Accessibility: A Universal Language that Encourages Diversity in Learning

Juan Francisco Molina Moncada
03/01/18
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Quick take: The design of accessible course content, materials and interactions benefits all students and guarantees more inclusive learning experiences.

Laredo, Texas, United States

The implementation of inclusive education technologies greatly benefits non-native English speaking students and teachers, while favoring different classroom learning methods.

The Office of Information Technology at Texas A&M International University (TAMIU), current office of Phylis Zimmermann, Instructional Designer, is constantly busy with work and assignments. This institution’s staff is highly focused on its mission, which involves working on videos, audios and online guides intended to guarantee a more accessible education.

But the team is aiming higher: now, their goal is to make sure that the final product benefits everyone, not only students with some kind of physical or cognitive disability.

This task requires agility, effectiveness and, above all, a lot of creativity. To highlight this, Zimmermann constantly cites the needs of an ever-growing international academic community as an example. According to the figures of the Institute of International Education, the United States received a million foreign students in 2016, and 9 of the 10 most represented nationalities do not speak English as their native tongue  .Therefore, the challenge to improve learning in students with speaking, listening and writing difficulties becomes increasingly important.

One of the Office’s most common assignments is to caption the videos used in class. This benefits firstly deaf or hearing-impaired students, but it can also help people with English listening difficulties to better understand video content and check for correct spelling. Likewise, subtitles are another prime asset to help students understand faulty material, such as defective audio.

“In our interview, if we had all of the information transcribed, it would be much easier for you to be like: ‘oh, this is what we said, oh, this is how I answered,’” says Zimmermann, who gets thrilled when speaking about something she describes as an added value. “Everybody can benefit from video captioning, transcripts, or images with alternative text, especially those students who speak English as a second language: the comprehension level of these folks goes up when they get that material.”

Photo of Philys Zimmerman, Instructional Designer Technology and Distance Education, Texas A&M International University.
Phylis Zimmermann, Instructional Designer Technology and Distance Education, Texas A&M International University.

Occasionally, when work intensifies, the team has to ask for external assistance to cover professors’ requirements. Faculty value this inclusive approach to education, as it works to their advantage. “We have professors who come from all over the world —Zimmermann says — and we do not want them to be shy when they stand in front of the class because they might think students can’t understand them completely. So, we present their materials online with transcripts, which benefits students and faculty as well as the whole school.”

This mission brings forward new challenges and also demands the constant update of technological resources. Blackboard provides tools to improve the comprehension of students with any hearing or visual difficulties, using screen reader programs with the latter and subtitles with the former. In the end, this benefits the entire classroom: those who learn better by reading –via subtitles or the images’ complementary text–, or by hearing or watching the videos.

Zimmermann and the team’s conviction in their work is quite remarkable. Their commitment to accessibility as a universal language is based on their goal to turn it into an opportunity for everyone to succeed in their studies, with no exception.

Improvement for Everyone

 Beyond TAMIU’S experience, research shows the advantages of inclusion and accessibility in education: 

  • 98.6% of 2,124 students (most of them with no disabilities) surveyed by Oregon State University at 15 public and private U.S. universities claimed that subtitles are a “useful” tool, and 75% confirmed that they use them during online and face-to-face classes.  
  • Over half of the students surveyed recognized that they understood subjects better because subtitles helped them concentrate and retain the most important information. Similarly, the survey published in October last year revealed that transcriptions of audiovisual materials are often used as study guides and as information resources.2 
  • Afroditi Kalambouka, Peter Farrell, Alan Dyson and Ian Kaplan, from the University of Manchester, found out in 2007 that 81% of 26 reports comprising a representative sample from a total of 120 documents showed that inclusion had positive or neutral effects on students’ performance. 3 
  • A study conducted in 2004 by Cassandra Cole, Nancy Waldron and Massoumeh Majd in six Indiana schools revealed that students without disabilities made significant progress in mathematics and literature after using inclusive education resources to benefit students with some kind of disability.4
  • Another study conducted between 1999 and 2000 by Hsin-Chuan Huang and David Eskey, from the University of Southern California, showed that the vocabulary, writing and hearing performance in 30 intermediate English as Second Language (ESL) students improved after implementing English close captions in audiovisual material.5 
  • Earlier, in 1997, Lisa Cushing, Craig Kennedy and Tiina Itkonen, in the Springer Journal of Behavioral Education, had already proven that even people who assisted other students with some kind of disability improved their academic performance and participated more in classes.

 

Phylis Zimmermann, Instructional Designer, Texas A&M International University. 

Photos: 

AFP Eddie Seals

Sources:

1 Los Angeles Times. Number of international students in U.S. colleges at an all-time high, and California is their top destination. Extracted from: http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-study-abroad-students-20161124-story.html

2 Oregon State University. Closed captions, transcripts aid learning for almost all students. Extracted from: http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2016/oct/closed-captions-transcripts-aid-learning-almost-all-students

University of Manchester. The impact of population inclusivity in schools on student outcomes. Extracted from: http://eppi.ioe.ac.uk/cms/Portals/0/PDF%20reviews%20and%20summaries/incl_rv3.pdf?ver=2006-03-02-124937-203

Academic Progress of Students Across Inclusive and Traditional Settings. Extracted from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8677679_Academic_Progress_of_Students_Across_Inclusive_and_Traditional_Settings

5 University of Southern California. The Effects of Closed-Captioned Television on The Listening Comprehension of Intermediate English as a Second Language (ESL) Student. Extracted from: https://dcmp.org/caai/nadh163.pdf

Journal of Behavioral Education. General Education Participation Improves the Social Contacts and Friendship Networks of Students with Severe Disabilities. Extracted from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41824171?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

 

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