How Centennial College supports accessible learning at a distance
At Centennial College, we’re dedicated to making our learning accessible to all students so everyone can fully participate, no matter their level of ability. Moving to online learning during the pandemic has brought its own set of challenges, but we’ve risen to those challenges. Teresa Lee is the Accessibility and UDL Lead at the Centre for Global Citizenship Education and Inclusion (GCEI), which means that it’s a big part of her job. She teaches the teachers and works to make sure our learning is accessible. We spoke to her about the shift to distance learning, and how we’re supporting accessibility during these times.
How accessibility happens
“What we do is recognize barriers within the learning environment, especially access to course content and learning experiences for students with disabilities,” Teresa says about her role. “A lot of our work at GCEI is around providing workshops and resources so that faculty can build curriculum that proactively removes barriers and provides a more inclusive learning environment for students. We focus on creating accessible learning content, and also integrate inclusive teaching strategies to benefit all because we do have a diverse student population.”
“We have a large number of students who are registered with the Centre for Accessible Learning and Counselling Services (CALCS)” Teresa says. More than 3,000 students registered with CALCS last year, a lot of them with non-physical disabilities, so there’s certainly a large audience at the college for accessible learning.
“Creating inclusive learning environments with accessibility in mind benefits more than just students with disabilities. More than half of our students are international students,” she adds, “so they also come in with diverse language abilities and cultural backgrounds. Inclusive learning environment can ensure these students can thrive as well! We also work closely with the co-curricular departments to ensure those events and activities are built with accessibility in mind.”
Their philosophy: Universal Design for Learning
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) promotes understanding that all students learn differently. “UDL is really a framework for inclusive teaching,” Teresa explains. “It’s a framework for curriculum design and delivery, based on scientific findings, to motivate the students, make the learning more meaningful and relevant, and provide flexible options for students to learn and show what they have learned.”
The shift to learning at a distance
With Centennial moving to teaching at a distance, there’s been a drive to make sure that the virtual learning environment is accessible to all. “The biggest thing is that the shift has made us focus on how you create that inclusive environment in an online space, a virtual space,” Teresa says. “When I was working with faculty prior to the pandemic, the large majority of courses were being delivered on campus. Now we have to consider creating online content that can be accessed not only by students who use assistive technology, but also by all other students who use a wide variety of devices to access content, and not all of the devices will be equally compatible with the content if it’s not created with accessibility in mind.” In other words, an important new factor now is making sure course content and activities can be accessed on as many different devices as possible.
What’s the most important accommodation these days?
“There is a lot of questions around assessment,” Teresa says. “Traditionally a lot of the courses used quizzes and tests where there was a classroom set up that students come to, while faculty walk around the room to ensure that everyone is on track.”
“Some teachers are trying to mimic that in the online environment by using a timed quiz at a certain time with invigilation tools like having the camera on, or having students use the lockdown browser software,” she continues. “But that really doesn’t work for many students, because these tools may not be compatible with assistive technology they may be using, they may not be able to find a quiet space, or they might have a childcare duty during that specific timing, so we’ve been getting teachers to think about how we can provide flexible assessment options, like a take-home test that doesn’t require a set timeframe or invigilation software, so that students are able to still demonstrate what they have learned without having to face these additional barriers.”
How they’re continuing to make things accessible
“Centennial is working on creating online courses for the summer and fall,” Teresa says, “and what we’re doing at GCEI is making sure all of the external content that we’re putting into those courses is accessible. So our team took on testing the accessibility of the content to make sure we can find any issues students might encounter, and find accessible alternatives. We’re also running workshops teaching faculty how to create accessible and engaging learning experiences for students and use inclusive teaching strategies that could reduce the need for individualized accommodations for students with disabilities.”
“We’re also doing usability testing on the tools students use to access co-curricular events,” Teresa continues. “The Experience Centennial app is something students use to explore events and resources on campus, so we’re working with the Student Life team to gather feedback from students to make sure that the app is really easy to use and accessible.”
“Our team is also working with Library and Learning Services,” she continues, “and we’re in the middle of recreating training materials for tutors to teach them about Universal Design for Learning so they can work effectively and supportively with students with disabilities.”
Easing student concerns
The end goal is to make sure that students know that they can all get the same great education, without barriers to access, and if not, GCEI and CALCS are there for them. “We do take that co-creation approach with students and teachers,” Teresa says. “For any accommodation issues, for instance, CALCS’ Accommodated Course Assessment and Technology Specialists (ACATS) work with students and teachers to find the best options that work for them. So any concerns that students with disabilities may have, it’s best that they raise them by contacting CALCS. You can also anonymously share your accessibility concerns by filling out a form on the College’s Accessibility webpage. We can come up with solutions together along with faculty and leaders doing their best to collaboratively remove as many barriers as possible and create an inclusive learning environment for all.”
By: Anthony Geremia