Colleges and universities, as well as individual faculty members, are legally required to meet federal accessibility requirements for all digital content that is posted online or used as learning materials within face-to-face, hybrid, or online classrooms. Most faculty, however, have received little or no training in how to create accessible materials. In this episode, Sean Moriarty, the Chief Technology Officer at SUNY-Oswego, joins us to discuss how our institution is working toward assisting faculty in creating materials that are accessible for all of our learners.
- Moriarty, Sean (2018). Building a Culture of Accessibility in Higher Education. Educause Review. July 30.
- Accessibility at Oswego State
- Oswego State’s Accessibility Fellowship program
- Accessibility at Buffalo State
- Accessibility: Designing and Teaching Courses for all Learners – an accessibility MOOC created by SUNY Buffalo State and SUNY Empire State College
John: Colleges and universities, as well as individual faculty members, are legally required to meet federal accessibility requirements for all digital content that is posted online or used as learning materials within face-to-face, hybrid, or online classrooms. Most faculty, however, have received little or no training in how to create accessible materials. In this episode, we examine how one college is working toward assisting faculty in creating materials that are accessible for all of our learners.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Today our guest is Sean Moriarty, the Chief Technology Officer at SUNY Oswego and Chair of the SUNY Council of Chief Information Officers. Sean is the author of the recently published Educause Review article, “Building a Culture of Accessibility in Higher Education.” Welcome, Sean.
Sean: Thank you, John and Rebecca.
Sean: It’s great to be here.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are…
Sean: Well I’m having my Tim Horton’s coffee. I usually have my tea after dinner, so it’s too early for my tea. [LAUGHTER]
John: And I’m drinking Christmas tea with cinnamon.
Rebecca: I have my lucky English afternoon tea.
John: It’s not just for afternoons.
Rebecca: No, it’s all day long.
John: And it never has been, I guess.
Rebecca: Yeah. Before we jump into our conversation, first, can you define what accessibility is?
Sean: Well, accessibility is the idea that every user of the content has a similar experience. They’re not gonna be able to have exactly the same experience… So if you think of people who might have blindness, the content that they access on a website or in a document should be able to give them the same knowledge and understanding in terms of they would hear the content or have it read to them so that they would gain the same knowledge and understanding of what’s there. The disabilities that we have vary from people to people and you also have different issues in the way that content is provided; people who are blind can’t experience a picture in the same way, so there’s an expectation that you would explain what’s inside of an image so that they can understand what other people are seeing.
John: Accessibility issues have been around for a long time, but it seems that campuses are starting to pay more attention to this. What has prompted this increase in attention to issues of accessibility.
Sean: It’s an issue that has really raised in prominence over the last 15 to 20 years and has become a large issue for us here in New York state over the last couple years. So I’m originally from Canada, and I would say that accessibility and digital resources has been an issue there easily for 10 to 15 years and we spent a lot of time at the last institution I worked at, which was the University of Windsor, in terms of making our website accessible and meeting the accessibility laws and guidelines that the Canadian government has put in, and a lot of resources and time were put into that. When I moved to the United States, and particularly here at SUNY Oswego… that would have been five and a half years ago… I think it was less of an issue and people didn’t necessarily realize the need for accessibility and the effect that it had on others. The reason that it’s really come to more prominence is that some individuals have gone and worked towards making everyone aware of the law. So there are a couple of laws in the United States, and one would be the American Disabilities Act, and the second a law that really came into effect over the last couple years, has to do with digital resources and the requirements for them to be accessible for people. Now, one individual in particular has gone and put complaints against universities that their websites weren’t accessible and it really kicked off an awareness in terms of how people wanted to do it. At SUNY Oswego and throughout the state of New York—actually all the SUNY schools had complaints brought against them two years ago—it was really largely around the websites that were inaccessible and most of the SUNY schools got together and we looked at ways to go and comply. Now many of us were really not that far away from being a hundred percent compliant on the website. To go and to remediate most of the website isn’t that difficult when you start talking about items such as the HTML. It gets a lot more complex once you start looking at documents and PDF documents… and no one, I would say, is really a hundred percent compliant. Understanding the complexity of the issue once you start working on it, you really start to see how the issue—if you just try to go in to remediate it and fix it it becomes next to impossible, really. The only way to go and work and to become compliant and to really design the experience you want for the end user is to go and get in front of it to do it. Well, that’s one part of it is the legal issue, but part of it also is a social justice issue. I think when you want to go and start to think about how you want to design your website and make it attractive to all end-users you have to understand that there are people that need these accommodations and have different needs and you have to go and design your website to go and to make it accessible to them, and I think when you start to go and think of it from the social justice issue rather than meeting the requirements it just changes your whole way of thinking in terms of why you want to do it, how you want to do it and how you can get more people to buy in.
John: And when we’re talking about accessibility it goes far beyond just a website; there’s also EdTech tools and there’s also teaching materials and resources. Could you talk a little bit about those issues in higher ed and what we’re trying to do to deal with those?
Sean: A lot of the focus does go on websites, and particularly at the very beginning, I would say, in terms of when we go and try to meet accessibility from a digital point of view from an IT department, but there are a number of other items—we have digital content on PCs throughout the campus and run all kinds of applications and mobile applications. There’s an expectation that those will be accessible by all users as well. So one of the issues is that we have applications that are running on mobile devices… PCs… and our goal would be to have those accessible for all end-users as well. Really to go in, to manage that we have to look at how we procure those items and ensure and work with the people who want those applications that they’re going to be accessible… and ensure that the vendors that we’re dealing with are making it a priority to go and to make their applications accessible… and I think particularly there’s a couple of in-state systems that have done quite a bit of work and that would be the California State System… the Washington State System have done quite a bit of work in terms of going and making accessibility of applications a priority, and I think with the SUNY system joining in we can have quite a bit of power with the amount that we purchase and accessibility can even raise to a higher awareness with the vendors and we can push it forward from there. The other area where it really becomes an issue is inside the classroom; we’re delivering far more electronic resources to students than we have in the past and I think that’s partly because the experience is a more online and there are online classes that are delivered totally digitally or with an instructor helping, but accessibility becomes a larger part as we work there. But also as we deliver content to students through the computer as opposed to handing pieces of paper to them we have to go and think accessibility upfront. As we go and expand our markets… as we become more aware of students that have accessibility issues—we are having more students who come to school and have these requirements and it is going and adding a lot more requirements to go in to help those students succeed.
John: One of the nice things, though, about a move to digital materials is the content is already in digital format which makes it easier to convert as long as provisions are made for that; the old text-based systems were a lot harder—you had to have people either read materials to people or other types of content back in the earlier days. It creates opportunities as well as some challenges.
Rebecca: I mean the web, in general, was designed in a way from the beginning to be accessible to all; it has that power and capability as long as it’s used correctly. So one of the things that I know that we’re working on with this campus is helping people understand how to use all of these platforms more effectively to make the content accessible, because if you design things with accessibility in mind from the beginning it’s a lot easier, it’s a lot more effective and it’s a lot more powerful than trying to fix everything afterwards, which we’ve certainly experienced here; it’s a lot more expensive and time-consuming.
Sean: Yes, for sure. I think we have also tried to look at using the right medium for delivering the message. So, I would give examples on the website, particularly where people might go and make flyers and they’d create a PDF document that they go in and stick on bulletin boards around the campus and then just go and stick that same PDF onto the web which immediately isn’t accessible unless they have done it (properly). The proper way to go and to use the medium of the web is to go and create a website or a web page that would go and deliver that content. It’s more effective for people when they go and do it… that extra little step… and don’t take the shortcuts and it also helps them to go in to market their materials in the right way.
John: Economists often make the same argument; it’s called a putty-clay analogy that when you’re designing technology it’s like putty; you can shape it in many different ways, but once you bake that clay and turn it into ceramics you can no longer alter it as easily—it’s much more costly and you often have to start over, but it’s very malleable at the start when you’re designing things, like making curb cuts, where it’s fairly expensive, but now when new curbs are built they’re automatically including those curb cuts and that’s really not any more costly to build than the old system was but it was much more costly to go back and rebuild things and to start over, which was the argument you were making, I think.
Rebecca: I think curb cuts is a great topic too—it goes back to what Sean was mentioning earlier in the difference between checking a box to say that I’m compliant versus really thinking about what it means to have a curb cut. There’s an example that I often use when I give presentations on accessibility that’s a curb cut to nowhere, it’s a curb cut to some grass that doesn’t go anywhere. It’s compliant because there is one, but it’s not usable. So, I think that’s the key thing that you have to think about when you’re dealing with accessibility issues, that it’s not just ticking boxes off but you’re really thinking about the real people who it’s meant to impact.
Rebecca: I think one of the things that’s really exciting too is that not only does it help people with disabilities get the content and have an equitable experience but it also means that people that are using different kinds of devices or might be in noisy situations or other kinds of circumstances also have a better experience overall. From a design point of view, when it’s accessible the user experiences has just improved for everybody.
John: Before I got an iPad Pro with a higher volume level, when I was watching videos while flying I often would turn captions on because it was sometimes easier to read the captions than to hear over the noise of the jet and that applies certainly to students watching multimedia content in quiet places where they can’t play audio out loud or students in noisy environments who might not be able to hear the audio.
Rebecca: Or non-traditional students who might be around their kids or whatever and might need to control things like that.
Sean: Yeah, there’s many examples of technology that was brought in to help people with accessibility that become really mainstream that help everyone’s life.
It brings up the conversation or the thought that having the tools to do what you need to do and then actually using those tools appropriately and in the best way… and I would say that in many ways with accessibility at this point, some of the tools that are required still aren’t there to make things easy. We’re still working on having those tools and I think as we move forward that we’ll go and we’ll develop the tools and make it easy, but I think that’s really the stage of maturity that we’re at right now.
Rebecca: Going back to what you’re saying about the tools that we need don’t really exist yet to some extent. Using the tools that we do have to do the things that we can do, still makes a big impact. So, even using Microsoft Word to make assignment sheets and things but using the styles that are built in so that you’re identifying what’s a heading, what’s a subheading, et cetera, makes a huge impact and that takes care of a large percentage of the material, but then there’s that smaller percentage of a more complicated content and multimedia that’s a little more difficult to deal with… especially when there’s interaction as well as motion and some of these other things… but there’s still a lot that we can do with what we do have.
Sean: Yes, why then I think it goes back too to a skills issue and then part of it being knowledge and skills. So, people are used to using Microsoft Word for 20-plus years the way that they use it… and they’ve found their own shortcuts to just meet their own needs… But to go and to deliver and use a tool at the highest effectiveness you really need to have this additional knowledge and understanding of having templates that you can use and marking images that need to have a tag with them too. So we do have the tools but we also need to give people the skills and knowledge to understand how to use them effectively for this.
John: On past episodes we talked about how faculty coming through grad school generally don’t receive much training in how to teach, although that’s been changing a bit. But virtually no graduate students, I would suspect, has received much training in graduate school on creating accessible documents, so there’s a lot of inertia to overcome.
Rebecca: Not even in fields that deal with accessibility as part of their background—they might not even have that experience either. So, like computer science, design, et cetera… that’s something that’s just starting to bubble into curricula now.
John: One of the things, Sean, you and Rebecca have both been working on is developing an accessibility fellows program here at Oswego. Could you talk a little bit about that program… what it is and what’s the purpose of it?
Sean: Rebecca and I were talking about this earlier… and looking at it from an institutional point of view, I think if we want to go and to create this culture of accessibility, you’re really gonna have to go and put resources towards it and make it a priority… and I think here at Oswego we’ve tried to do that in a number of ways, and one would be to bring on an intern that Rebecca had trained and had excellent skills and we could go and work to remediate courses, for one item… and then to build a culture of accessibility here… and the only way I think to go and to build a culture is to go and to build it from bottom up… and show people it’s important by putting resources towards it… making time available for people to go and to work on it. So, the accessibility fellowship that we’re starting this year does that… and it does it in one way in terms of giving Rebecca some time to go and to provide the leadership that she does in terms of accessibility and it fits in with the work that she’s doing and the priorities that she has… and it also set some time aside for faculty to go and to work on accessibility and for them to become advocates for going and spreading the word as we move forward… and I think by going and putting the resources in, it’ll make a difference at the beginning, but the real difference will be four or five, six years down the road when we have a number of people and the person sitting next to you says to you, “Oh, you could make that more accessible if you did this…” and it just becomes part of the culture that everybody’s working on it. Rather than just Rebecca going and starting we got to make the triangle much larger.
John: The fellows are receiving a course release to free up time so that they can work on these activities.
Sean: Right, and with the expectation that they’ll have training… they’ll understand what it means to create accessible courses. They’re going to create accessible courses. They’ll have an opportunity to travel and go to a conference with accessible related material, become advocates for it as well…
John: We’ll also ask them to give some workshops for their colleagues. People are much more likely to show up for a workshop when it’s someone from their own department or area so by doing this across the campus we’re hoping that this will start spreading a bit more rapidly.
Rebecca: It’s important to note that there’s a wide variety of fellows from different disciplines. We have people from Business… we’ve got people from Science… people from English… people from Political Science… people from Education… people from… Sean: Comm studies…
Rebecca: Comm studies. Did I get them all? Oh… no… and Health, Promotion and Wellness.
Sean: So we were hoping to have four originally and we have seven. So, I think we’re very happy that people were interested and wanted to go and spread the word… and I think also as Rebecca says with the wide number of fellows that we have, we’ll be able to go and do some work… So particularly, like in the sciences there’s a lot of questions around accessibility and how do you go and create the accessible content? I think the person that we have will be able to go and to start some of the work and help it go in to build a knowledge base and be able to pass it on to others as we move forward.
Rebecca: I think that’s really key because there’s definitely some holes in the knowledge of the team that’s been working on these things as soon as it starts getting more specialized.
John: That person in the sciences is Casey Raymond, who is on our podcast on the first and third episodes.
Rebecca: Uh hmm. Sean, one of the things that we’ve talked a lot about is building it from the ground up versus retrofitting or remediating. Can you talk a little bit about the difference in the workload and resources needed…
Rebecca: …for those two different approaches?
Sean: I would say one item that we’ve seen really over the last couple years, particularly as we’ve started to work on it, is the amount of time that we’ve had to go and spend remediating courses… and we do put a lot of focus in terms of online classes and we’ve just seen a tremendous growth in the amount of classes that need to be remediated. We have processes inside (Banner) and we’ve written applications inside Banner and create reports to go in and to identify students who are taking classes that are online that are going to go and be remediated. Where we might have been doing a couple or a few courses a semester before… the number has grown five hundred to a thousand percent more than it was before and that really required us to go in to create a position for an individual to go and to work and basically try to stay a couple weeks ahead of the course material for all the students that we’re dealing with… or at least all the courses that we’re dealing with for these students… and actually I would say with the growth and with the students that we have coming in this solution is not scalable. We’re not going to be able to hire enough people to go and to do it… and I’d say within a couple years if we keep doing it, we just won’t be able to keep up. It’s getting to that point. We have an accessibility committee on campus that would consist of people from the President’s office, our Diversity and Inclusion Officer, our communications, our web people, student disabilities, Rebecca, from the academic point of view… our web developer and Extended Learning, who do a lot of the online classes, and we spend a lot of time in those meetings. First of all, they start with the remediation that has to be done and when we have discussions around it, we realize it feels like the hole that we’re digging around accessibility just keeps getting larger and larger… and at this point our goal would be to stop the rate of the hole getting as large as it is. At some point maybe we can even it off and then get to the point where we can start filling it in, but I think the only way we’re gonna go and fill it in is over many, many years and when we redo classes they’ll be designed with accessible format as we move forward – going back and remediating all the work, it’s just not doable.
Rebecca: One of the things that I think you’re highlighting, Sean, is the difference between accommodation and accessibility. Accessibility is much more proactive where we’re actually going in ahead of time, making sure that when we’re designing content, it’s set up so that it’s accessible no matter what device you’re using it’s gonna work; whereas accommodation is… you register through the office of disabilities or whatever you have on your campus and you get a specific accommodation letter… the accommodation letter is given to the faculty member and then you’re given those accommodations and that office might provide the resources to convert a text or whatever might need to be done. This is much more front-loaded, but it helps more students and it also helps students who don’t want to identify as being disabled, especially if they have a hidden disability that they’d prefer to keep private. One thing that’s also different is that students who might have hidden disabilities or disabilities in general have always had the burden of getting the materials or asking and having to take all of the extra steps. In this case it’s the content generators with (the responsibility for) accessibility, so that’s a key difference between the two.
John: You noted that some students might choose not to report learning disabilities, but we should also note that some students might have undiagnosed learning disabilities. Those students can also benefit from the creation of accessible materials.
In order for our campus and other campuses to become fully accessible, it’s going to require the teamwork of quite a few people. Could you talk a little about how that process has been going here?
Sean: We’ve done a good job here at Oswego and we have a really good mix of people that are really interested in this topic and want to move it forward… so I think of our web developer, Rick Buck and how he’s gone and redesigned our website (although it was very compliant to begin with, let me say)… but he’s gone and put in the extra features that go and work to going to keep us compliant and he’s also spent considerable time with his team to educate our content editors who go in… and in any university you would have a very diverse group of people who would develop content in their specific department or area to keep the information relevant… but they need to understand their responsibilities inside of it… so going and training them and giving the knowledge and the tools. So, from the web point of view, I think we’ve done a lot, but also we’re lucky to have a mix of people here in the academic area who want to go and and do this. So, for example, with Rebecca and with the work that she does, first of all in the class and in the area of accessibility… we’re really lucky to go and to be able to tap into that and to put the resources necessary to move the whole project forward… and I would say that goes right up to the President here at the university and the Provost and them making it a priority and ensuring that we put resources towards this to move the project forward.
Rebecca: I would also add that without Sean really being the advocate for the entire process, I don’t think a lot of the things that we have in place would happen. He was the convener of the committee and some of these other things that really got the ball rolling… and it got rolling quickly. [LAUGHTER]
Sean: Why I do think it really helps being proactive and going and looking at it from a systemic point of view and going and trying to change the system and starting at the bottom; otherwise you just spin your wheels all the time and the hole gets deeper and deeper.
Rebecca: That leads us to: What next, Sean?
Sean: Well, I think we’ve covered a lot of the things that are coming up for us. You earlier referenced that I’m the Chair of the SUNY Council of CIOs. So, inside the SUNY system we’ve done a lot of work and tried to work with the CIOs to share knowledge in terms of what we’re doing, whether it be on our website and with applications that we’re purchasing and implementing. A couple of the other schools are doing even more. So the University of Buffalo is actually doing quite a bit and they’ve implemented a new procurement process that will go and put better, I would say, guardrails around how we go and purchase application software and I would imagine a lot of the schools will adopt what they’re doing… and the SUNY Provost is about to come out with a accessibility statement or policy and inside that statement and policy will be the need to have someone responsible for accessibility at each school, and how a school is going to need to have a plan in order to do it… and I would say that we’re among the leaders in terms of doing that. We’ll have a plan in terms of how we want to go and move it forward… and really the next part of it is I would say at this point is to go in and implement and let it grow and let the people do their work and share the knowledge that our fellows will have over the next period of time and then look where we want to go for that—we’ll need to go back and assess how we did this year and then I would say just guide ourselves through those waters and decide how we want to go and grow the program and share it with others.
John: Thank you. It’s always a pleasure talking to you.
Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for joining us, Sean.
Sean: Thank you for having me.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.