Digital accessibility can be intimidating for faculty and staff. In this episode, Michele Thornton, Laura Harris, and Kate DeForest join us to examine one example of a gamified approach to professional development. Michele is an Associate Professor of Management at SUNY Oswego, Laura is the Web Services and Distance Learning Librarian at SUNY Oswego. and Kate is the Digital Content Coordinator at SUNY Oswego.
- Thornton, M. L., Mushtare, R. W., Harris, L. J., & DeForest, K. M. (2023). 10-Day Campus Accessibility Challenge. Journal of Postsecondary Education & Disability, 36(1).
- Moriarty, Sean (2019). Building a Campus Culture of Accessibility. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 63. January 9.
- SUNY Innovative Instructional Technology Grants (IITG)
- Behling, K. T., & Tobin, T. J. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal design for learning in higher education. West Virginia University Press.
- Tobin, Thomas (2020). Pedagogies of Care: UDL. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 138. June 3.
- Overview of 10-day Accessibility Challenge
John: Digital accessibility can be intimidating for faculty and staff. In this episode, we examine one example of a gamified approach to professional development.
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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
Rebecca: Our guests today are Michele Thornton, Laura Harris, and Kate DeForest. Michele is an Associate Professor of Management at SUNY Oswego, Laura is the Web Services and Distance Learning Librarian at SUNY Oswego. and Kate is the Digital Content Coordinator at SUNY Oswego. Welcome Michele, Laura, and Kate.
Kate: Hello. Thank you.
Michele: Thanks for having us.
Laura: Thank you.
John: Our teas today are:… Michele, are you drinking tea?
Michele: I am. I’m having a London fog. It felt like a good choice given the kind of rainy day.
John: … and Laura?
Laura: I am drinking the Comfort and Joy tea by Republic of Tea.
Rebecca: Sounds nice for a chilly day.
John: …and Kate?
Kate: I’m enjoying a nice chai tea.
Rebecca: Look at the variety in this group. [LAUGHTER] I have Harsha today, which is a black tea.
John: That sounds rather harsh and a bit different than the comfort and joy. [LAUGHTER] And I have, in the spirit of the season, a Christmas tea today.
Rebecca: So we invited you here today to talk about the article that we co-authored, titled “10-Day Campus aAccessibility Challenge” in a recent special issue of the Journal for Post Secondary Education and Disability. The accessibility challenge was an initiative developed by the workgroup on accessibility practices at SUNY, which you’ve all been an active member of. So first, Can each of you briefly describe how you got involved with accessibility work at SUNY Oswego and some of the specific projects that you’ve worked on? And we’ll start with Michele.
Michele: Thanks, Rebecca. My first introduction was by being part of our initial cohort of faculty accessibility fellows in 2019. So that was a year-long fellowship, where myself and a handful of other faculty members from across the campus were able to learn the importance of things like Universal Design for Learning, build skills and capacity around principles of digital accessibility, and become part of the growing community on campus that was really advocating for a more accessible and inclusive campus.
John: And we do have an earlier podcast episode on the origins of that project, and we’ll share a link to that in the show notes.
Kate: Okay, I was hired as the digital accessibility analyst and remediation specialist in 2018. I was primarily focused on assessing and remediating online course materials at that time. When I was hired, I was invited to be in the work group, and quickly became one of the main resources for remediation and accessibility at that time. I’ve been involved with creating our digital accessibility website, many of the written and video tutorials, launching the 10-day accessibility pilot program and other subsequent programs, and currently involved with creating accessibility course modules.
Laura: One aspect of my job is to support online learning and teaching. And in that role, Rebecca and a former colleague invited me to be part of the workgroup focused on facilitating the creation of accessible materials for online courses. Over the years, the scope of that workgroup has broadened, and now we focus on accessible practices in general. One of the projects I’ve really enjoyed is providing training on different models of disability.
John: Rebecca, you’re one of the people who put together the accessibility challenge. So could you explain your role in it?
Rebecca: Sure. I am one of the two founding members of our workgroup on accessibility practices at SUNY Oswego, and was the first facilitator of our Faculty Accessibility Fellows Program that Michele was in. So Kate, before we jump in too far with our accessibility challenge discussion, can you first help our audience understand what we mean on our campus by accessibility?
Kate: Sure. So the bare bones basic definition, as paraphrased, would be allowing a person with a disability and a person without a disability, the same or similar experience in the same or similar manner. And we are speaking of it in the digital capacity, so using websites and digital content, digital documents, and allowing people to basically experience them in a very similar way.
John: And before we go any further, could someone tell us what the accessibility challenge is? Michele, can you set the stage for us by providing an overview of the accessibility landscape at SUNY Oswego and the circumstances that led to the development of the accessibility challenge, and also, what exactly that accessibility challenge was?
Michele: For me, it’s hard to separate out the genesis of the accessibility challenge from two other important existing factors. The idea came to us in fall of 2020. And so if we can all put ourselves back there, we had just come out of the first spring of the onset of the COVID19 pandemic. That took our campus, like many others out there, into this rapid switch to online learning, and one that really brought the harsh light on many accessibility barriers that parts of our campus had previously not really observed or had much experience with. We’ve already talked about and highlighted a couple of different ways that our campus has been thinking about accessibility with the workgroup, our Fellows Program, and so we have this long tradition of campus leadership and support around promoting accessibility. But the unprecedented need that the pandemic really illuminated revealed that we needed to move even quicker to build a more robust, more skilled, more engaged community that would be prepared to meet the challenges that our students and faculty were facing. We had historically been offering a lot of different trainings and one-on-one faculty support, but we felt like we needed something much more concentrated, quick, that would be fun and enjoyable for folks to participate in. The pandemic was just in its first 12 months, and people were stressed and feeling isolated, nervous or afraid. We wanted to create an opportunity to connect as well as learn from each other. So we’ve talked about this as a 10-day challenge. It was essentially two weeks of an online community engaged learning experience, where folks signed up and took different asynchronous and sometimes synchronous online courses to build their skills and capacity around accessibility.
Rebecca: So Laura, can you talk a little bit about some of the design considerations that went into the challenge?
Laura: Sure, Rebecca. The workgroup often discusses training and professional development opportunities we can provide to faculty, staff, and students. And as Michele indicated, when we had those discussions in late 2020, we knew that many people were feeling overburdened, disconnected, and disenfranchised. And we didn’t want to add to people’s mental loads, we wanted to craft something that was fun and supportive. So one of the theories underlying our thinking is self-determination theory, which suggests that experiences that support individuals’ experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or connectedness, will provide the best kinds of motivation. I want to talk about competence first. I think promoting competence around accessibility practices has always been at the core of what we do. However, the increase in online instruction caused by the pandemic made fostering this competence a necessity. We just didn’t have, and we do not have now, the staffing to remediate every course. Moving on to relatedness, I feel that offering a challenge instead of regular professional development opportunities really allowed us to foster that sense of connection. With challenges, there’s a shared goal, and when it comes to pulling people together, a shared goal can be more powerful than a shared interest. I also think that, with challenges, there’s often a more intentional effort at providing support and encouragement to participants. For example, the organizers behind National Novel Writing Month host live Q&As and have collected pep talk letters addressed to their participants written by well-known authors. So while competence and relatedness were things we considered early in the process at the macro level, the ability to foster autonomy and agency came through when we were planning the details. One of the other theories we incorporated into the design of the challenge is Universal Design for Learning (or UDL). I would argue that agency and choice are at the core of UDL, which focuses on providing learners with multiple ways of achieving a learning objective. So we made a point to offer multiple ways for Challenge participants to learn about and apply various accessibility concepts.
Rebecca: So Kate, can you describe the challenge and how it worked?
Kate: Sure, we wanted to basically simplify accessibility and allow all content creators to understand basic accessibility principles. So this challenge was centered around creating accessible Word documents through Microsoft Word and Google Docs. We broke it down, broke down accessibility into bite-sized pieces, and we focused on one topic each day. So we started off by introducing accessibility, we covered what it is, why it’s important, and who it benefits, because that’s sometimes lost in translation, depending on the definition that people think of accessibility. Then we went in and we focused on specific skills. So some of the topics included properly structuring content such as how to semantically make headings and lists. We covered writing alternative text for images, captioning videos, effectively using color, and providing descriptive hyperlinks as some of the basic principles. And then the last couple of days of the challenge ended with some self reflections, sort of what did the participants learn? Did the program help boost their competence around accessibility? …that type of feeling. So we send daily emails to the participants, and these emails give a brief background of today’s topic, again, who it benefits and why it’s important. We provided written and video tutorials that explained how to do the task, and then asked the participants to incorporate that principle into the documents of their choice. We also provided other related articles and sources of information, as well as links to live zoom sessions that were being offered that same day around that particular topic.
John: Laura, can you talk a little bit about the timing of the challenge and how participants were recruited to participate in it?
Laura: So for many years, the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching has provided a series of professional development opportunities that are offered for faculty and staff, and are usually led by faculty and staff. These usually are about two weeks before and after the spring semester. The ones that we have in January we refer to as the winter breakout sessions, we have been offering professional development on accessibility practices during the winter and spring breakout sessions for the last few years. So it really just made sense for us to offer the sessions related to the challenge at the same time. As far as recruitment goes, we worked with the Office of Communications and Marketing, they did a news story that was shared with the entire campus, they emailed all faculty, staff, and students. And we also communicated through some smaller communication channels, like the email list for the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.
Michele: If I could just build on a couple of things that Laura said, I think that we really credit the success of our first challenge to the timing of it and the relationship with the Winter Breakout sessions. I think there’s two important reasons for that, is that this period of time is between semesters. So we know that while faculty certainly are anticipating professional development at that time, they also tend to have kind of allocated some time and space to work on it. Secondly, I do think that if we had tried to replicate this at another time during the year, and rebuilt the structure and rebuilt the marketing around it all separately, that would have been just an even heavier lift for our committee that was working on it. So that connection to our existing structure mattered for sure.
Rebecca: We also had students participating. So, previous professional development had focused primarily on faculty and staff. And this particular initiative really invited students into the scope as well. And most students aren’t taking classes at that time. So there was a little more flexibility for students to take on the challenge as well.
John: One of the things we should note is that the timing of doing this in the early stages of COVID probably helped because faculty were using much more digital content, and were aware of how much they didn’t know, in some cases, about using digital content effectively. So I think all those things came together to help make the program remarkably successful. Laura mentioned that we had been doing workshops for a while, but we should probably credit Rebecca with that, because that was one of the first tasks she took on, actually even before she became associate director of the teaching center. We asked her to do a number of workshops, I think, in your very first year here actually on accessibility.
John: …and that hasn’t stopped since then.
Rebecca: No, it hasn’t. [LAUGHTER] I think one of the other things that we might want to also point out about the success is not just the timing in terms of the January sessions, but also that our involvement in accessibility on campus was starting to mature. We already had campus-wide initiatives leading up to this particular one. And the first cohort of faculty accessibility fellows had completed in 2019. So we also had those fellows to support this initiative during COVID. So Michele, you spearheaded the evaluation of the challenge, can you talk a little bit about the methods used and the results of the challenge?
Michele: I think when we first came up with this idea, the first thing we did was tried to see if there were other models out there that we could pull from. And while I think there’s other examples of challenges, we knew early on, we had a hunch, that what we were doing was kind of novel and unique. And because of that, it was important for us not just to document what we were doing, but to have some attempt to gauge the impact that it was having, I think this would be helpful for us for a couple of reasons. One, just our ability to improve on future iterations or efforts that we would do in this space. But also, I think that you might start getting a sense that all of us feel really passionate and strongly about this. And so the ability for us to advocate beyond our own campus and share what we were doing and help others understand the impacts of it was important for us in terms of documenting and gathering data. So we took all sorts of approaches to gathering data, everything from monitoring the open rates on the emails that went out across campus, to looking at our website traffic through Google Analytics, but the majority of the data came from a pre- and post-set of survey questions. So we did everything from ask folks when they first started to reflect a little bit around their motivation. This gets at some of the things that Laura was sharing about our initial design, about why people were participating and what they were looking for from the challenge, all the way up to then in the post-survey asking folks, as Kate mentioned, to reflect on their experiences. From those surveys, we were really able to pull out key qualitative and quantitative data to get a sense of what motivated folks to join, really understand how their confidence changed and increased in their ability to do things like define accessibility, to be able to make a Word document digitally accessible, but also just understand what they enjoyed most. And over and over again, I think the thing that we learned that probably was maybe most surprising and really nice kind of unexpected benefit was folks reporting that they really enjoyed being part of the learning community together. and the sense of being part of something that was bigger than just “Hey, I’m learning some new skills to teach my class or to send out more accessible emails,” but understanding that they were sort of joining and connecting into this broader movement that was happening on campus was, I think, one of our most surprising and also exciting takeaways.
Rebecca: I think one thing that we didn’t mention that might be worth noting here, especially after you were talking about the surveys is that we did prime our audience at the academic affairs retreat in August, leading up to the fall 2020 semester, by having a few minutes on the agenda to talk about accessibility and to get the academic community aware of digital accessibility. And then the challenge followed up only a few months later.
John: Kate, can you talk briefly about some of the iterations of the project that follow that initial 10-Day Challenge.
Kate: So the initial challenge was held in January of 2021, as we mentioned, and March of 21, we held a presentations challenge, which focused on creating accessible presentations using PowerPoint and Google Slides. This was a weekly challenge, meaning that participants received one email each week for four weeks that focused on one topic. We also provided them with background information, written and video tutorials, and additional resources in the same manner that we did for the initial 10-Day Challenge. And then in January of 22, we ran a five-day accessibility challenge. This was formatted in a very similar manner to the 10-Day Challenge, but we basically split the content into two and created two tracks: we had a beginner level and an intermediate level. Each day, again, highlighted one topic, we provided participants with background information, the tutorials, and additional resources. But this time, participants could choose what content to work on for each day, whether they wanted to stick with the beginner track or go to the more advanced track or do a combination of both.
Rebecca: So Michele, can you talk a little bit about the newest iteration of the project that’s currently in progress?
Michele: I am so excited [LAUGHTER] to talk about the newest iteration of it, because really, this new version has given us a way to massively scale up what we started as kind of this idea of doing a 10-day challenge. Last fall, the entire SUNY system migrated to a new common learning management system. And when that happened, members of our team started imagining a way that we could use that common system to develop an asynchronous customizable version of our challenge that could be deployed across the 60+ universities, schools, campuses across SUNY. We applied for and got a nice grant to support the development of this idea. And there is a really fantastic team, committed faculty, staff, and even students here at Oswego now working to bring this to fruition. And our goal is to pilot it broadly this coming spring, but here at Oswego, we’re going to come back to our roots with the winter breakout session, and we’ll launch the first iteration of it and be able to get some feedback in the next couple of weeks here.
John: And the grant that funded it was a SUNY Innovative Instructional Technology Grant. We should credit SUNY for providing this competitive grant program. Could each of you provide a bit of advice for anyone thinking of doing this at their own institution?
Michele: I’ll start, and I think that we used a pretty big variety of resources. So we didn’t just kind of create material from scratch, we also linked out to things like existing resources from Deque, we pulled in literature and other articles that folks have read. So I think that the biggest takeaway, I would suggest, is that you can do this as big of a scale or as small, you could have a three-day challenge, it doesn’t need to be 10. But starting anywhere, and recognizing your capacity and reaching out to use other existing resources is a good way to supplement if you perhaps don’t have as big of a pool to draw from in terms of internally on your own campus.
Laura: I would add to that just starting wherever you are with whatever resources or personnel you have, it doesn’t have to be a fancy initiative. It can be sort of a grassroots within your own department or as small as you want it to be. But just getting started and sharing out whatever information you have is something, it’s movement in the right direction.
John: Following up on Kate’s comment, this is very consistent with Tom Tobin’s plus one strategy, start with some small changes, and then build on those every semester as you move forward.
Rebecca: In the show notes, we’ll link out to an overview of our challenge as well as the article that we wrote on the challenge.
Michele: You know, the only other thing that I would say is that it’s important to find support and partners and maybe places that you might not expect on campus. So thinking about how to connect this with your campus DEI efforts more broadly, or working with your accessibility resources. Again, we talked about so many different areas where we got support, even the communications and marketing team really helped us, but our CTS team, I think finding those collaborators is a big part of how to ensure something like this can be successful.
John: And CTS is Campus Technology Services.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”
Laura: So something that I’m working on right now is creating a guide that talks about the accessibility features that are available from each of our major database vendors like EBSCO, and ProQuest, just to make those features a little bit more discoverable… accessible… [LAUGHTER] to our users. We try to talk about those in our instruction that we do, but they’re not always obvious.
Kate: So I’ve presented at a number of different conferences, and I’ve talked about the accessibility initiative at Oswego, and this particular challenge and some of our iterations. So I hope to continue that and just kind of share the good word about what Oswego is doing and some of our projects that we’ve been working on and how we can help other campuses or help other departments or people implement similar types of projects.
Rebecca: And how about you, Michele?
Michele: Well, I think I gave it a little bit away, that most of my accessibility work right now is focused on making sure that our new iteration of the Challenge gets off the ground, and we’ve got everybody all hands on deck with that. Beyond that, though, Rebecca, you and I are working on a fun project when we find ourselves with time to take a similar approach in terms of documenting the impacts of accessibility work on our campus. And we interviewed all of the first few cohorts of our campus accessibility fellows, and we’re in the process of trying to figure out what we’ve got there and how that I think shares the story about how Oswego is maturing in its process of working to achieve accessibility, and a more inclusive environment.
Rebecca: Well, thank you all for your work in accessibility, and for sharing that today.
Michele: Thanks for having us.
Kate: Thanks for having us.
Laura: Thank you for having us.
John: Thank you. It’s great talking to all of you and we’ll be seeing you during the winter breakouts very shortly.
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.