Teaching & Learning Champions 26: Student Accessibility Services support for faculty and students in online courses
June 29, 2021
Today on Teaching & Learning Champions, we’re joined by Dr. Lauren Sebel, Director, Student Accessibility Services, as we talk about how Student Accessibility Services supports faculty and students in online courses.
Thanks for listening to TLC @ ACC!
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[Matthew Evins:] Welcome to another episode of ‘Teaching and Learning Champions’. I’m Matt Evins, Director of Academic Technology in the Teaching and Learning Excellence Division at ACC. Before I introduce our special guest, all ACC faculty and staff are invited to our annual Summer Software Day on July 23. This event provides you with an opportunity to keep up-to-date with your tech skills and learn new ones to implement in your classrooms and day-to-day tasks. Learn more and subscribe to event updates online at austincc.edu/softwareday. Today, I’m joined by Lauren Sebel, Director of Student Accessibility Services, as we talk about how Student Accessibility Services supports faculty and students in online courses. Lauren, thank you very much for joining me today.
[Lauren Sebel:] Thank you for having me.
[Matthew Evins:] I know we talked a little bit before we started recording, and it’s been a busy one for both of us as we start to talk about and plan for the transition back to campus. But I wanted to take some time today to talk to you a little bit about SAS and the services that you provide. Obviously, things changed drastically about 18 months ago, and so I want to talk a little bit about how the services for Student Accessibility Services have changed as a result of that. So let’s go ahead and start. For those that are not familiar or maybe who don’t regularly engage with your group, can you tell us a little bit about Student Accessibility Services and what types of services and support you provide to students?
[Lauren Sebel:] Absolutely. So SAS provides accommodations for students with documented disabilities — that’s the baseline for what we do — but we also provide alternative texts to students who may need a text-to-speech software. Any student that has a disability for instance in reading or maybe processing gets a license for Kurzweil. We also help navigate coursework in Blackboard. For instance, if a student is blind or visually impaired, we’ll ask the instructor to add us to their Blackboard class so that we can go in and see what we need to do to make the course accessible to all students. We also sometimes provide advising and schedule-building for students. And then we’re there just as a r
esource for them to get help him with anything that they need to be able to access, not only their courses but any event at ACC.
[Matthew Evins:] That’s great! That’s a wonderful service for our students. On the faculty side of things, when and how do faculty typically hear from SAS in terms of them possibly having students in their courses with accessibility needs?
[Lauren Sebel:] So students are responsible for picking up their accommodation letters from us and they need to present those to their instructors. On occasion, we will contact instructors (for instance, if a student is blind or visually impaired), so that we can set up a semester planning meeting with them to make sure that all the materials and coursework is accessible to students. Our Interpreting Services Department (Ginger Bennett), they send out an email to the instructor letting them know that they’re going to have an interpreter in their class, both whether it’s virtual or in person, and instructions on how to set up Zoom, which is the preferred platform for students who are deaf, how to pin interpreters, also asking them to allow interpreters — or adding them to their Blackboard class as a student or a TA so that they can have access to the materials ahead of time to learn it. And then of course we’ll answer any questions for faculty. I send out a welcome letter every semester to faculty with some general information about our services and some do’s and don’ts, a copy of what our accommodation letter looks like, and then information about testing through our offices for students.
[Matthew Evins:] Wonderful. Several of the services that you mentioned are — let’s say unique to teaching online, whether it’s the use of Zoom or assistance with navigating and making modifications to a Blackboard course. Can you talk a little bit about how SAS has, how the services have changed over the last 18 months since the college’s shift to fully online courses?
[Lauren Sebel:] Yeah. So, like most everybody in the college, I worked during Spring Break 2020 to make sure that we would be able to continue to provide all services to students and created a COVID edition of our ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About SAS but were Afraid to Ask,’ because there were a lot of changes. Fortunately, we were able to continue all of accommodations for students, which is great, including, you know, virtual interpreters, virtual access assistance, testing, our testing staff. Because ACC live testing through the testing centers has a two-hour limit on how long a student can be proctored, we have been proctoring students, contacting the instructors to talk about test administration, how to make sure their test is accessible. Everything we do now is online. We have an online application. Obviously students are meeting with folks right now online, which has been great for our students since there are a lot of barriers out there, sometimes even just getting to campus. We have a SAS referral form now for faculty and staff. If a student tells them they have a disability, they can contact us and we’ll reach out to the student. We’ve partnered with TLED and have some brand-new information on the TLED website under accessibility. There’s ‘Top 10 Things SAS Wants You to Know.’ There’s also information about accessibility and then about the faculty responsibilities that they have for their online courses. So synchronous courses have been easier to navigate than the asynchronous courses since students can, you know, log in at 3 AM if we want to. But we are not going to provide any assistance at that time of day — thank goodness! Maybe one day we will, I don’t know. But it’s been a really interesting shift. I think in some ways it’s been easier for faculty, you know, getting on Blackboard, making sure everything is accessible. We’ve had a few hiccups when a class was listed as asynchronous and then it turned out to be a synchronous class. That presents challenges for us sometimes, especially with interpreters. But, overall, we’ve just tried to get as much information out to faculty as possible, given, you know, the online environment, which is really different from face-to-face.
[Matthew Evins:] Sure. Based on all these changes that your area has adopted since the move to fully online courses, have you noticed any changes in the success rate of those students who require accessibility services, just as a result of the fully online courses?
[Lauren Sebel:] I am really glad you asked that, because I am very happy to report that our students persisted from Fall ’19 to Fall ’20 around 7%, which was higher than traditional students. And from Fall ’20 to Spring ’21, about 4%. So our success rate is actually higher than that of the traditional students, which makes me really, really happy. We also discovered that students didn’t necessarily need the same accommodations that they had for face-to-face courses that were needed online. So, for instance, notetaking support, they didn’t need that, because notes were posted ahead of time or videos were there and captioned, so students could rewatch the videos and take their own notes. So, while we saw an increase of students requesting services, we saw a slight decrease during spring, summer, and then into the fall of 2020 for students who actually needed to use their approved accommodations, which I think says a lot about accessibility.
[Matthew Evins:] And the success rate is fantastic. I guess as a follow-up to that, as the college starts preparing to move back to on-campus, in-person classes, in addition to the elevated number of distance courses, what concerns do you have from an accessibility standpoint that we might encounter during that transition back to what some would consider a traditional delivery method?
[Lauren Sebel:] So one of the biggest concerns we have is that instructors will walk into a classroom and have paper handouts. So, obviously, if you have a blind student in your class, a paper handout isn’t going to do them much good. So we would really like for instructors to continue posting materials in Blackboard for students to use. The other concern we have is we do have some students that require physical assistance. And so we’re trying to navigate that with our safety team to make sure that we’re not overloading a classroom with an extra person, or even the two interpreters that are assigned to face-to-face classes. So we’re trying to work through that right now. I think that we’ll be okay. You know, we’re kind of in a difficult place right now not being able to ask if students are vaccinated and not really even being able to ask that somebody wear a mask. So we want to be mindful of absolutely the safety of our students, some of whom are immunocompromised, and we would recommend that, you know, they probably not come to campus. Interestingly, we receive a daily registration report for our students, and 87% of the classes our students have registered for for the fall are distance learning.
[Matthew Evins:] For those faculty members who might be new to ACC or new to teaching in higher education in general, what tips do you have for them as they start preparing for the fall semester, even before they may or may not hear from your area or their own students about those students who need accommodations?
[Lauren Sebel:] Great question! So my new mantra is that access is everyone’s responsibility. And we had a panel yesterday through TLED where we talked about some of these things. Number one, try to use an OER book. Those are almost immediately accessible to students and even students that use text-to-speech readers. Have accessibility in your mind at the front of your class. It’s a lot easier to think about it at the beginning while you’re creating your course than to have to go in and retrofit something in order to accommodate a student. There is an administrative rule about the use of universal design, and I want faculty to be aware of that. Universal design is a basic principle that states that everything should be accessible to as many people as possible regardless of their abilities. So just starting out with accessibility in mind would be a huge step for us and a big benefit to the students. So make sure your texts are accessible. Make sure that all your course materials are accessible. If you’re using Blackboard, take advantage of Blackboard Ally, which will grade your documents in Blackboard and tell you how accessible they are. And then it will give you suggestions and instructions on how to fix it. Work with your instructional designers. Work with TLED. Work with whoever you have to work with to make sure that your courses are accessible to people. You know, we know how many students we have registered with our offices, but we also know that there are a lot of students who never come to us for services. So thinking about accessibility at the forefront ensures that everything is accessible to all students.
[Matthew Evins:] The fact that I have a background in instructional design makes me really glad that you referenced Universal Design of Learning, because it’s a really important framework for all instructors, regardless of which modality they’re teaching in.
[Lauren Sebel:] Exactly! And the AR is 1.01.002. It literally is the second administrative rule that talks about universal design. You know, the other thing that we’ve talked about a lot with TLED and faculty development is to really look at how you’re assessing students. For tests, what do you need to know that they have learned? And how can they show you that they’ve learned it? You know, multiple-choice tests are not great for every student. Writing essays may not be great for every student. So think about alternative assessments. You know, is there a reason or a need anymore for a seven-hour physics test? What is it you’re trying to get at? I think that that’s really important and I hope that, you know, faculty development and TLED will kind of work on that with instructors. And so I think this last 15, 16 months has showed us what we’re capable of in an online environment and how we can continue to carry on what we’ve done the last 18 months and, you know, back to face-to-face courses.
[Matthew Evins:] Great. You’ve mentioned a couple of resources already. You mentioned the workshop that you did yesterday with TLED, the instructional designers of course, but what types of training and support do you provide for faculty? Or what resources may be out there, even if you’re not the ones providing it, who may not be familiar with how to teach with an accessibility mindset?
[Lauren Sebel:] Good question! So TLED featured us in their calendar this year, and this is our month. And we worked with Dr. Rachel Barrera and Courtney Grams to set up additional information about accessibility on the TLED website. It’s under the accessibility link. We have partnered with faculty development to come present and talk with instructors during their onboarding process, and also they have, like, it’s almost like speed dating where instructors can go from table to table of all the supports that are available for students, and we have the opportunity to talk to them there. We are available to come talk at your departmental meeting. We also have this ongoing ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know about SAS but were Afraid to Ask.’ We’ve participated in the Remote Recess several times now, and you can find the recordings of those sessions, including testing in a virtual environment, how accommodations work in a virtual environment, quick facts that you need to know about working with students with disabilities. So there’s a lot of information out there for faculty, and I hope that they take advantage of it.
[Matthew Evins:] Wonderful! Well, Lauren, that brings us to the end of today’s interview. I want to thank you for joining us today. Before I let you go though, one question I do ask all of the guests on our podcast is is there anything giving you Riverbat Pride this week?
[Lauren Sebel:] Absolutely! I am really, really proud of my staff, who have worked really hard over the last 18 months to continue to provide excellent customer services and accommodations to students. And I’m really, really excited about the partnership that we’ve created with TLED and also faculty development. And, one final thing, after months of a lot of hard work and a lot of hours, we have a new website up for students that is — I think it’s awesome. Of course I wrote much of the content, but it’s available at austincc.edu/sas. Lots of new information there for our current students, returning students, deaf/blind students. There’s an FAQ that may have answers to questions that faculty get sometimes. So everybody go check it out.
[Matthew Evins:] Wonderful! Well, Lauren, thank you again very much for your time today. I think this information has been great and I’m sure very useful for those that listened to our podcast. So thank you very much for joining me today.
[Lauren Sebel:] Thank you for having me, Matthew. I appreciate it.
[Matthew Evins:] Well, that wraps up another episode of ‘Teaching and Learning Champions.’ Don’t forget that you can read episode transcripts on the TLED blog and find links to any resources we referenced during the show. I also encourage you to subscribe to the ACC district podcasts on any of your preferred podcast apps or listen to individual episodes on the TLED website. You can learn more about the Teaching and Learning Excellence Division and keep up with everything relevant to the faculty experience at ACC by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. Simply text ‘ACCTLED’ in all caps to 22828 to subscribe. And of course you can find us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at ACCTLED. Thank you again for tuning in, and we’ll chat next time on TLC@ACC.
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