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Monday, October 8, 2018 News

OER and Accessibility: Working Toward Inclusive Learning

Open Education

Design as a Privilege and a Responsibility

During Open Access Week 2017, our team at Texas Tech University Library tabled in front of the library building. One student who stopped by the table was interested in Open Access and asked if those who, like him, use a screen reader were included in “open.” I let the student know considerations were being made to ensure open materials were accessible, but the truth is there’s still a lot for work to be done before inclusive design is normalized into our work—and that goes not just for OER, but for all digital materials.

The 2017 Disability Statistics Annual Report lists 12.8% of the U.S. population estimated to live with a disability. The World Report on Disability estimated that 15%—more than a billion people—are estimated to live with some form of disability worldwide. There have been several cases, grievances and settlements among academic institutions which failed to comply with the American Disabilities Act (ADA). Cases generally regarded lack of considerations such as captioning and lack of access to traditional course materials for students with diverse abilities.

We all benefit from good user experience and access that is comprehensive, beyond compliance at the bare minimum. A common example from everyday life is curb cuts, which were created to make sidewalks more accessible but ultimately benefit everyone. Digital publishing projects can also design accessible materials that have a positive impact on everyone in learning communities. Yet, both traditional and open projects grapple with balancing ubiquitous tools and processes with inclusive design. For example, digital publishing efforts often default to PDF format, because it is widely used, reliable across platforms and easy to create. However, is it one of the least accessible formats.

There is great diversity in human ability and intersecting dynamics of use, depending on the material format. There is a long way to go before all digital materials are accessible to everyone, but small, iterative steps can be meaningful. Resources are developing to help take those steps and adapt materials to better fit diverse user needs.

Accessibility Considerations for OER

Organizations in the open movement are making strides to make OER more inclusive and equitable and help advocates take actionable steps. The Floe Project which has created a set of open technical tools that allow users to create and explore personalized digital interfaces. The project also offers an Inclusive Learning Design Handbook that includes guidance not just on text resources, but also tests, games, and simulations. The Library Publishing Coalition membership identified accessibility as a key issue in library publishing ethics in 2017 and included it in the 2018 Ethical Framework. The LPC Ethical framework refers to many formats and types of publications, which may include OER. Accessibility is also emphasized in the 2018 Open Access Week theme, Designing Equitable Foundations for Open Knowledge. These are just a few examples of the important resources and ongoing conversations.

BCcampus’s Open Education Accessibility Toolkit was very helpful during a collaborative project last spring at Texas Tech to adapt an existing open education resource, when the editors and librarians wanted to test the adapted textbook for ADA compliance. We were not able to implement changes to the PDF version, but made an EPUB version publically available. It was a learning experience and we hope to improve upon the process to prioritize inclusive design decisions, rather than unsustainable practices like posting separate formats.

How OER Can Enhance Accessibility

We can go beyond conversations by creating policies, applying best practices and collaborating with our communities to ensure open education is inclusive. We can also do more to make sure that we communicate how OER can be leveraged to benefit those with diverse abilities. Here are a few important points to emphasize:

  • Permissions granted by an open license remove legal barriers to adapting and customizing OER, making it possible to create learning environments that are more flexible and robust for all students.
  • OER offer the opportunity for instructors to curate materials authored by a diverse set of individuals, including those who identify as disabled, normalizing and reducing stigma while sharing viewpoints that have historically been marginalized.
  • Unlike commercially published materials, OER that are adapted to meet accessibility requirements can be retained and freely shared with communities, reducing duplicative work at and across institutions.
  • OER adoption can reduce costs, which benefits all students, but can be especially beneficial for students with disabilities who may face additional financial pressures.
  • It is more common for OER to be shared in formats that can be adapted for accessibility, unlike proprietary publisher content where editable files are notably difficult to obtain.

Camille Thomas is the Scholarly Publishing Librarian at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas and is currently doing a fellowship with SPARC.

Sections of this post were adapted from a draft by Katie Steen. Special thanks to Jess Mitchell for providing important resources and recommendations included in this post.

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