Accessible Higher Education

There has been a lot of talk recently about Accessible Education within the sphere of higher education. However, what do people actually mean when they say accessible education, and what are the ways in which UCLA is specifically shifting it’s views on inclusivity and accessibility in the classroom (and within the broader learning experience)?

Linda Nilson defines accessibility specifically in terms of how teachers can adapt changes to their courses through design and content in order to positively impact the learning of the largest number of students.

[Accessible Education is] “the process of designing courses and developing a teaching style to meet the needs of people from a variety of backgrounds, abilities and learning styles. Just as there is no single way to teach, people learn in a variety of ways; using different instructional methods will help meet the needs of the greatest number of learners.” (Nilson, 2010)

While this provides a broad definition of accessible education, some specific characteristics that are worth mentioning include how accessible educational works in practice:

  • Takes into account a variety of student characteristics, including ethnicity, race, abilities, disabilities, age, gender, language abilities and preferred learning style.
  • Does not compromise academic rigour.
  • Is a proactive and inclusive way of teaching and designing courses and curricula.
  • Removes barriers to learning before they can affect anyone.
  • Reduces the need for specialized accommodations.
  • Identifies and clearly expresses the essential course content, while recognizing that students can express understanding of essential course content in multiple ways.
  • Is consistent with universally recognized principles of good teaching.

Implementing accessible education also holds advantages for faculty who adopt these methods, including improved student learning, reducing work associated with arranging specialized accommodations for individuals, and improving student engagement (the latter which can directly impact course evaluations).

Students likewise benefit from spending less time navigating individual accommodations, having more time to focus on course content, having a more inclusive classroom experiences, and an increase in student retention.  They also benefit from a reduction in being singled out for being “different” from their classmates.

Medical vs Social

Two main reasons that we see these advantages, specifically those involving inclusive environments is due in large part to the lense through which accessibility is viewed.

Historically, in higher education, disability was based on the medical model, one which comes with a large amount of stigma.

Accessible education however, approaches this from a social model of disability. This model works to negate stigmas. Table 1 below shows the differences in how disability is viewed through the two models.

Figure 1: Medical model vs Social model for disability.

The distinction between how disability is viewed is important because of the impact on how we view accessibility within our communities. One of the cornerstones of accessible education is a shift in where responsibility is placed to ensure all members of a society have the same ability to access resources within in a learning environment.

This is shown below in Figure 2, where the terms “Accommodation” and “Accessible Education” are compared side by side.

Figure 2: Accommodation versus Accessible Education approach.

In many ways accessible education, unlike accommodation, strives to ensure that students are not only treated equally, but also that all students have equity as well. It is a push to diminish the stigma associated with being classified as “other” and instead works to create and foster a unified community environment both within the classroom and the larger university setting.

UCLA’s Embrace

Now that we’ve briefly covered what Accessible Education is and how it differs compared to more traditional medical and social models, let’s look at some of the ways UCLA has made changes to embrace it. There are several resources available to undergraduate, graduate students, faculty, and staff that are aimed at helping to create a more accessible environment within the UCLA university setting.

The main list of offices and staff available can be found through the UCLA Accessibility website resource page.

Other related initiatives at UCLA include providing greater access to learning materials and tools, through methods such as increasing the number of online courses offered. These allow students to attend class, and access course materials without having to come to campus at all (extending the ideas of Accessible Education outside of a traditional classroom setting).

Through online tools such as Zoom for example, students can video conference into lectures and discussion groups from almost any location.

Having more online resources however, can highlight an additional concern (access to computers), because part of accessible and inclusive education is to not assume that everyone has a working laptop or for that matter sufficient access to the internet.

These problems of access is addressed by several resources available at UCLA’s North Campus. Below is a list of resources and links where students can gain access to computers or other technological tools frequently used by UCLA faculty as part of their teaching methodology.

North Campus:

The Scholarly Innovation Lab (SIL)

Located in the Charles E. Young Graduate Research Library (YRL), students and faculty have access to classroom space and a variety of experts to consult on coursework or research projects involving the digital humanities.

Clicc Laptop Lending

A UCLA Library resource for students where they have access to working laptops free of charge.

Rolfe Learning Lab

This lab located in Rolfe Hall, is a large space that faculty can reserve for classroom with on demand technical support, or where students can go to study. The lab has movable furniture so the class can be organized in a variety of ways, and also comes with access to laptops.

Studio H

Located in the Public Affairs Building, this space is available for faculty or students to reserve where they can make video and audio recordings for course work or for research. Instructors have also used this space to create lecture videos for online courses.

Mobile Laptop Cart

This mobile laptop cart is made available through UCLA Humanities Technology and contains 30 laptops which can be moved to any classroom on North Campus. This is a great resource for classes where not all students have a working laptop to complete online course work.

Experiential Learning Facility (ELF) and the Online Research Classroom (ORC)

Both these rooms, located in the Public Affairs Building, can fit small to medium sized classes and have the ability to live tele-conference from the classroom. This is a popular choice for language classes to talk in real time with lecturers or pen pals from different countries. These classrooms can also be reserved by study groups, for interviews, practise presentations, or by students undertaking their qualifying exams.

Teaching Resource Center (TRC)

Located in the Public Affairs Building, this space is the central office for online assistance for Humanities Division faculty and students who are seeking assistance with their online (CCLE) courses. UCLA students, TAs, and faculty can receive assistance remotely via email, telephone, video call (by request) or in person throughout the calendar year.