How colleges can become truly digitally accessible

Colleges are now required to adhere to digital accessibility regulations – and this can benefit all students and staff
21st May 2020, 12:23pm
Rohan Slaughter and Kellie Mote


How colleges can become truly digitally accessible
Global Accessibility Awareness Day: How To Make Your College Digitally Accessible Amid The Coronavirus Crisis

As we mark Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2020 today, it's easy to argue that digital accessibility is more important than ever. We're in the middle of a pandemic, which has pushed colleges off-site and moved the focus to home-based study. Through this transition, principals and staff seek to deliver high-quality online education and training without barriers or discrimination. Let's seize this opportunity to support all learners. After all, accessible content is just well-produced content.   

There are challenges - not least in the form of the recently introduced digital accessibility regulations. These require compliant accessibility statements for any newly created or substantively reviewed websites and digital resources of publicly-funded organisations - which includes many universities, further education settings and sixth form colleges. 

And yet, research gathered over the past year, with an update published earlier this month, shows that a little more than 30 per cent of universities and only 2.9 per cent of FE colleges have such statements in place. That equates to just 11 colleges throughout the UK. Phase two of the digital accessibility regulations will come into force in just four months' time, requiring all college websites and related systems - both new and old - to be fully compliant by 23 September 2020.

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It isn't hard to see why so few have met the requirements so far. While the will to improve accessibility and input assistive technology in the FE sector is great, IT, web and digital teams are working at maximum capacity during the pandemic, and both they and overstretched college leaders have had to respond at speed. They're delivering as much remote learning as possible to diverse learners, some of whom have little or no access to wi-fi or appropriate digital devices. But, in the rapid move from colleges to home, some students with additional support needs may not have access to the assistive technology that they normally use.  

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The good news is technology continues to improve - and there's a wealth of support and resources out there to help colleges to implement the regulations. Moreover, there's an institution-wide business case supporting action here, because the benefits of meeting the accessibility regulations won't just support learners with additional need - it can improve learning for most people.  

While creating accessible websites and learning materials, and adopting inclusive practices such as lecture capture, are essential for students with specific support needs, these approaches also benefit all students who currently can't attend on-site classes. Lecture capture enables learners to take their lessons at a time that suits them. Captioning video files or using speech-to-text translations helps deaf and hard-of-hearing learners, but also supports students who are studying in a noisy environment, for example. Given the disruption to normal routines that we're all currently experiencing, the relevance and usefulness of improved accessibility is clear.  

In recent years - and particularly in recent months - Jisc has been working with colleges and universities to raise awareness of the incoming digital accessibility regulations and support institutions to move beyond compliance to strategically embed the changes that support all staff and students.  

The importance of a digital audit

The most important thing that colleges at the start of their accessibility journey can do is to audit their digital estate to identify what improvements are needed to meet the regulations. From there, write a compliant accessibility statement that is both useful to disabled students and meets the requirements of the regulations. The next step is to build a remediation plan to start making things better. It's crucial that colleges do this, as there are limited grounds to claim that meeting the regulations "is too much for an organisation to reasonably cope with".  

Jisc's accessibility drop-in clinics can be helpful to support this work. Additionally, there are free resources to help librarians source accessible content. The Digital Accessibility Working Group has a Digital Accessibility Toolkit, and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology has published an accessible virtual learning environments report. The government's digital service has a sample accessibility statement.  

We've seen some inspiring work in colleges, too. Coleg Gwent, for example, has achieved regulatory compliance, even with the additional challenge of having a bilingual website. The University of the Highlands and Islands, which provides courses at FE and HE level - often to learners in remote areas impacted by the digital divide - has embedded accessibility in its learning and teaching enhancement strategy, ensuring that everyone benefits from well-designed, high-quality resources. These organisations recognise the broader benefits of meeting accessibility regulations - improving the student and staff experience - as well as considering the ethical and legal reasons to act. 

As this shows, while Global Accessibility Awareness Day is being celebrated today, accessibility is something that education providers think about every day. Done well, it can make things better for everyone. And, despite the current challenges, this is a goal around which all colleges can unite. 

Rohan Slaughter and Kellie Mote are subject specialists in assistive technology and accessibility at Jisc, a membership organisation providing digital solutions for UK education and research

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