Learning Technology Coach Podcast

S2E4. A Faculty Perspective on Accessibility in Higher Education

May 18, 2023 Dr. Amy Todd Season 2 Episode 4
Learning Technology Coach Podcast
S2E4. A Faculty Perspective on Accessibility in Higher Education
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Featuring Dr. Amy Todd - Assistant Professor, Department of Biochemistry, Memorial University

Dr. Todd, through her experience in curriculum and program development, frequently applies team-based learning approaches and authentic theory to her teaching.

In this episode, discover the benefits of incorporating accessibility features in courses that can improve comprehension and retention, boost engagement and motivation, and create a warm and welcoming environment for students.  


The Learning Technology Coach Podcast is a CITL production.

Speaker Key:

JA               Javad
TI                Timilehin
AM             Amy
SP              Speaker


JA | Hello, everyone. My name is Javad.

TI | And I am Timilehin. And welcome to the Learning Technology Coach podcast.

JA | This season we engage with accessibility experts and champions.

TI | About creating inclusive learning spaces.

JA | We discuss the opportunities and challenges.

TI | Plus a whole lot more.

JA | Welcome, everyone to another episode of the Learning Technology Coach podcast. My name is Javad. And I’m here with my wonderful friend and co-host Timilehin, who has recently accomplished a remarkable achievement by passing his comprehensive PhD exam. Timilehin, congratulations on that outstanding achievement. How are things going in your world?

TI | I guess great, Javad. Thank you because passing the comprehensive PhD exam is such a huge milestone in this journey, so, thank you.

JA | I totally agree, been there, done that. In today’s episode, we’re going to explore the vast benefits of incorporating accessibility features in course. Timilehin, what comes to your mind when you talk about accessibility feature in a course, what benefits?

TI | Well, one of the key benefits of incorporating accessibility features in a course is that they can improve comprehension and retention. And even by providing alternative formats such as closed captioning, audio descriptions, and alternative text, learners who struggle with traditional text-based learning materials can actually now understand the material better. And it could even lead to better student engagement with your course materials.


JA | That’s well said. I think accessibility features can also help to boost the engagement and motivation in classrooms. If you can provide a variety of ways for students to interact with the content they can choose the format that works the best for them. For example, maybe some prefer to listen to audio descriptions or use a screen reader, but maybe the others prefer to read the text.

It’s like going to a restaurant, and they have a very well-designed menu that provides good food for everyone. Maybe, someone is a meat lover and someone is vegetarian, so it’s good to please everyone. I think, in classes, by offering multiple options, a student can engage with the material in a way that is most meaningful and effective for them. What else, Timilehin?

TI | Well, I would say another significant impact or benefit of having accessibility features in your course material is the perception of the students towards the instructor.

Who do you perceive this instructor to be? If an instructor is saying I am making this course accessible by what they have done in their design it feels more welcoming and warm. It just means that everybody is included in my material. Everybody is welcome to study under me, and that’s just one thing.

JA | It does. In today’s episode, we’ll be looking at this topic from an instructor lens, and we’ll be sharing some effective ways to implement the accessibility features in a course.

TI | And last week we had the pleasure of having Dr Amy Todd in our Centre for Innovation and Teaching and Learning production studio. And she shared her experience of designing courses with accessibility features in mind. She has successfully incorporate accessibility features in her course designs over the years.
She has been creating inclusive and engaging learning experiences for all her students through her [unclear] and innovation approach. She has discovered the many benefits of accessibility features in her courses.

JA | So, join us in this informative and engaging discussion on accessibility features in courses from the perspective of an instructor. Tune in now to learn more about how you can create an inclusive and effective learning experience for all of us.

Welcome back to the studio. Today we discuss the importance of accessibility in education. Today we will be focusing on the role of instructors of ensuring that accessibility needs are all met in the classroom. It’s important for the instructor to recognise the diverse needs of their students and ensure that course materials and teaching methods are accessible for everyone. This includes providing materials in different formats using clear and simple language and a lot more, with accessibility in mind.

Today we have a rock star in this field with us. Someone with so much knowledge and experience to share with us. Timilehin, would you be so kind as to give us a quick introduction of our guest?

TI | Dr Amy Todd is the person we have in the studio today. She’s an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry. She holds a BSc in Behavioural Neuroscience and a PhD in Cellular Molecular Biology from Memorial University.
More recently, she obtained a Master of Education in Post-Secondary Studies at Memorial University’s Faculty of Education. She researches Life Sciences Pedagogy in higher education, focusing on retention, meta-cognition, inclusive learning, and the impact of learning on student health. Her work ranges from scholarship of teaching and learning[unclear] to impact on learning within and beyond academic programming. As an educator, her approach to teaching is grounded in critical theory.

She also frequently applies formal team-based learning approaches and authentic gamification theory within her teaching. Her previous work in educational development focused on curriculum and programme development and revision. She still engages in this work within Memorial University’s Department of Biochemistry with occasional advising within the Faculty of Science.

Now, this thing is interesting, we have a biochemist that’s doing something in education. Anyways, I have the pleasure of welcoming you to our studio today. Welcome, Amy.

AM | Thank you.

TI | How are you doing today?
AM | Pretty good.

TI | Nice. So, I have this question for you because when I was reading your profile, these big, English words that I, myself, cannot even begin to imagine what the meaning is. So, let me begin with what does accessibility really mean to you?

And while answering this question I want you to have some terms in your mind that you would like to clarify. For instance, the term, critical theory, and team-based learning approaches. And it would be good if you can provide examples.

AM | Okay. So, accessibility, I always view it as a very broad umbrella term that covers a lot of different things. And I’m sure, throughout this series, you guys are also getting a lot of different definitions.

For me, in my teaching practice, it ties in a lot with inclusive aspects of teaching. So, anything that’s trying to make sure that everybody who wants to access the education that I’m providing can access it, and can access all aspects of it. You mentioned critical theory, that ties really well into critical theory because when you’re looking at education from a critical theory lens you’re constantly trying to take that step back.

And determine how the structures that are in place in the institution, for instance, or in your own classroom, how that is impacting the ability for students to access the education. And a lot of them are hidden, and we don’t realise. So, critical theory is always, kind of, asking you to, like I said, take that step back, look through this different lens, and try to identify those barriers for different students.

JA | What you mentioned was actually really nice. You want to make it inclusive for everyone, and that’s a really, really great point. How can you make sure that your course content are accessible for all students, especially for a student with accessibility needs?

AM | Well, I guess it depends on how you define accessibility needs because I think, really, we all have some aspect of accessibility needs.

I feel like when I first started teaching, so I started teaching around 2006, and at that time, I think everybody thought about accessibility very much in the sense of students who might be coming through the Blundon Centre here at the university with physical accessibility issues. Or learning differences that required them to study or take exams in a quiet place. So, all of these very formal accommodations.

And even at that time, there weren’t very many of them. I think I was teaching for a year or two, at least, before I had even one student who had that formal accommodation through the Blundon Centre. And that in itself was a learning experience for me. It wasn’t something that was ever taught to me during any kind of teaching training.

Luckily, over the years, I’ve had co-workers and friends who have very much of a focus in just everything to do with accessibility and inclusivity, and I’ve learned a lot from them. And I’ve learned a lot from my own professional development. And I feel like, over the years, this whole idea of providing an accessible classroom has become more and more necessary.

I know that the Blundon Centre is constantly flooded now with applications. And instructors are constantly having these formal requests for accommodation. Then, on top of that, there’s a lot of students who still require informal accommodations as well and those are a little trickier. And some instructors are open to that and some would rather stick within the very formal system. So, there’s a lot of grey area that I think I a lot of people weren’t aware of before, but it’s coming more to the forefront now.

JA | Right on.

TI | Awesome. So, now most of your course content are developed with accessibility in mind whether formal or informal, as you said. So, now, when you try to provide accommodation in your course, maybe, in assignments, in the course content, anything, how do you then make sure that there is a balance with the quality of work and expectation from the student as well?

AM | I think quality of work isn’t so much the issue as much as the perception of fairness with students who aren’t getting the certain accommodation.

TI | Right.

AM | So, especially with informal accommodations, you need to be really careful about that, and you need to not just give people everything you think that they want. You have to figure out what they need, how that’s going to impact other students, whether it impacts them at all because sometimes things are perceived as unfair, but the actual impact is not there.

And there’s a lot around universal design for learning now, which I know you guys are covering in this season as well. And that itself gets really tricky because there is this perception that if we have one or two students that need this let’s just give all the students that, and then it’s fair for everyone.

But if I have a student who takes a bit longer to read information and understand it and needs that extra time and has an accommodation for time and a half, for instance. So, time and a half for assessment. If I gave all the students time and a half for that assessment it seems like it’s fair, now everybody has all of this time that they need. But my students who, maybe, didn’t need that now have this extra time that they can use to go back and check over questions or take more time in something that they’re writing out.

So, that’s still putting them at an advantage over the student who is just using that time to get through the question in the first place.

TI | Right, so that’s from the assessment perspective, right?

AM | Yes.

TI | Now, in course delivery, say you have a course for first year or second year Biochemistry students, and you are trying to make sure that this is accessible, maybe, for people that need accessibility with colours.

You know you don’t want to merge some colours together, but now, while delivering your courses, you are giving them PowerPoint slides, and then you have accessibility in mind, especially from the design perspective. Does it impact the quality of your whole work?

AM | That’s a good question. I don’t feel like it ever has. We’re very fortunate these days that a lot of programmes and presentation software and all of our different tools that we use within our learning management system with D2L, they all have built in accessibility features. And you see that more and more with different programmes these days. It either checks it automatically for accessibility with respect to colour-blindness is what you were referring to.

You get prompted to put in text to go along with an image to make sure that someone who can’t see that image knows what’s going on in that image. So, there’s lots of things like that built into programmes now which is very helpful. And I feel, in general, I don’t think that any changes that have happened because of any of that have been lost.

I think, with my particular course content, and I suspect there’s a lot of different disciplines that have this issue, is that we do use a lot of figures. And so, one group, that I’m particularly mindful of all the time is vision-impaired students. I think that a lot of our Science course, in general, that base a lot of their content on figures are still fairly inaccessible for those students.

So, you have to really be careful and be able to really describe what you have up on the screens. And make sure that you’re choosing textbooks that have the ability to have those accessibility features in where it can provide descriptions for all the different figures, but there’s still challenges. There’s definitely some challenges to overcome and that’s one that I’m still working on.

TI | Thank you very much for that answer. I just wanted to establish the fact that having accessibility in mind does reduce the quality of your work as an instructor.

AM | No, not all.

TI | It’s just important to get it out.
JA | I want to go back to 2006 when you said that you started your very first. Pre-COVID, hey? Since 2006, you said that you had only a few students who needed accessibility features until now in 2023. Have you noticed any changes in overall classroom dynamics after using more accessibility features for that course?

In what ways do you think that these accessibility features can benefit the whole classroom and not only a specific part?

AM | That’s a bit of a tough one because what people want to hear in administration and whatnot is that if you use universal design for learning, and you use these strategies that’ll work for everybody then we’ll have less requests for accommodations. But as you may already know, we don’t see that.

And part of that is because there’s not a lot of consistency between different courses. Instructors have freedom to structure their courses how they want or what they’re used to. So, we have a lot of diversity between our courses and in our classrooms. So, if I think about it, if I’m a student who needs some sort of formal accommodation I’m going to get it at the first semester for all my courses because I have no idea what I’m walking into.

And it might turn out that three of my five courses that term are golden, and I don’t actually need any of the accommodations that I have arranged for on paper, but they never know when they’re walking in. So, that’s one thing that hasn’t happened, is that reduction. What I have noticed, probably the most, is just student feedback. Especially if it’s informal accommodations for something that’s going on in the student’s life.

We have a lot more students self-reporting anxiety issues and things like this. And they’re always a little bit surprised at the fact that I will work with them to figure out some informal accommodations. I think part of that is that they learn that when you’re in this university system, not just Memorial, but any university, it is a bit stringent with respect to the rules.

We have all of these academic regulations and there seems like there’s no flexibility and no leeway. So, I think a lot of them are happily surprised when they come across an instructor who can provide some of that for them and then not have to go and deal with getting a formal accommodation for every little thing.

JA | Exactly, and the goal is we all want to learn more about your experiences, so we can have more instructors who have more accessibility features in their courses.

AM | Yes.

TI | Awesome. So, I believe that when we talk about universal design for learning, you are approaching accessibility from the perspective of whether the students say they need accessibility or not, I’m making sure that my course content is accessible for all, right?

AM | Yes.

TI | Then, have you, maybe, in any way, received any feedback from your students? If you are doing something exceptional, do you see your students come to you to say I love what you did with that course?

Even if they didn’t come to you with a formal application for accessibility need, and eventually, they come to you after the semester or after a particular class and say, Amy, I love what you did that course.

AM | Usually, it’s in the form of gratitude because of their decreased stress. So, I never know exactly from their comments what exactly those stressors were.

And if they would’ve benefited particularly from any design that I did, but I do get a fair bit of feedback just of students who are very grateful for the bit of flexibility. Or understanding is usually how it’s worded because like I said, I think they come into a lot of our courses expecting very strict rigidity, and because they don’t conform to this ideal student that exists in our university calendar they worry a lot.

And that brings them a lot of personal stress, so anything that we can do to help relieve that I think is very appreciated, and they do voice that.

TI | Sweet. And that comes with a lot of fulfilment, right? You feel fulfilled as an educator, as leader in the class, and I’ve done something good. And then, most students won’t come to you to say I need this kind of access, or I have this particular requirement for learning.

Do you consider this a big problem in delivering accessible courses?

AM | Sorry, you mean that they won’t come?
TI | Yes, they won’t come to you to say this is what I need help with or this is the kind of accessibility need that I have.
AM | I think that’s where setting the tone at the very first of your course is really important. Some students, maybe more so a few years back, weren’t really aware of the options that they had. So, not only just having that information in your syllabus, which is required for you to have that, but going through that with students. And helping them understand that mental health is also really important. And if you suffer from increased anxiety, and you think that you might benefit from an accommodation, go and talk to the Blundon Centre, and see if that’s a possibility.
So, the Blundon Centre might end up with a few more students because of me, but also just letting them know that they can come and talk to me and that there are a whole bunch of different options that are available to them. And that they’re not alone. And one thing that we do a lot in Biochemistry is a lot of co-teaching. And that’s also nice because they can come to either one of us.

So, sometimes, some students might be more comfortable coming to me because of their demographics or coming to another instructor because of their background and demographics. So, that also helps a little bit and it just gives them a few more options to make sure that they’re totally comfortable with whoever they’re talking to.

JA | One of the questions that some instructors have is, I’m just going to focus on assessment, and you said that for some students you put time and a half for exams and stuff. They want to know how much time do you put in order to make sure that these students get this extra time.

Are you going to spend a lot of time to accommodate those accessibility features, or it’s not time-consuming?

AM | So, a lot of the times the time and a half is a very common accommodation, but it’s often a formal accommodation. Usually, time and a half in a quiet space to do the assessment in is really common. So, those are actually determined by the Blundon Centre.

Almost always students come with time and a half, and sometimes they’ll get time and a quarter, but that assessment is done over there. So, that’s a little bit outside of my control, but what control I do have to try design my course so that a lot of those time constraints are taken away completely for everyone. So, for example, in the last semester, we were dealing with an exception semester, and a lot of changes had to be made because of the strike situation.

And one of the things that we decided to do, in our course, was change what used to be a timed midterm test to a midterm assessment. And we were a little nervous about how that would turn out. And it was open book, open web, take home, and we were a little worried that we’d end up with everybody with 100, and then we’d have to explain these marks to the department.

But it ended up actually being right in line with what we would normally expect with the marks, and it just kind of showed us right there on paper that the time constraint didn’t matter. It didn’t actually make a difference, and it wasn’t needed.

JA | But from the lens of an instructor, it’s not a complex way to accommodate those features because both Timilehin and I are Learning and Technology coaches.

And sometimes we are approached by some instructors, and they want to know how they can add specific extra time for one student. And before we explain to them how easy it is to do that, they think that they have to spend hours and hours to do that. And when we tell them you only have to do these steps and that’s done, they are very happy, and they are very surprised sometimes that it’s so easy to do. And I just wanted to make sure that if it’s true from your perspective as well?

AM | Yes, definitely. With respect to working with our learning management system, once upon a time you had to go in every assessment and say special circumstance for this student and this student and this student. So, it still wasn’t that much work because it was just during your major timed assessments. But now there’s the feature where you go in at the very start of the term, you identify who those students are, you put in what their accommodations are, and then they set for the rest of the term for all of the assignments.


JA | Exactly, yes.
AM | So, it’s really, yes.

TI | Awesome. On a final note, do you have advice for other instructors because we can talk about accessibility from the perspective of the students? This student needs accessibility, but we should also consider the instructor’s work that has to be put in to making sure their courses are accessible. Do you have advice for instructors that are new to these kinds of things, and they really mean to do it, but they don’t know how to start?

You might say come to the CITL we do all those kinds of things, but from an instructor perspective, how did you begin? What advice do you have for them?

AM | Two pieces of advice. One is you don’t have to do everything all at the same time because once you start to see all the different things that you can do it does seem very overwhelming. And there’s tons of literature out there. It’s a whole field in itself.

So, take a little steps. Little steps are still steps forward. If you don’t do anything you’re not going to progress, but just a little step here and there, modifying a course each time you offer it to be a little bit better, that’s very helpful. The other thing is changing your perspective.

I had someone say to me when I first started teaching, to be very mindful that I was where I was because the system that existed when I went through university, in particular, was designed for students like me. Whether it was how I studied, my background and privilege, everything about who I was, the system catered to me, and I was able to succeed because of it. And when I look around, my peers who are also teaching, it’s the very, very same kinds of situations.

I can see our similarities and we want diversity. We want education to be open for more people. So, there’s the perspective that you see a lot in education, especially when I first came through, of that well, I had to walk ten miles in snow to get to my classes, so my students have to too.

And if they could’ve seen the tests that I had to take when I was in my undergrad, but that’s one type of rigour and one type of ensuring quality, but it’s ensuring quality in a very specific type of student. And if we want to actually open the doors to more diverse and variety, then we need to take that step back and think about what got us where we are because of the way the system was.

And how that can be opened up and altered to still maintain that quality and that rigour, but open the door to more diverse students. And in order for you to get that perspective, and it’s something that we’re all still working on, even though [unclear] know everything, I’m still working on it myself, you need to engage in different things. You need to engage in more professional development, and you need to read more things. You need to ask your students’ questions.

A lot of times with different accessibility issues, I wasn’t aware of them because they’re not something I deal with in my life. And if I open up myself to my students and say if you have anything that you think you need in this course to help you succeed come and talk to me. And then sometimes some surprising things come up that I wouldn’t have thought of because that’s not my background and that’s not my experience.

TI | Awesome. And I just want to thank you again for coming. This is going to be the end of our interview with you, Amy. Thank you again for coming, and we really appreciate all the information that you have given to us and our listeners, and we’ll say thank you.

AM | Thank you.

JA | Have a great day.

AM | You as well.

JA | Wow, that was a great interview. What do you think, Timilehin?

TI | Absolutely, it was.

JA | I really liked the advice that she gave at the end that if you are creating a course and want to include accessibility features for the very first time don’t freak out.

It can be overwhelming, but the key is to take it step by step. I like how she mentioned that designing an accessible course can make a huge difference for people with accessibility needs. So, it’s definitely worth the effort. What was your big learning moment, Timilehin?

TI | Well, Javad, I think what really stood out for me was the fact that she spoke from a scientist perspective, especially a scientist educator.

That most Science courses are actually figure-heavy, they have a lot of figures, images, which if not described could be challenging for visually impaired students to actually get through or access such materials. And, of course, if you are not in the Science discipline, if you are in another field, you can look out for weaknesses that could just make your materials not really accessible and then just deal with it.

And just make sure that your students have every means to access whatever material you are putting out there really stood out for me. So, this is going to be the end of this episode, and I just want to thank all our listeners for staying with us till the end. Till we see you the next time, my name is Timilehin.

JA | And my name is Javad.

TI | Bye bye.

SP | The Learning and Technology Coach podcast is a CITL production.


Episode Introduction
Guest Introduction
Defining accessibility
How to make course content accessible for all students
How to balance accommodation with quality of work and student expectations
Does designing with accessibility in mind affect the overall quality of work
Do accessibility features benefit the whole classroom
Feedback from students
Setting the tone for student's expectations
Timed assessments
Advice for instructors
Summary - Big Learning Moment!