AQIP and Accessibility — Like Peanut Butter and Chocolate...

Heather Mariger

In addition to tools and materials that can be used by Colleges and Universities to help cultivate and maintain an accessible web presence, GOALS has also developed a set of resources that can be used by Regional Accreditation Agencies and their constituent institutions to leverage institutional web accessibility efforts during the reaffirmation process.

In this effort, we have been fortunate to work with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) as a partner in the GOALS Project. It has been a very educational and enlightening experience and I have learned a great deal about the accreditation process and how it how it can be a driver of institution-wide reforms in higher education.

As part of this learning process, I have reviewed the Principles, Criteria and Standards of all six of the Regional Accreditors so I had some understanding of the differences (and similarities) across the different Agencies. However, this variation in systems was brought home when I had the opportunity to do a presentation about GOALS for the Higher Learning Commission's (HLC) Annual Conference in Chicago a couple of weeks ago.

While preparing for our presentation, I went into research mode to familiarize myself with the specifics of the HLC Accreditation process. This was interesting as they are currently in a transitional period moving their constituent institutions to a set of possible pathways for review. The gold standard of which is a model based on the Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP). I would like to share specifics on how the GOALS process for institution-wide web accessibility fits nicely into the HLC reaffirmation process

AQIP is different from the Quality Enhancement Plan QEP system that GOALS partner SACSCOC uses as it focuses on smaller steps rather than one overarching project across the reaffirmation cycle. AQIP requires that the institution maintain at least three different action projects in any given year. The idea is to identify and solve problems quickly. A given action plan can last from six weeks to three years (max) with 18 months hitting the “sweet spot” according to a presenter at one of the sessions I attended at the HLC conference — long enough to substantively work on an issue but short enough that it didn't suffer from inertia.

The more I learned about AQIP in my research and during the conference, the more I was struck with the parity I found with our own GOALS accessibility work and materials. AQIP's guiding principles map amazingly well onto the goals of institution-wide web accessibility. Below is a list of the AQIP Principles:

Moreover, the nine AQIP categories for quality improvement also pair well with the accessibility process and our own GOALS Institutional Indicators.

The ultimate goal of AQIP is to help institutions achieve Categories 1 and 2 (Helping Students Learn and Accomplishing Other Distinctive Objectives). These are “where an institution touches and affects the lives of its stakeholders1; it is where an institution fulfills its purpose and mission. However, in order to achieve the ultimate goals, the institution must first Understand Students' and Other Stakeholders' Needs (Category 3). Category 7 (Measuring Effectiveness) is the ongoing gauge to help determine where the gaps exist between present performance and possible or desirable results. Finally, the remaining categories are the actions that every institution must operationalize in order to enable and support those processes that directly impact the people it serves. (Note: AQIP is currently working on a revised category system that condenses and clarifies the categories but the basic concept remains the same see Appendix below)

Web accessibility in higher education follows this same path — the ultimate goal is to help students (and others) succeed. To do this, you must first understand their needs (e.g., to have text alternatives provided for non-text content, to be able to navigate using only the keyboard, to have captions present). Ongoing assessment is necessary to help direct the course. And finally, effective leadership, communication, institutional backing, training, operational support, collaboration and ongoing improvement plans are all necessary components of creating and maintaining a truly accessible web presence.

The focus on action plans that are achievable in small bites is also perfect for institutional web accessibility work! Ensuring that your institutional web is accessible is a large and daunting task if you look at it as a whole. But, if you work on attacking one bit at a time, it becomes much more manageable. For example: developing an accessibility policy or plan could fit nicely in that sweet spot of 18 months; assessing and updating all administrative web pages to be accessible may be achievable in two years; creating an information and resource site on accessibility for faculty and staff could take six months. By taking things in small bites, an institution could make substantive steps toward institutional accessibility and make progress towards reaffirmation! The requirement of multiple action plans per year also means that the institution can work toward web accessibility while still being able to focus on other institutional issues at the same time. What's not to love?

I came away from the HLC meeting excited and with a renewed enthusiasm about the possibilities of accessibility in the accreditation system. Just like peanut butter and chocolate - two essential items on their own, they work even better together! As we reach out to the other accreditation agencies, I am looking forward to discovering the interesting and unique aspects of each one; and then figuring out how we can incorporate a focus on digital inclusion into their specific schemas (chocolate and caramel anyone?).

Appendix

Proposed New AQIP Categories

Category 1 — Helping Students Learn

Category 2 — Meeting Student and Other Key Stakeholder Needs

Category 3 — Valuing Employees

Category 4 — Planning and Leading

Category 5 — Knowledge Management and Resource Stewardship

Category 6 — Quality Review

1 Source: Principles and Categories for Improving Academic Quality - 2008 Revision