Accessibility, Accreditation and the Evolution of Digital Technologies

Heather Mariger

The evolution of computer and internet technologies has had a profound effect on modern higher education. Nowhere has this effect been more apparent than in the field of Distance Education. What was once a niche domain used only by those who were unable to attend school as traditional students has now, thanks in great part to the web, become a common part of most students' curriculums.

The changing academic landscape is also having a dramatic effect on the Regional Accreditation Agencies who are tasked with validating the quality of the schools within their purview. For example, in response to the Distance Education boom, the accreditation agencies adopted a set of “Best Practices for Electronically Offered Degree and Certificate Programs ” to address the growing field of online education. Today, technology and other factors such as new student populations, globalization, and the economy have fundamentally changed higher education in ways that we could not have imagined even a few years ago. Accrediting agencies are now starting to look at ways to assess issues such as how institutions handle student identity authentication, how they track part-time and adult student retention and, in the case of GOALS partner SACSCOC, encouraging accessibility of the institutional web and digital educational materials for persons with disabilities through the process of quality enhancement and continuous improvement.

This changing environment has also been noted by the American Council on Education that just released a report generated by their National Task Force on Institutional Accreditation “Assuring Academic Quality in the 21st Century: Self-Regulation in a New Era”. The report itself provides a good overview of the history and purpose of accreditation - including both positive aspects and potential pitfalls as the organizations evolve to meet the needs of their constituents. Many of their findings and recommendations resonate with us here at Project GOALS as issues that can relate back to our core objective of ensuring that an institution's web presence is fully accessible to those with disabilities. The task force lists: a heightened demand for accountability; new forms of instructional delivery; new educational providers and programs; new students and patterns of attendance; and the globalization of higher education as results of the shifting educational environment. Looking at this list, we can imagine new technologies to greatly help or critically hinder students who use assistive technologies (examples would include screen readers to read text or captioning to provide audio content, or switch access for those with keyboard or mouse issues); we see teachers and educational providers who need support and instruction to help them ensure their materials are accessible to all; we see a growing number of students with disabilities - including injured military personnel entering the higher education arena; and we see a need to ensure that US institutions can compete in the global arena - which means complying with the accessibility standards increasingly mandated by many countries across the globe.

The report goes on to discuss four principles for moving forward:

  1. Emphasize assuring quality which notes “Institutional quality, in this sense, means three things: academic effectiveness apparent in the educational benefits provided to students, institutional integrity visible in the honesty and fairness of relationships with various stakeholders, and long-term sustainability manifested in the adequacy of fiscal and physical resources.” As GOALS staff, we cannot agree more - quality and fairness should be applied to all constituents including those with disabilities.
  2. Preserve institutional diversity and freedom. This principle pretty much speaks for itself - it would be a dreadful miscarriage to ignore the needs of one of the largest minority groups in the world.
  3. Expand existing trends. Accessibility continues to gain momentum as an emerging issue - it only makes sense to find ways to address it.
  4. Build on the current structure and role of regional accreditation. This may seem a bit stickier as we recognize (and agree) that the role of accreditors is not to be an enforcement arm for federal mandates. However, ensuring student achievement and quality are central to the tenants of the regional accreditors (and a primary focus of digital accessibility) and there is no question that they are a powerful force to encourage change in institutions. The support of the accreditation community would definitely incentivize institutions to consider the issue.

While digital accessibility may seem to be a small tree in the forest of the accreditation world, it is our hope that addressing it can serve as a win-win for all. It helps institutions better serve their students, faculty and staff, it speaks directly to the mission statements and values of both the institution and the accreditors and, as legislation continues to shift toward mandating digital rights, an institution's efforts can also serve as value-added evidence of quality, diversity and institutional values that can be used in the reaffirmation process*.

*We will be addressing how this can be done in a future GOALS newsletter.