Learning Technology Coach Podcast

S2E5. Designing Courses and Web Content with Accessibility in Mind

May 18, 2023 Pam Phillips / Cathy Wicks Season 2 Episode 5
Learning Technology Coach Podcast
S2E5. Designing Courses and Web Content with Accessibility in Mind
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Featuring Pam Phillips and Cathy Wicks - Senior Instructional Designer and Instructional Design Technologist, CITL, Memorial University

As members of CITL’s Learning Design and Development team, both keep universal design for learning (UDL) and WCAG and other accessibility standards at the forefront of their work when building online learning opportunities. 

In this episode, hear theoretical and practical advice that one can consider when designing online learning opportunities.  The presentation of content in multiple formats not only makes content more engaging, but allows students to learn in a way that works best for them, and helps instructors deliver the course in a supportive and inclusive way. 

The Learning Technology Coach Podcast is a CITL production.

Speaker Key:
TI                Timilehin

JA               Javad

PA              Pam

CA              Cathy

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 instructors who discuss various accessibility tools.

TI  | The challenges they face while implementing them.

JA | The technologies they use.

TI  | Plus, a whole lot more.

JA |
Greetings, and welcome to the new episode of Learning Technology Coach Podcast. Coming to you from the production studio located at Memorial University Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. My name is Javad and I’m here with my good friend and talented co-host, Timilehin. This season, we will be focusing our discussions on the topic of accessibility in higher education. Today, we are going to talk about universal design for learning and instructional design technologies.

When it comes to accessibility features and course development, your universal design for learning, UDL, and instructional design technologies, IDT, work hand in hand to make sure the accessibility concerns are fully addresses. UDL is a framework that emphasizes designing course materials and activities that are accessible and inclusive to all the students, regardless of their learning styles, ability or background.

TI |
Of course. And accessibility features are design elements that ensure that individuals with accessibility needs can access and engage with educational content. Accessibility features also support UDL principles by ensuring that students with accessibility needs can access and engage with the material.
JA | Exactly. And on the other hand, instructional design technologies refer to the use of technology to support teaching and learning. And accessibility features are design elements to ensure that individuals with accessibility needs can access and engage with the content.

TI |
By utilising instructional design technology tools and techniques, instructors can create course content that is accessible to students with accessibility needs. By doing so, our education institutions can provide equal access to education and ensure that all students can succeed. Accessibility is definitely crucial. By making our courses accessible, we can ensure that our students have an equal opportunity to learn and to succeed.

And by using UDL and IDT together, we can create a learning environment that is truly inclusive and engaging for everyone.

JA | Last week, we had this chance to talk to one professional from each category about the accessibility as it related to course design and development.

TI | So, if you are interested in knowing more about accessibility considerations, while developing and designing course materials, don’t go anywhere. Enjoy the interview to the fullest.
JA |
Welcome back to the studio. Universal design for learning is a framework for designing educational environments that meets the needs of diverse learners by providing multiple means of representation, expression and engagement. The goal is to promote the active learning and engagement by providing multiple ways for students to interact with course materials and express themselves.

This can increase motivation and interest in course content. That goes hand in hand with the help of instructional design technology, which is the ability to create effective and engaging learning experience for students and learners. By leveraging technology and instructional design principles, it can be possible to design and develop materials that are tailored to meet the needs of specific learners and facilitate their learning in a way that is both effective and engaging.

Timilehin, would you mind giving our listeners a warm introduction to our special guests? We are so excited to have them join us today and it would be great to hear a bit more about them.

TI | Absolutely, Javad. Thank you for that brief introduction. Today is a special day and we have two fantastic individuals join us. They have actually been working very hard behind the scenes and now we have the opportunity to bring them to the [unclear] to discuss their work and to discuss how they have been helping the university to build and develop good content for the students.

And I will start with introducing Cathy Wicks. She has a Bachelor’s of Computer Science from the University of New Brunswick, and she is an instructional design technologist with the Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. She has worked in the fields of e-learning and course design and developmental for over 20 years with clients on diverse projects. Ranging from flight simulation training, real estate, retail in private businesses to developing course materials for content [unclear] at Memorial University.

That’s quite a broad profile. I will go to the next person, Pam Phillips. She also has a master’s in education from Memorial University and she also holds a project management certification. She’s a senior instructional designer at the Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning and a course instructor with the faculty of education at Memorial University.

She has extensive experience in instructional design, training and development and project management. Her research interests are in effective use of media and technology. I mean, you guys have listened to the bio of our guests today and you can see that they a lot to bring to this conversation. And just reading their bios, you would see that they must be walking hand in hand or maybe relatively, but they have distinctively different roles to play.

So, I just want to hear from the horse’s mouth. I want them to just tell us about themselves, what they do in their day-to-day roles, activities and how accessibility comes into play in their roles. I’ll give it to you first, Pam. Please go ahead and tell us what you do every day.

PA | Well, I work closely with faculty to develop fully online courses and just branching into now working with faculty too for on-campus teaching and the blended approach.

So mainly, I chat with faculty about what are some of the challenges they have in their teaching, some things that students find challenging to learn, and how can media and technology help? And to look at … Our goal, I guess, is to develop a learner-centred accessible course.

TI | Awesome. Thank you. Cathy, what about you?

CA |
Yes. Thank you for that introduction. I sound really interesting. I think my role usually I work with Pam and other SRDs, but my roles is mainly on the development of the course in terms of the web design, web development, technology and that kind of thing. then my focus would be coding the content, creating learning activities, that kind of stuff.

And I also try to remind faculty and instructors about web accessibility and the guidelines and the things they should be following when it comes to helping making content accessible.

TI | Thank you both. We’ve heard from you guys now but I want you to talk to us again. Now, that you’ve told us what you do every day and what motivates you to come to work. Now, how would you define accessibility based on your own experience, based on what you do.
Cathy, I want you to go first. How would you define accessibility especially in higher education?

CA | I think accessibility for me is… It’s obviously about accommodating students with disabilities, but it’s not just about that. I think about also trying to provide our students with an opportunity to interact with course content and the materials, and it’s also about ensuring that students, regardless of the ability, have an opportunity to access the materials.

And considering what other circumstances as well they might have that might shape the way that interact with their course material and their instructor and their fellow students and that kind of thing. So, I think it’s about being flexible when we think about how students learn. And we know we have students using multiple devices. We know that we have among various levels of bandwidth, internet speed, connection kind of thing.

We know there are different time zones and schedules, so I think just creating accessible content is about providing actions for all those students and for all those different circumstances, not limiting the ways that they would want to interact with the content. And as I mentioned, as an instructional design technologist in my role, I can help instructors and content authors keep those things in mind when they are developing courses.

Like think about the learners that might be using their screen reader, think about the learners that might not have the bandwidth, think about the learners that might have low vision or a different preference in how they view the material and that kind of thing. So, I think accessibility means basically just trying to remove as many of those barriers as possible, I guess.

TI | Fantastic. Pam, what do you have to say about accessibility and role?
PA | Yes, I agree with Cathy. It’s providing all students in the course equal opportunity to engage with each other and to engage with the instructor and the content and the tools. And as you noted earlier when you gave us an introduction of UDL framework, I really can't talk about accessibility without talking about universal design for learning.
And I see that they’re totally interrelated. And with a UDL approach, and the same thing when we consider accessibility, we want instructors to think about that accessibility upfront in the planning stages. So, with a UDL approach you’re talking and thinking about the unique characteristics of the students, their abilities, their learning preferences, their motivations.

You’re thinking about that upfront and building it into the course rather than waiting until the course is running and the finding out there’s issues with accessibility. And I think if you start course design with UDL in mind, you’re probably reducing a lot of the accessibility barriers to learning. And it also means, as you noted earlier, when I’m thinking about UDL and accessibility, I’m thinking about different ways for the instructor to present the content in the same way.

So, you may have a video, you may have the text version of it. And also getting students to use the technology as well so that they can express themselves and demonstrate their learning through whatever means they want to do that. Whether they want to create a video or an infographic or represent their research finding as a standard essay, a written essay.

And I think this helps each student achieve academic success in their own way.

TI | Awesome.

JA | Right on, Pam. One question that I had in my mind was what are some common practices in course design that you believe those are not accessible and we should avoid them?
PA |
Well, when I work with faculty, some of the common things that I see is that faculty use PowerPoints a lot to help present and organise their content. So, sometimes there’s too much information displayed on a slide, and visuals used are not relevant to the learning or don’t enhance the learning. So, it makes it difficult for students to process the information. And also, their videos are sometimes too long.

So, the optimal length for videos is usually about six minutes or less, and as the length increases, we know that students do not watch the entire video. And when faculty are using Brightspace, a learning management system, sometimes files uploaded are not accessible to all students. So, for example, as an instructor, I might go to the photocopier, photocopy a document and then send it to myself, email it to myself as a PDF and then upload that to a course.

So, now that’s not really an accessible pdf document. It’s a scanned image so not all students can read that document. And it’s the same thing too. Sometimes they upload other documents that students may require specific applications on the computer to open the document. So, even PowerPoint and Word documents may be an issue.

So, Brightspace may allow the students to view it easily in its viewer, but sometimes if you want students to interact with that document in some way, then they may need to have the software to open it up. So, PDFs work well though, so that’s why we encourage that. The other thing is, when they’re uploading these documents, sometimes there’s no purpose stated why the file is there.

So, explaining to the students whether expected, it might be okay if they’re using the Brightspace as a learning management system to supplement their on-campus teaching. They’re probably given the explanations in class, but if your students couldn’t make it to class or this is a fully online course or a blend, then getting into the practice of doing that. And finally, I sometimes see at the end of an assignment description, a sentence added just to give students a choice on how they submit the assignment. 

And that might be a last-minute change. But when you look deeper, students aren’t told or given information I guess about how to complete the assignment if they’re given more choices, like if they can do a video or if they can do an infographic, sometimes the technology recommended is not accessible to our students.

And if… They’ve probably haven’t checked back to see if those options that they’re giving now help students achieve the intended learning outcomes or if fits well with their marking scheme or their grading and feedback plans. So, that is some of the things that I see from accessibility.

JA | Right on. What about Cathy? What are some common things that you see in courses and we should have stopped doing those.

CA | Yes, I mean, I think Pam talked about a lot of the access issues and that kind of thing and files, and making sure that students can access the things that they need to access and they can show everything as clear. I think my focus, again, is more on the web development side of things or the… So, some of the things that I see and I’m guilty of myself actually, we’re all guilty of these probably at some point or another, but it’s just stuff that you just get used to. Once you start thinking about it, hopefully, you get better at it.

But I think one common one is that I see when folks use links and they say, click here, click here for more information. And click here is not really providing any information to the students on where the link is going to take them, what’s going to be there when they get to it, what they should expect to see. So, I think writing those, click here, as descriptively as possible.

So, to learn more information about web accessibility guidelines, visit the web accessibility website. Stuff like that. So, I think just being a little bit more descriptive is something we need to do. And yes, I get a few things like I said and they’re all little things but I think they’re little things that make a different to students who are using that technology on the other end. And in keeping with links, I think sometimes you’ll see people use underlining for emphasis.

And what folks may not realise is that students who might have difficulty with colour contrast or something like that, might actually confuse a link with important text or some kind of emphasis, right? So, instead of using underlining for emphasis on text, consider using bolding or even putting the words, important, or something along those line because it can be a little confusing for some students.

Something else that we see quite often is instructors and faculty and anybody for the web would like to use headings that oftentimes instead of using an actual heading, they’ll bold the text or make it bigger, or make it a different colour and they’ll make it stand out. So, really, it’s just paragraph that’s been styled differently.

And the concern with when you do it like that is that if a students is using a screen reader, then they wouldn’t necessarily know that that’s a section of content because screen readers announce headings and that kind of stuff. So, they would say, heading and this is a section, so they would know. So, then students can pick and choose what they want to read first or that kind of thing. it helps them. It gives them that organisational structure in their minds, I guess. Same thing with tables. And this was probably more of an issue when I started web design 20 years ago, that people used to use tables for layout.

They would want information displayed on the left-hand side and they’d want to compare and contrast. Say, you’ve got this versus that or pros versus cons, and so instead of using a list they would use tables. They would put the pros over and the cons over here. And again, anyone who’s using a screen reader, they wouldn’t see that layout. They wouldn’t get that relationship.

So, I think in those cases, use elements as they would be meant to be used. So, use lists instead of the tables for layout. Don’t rely on that kind of stuff. Like I said, it was a common thing I think and it probably still is a little bit common for some people but not so much as what it was. Pam mentioned this one a little bit too, the images of text and she mentioned the scanned PDFs. And again, this was something that… And like I say, we’re not…

My degree didn’t teach me all these little things that I should be avoiding. It was stuff that we picked up along the way, so at some time we used to have scanned PDFs and so it was literally just an image of text. And so, again, when you’ve got a screen reader, screen readers can't read images of text. They read actual text. So, instead of using those scanned images and images of text, consider…

If you have no other option, you can even try an OCR technology. I think that an Optimal Character Recognition technology I think. I just know the acronym. But I think that even that kind of thing would help you get that text in an actual text format that a screen reader can read. And it’s really not just about the screen readers when we talk about text because it’s also about… Some students might like viewing their content at 150%.

Some students might prefer a different type of a font. They might prefer a different colour background. And so, when we’re using real text instead of images, they can actually make those adjustments with their browser. So, they can view the content according to their preference.

JA | That’s so true.

CA | Right? They’re not limited in that way. So, I think there’s times when maybe we can't avoid [unclear] text, and those are the times where we rely on the alt text and the alternative text and that kind of stuff, right?

But where possible, try to think about that. Try to keep things in a text format.

TI | Okay, yes.

CA | I think with videos, one of the things… And I really only caught on to this, honestly, recently probably.  With video, I think we’ve got a tendency to describe what’s being said buy we often forget about what’s on the screen.

So, we give a transcript the sort of transcript that’s just the transcript of the audio, but in the meantime it’s not descriptive enough to explain what’s happening on the screen. So, in cases lots of times now when we have courses but we’ll give a transcript. We’ll also provide a PowerPoint so that in case the students have that content, they can use it that way. And assuming it’s been designed accessibly, they can used it as a text alternative.

But I think even just keeping that in mind and saying, okay, this is all the stuff I’m talking about but what about the things I’m displaying on the screen? Maybe I might even want to consider just adding that to the transcript so that the students know what it’s in relation to, right?

JA | Yes.
CA | So, I mean it’s a bit of an exhaustive list but it’s all stuff that I picked up by myself [overtalking].

TI  | Yes. Thank you so much for that very detailed response. We love it, and I’m sure it’s going to be of great value to our listeners.

And I just want to ask you this final question, which is going to be the takeaway. Our listeners must leave this conversation with very powerful instructional words. So, what would you say is your final words to our listeners? Whether they are students, they are educators, they are web designers like, they are an instructional designer like you. So, what would you tell them in terms of accessibility and who to implement it even better?

CA |
Yes, I think… My words of wisdom. I think probably what I found is that we have a tendency to look at things, making things accessible after the fact. So, the course has been developed, the images have been created, the videos have been created. So, then we look at it and we say, okay, so now let’s add the transcripts, let’s add the alt text, let’s add all these things that are going to make stuff more accessible.

But I think we need to back it up a little bit and think about it more in terms of when we’re writing the content even, way back before everything is developed and think about those. Even if you just put yourself in that mindset and you consider those different types of learners that have not just different disabilities but different preferences. And you have that in the back of your mind as you’re developing your content. I think that you’ll save time later down the road. You won't have these long videos where you’re trying to provide transcripts and stuff like that.

And I think things don’t have to happen overnight. You can pick away at it. You can take a video, make it more descriptive. Take an image, make it more descriptive. Maybe you’ve got an image that would be better in a text format, so you can work on that. So, it’s little bits and pieces. It doesn’t have to sound so overwhelming, I guess, and it’s not all stuff that needs to be done right away.

PA | Well, I was thinking to tell students immediately upfront the course resources and the tools they’re going to be using and what’s excepted.

Because then, that gives them time to review these resources and actually use maybe some of technology tools to make sure that some of the barriers were reduced. And if they have not been, then they have time to work with us to solve some of these issues.

And because we use PowerPoints so much for lectures, I often see, as I said earlier, PowerPoints a lot of text and not a consistent design throughout. So, I would say to faculty and instructors, use the predesigned layouts withing Brightspace so that… They’ve been designed and meet accessibility. So, colour contrast and fonts and the backgrounds have been considered.

Also, we can help design a template if they want. The other thing, in Brightspace, we do have templates designed as well. So, when I talked about that you embed videos or your files, instead of standalone, you can imbed them within topic pages within Brightspace. Well, we have preformatted pages that we help with that have been formatted with accessibility in mind as well.

And lastly, when they’re thinking about, in the planning stages, working out the details of the assignments and consider the educational, I guess, characteristics and functions of the technology that’s being used. That will help them determine whether the technology supports their learning and their teaching requirements. And on our website, we have the learning technology index that lists a collection of software and web services that can be used for teaching and learning.

And included in there, there’s a rubric that they can use as a guide one day if they’re waiting or assessing any technology.

TI | Thank you very much. We just want to thank you two for coming and joining us today in the production studio of the Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. We really appreciate the robust conversation we’ve had so far. Thank you again, Pam and Cathy.
We hope that we’ll get to see you again when we invite you. Definitely you’ll come because if we keep this conversation going, we’re going to sleep here today. Thank you again, Pam and Cathy. Have a good day.

CA | Thank you.
PA | Thank you.

TI |
That was a really informative session, and I loved how they responded comprehensively to each of the questions we asked them. Javad, what’s your big learning moment from this interview?

JA | My big learning moment was about the crucial importance of incorporating universal design for learning principles into any educational endeavour. I learnt today that it’s crucial to prioritise to prioritise UDL before considering any other factors because it simply plays a vital role in eliminating barriers and ensuring same access for all users.

In this case, all learners. One significant aspect of UDL that I learnt today is the value of time in design process, as Pam and Cathy have said, by engaging with and leveraging a diverse range of resources upfront, both instructors and even students can benefit greatly from the resulting design. I guess in a nutshell, by prioritising UDL we foster the environment where all learners have equal opportunities to success, regardless their background or abilities.

So, for me, I think it’s essential to make UDL an integral part of any educational design process right from the front. What about you, Timilehin?

TI | Absolutely, I share the same sentiments with you. That was a really good capture of everything we did today.
I just want to add to what you said that every little detail matters because in this sense, if you look at it from the perspective of Pam and Cathy, they really understand how this course content have been developed. But you as an instructor, you might just be doing your own thing as a professor and then… But if you can just reach out to the experts in the field, they’ll be able to help you to get out the best content. If you work at Memorial, you have Pam and Cathy. They are working with this Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. You can walk down to the TLX, we have the learning technology coaches.

We are here to help you. And of course, even if you are outside the university community, if you are outside in your own university, you can reach out to the Pam and Cathys of your own university. I’m sure there is somebody there to help you to make your courses more accessible. Thank you very much for staying with us throughout this interview. We just want to thank you again. Until we see you the next time, I reman Timilehin.

JA | And my name is Javad.
TI | Bye-bye.

JA | Goodbye.

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


Episode Introduction
Guest Introduction
Defining accessibility
Providing equity through UDL
Common practices to avoid in instructional design
Advice when designing a course
Summary - Big Learning Moment!