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Recently, Luke interviewed Dr Brian Moss, Lecturer in Criminology in the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology to disseminate his approach to accessibility of teaching materials.

This interview is the first in a series of three, whereby the digital learning team will share our academic experiences of improving digital accessibility. Book a 1-2-1 with Luke Searle to learn how to improve the accessibility of your learning content.

What does accessibility mean to you?

Accessibility means making content available to everyone which can be used to foster equal outcomes. Previously I had studied the impact of technology on children with disabilities and using this knowledge, as well as knowledge gained throughout my career I have always aimed to design accessible content. That said, this hasn’t led to me spending hours on making content accessible, rather it has led me to check small things to ensure content is accessible, this has become very quick to do with Blackboard Ally.

Why does accessibility matter to you?

Raising the levels of accessibility in learning content helped my content to be engaging. Students learning from non-traditional environments is challenging. The need for engaging content puts more weight on the content needing to be accessible, particularly when students are learning from environments that we cannot shape. It was important to create a connection that is similar to a physical classroom since students will likely have increased barriers to overcome outside the classroom. Ensuring the content is accessible helps to limit the number of barriers, which creates that in-person classroom experience online.

For me, accessibility encompasses well-being too. During my own seminars, if I am using breakout rooms, I will be sure to visit the breakout rooms to see if support is wanted. I have often found that students are more likely to ask questions in smaller groups. When I was studying for my PhD, at times it was a lonely experience. So to counter this feeling, I want to engage with my students as regularly as possible. I find it invigorates learning engagement.

What is your strategy for making content accessible?

Accessibility is not just online, I have ensured I have clear office hours so that my students know they have a time when I am available outside of our timetables sessions. I do think that the pandemic has made it challenging to make content accessible, as now there is a need for more content to be made accessible. I have dealt with this by checking the accessibility summary at the start of the term and scanning the pages often to locate where the file indicators for content are red, amber and green and making any changes that are required incrementally. This works similar to the National Student Survey results in which you don’t really want to see red. Green icons across your work show that you are on the right track.

One novel learning tool I have used is props and oversized cardboard cutouts of icons for common online tasks such as the chatbox icon. I would show this at the start of each seminar to create an open atmosphere and break down the formality of using web meeting features. This was great for signposting learning activities too – my students enjoyed seeing the novelty cardboard icons. I felt that this method was useful because students would engage more in group work as a result of deformalising the process of asking questions.

What are your top tips for improving accessibility?

  • Colour contrast for text: I always try to use colours that have good contrast between the backgrounds and text. This is particularly important if content overlaps on a slide.
  • Setting a threshold: Using Ally I aim to have my content be accessible, I know it is accessible when the file indicators are green, I always aim for my content to be at least 50% accessible as a minimum.
  • Avoiding PDF files. PDF files are difficult and time-intensive to make accessible, instead, I upload Microsoft Office files to my Blackboard course.

What is an accessibility challenge you have overcome?

One accessibility issue that I had across my module is adding alternative descriptions to images on my slides. I know that this is one of the most common issues on other modules too after speaking with academics. Since seeing the accessibility scores, I have gone through and added alternative text to my images on my slides and on Blackboard and this improved the score by quite a lot. It was easy to do;

  1. Right-click on the image in PowerPoint or click on the accessible file indicator if it’s on Blackboard.
  2. Select Edit Alt Text.
  3. Type in your description.
  4. Voila!

It didn’t take all that long and then I could focus on making critical documents very accessible, such as files that pertain to assessments and the module handbook.

Captions on videos helped to improve the accessibility of content on my module. While I don’t think this is scored with Blackboard Ally [yet], it allows students to access video content using an alternative format. This year was also the first year I had started to use live captioning, which is enabled in Microsoft Teams. This really helped me to curate the amount I have on my slides as I am conscious of cognitive loads for my students.

What are your next steps with your content design?

As educators and content developers, we have a responsibility to ensure that the content we create is engaging and accessible. I feel that I am on the right track by checking the accessibility of my content regularly and will continue to keep this practice. Also, I am committed to keeping up to date with the latest advice and guidance. All the educators across the university very quickly transitioned to online teaching, if we can do this, we can improve our content generally.

Dr Brian Moss, Lecturer in Criminology in the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology

Support is available to help you improve the digital accessibility of your learning content.

Academic voice: Improving digital accessibility with Blackboard Ally (1/3)

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