As the new school year approaches, K-12 schools, colleges and universities are transitioning back to in-person learning and physical classrooms. Returning from almost a full year of delivering learning remotely is exciting to many. However, it’s important that school leaders do not simply resort back to education as it was.

Remote teaching and online learning delivered helpful insights on how to best serve and engage students – pandemic or no pandemic. More videos, communication tactics, engagement methods and other helpful interactive elements were added to standard ways of teaching. Now, educators are poised to move forward by considering how to implement the innovative strategies that were used to solve student challenges which were exposed by remote learning, but in in-person environments.

One of the main challenges exposed revolved around the issue of providing students with access and equity. Many students were forced to come forward and report their needs, with a 70% increase in students reporting to the disability department as reported by the University of Pittsburgh to name one.

Students were faced with new factors that often hindered their abilities to learn without certain accommodations. Others benefited from greater access to accessibility technologies and choice as outlined by Universal Design for Learning principles, but everyone learned.

Picture of a desk space with a laptop, notebook, mug and other desk supplies.

“Some faculty flourished in a blended or online instructional model, whereas others are eager to return to a physical classroom and traditional instructional techniques,” says Dr. Misty Cobb, Customer Success Manager at Verbit, who works with a variety of institutions across the US.

The transition to new types of instruction is rarely a straightforward one, and also shouldn’t be back into the classroom itself. Educators and administrators must continue to question and challenge themselves to deliver on engagement and digital accessibility even in-person, as the issues remain.

As schools head back, they must aim to continue to meet the needs of students with disabilities, but also take into account post-pandemic student expectations. For example, should students who benefitted and saw greater academic success with access to word-for-word notes of their lectures via transcripts no longer receive them? It’s just as easy to record an in-person class and have it transcribed as it was online.

Solving The Digital Accessibility Challenge

Continuing to invest in tools and processes to help students both remotely and in-person is the best option to help advocate not only for students with disabilities but for all students. Committing to improving digital accessibility will help to provide more decision power and greater outcomes for students in the long run.

Bethany Stoltz, Customer Success Manager explains that “by meeting the needs of all learners, we are exposing all students to various ways of engaging in content, providing feedback and communicating. This approach of an accessible and inclusive academic experience, allows all learners to tap into content where they see fit.”

Providing students with multiple choices is a powerful mechanism for growth, and shouldn’t be pushed to the side just because students may be more equipped to handle in-person environments without additional tools. For this reason, educators and digital accessibility stakeholders can prepare their courses ahead of time to ensure all materials and videos being shared are in fact accessible to students prior to them being used as part of a lesson.

Accessibility Improves Academic Results

Providing high-quality, accessible content will ensure that students have greater academic results in any learning environment. Studies have shown that providing accessibility for content such as video increases retention of information, comprehension and learning outcomes.

Verbit’s team has been working closely with accessibility stakeholders at institutions across the US, UK and Australia, who are noticing a shift toward an accessibility-first approach even as they attempt to head back in-person.

“This approach first looks at how individual students are able to access the various modalities of learning,” said Scott Ready, Verbit’s Director of Customer Success for Education.“It has brought attention and awareness to how students with varying abilities engage and succeed. As a result, a more engaging learning environment has been created for all learners and this should continue in-person and in hybrid settings as well.”

In looking forward to the fall semester, the importance of maintaining an accessibility-first approach should be used in all modalities of delivery, including recording lectures and offering transcripts for help with note taking and captions for video accessibility. Using this approach will improve academic results in the long term by incorporating Universal Design for Learning principles for students to benefit from.

People sitting at a large table and working together.

Providing Accessibility Ensures Compliance

Those teaching in-person are not exempt to guidelines outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 508 and WCAG 2. It’s therefore important to continue providing accessibility in line with accessibility standards and laws.

Institutions are also now being monitored more closely than ever before, with more than 10,000 lawsuits filed in federal courts in 2020 alone.

Lindsay Tulloss, Customer Success Manager for Education at Verbit explains that “throughout this past year, we heard many stories from students that previously did not have access to captioning, but were able to receive accessibility services this year. Stories range from students that had no idea that they were even eligible for services to students that saw their grades, in-class interaction and confidence improve through the services they received.”

This trend reveals that still so many students are unaware of the benefits of various accessibility technologies, including captioning or transcriptions for note taking assistance, regardless of disabilities or accommodations. Just because schools are going back to in-person doesn’t mean they shouldn’t aim to provide to their students with reported or unreported needs, or offer these tools to others in their courses.

“If there is one student with captioning needs in a class, I encourage school leaders to share the captioning information with the whole class so that all students can benefit. When other students learn about these accommodation tools, it encourages great access to education, improves student outcomes and overall retention rates,” says Lindsay.

Ensuring that accessibility is implemented across the board will help to provide effective communication and equal access to all students.

People in a room, with a person gesturing to sticky-notes on a whiteboard. Other people are sitting at a table with laptops and other office supplies.

Don’t Let Accessibility Fall to the Wayside In-Person

In-person schooling doesn’t mean that you no longer need to invest in providing options and accessibility to students. Likewise, only responding to specific student requests as part of accommodations is no longer enough.

It’s time to make the transition to greater accessibility and look at accessibility proactively in order to ensure equity and inclusion for all.

Verbit’s team is assisting higher education institutions and K-12 schools as they head back to physical classrooms this fall. Continue to look out for Verbit’s accessibility recommendations and consider its captioning tools to make the transition back easier whether in-person, hybrid or fully online.