Attending to Accessibility at the Outset of Teaching Online

For instructors and teaching assistants (TAs), teaching online can profoundly change the way we approach our work: how we select, prepare and deliver content, the ways we connect with students, the cues we get about student learning… and so on. These differences have accessibility implications that we explore throughout the module.

When asked to convert a typically in-person class or tutorial to an online offering, many instructors and TAs will be making a number of significant decisions with regards to how they will undertake this task – particularly if they are new to teaching online in general. We want to provide information that will help you avoid creating accessibility barriers from the outset before you develop or refine your habitual (and hopefully more accessible!) online teaching routines.

As Pichette, Brumwell, and Rizk (2020) have recently noted in their Ontario-based research report on “Improving the Accessibility of Remote Higher Education: Lessons from the Pandemic and Recommendations”, the move to online teaching and learning is encouraging many instructors to adopt accessibility principles:

Online teaching, which is new for many instructors, is providing an opportunity to reconsider pedagogy, material and tools, in order to ensure that content is engaging and materials are accessible. Many instructors are now experimenting with new collaboration tools and creative assessment options. They are also drawing on technology advancements to make some accommodations moot… (p. 20)

This is indeed an exciting development and we hope this module supports you, too, in embracing accessibility principles as you reimagine teaching in the online environment.

Accessibility is Within Your Control as an Educator

In the in-person classroom, the mediation of some physical or technological accessibility barriers is outsourced to other units such as Facility Services, Campus Classroom Technologies, or the Registrar’s Office (e.g., to request a more accessible classroom; to issue service requests for physical hazards or malfunctioning classroom technology). Academic accommodations, often conflated with proactive accessibility, are also often out-sourced to units such as Student Accessibility Services. In an online course, however, accessibility becomes largely within the purview of the instructor, who often has a greater degree of autonomy in the design of the students’ learning experiences.

As mentioned in the introduction, this module attends to three main components of online teaching where potential accessibility barriers may arise: the online learning environment, the creation or selection of course content, and social relationships within the course. Within each of these components, there are actions within your scope of influence as an educator. Below, we describe these components of online teaching, identify their accessibility goals, and specify areas for educators to prioritize.

Component of Online Teaching Accessibility Goal Decisions within Instructor Control
Online Learning Environment Accessible course activities and assessments, and the optimal selection and use of available technologies to facilitate accessibility in teaching and learning How the course is designed, which technologies you choose and how you use them
Content Creation & Selection Student access to effective course material What content you create and/or incorporate, and how you make it accessible
Social Relationships in the Course A supportive and welcoming online space where students are engaged, included and able to learn How you create the conditions to encourage students to interact with you and each other in a respectful and positive manner

Throughout this module, we hope to enhance your comfort in taking some steps to anticipate and mediate potential barriers in your online course, starting with what is feasible for you.

Accessibility is not a destination, but an ongoing process as we develop our teaching practice over time.


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