VCSU professors promote universal access

VCSU professors promote universal access

Three Valley City State University professors were among the presenters for the recent Bb World conference, which focused on the digital platform and its many applications.

The presentation, titled “Universal Access: It’s the Right Thing To Do, But We Don’t Know How,” was given online due to ongoing concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic. It was themed toward fostering inclusive education. Presenters were Diane Burr, professor and chair, department of Kinesiology and Human Performance; Julee Russell, Ph.D, professor of English and, chair, department of Language and Literature; and Shannon Vanhorn Ph.D, professor of communication.

According to Russell, the three had been working on an academic plan on digital accessibility and decided to pitch the plan to Bb World Conference. It panned out.

Each of the terms that underscored the presentation – Accessibility, Universal Design, and Universal Design for Learning – comes with a specific definition and each are interrelated.

“Universal Design for Learning is a pedagogical framework that optimizes learning for all students, not just those with cognitive or physical disabilities, Russell said. “We need to effectively understand how to make components of our classes accessible, and we need a universal design, a common course design, of the courses.  This is important so that when students enter any course, the navigation of the course is intuitive.”

Defining the problem was only one of the first steps. Addressing it institutionally and systemically came next. At VCSU that’s been happening since 2013, which gave the presenters a fairly significant amount of experience when putting the presentation together.

According to Russell, Universal Design is an umbrella that addresses cognitive, emotional, physical processes of learning and Accessibility is one of the areas it covers.

“Our focus was talking about specific aspects of accessibility in the classroom, she said. “The component of Universal Design we focused on was a universal course design that would benefit all students, not just those with physical or cognitive learning disabilities.”

Right now, different individuals or departments may approach the design of their courses differently, which can create confusion for students taking multiple online courses – each presented in a slightly different format.

“We have lost students simply because they could not find the necessary information or materials within their course,” Russell added. “It’s important for those who have accommodations, as well as those who do not, to have similar shells of the course.”

When Burr, Vanhorn and Russell put the presentation together for Bb World Conference, it’s description focused on exploring certain barriers. They were time, energy, expertise, training, assistance and one-on-one help. According to Russell, none were stand-alone barriers.

“You have to know how to do something before you do it, so training, expertise, assistance, and time are all integral components to be addressed,” she noted. “They require institutional and system-level support if they wish to be successful.  If you don’t have the expertise, you don’t have the training.”

But training alone doesn’t solve the problem if further action isn’t taken. Some actions, according to Russell, could be implementing internal checks and balances. For accountability’s sake, all such things must be able to be measured.

“A concerted effort must be made to ensure faculty training and address teaching load,” Russell stated. “Data collection must go beyond what Blackboard Ally provides, and continuous evaluation and improvement must be ongoing.”

Faculty support remains high in support of Accessibility and Universal Design, but consensus on how to implement either has been difficult to reach. Challenges remain on finding the time to learn how to implement such things or having a support mechanism such as instructional designers take on a larger share of the work.

We have the understanding and empathy to do it, but also many reasons not to do it—a paradox of sorts,” Russell said, adding that in order for it to move forward successfully throughout the state, it needed to be part of every institutions’ strategic plan and presidential goals. “We need a consistent set of expectations and measurement across campuses. This plan needs to be a statewide NDUS initiative.”

At the end of the day, all involved in helping move these topics forward would have to operate under consistent definitions, such as what constitutes an accommodation: it could be physical, cognitive or emotional. As always, administrative support was vital to success in new initiatives. Finally, adequate time is as necessary to provide new information to faculty and staff as it is to provide new information to the students they impact.