According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, approximately 15% of the global population faces some form of disability. That’s over a billion people.
That being said, the need to make education inclusive, especially at the higher levels, is more apparent than ever. However, current notions around accessibility need to be addressed first. Essentially, the term has taken on a whole new meaning in this digital age.
As of now, accessibility in higher education doesn’t just mean providing differently abled individuals with access to a competent learning experience. It’s also about ensuring that everything is shared and equal amongst different groups.
The term also takes a different meaning when viewed from the perspective of the required changes in the current educational system, with students desiring more flexible and personalized programs.
In short, accessible higher education is about making systemic changes in how institutions operate. More importantly, these changes need to build toward a more adaptable model.
Before diving into it all, let's look at what the concept means.
What does accessibility in higher education imply?
From flexible course modules and shared learning resources to streamlined admissions and the elimination of financial barriers, accessibility has come to mean several different things in higher education.
Here's a brief glimpse into what the term stands for in the current digital age:
It starts with admission applications
The first thing an applicant or a prospective student comes into contact with is your institution's admission portals. And designing these gateways to provide a seamless experience for all is critical.
Granted, this can be challenging to accomplish, especially considering the channels and devices users may rely on to access content. However, adhering to universal regulations, such as the WCAG 2.1 or 2.2, could alleviate some of these concerns.
The simplest way to do this is to opt for an accessibility audit. That way, you can review potential code violations and determine the priority you need to assign to a specific site or portal problem.
Shared access to consolidated learning resources
The demands of modern-age education are split across several different categories. One of the primary ones is the availability of a centralized repository of learning resources. Fortunately, this is easy enough to implement with the help of an experienced team of developers.
Still, the first point that needs to be considered here is not related to consolidating your learning modules. That’s expected of your institution, anyway. Instead, it’s more to do with ensuring that everyone can leverage the same available resources.
More importantly, this should be provided through one access point that works equally well for all your students, regardless of whether they are differently-abled or not.
Accurate identification of existing financial barriers
There is a misconception that accessibility is solely tied to designing innovative and approachable digital solutions. However, it often boils down to making the simplest changes to your policies.
Consider the example of student tuition. According to a Statista report, the cost of attending an in-state 4-year program in a public university was $23,250 in the academic year of 2022/2023. Meanwhile, out-of-state colleges cost around $40,000.
Now, it’s not practical to assume that the issue of high tuition fees can be addressed by merely cutting down on institutional costs. So, the easiest way to navigate this is to leverage the power afforded by Digital Experience Platforms (DXPs).
These centralized software suites enable you to analyze the online footprint of incoming student batches while measuring their performance in previous programs. Then, you could assign special grants to applicants with relatively promising records but are held back by individual disabilities.
Flexible remote and online courses
Traditional courses have become outdated in terms of giving students the practical knowledge they need in the current job market. And as a result, the demand for flexible, remote learning modules has only increased in the past few years.
In short, your students desire shorter programs that pack more application-based knowledge. But that's not all—there is also a need for a comprehensive mentoring module. Take the example below to understand this better.
Say Prospect X has just gotten into one of your offered programs. The only issue is that they have additional accessibility requirements to keep pace with the course module. Now, if your institution doesn't provide that, all that effort into designing your systems and pages to be inclusive is wasted.
In other words, accessibility also means curating courses that are in demand while providing everyone an opportunity to benefit from them.
How can institutions foster universal access to higher education?
While recognizing what accessibility implies is essential, it's even more crucial to put that understanding to practical use.
Here are four practical ways to do precisely that:
Adopt a digital-first approach
With the rapid advancements that have been made in technology, it’s almost a sin to avoid leveraging the benefits that these developments bring. As such, there are several avenues you could rely on in this case.
For instance, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) algorithms let you identify special needs students who struggle academically. Then, by simply incorporating that data into future decisions, your institution can introduce the necessary changes to your provided modules.
Even better, the collected data can also help you recognize other related issues, such as a particular student needing on-campus accommodation owing to their existing condition.
In short, such tools enable you to make global improvements regarding institutional policies and the provision of on-site facilities.
Create a governing body to monitor departmental issues
As implied earlier, there’s more to accessibility than driving digital change. In fact, one of the most effective ways to make your programs more inclusive is to consistently review them with the help of a governing body.
Still, it's best to include members of your faculty and your students in this group. You also must ensure that the student body is appropriately represented in this case. Once that's achieved, you can track inter-departmental issues and conceptualize shared solutions to address them.
The primary benefit of creating such a body is that the remediation process accounts for the entirety of the existing institutional population. In short, it takes care of faculty and student welfare simultaneously.
Re-evaluate your current systems and touchpoints
It’s almost impossible to comprehensively cover all aspects when designing your touchpoints and existing systems to be accessible. That is precisely why period checks are critical to sustaining your institution's reputation.
Now, this is exponentially easier if you partner with experienced developers, such as QED42, from the very start. That way, you get access to a consolidated review process and comprehensive site suggestions, including interaction patterns, problematic page designs and seamless user navigation.
However, if you already have your digital systems in place and are reluctant to design them from scratch, you could still benefit from general consultancy services. That would allow you to recognize subtle issues that are commonly overlooked when it comes to the site or system accessibility, such as restrictive verification methods that rely on using a specific device or channel.
Accessibility being detached from accommodation
Too often, there is this assumption that providing access to something means making room for the less fortunate. And this notion of ‘accommodation’ being attached to ‘accessibility’ needs to go for good.
Note that this has nothing to do with designing digital solutions or monitoring departmental issues. Instead, it's about implementing a change in institutional mindset. So, instead of focusing on where the student falls short, ask ‘where has the system or program failed?’
This is easy enough to understand when you draw a parallel between User Interface (UI) design and User Experience (UX). When a site visitor fails to find a particular tab, the developers always focus on why the user couldn’t find it. As such, there’s no discussion that implies the problem lies with the user’s site behavior.
Building a shared world for all
With how far the world has come in terms of educational developments, it's becoming increasingly important to recognize the needs and requirements of differently abled students. More importantly, this recognition can never stop—it needs to be a systematic process of analyzing current demands, institutional flaws, and remediation policies.
In other words, design your enrollment touchpoints to be inclusive, create shared learning resource platforms and flexible course modules, and review some of the existing financial barriers.
Then, strengthen all the mentioned avenues by taking a digital-first approach and establishing a governing body to track and monitor existing departmental issues.
Higher education can progress in an evolving world by ensuring a seamless digital experience for everyone, regardless of individual differences.