The Importance of Accessible Technology in Higher Education

May 18, 2023 Watermark Insights

The Importance of Accessible Technology in Higher Education

The lack of support institutions have historically given to students with disabilities can increase challenges in their academic life. Fewer resources and insufficient support increase their risk of dropping out or transferring to other schools. For many, the access to higher education depends on schools having and providing the right resources, tools, and services for their students. 

With the growth of the digital campus course programs and loads of online material that is inaccessible to students with disabilities, institutions are significantly reducing the ability of these students to confer and compete with peers. This impacts the entirety of the institutional culture.

What Is Accessible Technology in Higher Education?

What Is Accessible Technology in Higher Education? 

In general, accessibility refers to how well individuals can receive the tools and resources they need to succeed. Access in higher education can take many forms because each student has unique needs and requirements. 

For example, blind students and students with low vision often require text-to-voice software solutions to read their assignments for classes. This type of accessible technology allows them to participate in assignments. Other students might require more resources to help them thrive. Students with learning disabilities can benefit from academic success departments and tutoring to help teach them strategies to meet their academic goals. 

Beyond access to materials and resources, higher education institutions also must consider technical equity. This concept highlights the idea that some individuals lack access to technology to begin with. Many institutions assume that all students have internet access or laptops at home that they can use to complete assignments or join classes, which is untrue. When creating better accessibility in higher education, schools must also implement strategies to increase technical equity. 

Who Needs Accessible Technology?

Who Needs Accessible Technology? 

When trying to develop education accessibility at your school, understanding the various groups that can benefit from increased technology accessibility and equity better ensures you implement helpful strategies. Some people who can benefit from accessible technology include: 

  • Students with disabilities: Higher education institutions must understand the importance of accessibility for students with disabilities. These individuals often use tools to complete assignments and homework. For example, deaf students require American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters for oral lectures or subtitles on recorded ones, while blind students may need braille, text-to-voice, and alternative (alt) text for videos and images. Technology helps ensure that they can participate. Students with learning disabilities also need extra assistance in their education, and technology can help. Oral aids, like voice-to-text readers, can help students with dyslexia navigate textbook readings or assignment rubrics. Various online resources can help students with learning disabilities stay focused, implement helpful strategies, and connect with their professors and administration. 
  • Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds: Students who cannot afford personal electronics or home internet need accessible technology from their higher education institutions. Many professors assume their students have all the materials they need to complete coursework, leaving these students dependent on limited public resources. These students are more likely to succeed with the right resources available to them. 
  • Students with different learning preferences: Many students need accessible and equitable technology to ensure their academic success and make school easier for them, but others can also benefit from the increased availability of academic tools and resources. Students with different learning preferences and styles can boost their academic success using school resources.

Increased academic accessibility to technology and resources can offer more than just better experiences for students. When students feel supported by faculty and administration, they can form a more positive relationship with their school, helping boost retention and loyalty. Your students will stand by your school and might even advocate for it outside their academic life, which can attract new students and transfers. 

How to Improve Accessibility on Campus

How to Improve Accessibility on Campus 

When trying to improve your campus's access to technology, the right strategies can help you optimize your efforts. Some techniques that can help boost accessibility on campus include: 

  • Encouraging online classes and recorded lectures: Many students can benefit from alternative class structures and types. Online classes often make it easier for individuals with disabilities to apply essential tools and resources without disrupting class or experiencing distractions. However, recorded lectures and asynchronous classes can also benefit others. Sick students can stay home and rest without missing vital information, while commuting students can save time and money by staying home and streaming rather than traveling to campus. 
  • Highlighting the benefits of online textbooks: Many individuals see textbooks as a crucial resource for studying students but fail to notice how inaccessible they are to many. The printed format is unsuitable for blind and visually impaired students, and books are often very costly. Online formats can boost accessibility because they often come with readers and other beneficial features, like highlighters, videos, and interactive study guides. Further, they are cheaper and easier to transport. 
  • Providing several assignment formats: Schools should aim for a proactive approach when addressing accessibility rather than a reactive one. Proactive practices ensure that students have everything they need without a waiting period. Professors and administration can increase their proactiveness by anticipating multiple needs and offering more formats for each assignment and lesson. For example, professors might offer video essays in addition to traditional ones, benefiting blind students or those who prefer to think out loud. 

Regardless of how your school implements accessibility, you will want to optimize proactivity. When students can receive resources and tools without asking for them, they can improve their performance and access to higher education. 

Further, your school should avoid making assumptions about your student population. Each student has various circumstances off and on campus, making their needs challenging to predict at any given movement. Focusing on increasing overall accessibility rather than addressing individual needs can improve your institution's efforts and student satisfaction. 

Accessibility at the Forefront 

When considering accessibility for your school, you should be familiar with the legislation and research that already exists on the topic. Awareness can help administrators and accessibility teams implement proper strategies that benefit your student population. Some information on accessibility and technology include: 

  • Federal compliance: The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Justice (DOJ) adopted specific Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), WCAG 2.1, as the national standard. It applies to federal agencies, including higher education, so your school must comply with it.
  • Student expectations: Studies show that creating social mobility mechanisms for students with disabilities and their peers matures institutions culturally. Full-system access for everyone is no longer an option, it's an expectation.
  • Competition: Equal accessibility for all students impacts how the institution is perceived and accredited, and represents a standard to which all institutions should hold each other highly accountable. Without comprehensive accessibility, certain groups will lack access to higher education at your institution, causing them to seek out other schools. When you want to remain competitive, addressing all student needs can show various groups that you can support their success. 

Accessibility impacts all aspects of your institution, including not only your reputation but your compliance with federal organizations. You can support your school's goals and objectives by maintaining and improving accessibility standards on your campus. Comprehensive accessibility and equity at your institution can mark your school as a safe space for students with disabilities, showing you listen to their needs. 

What to Consider 

When investing in accessible software, you should ensure that your selected tools are positioned to help students and your school. Even with the best intentions, schools can face unforeseen challenges when trying to implement better accessibility standards. Some factors to consider while weighing options include: 

  • Failed compliance: Many colleges and universities have introduced undue legal problems for themselves by procuring software that is not 508-compliant. You should always ensure that your solutions are compliant before investing. Researching Higher Education Accessibility lawsuits, complaints, and settlements can help your school understand the impact of failing to comply. 
  • Accessibility intentions: When we talk about compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it's important to underscore that schools must strive beyond meeting the bare minimum to receive government funding; they must embrace the requirements that make up WCAG 2.1. By deeply understanding and proactively engaging with Section 508 and WCAG 2.1 requirements, institutions can truly support students with disabilities and create a space where they can thrive.
  • Inclusive support: Great institutions provide accessibility for all their students because each student presents opportunity. When you provide comprehensive support, your school becomes more accessible and equitable to the student population, allowing you to address needs more proactively. 

Higher education institutions can face serious consequences when failing to comply correctly. Understanding the importance of accessibility in education and its impact can help your school best serve your student population. 

How Student Success & Engagement From Watermark Can Improve Accessibility for Higher Education Institutions

How Student Success & Engagement From Watermark Can Improve Accessibility for Higher Education Institutions 

From our development team to our front-line analysts, the Watermark team is deeply committed to understanding the unique technological needs of higher education. We keep Student Success & Engagement on the leading edge of accessibility compliance innovation so that it can fully support your mission of student and peer success for everyone you serve.

Student Success & Engagement is a steward of ADA/WCAG 2.1 compliance and represents the only major student success software platform that measures 100% compliance in all student-facing functionality.

Request a demo today and discover how Watermark solutions can support your school's accessibility standards. 

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