Q&A: Ensuring Accessible Learning at K-State
By Jason Maseberg-Tomlinson, Kansas State University
Note: This Q&A about the creative efforts used to support learners with varying accessibility needs was conducted via email in the late Spring of 2018. Jason Maseberg-Tomlinson is the Director of the Student Access Center at K-State. Shalin Hai-Jew is an instructional designer at K-State.
About Your Office...
Figure 1: K-State's Student Access Center Web Presence
Please describe your position at Kansas State University and what your work entails.
I direct the Student Access Center located in Holton Hall 202. I supervise a staff, work with students, and consult with various university offices to ensure that we are using best practices in making our campus accessible to people with disabilities. Our office works primarily with students enrolled in courses on campus and helps ensure that they have equal access to those courses. We also help make sure that those students also have equal access to the events outside of class including on-campus housing, transportation, or lectures.
How does your office work to support learner accessibility in all learning contexts (F2F, online, and blended)?
Our work is two-fold. First is that we are an office that works with student requests for accommodations. When a student asks for an accommodation we verify the appropriateness of the request and then work to ensure that faculty accommodates the student. We often write accommodation letters for students to provide faculty but in some cases, we also connect with faculty who may need to alter their course to provide accommodations. For example, we communicate directly with faculty who need to caption video, provide alternative text, or move their classroom due to an inaccessible location. This is a reactive process.
On the other hand, we know that access is important for our students, and reacting to a request to provide accommodations can be more troublesome than simply making courses accessible in the first place. We find ways to be proactive by educating faculty and staff on how to make accessible courses from the start. This uses our resources more efficiently so that course materials do not have to be modified quickly at the start of a course. We do this in many ways, being active on many campus committees, working with faculty senate groups, and advocating with campus leaders.
How do learners get support from your office? What outreaches do you do to encourage the interaction? How does this process of learner support usually go?
The most common way a student gets support from our office is by registering and bringing us documentation of a disability. We have an online registration form and information on how to request accommodations at ksu.edu/accesscenter. Our process is very interactive. We meet with the student to make sure that we get as much information as possible and to best understand their needs. When required, we also interact with faculty to provide appropriate accommodations that align with student learning outcomes. It often does not take long for students to register and receive accommodations.
We reach many students through the syllabus in their courses. A syllabus statement regarding the accommodation process is required at K-State. We are also asked to visit many courses on campus with first-year students.
Our office has curated a positive relationship with faculty and their departments over the last four decades. Many of our faculty and staff on campus do an excellent job of informing students about our office when students inquire about accommodations.
Common Learner Needs
What are some of the most common needs of learners with unique needs? Some of the most common combinations of needs?
Many of our students use testing accommodations (extra time or distraction-reduced environments) or other similar accommodations that affect the learning environment more than the content (record lectures, preferential seating). However, it is also becoming more and more common for students to require information in alternative formats. The best example is text in an accessible format as Word, PDF, or PowerPoint. We use digital technologies often and while it is easy for us to create an accessible digital environment, it is also easy to create barriers with digital technology. PDF files, for example, are often made as graphics instead of with text for adaptive technology to read. Students use Read & Write or other text-to-speech software to change the text into spoken word, but most technologies cannot work with a file that is only pictures of words.
Figure 2: Read&Write at K-State
Needs from Online and Blended Learning
What is “accessibility” in an online learning context? What is “accessibility” in a blended learning context?
Accessible environments are those that can be accessed not only with one of our sense but many of our senses. Accessible online learning is text that can not only be read by the eye but also listened to by the ear (most often with adaptive technologies aiding in this process). A video is not only heard but also read on the screen as captions. Accessibility is information that the user can adjust to their needs, not information that requires the user to conform to specific formats.
What are some of the challenges of making live online events (like web events) accessible? What do you suggest for such events?
Live events can be very unpredictable. They are unscripted. It is important to consider as many issues as possible that may come up. It is likely easiest to establish the means to live caption content. This can be done with on-site or remote captionists using the API (application programming interface) for the tool sharing the event. We must also consider what information is being verbally spoken as well as shown visually. Can the speakers adapt to also talk about visual information displayed? Many of our live events are also interactive. Are we using the chat or comment resource for an online event in a way that all can participate?
In some online learning contexts, digital games, simulations, and digital labs are important parts of the online learning. Are there unique accessibility challenges with such enriched types of online learning?
There are times that we find ourselves on the leading edge of educational technology trying to modify environments to be accessible. Much of the time these technologies are built with federal regulations in mind. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act mandates that information technology used by the federal government is built to be accessible and any company building technology to be used by higher education institutions (public or receiving government funding) has this in mind. However, our vast and growing digital environments are often creatively repurposing technologies that may not have been intended for the classroom. Periodically we find ourselves trying to make new technologies accessible and the only option is to re-create content in a new format altogether.
Prezi(R) was a good example of these kinds of technology. It is a very visual presentation tool. When someone is trying to access the text of a presentation with text or screen reading software there are no means to change the format for his or her needs. It is not possible (or at least it has not been in my experience) to output the presentation to a text file or accessible PDF. When this tool first came to higher education, we had faculty re-typing their presentations into a more appropriate format.
How do you stay on top of the changing issues in terms of “accessibility”? What are some good go-to sources online? In this space, what are some of the most dynamic issues?
We have many national organizations and listservs available. ATHEN (Access Technology Higher Education Network), for example, is a network with a listserv and conference of IT and accessibility professionals. Colleagues around the country share their ideas for making new technology accessible. One of the leading resources for web accessibility has been WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind). But some of our most powerful and rich conversations come from working together with faculty and staff on campus to understand a faculty members student learning outcomes and university resources to make those outcomes happen with the technology available on our campus. There are many technologies to choose from and sometimes it is not any one technology that challenges us, it is the combination of technologies that no one has used before that are more challenging.
Figure 3: WebAim.org
Some Legal Aspects
How would you describe the legal context in terms of federal laws related to accessibility? How are the courts approaching institutions of higher education and accessibility?
Frankly, this area has grown in the past seven years, and we will continue to see large changes ahead. Federal laws are changing regularly to help us approach new technologies. A great example is Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act refreshing this year to echo the WCAG 2.0 standards. The federal law took a leap to using international standards and this has not always been the case. It is understood that we have had time to learn how to make digital tools accessible to all individuals and there is less and less room for inaccessible content.
Recent court cases are showing us that we cannot spend too much time making content accessible either. In the past campuses used a more reactive approach to making content and course tools accessible. We waited for a student or staff member to request an accommodation. Today courts and leaning towards a proactive approach. This is especially the case with public information such as MOOCs. Universities with any open courses or content that is viewable by the general public must make that content accessible from the start (with captions on videos, for example) and not wait for a request. With the growing availability of tools to make accessible content (captions for example), it may not be long before courts decide that content used for internal consumption should also be made accessible regardless of having a person with a disability in a classroom.
Methods and Technologies
What are some of the most effective methods you know of to create accessibility for online learning? Some of the most effective tools?
I suggest starting with basic content first: text documents and scripts for video. It is also great to begin in an environment that we know to be accessible, Canvas. That way there is always accessible content available no matter what tools are used later. Besides, the content and learning is our top priority. Technology comes and goes, the content needs to be kept sacred. Faculty can then layer in new technologies but they should consider how well does the technology help students with learning outcomes and is that technology accessible. Some of the most common issues we have run into are technologies that appear trendy and faculty who have moved straight into the technology without thinking about the migration of their content to other systems if the technology does not work. It is best to start simple with content that uses the most common standards (Word documents, text files, transcripts and MP4 files) rather than moving into complex technology that may not have a long lifespan or technology that uses only proprietary files (Prezi, RealMedia). When moving to a new technology, or in some cases a new learning management system tied to a textbook, make sure to talk with the owners of that system and verify that it has been made to adhere to accessibility standards. There are resources available to help you ask the correct questions (https://www.levelaccess.com/10-essential-questions-include-every-rfp-ensure-accessibili/).
Will this issue of learning accessibility be solved mostly by technology? Why or why not?
That is a tough question, and I think that learning accessibility will be aided greatly by technology, but I don’t that it will ever be solved 100%.
Captioning and Math are two great examples. For 20 years, people have been trying to perfect speech-to-text in order to caption video accurately, but computers have a hard time deciphering voice clearly from background noises like fans or fluorescent light bulb vibration. Even for very clear speakers, there always seems to be a few words mistaken in the captions when automated. While this may not be a challenge for someone casually watching YouTube, a few words missed in educational content can cause a student to be confused about a term or concept. We cannot risk it.
Math has long been a challenge as well. Having a computer read math problems aloud is difficult. You can read aloud “1 over x + 1” and have multiple outputs: 1/(x+1) or 1/x + 1. While there are some technologies making progress, it is not mainstream.
Development has come a long way but there are challenges that have taken decades to overcome. There are also some items that human eyes are required. If video has images that are important, captions are needed for those who are deaf, but descriptive audio is also needed for those who are blind. It is one task for a computer to speak objects in the background (Google has done this), it is another to say how they are important to the topic discussed or focus on only those that have meaning to the subject content.
Accessibility Culture and Shared Responsibilities
In the literature, “accessibility culture” is considered important. How do you help create that across campus? How do you foster allies across campus? Alliances across campus?
Today many staff and faculty understand that accessibility is a responsibility we all have. This is a culture that has been curated by our office directors who knew from the early years the importance of making accessibility part of campus culture. Staff in our office are members of many committees on campus and we advocate as much as we can for access to be considered. We have been thankful to also have administrators who understand the importance of accessibility and who advocate for changes in policy that will help ensure accessibility in the future. One of the most helpful gains in our advocacy work has been the recent changes in the literature addressing accessibility culture as not only a response to those with disabilities but to all learners. There are far more discussions today about the importance of captions for visual learners, the usefulness of searchable PDF files, and web design that can be used by student mobile devices. Each of these helps students who are Deaf, with learning disabilities or who are blind. Teaching and learning literature is advocating that universal design really does benefit all students.
Do you have any specific ways to help make people aware of accessibility standards in a felt (experienced) way? Or what are some ways to raise awareness of the accessibility standards?
In many of our conversations, we are talking about the ways accessible design helps all students. We have learned to find common ground with staff and faculty and look to our shared experiences to help others understand their responsibility for accessible design. In the past, we looked for ways to "experience" a disability but we learned that this does not convey the message we wanted. It focused on the "problem" as we see it from the outside but not the usefulness of the solution to all individuals.
Do you have any favorite ways to think about accessibility? Any favorite models for design? Between “universal design” and “alternate design,” do you have preference for one over the other?
I am a fan of "universal design" and the concept that we can make tools for all people. I like the simple example of a TV remote or curb cuts to demonstrate how universal design helps everyone. "Alternate design" or "assistive technology" has a connotation that someone requires help, it creates an "otherness" that, to me anyway, feels as those someone may not be part of mainstream society.
Practically speaking, how do you work to extend the budget and to provide as much service as possible?
I think that we, like other offices, constantly look for ways to collaborate with other units on campus to solve problems in a mutual manner. We look for solutions to multiple problems instead of "unitasker" solutions.
Accessibility Stateside and Abroad
How would you describe the state of accessibility in online and blended learning in the U.S. Why?
Dynamic. I believe that faculty and students are using tools in ways that are brilliant, although never originally intended. Our field is doing the same. We are learning to be creative solution finders. My favorite saying around the start of the semester or finals week is "Problems only exist because we have not found a solution...yet." Problems are temporary and we will constantly find new and unique solutions. For many of us, that is what we enjoy. It is a huge reward to find a new solution and watch a student excel.
What are the most common pressing issues in promoting accessibility?
I think that we all get stuck thinking that there is only one way to do something. That may be one room we always need to teach in, one technology we always need to use, or an experience we feel that students need in a very specific manner. We all get stuck and do not consider how accessible that experience may be and the impact on someone different from ourselves. There are some great ways to make content accessible and the most pressing issue is often that we are not willing to adapt.
How does the U.S. compare to other countries in the world in terms of accessibility in online and blended learning?
That is a great question, and I don't know that I have enough experience to say.
What do you foresee as some near-future challenges and some far-future challenges?
I think that ensuring that ALL videos are captioned and all files are accessible is going to be our challenge both near-term and far. I think that it will challenge budgets and therefore also how we decide what videos to make and not to make. As a country, we may learn to be more efficient with video use. I think that there will be legal pressure to do so, but I think that we will move in this direction to be a more inclusive campus as well. I think that captioning video will show us just how powerful universal design is in helping all individuals.
About the Author
Jason Maseberg-Tomlinson has worked as a professional in higher education for 15 years. For 11 years, Jason has worked with students with disabilities, and for six years he has directed student services offices including the Student Access Center.
Jason has his B.A. in English from Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa. He came to Manhattan in 2000 and worked in the English Department and PILOTS program as an instructor. Before graduating with a master's degree in College Student Personnel in 2003 he also worked as a practicum student for the Student Access Center (then Disability Support Services). This practicum opportunity sparked his passion for adaptive technology and working with students with disabilities.
He worked as an adaptive technology specialist for the University of Akron from 2003 to 2008. In 2008 he returned to Manhattan and served as a disability specialist and then assistant director in the Disability Support Services office. From 2012 until 2016, Jason directed the Student and Faculty Services office at the K-State Global Campus. In 2016 Jason returned to the Student Access Center to direct the office.
He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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