A letter from Vice Provost for Academic Innovation Devon Cancilla

UMKC’s Division of Diversity and Inclusion does a first rate job on our campus of promoting diversity and inclusion.  Materials and programs developed by this group serve as models for the entire UM-System and, I suspect, well beyond.   My experience has been that the UMKC community has generally embraced the values and beliefs associated with diversity and inclusion.  However, believing in these principles is only the first step.  Putting principles into practice is the challenge.   In fact, going beyond the big picture agreement that diversity and inclusion are important, to the implementation of practices that will promote diversity and inclusion, is a significant challenge for many institutions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the accessible or universal design of online courses.

The bottom line is that UMKC, like all institutions receiving federal financial aid, is required to have its digital assets, including online courses, ADA compliant and to be accessible to a diverse population of learners.  This means that online instructors must be sensitive to the needs of a diverse population as they build their online courses.  Putting principles into practice.  Not thinking about accessible or universal design is like designing a new building and having all the classrooms on the top floor but not including ramps and elevators. The design of the building limits the population of students who can access the classroom unless they are provided with specific accommodations.  Remember, accessibility is proactive and anticipates the needs of a diverse population of learners while accommodations are reactive and generally deal with the immediate needs of individuals. I know, a faculty member does not design buildings and so is not responsible for it having an elevator in the building, the university is.   But in the online world, faculty design and build the learning environment that students experience, not the university.  Faculty are familiar with providing accommodations to students in their courses but are generally not up to speed when it comes to designing and building their online (or face-to-face) courses to be broadly accessible.    This is why it is so important for faculty to think about the accessible or universal design of online courses, to think about the design in terms of the broadest range of learners, and to understand how to make courses more broadly accessible.  Again, this is where principles are put into practice.

For the most part, making materials accessible in an online course is actually not that hard to do.  It does however, require a change in how we work and use tools like Word, PowerPoint or Videos.  Much of this centers around the more effective use of settings within these tools.  Surprisingly, many of these tools do not default to the use of settings that help make the output of those products accessible.  A few simple clicks can change that but it requires you to slightly change the way you work with these tools.  UMKC Online provides both training and an extensive collection of tools to help faculty learn about accessibility, how to more effectively use tools like Word, and to think more broadly about the accessibility and universal design of their online courses.  After all, building accessible online courses is the right thing to do.