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Digital education

ALT Winter Conference 2020, blog post 2

29 January 2021

Digital Accessibility 


On 15-16 December 2020, members of Cardiff University’s Digital Education team attended the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) Online Winter Conference. In total, 300 delegates from over 12 countries took part in the event, with the virtual conference hosted using Blackboard Collaborate bringing together experts to discuss the most urgent questions facing institutions as they scale up the use of technology for learning, teaching and assessment.  

In this post Geraint Evans focuses on the theme of accessibility as prompted by discussion in several conference sessions. 

Digital Accessibility in Higher Education 

In an interesting and very timely presentation ‘Catalyst or Distraction: The Global Pandemic and its Impact on Digital Accessibility in Higher Education Dan Clark from the University of Kent talked about how Universities have responded to the newly introduced Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations (PSBAR) and how these responses have been impacted or shaped by the Covid pandemic. 

Dan presented current data gathered from over one hundred Universities in the UK and found that there has been accelerated support for digital accessibility, increased investment in systems and processes, and wider engagement from academic staff. However, several challenges remain – students still report issues such as subtitling errors, audio quality, and incompatibility of content with screen readers, while academic awareness of accessibility is still a work in progress, and there is a general lack of clarity over regulations. 

There is also arguably an over-reliance on automation tools such as automatic captions and tools which provide alternative formats, both of which are part of our approach in Cardiff University. While these are important tools in meeting accessibility obligations it was suggested that automation alone can be counter-productive in that it gives a false sense of security and can be a distraction from our responsibilities as educators and content creators. Also, when it comes to the alternative format functionality of some of these tools – if the original format is not structured, clear, and accessible, then neither will the new format.  

Dan drew an interesting parallel with plagiarism detection tools that, while an essential and embedded part of our approach, cannot do the whole job in detecting plagiarism and poor academic practice, and should not replace awareness raising, education and academic judgement. Therefore, these tools, and accessibility tools, must be used as part of a holistic and nuanced approach that includes communications, guidance and training. 

Embedding Digital Accessibility 

This is something colleagues from the University of Stirling picked up on in their talk ‘10 ways we beat Covid: How learning technologists supported an institutional response to the pandemic‘. Automated tools were an important part of their approach – they turned on automatic captioning for all Panopto video content and rolled out Blackboard Ally across the institution. However, they also used ‘born accessible’ principles to embed awareness and education around accessibility throughout their training offering, including an understanding of why accessibility is important. This includes their own ‘Digital Accessibility Quick Checklist’ which goes beyond legislative guidelines (e.g. WCAG) and includes things such as language (e.g. avoiding acronyms, using a glossary for complex terms) and approach (e.g. releasing content a week in advance, and using the Microsoft accessibility checker). 

Accessibility was one of the five key principles in Cardiff’s own Digital Learning Framework, and this appears to be a feature of many institutions’ approach to the pandemic – colleagues from Dublin City University (in their talk ‘Old wine in new bottles – academics’ pedagogical beliefs and the pivot online’) discussed their ‘Hybrid Learning principles’, of which accessibility is one. Similarly, colleagues from the University of South Wales highlighted how one of their eight Digitally Enabled Active Learning (DEAL) principles was ‘Provide inclusive, accessible and flexibly accessed digital learning material that build understanding and engagement‘ (in their session ‘Harnessing the potential of the pivot online: an institution-wide, pedagogically driven approach’). Overall the impression in that accessibility is at the forefront of most institutions’ thinking, but there is a recognition that much more needs to be done and, as with many other aspects of digital education, it is important that the experiences of the last year inform positive change. In particular, we  need to stop thinking about digital accessibility as a compliance issue and take responsibility for making our tools, processes and content inclusive and accessible. 

Further Information 

Digital accessibility (and the wider topic of inclusive teaching and learning) are ongoing topics of discussion in the University, and the Digital Education team are planning a range of training and resources to support colleagues. In the meantime, you may find these links to further information and resources useful. 

– The intranet has a range of guidelines on supporting students through digital accessibility

-There is also more specific guidance on creating accessible learning materials.  

-A more in-depth read is the Policy Connect and Higher Education Commission report ‘Arriving at Thriving: Learning from disabled students to ensure access for all’, published in October 2020. 

Written by Geraint Evans, Learning Technology Manager