The coronavirus pandemic has impacted over 1.6 billion students globally with education shifting either entirely online or to hybrid learning models. With less than 50% of faculty having taught online prior, educators have been challenged in 2020, though some of these unprecedented changes have been for the better. 

Education leaders in three regions, the US, UK and Australia, spoke live recently at a Verbit webinar, which you can watch on-demand, on how the pandemic has impacted education globally. Looking into the differences and similarities between the regions, these leaders shared how those in the higher education space are addressing the challenges that COVID-19 has created.

The challenges educational institutions are facing

Before going into the initiatives and solutions, it’s important to first understand the challenges that the pandemic has brought about. First, is the digital divide. With education shifting online in March 2020, many students without Wi-Fi were left quite literally in the dark. Another challenge was that of accessibility. With many students too embarrassed to disclose whether or not they have a learning disability, switching to the online world, only exacerbated the issue. 

Keeping mental health in check, as well as ensuring engagement levels remain high for online learners has been another monumental challenge in 2020. Lastly, one can’t forget the enormous pressure that has been put on educators themselves. 

Tackling the challenges head-on

These leaders offered three unique perspectives on accessibility from their lens and role within each region.

The American perspective

In the US, Amanda Jackson’s team at the University of Florida partnered with Eduroam to combat the digital divide. Eduroam allows students to access a free internet connection at other institutions (that are also part of Eduroam) and attend classes. 

Jackson detailed that COVID-19 has led to some positive outcomes. The University of Florida has seen increased communication between students and the Disability Resource Center. Students that were once shy or embarrassed about coming physically to the center now feel comfortable approaching the center online and detailing their needs. The shift to online led to an increase in campus conversations surrounding the topics of inclusion and accessibility. With more conversation around accessibility, the university had reason to invest in making its courses more accessible by providing transcriptions and captioning of its online video lectures. 

The British perspective

Speaking on behalf of the National Education Union (NEU), Mike Joslin detailed that over half of all members have migrated to Zoom to conduct courses in an online environment. The top priority for the NEU has therefore been ensuring teachers have the right software at home, as well as doing everything possible to keep the engagement levels of their students up. 

To tackle engagement levels and ensure inclusion for all, the NEU adopted two solutions. One was to implement British Sign Language (BSL) throughout its video materials. The second was to partner with Verbit to caption live lectures and union meetings ensure all material is transcribed accurately. Verbit’s captioning solution provides 99%+ accuracy to support not only those who are hard of hearing, but all who wish to use transcripts for learning purposes. Together, these two solutions meet the disability law in the UK and ensure video content is accessible to all participants.

Joslin added that “There’s a significant amount of people who request a transcript and the subtitles for all of our calls,” showing that there’s a surprising number of viewers who use captioning without accessibility needs. 

The Australian perspective

Speaking on behalf of Swinburne University of Technology, and facing similar challenges to other regions, Genevieve Smith expressed that many of the changes brought about by COVID-19 will greatly benefit the university moving forward. For example, the team introduced alternative exam assessments that may see the end of invigilated exams in a post-COVID-19 world. Furthermore, through captioning lectures, those who are hard of hearing can now access courses online.  

One of the most successful initiatives launched by the university’s accessibility team gave education workers shared access to their students’ learning platforms. This provided education workers with access to class materials before they go on to support their students. Where before they were clueless on class material, they now know what the priorities are for that learning session beforehand. 

Increasing accessibility even in a post-COVID-19 world

It’s evident that COVID-19 has pushed educational institutions to drive accessibility practices forward and led to solutions that may have taken decades to come about. Today, there’s a greater need than ever to support blended learning environments. Students are becoming less afraid to ask for help from accessibility centers due to more anonymity and additional online challenges. The technology is there to help bridge these gaps. 

Feel free to contact us for more guidance as you continue to address accessibility at your school.