, the learning management system (LMS) used by SFASU made it impossible to resolve the recurring issues. Determined to reverse the situation, they set out to find a learning platform that would meet their accessibility requirements. In order to get it right, they asked for help from those who would benefit the most: students and faculty.
They Knew they Could do Better
“SFASU is known regionally as being a little more friendly to students with disabilities than perhaps the huge institutions,” says Janet Kamps, Coordinator, Distance Education at SFASU. “Yet we would receive calls from frustrated students and faculty, informing us certain components of our online courses weren’t accessible.”
Kamps was frustrated, too. “The platform we were using didn’t provide the necessary support so sometimes we were simply unable to make aspects of an online course accessible. The main problem was with screen readers,” she says about the application that assists individuals with low vision or who are blind by reading aloud content and navigational tools. “Sometimes you would get to a link and it would just say ‘link,’ so the student wouldn’t know what it was for.”
The Value of Walking the Walk
Why take accessibility so seriously? “It’s an institutional commitment that stems from our University’s beginnings as a teachers’ college,” says Kamps. “Helping all students learn is a foundational pillar. We teach our teachers who go out into the K–12 environment that they must be equipped to help students who need accommodations. What that means for us as a university is that we had better practice what we preach, walk the walk.”
The Need to Provide a Seamless Experience
Having the right technology is only half the battle. “One of our major goals at the University is to create a seamless experience for students who need support services for their online experiences,” she says. “Someone who reaches out for help must never hear, ‘oh sorry, that’s not my job.’ We all have to be ready to help.”
Enthusiastic Support for Brightspace
Kamps, who helped lead the search for an accessible platform in 2011, knew the best judges would be those students and faculty with disabilities. She assembled a team and had them take Brightspace for a test drive.
She was taken aback by their enthusiastic support: “I asked what was behind the wonderful reaction and they told me that when they used a screen reader on Brightspace they could get to everything. D2L has put an enormous amount of time and effort into making sure buttons and links are labeled correctly so they work with screen readers, and it makes a big difference.”
A Dedicated Team and Collaboration
Confident that they had chosen the right platform, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) at SFASU pushed the envelope even further and created a dedicated student support team that was well versed in accessibility matters. “What a student needs on a day-to-day basis, such as getting a screen reader to read email right, those kinds of things go to our Brightspace support team,” says Kamps.
Being proactive, though, requires planning—and that takes collaboration. To that end, the CTL has reached out to Office of Disability Studies (ODS) to create a partnership. “We meet formally at least once a month to keep track of our successes and our challenges,” says Kamps. “It’s very useful because when students go to ODS they may need one kind of accommodation, and then need something else from us. If we all work together it’s a smoother process.”
Multiple Ways to Provide the Right Kind of Help
A key feature of SFASU’s accessibility plan is providing a variety of channels for support. If you need help you can pick up the phone, send an email, or visit a website to watch video tutorials created to address SFASU’s unique course needs. All the bases are covered.
“We wanted to make sure we had not just one way of getting information out, but multiple ways,” says Kamps. “It’s about personal preferences and it plays into learning styles as well.”
Teachers are an Important Point of Contact
Because instructors play a crucial role in ensuring a positive learning experience for students, SFASU insists that faculty members understand online accessibility issues. In addition, all of their online course materials must be accessible—or the course will not be approved.
“You have to think about the student’s experience and imagine what they face and you can tell D2L does that by the way the page is laid out. Nothing is too small or bunched together so that if a person has difficulty manipulating a mouse they won’t accidentally hit the wrong button. They’ve thought everything through.”
Janet Kamps, Coordinator, Distance Education, Stephen F. Austin State University
Greater Accessibility Equals Efficiency
Of course, students who need accommodation are the big winners. But that does not diminish the fact that there are significant payoffs for the university too.
Kamps explains, “Using Brightspace saves staff hours—not just for the student support staff who have to fix the problems, but also for faculty. Because the platform we were using before didn’t have the needed functionality, they had to put in many hours to make accommodations for students, or maybe links weren’t accessible so they had to provide the material another way.”
A Stellar Reputation for Accessibility Well Maintained
Choosing what they have determined is the most accessible platform available has a result that is not quantifiable—pride. SFASU’s reputation as a university that goes above and beyond to ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to learn was at stake.
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