Curricular change doesn’t just happen out of nowhere—it comes from faculty members thinking about what to teach their students and finding better ways to educate. There are many barriers to change, including faculty considering that their curriculum does not need updating, faculty not having enough time to initiate change, no room for adding topics in the class or for more classes in the curriculum, or instructors who don’t have the expertise to teach a particular topic, like those related to accessibility.
In 2017-2018, ABET, accrediting board for college and university programs in the disciplines of applied and natural science, computing, engineering and engineering technology, added "accessibility" as one of the potential constraints in its definition of "Engineering Design." If computing students learn about accessibility and bring this knowledge into their careers, it can help to ensure that future technology is more accessible to individuals with disabilities.
Between 2015 and 2017, AccessComputing co-PI Amy Ko led efforts to integrate information about accessibility into classes in the University of Washington’s Information School (iSchool). She connected instructors with an accessibility expert, led discussions about ways to accomplish the goal, and followed up with instructors. As a result, changes were made to two courses and all students who complete an informatics degree through the iSchool are exposed to information about accessibility.
Amy Ko, who at the time was a recently tenured professor, partnered with AccessComputing accessibility specialist Terrill Thompson and three lecturers who were all teaching the same course about website development in the iSchool.
Activities and Logistics
The iSchool had recently hired three lecturers to teach technical courses, including a course titled Client-Side Web Development. Amy asked if they would be interested in learning more about accessibility and incorporating it into their course. All three were interested, and so Amy arranged a two-hour meeting—one hour for Terrill to train the lecturers on web accessibility and another hour to explore ways they could integrate the content into their courses. Ultimately, one instructor realized the lesson that covered HTML markup could be redesigned to include information about web accessibility. This addition incorporated the information, but also served to make the lesson on markup more compelling. This instructor committed to teaching the new markup lesson over the summer. In order to encourage these efforts, Amy checked in on a regular basis. This new lesson worked well and was engaging for students. Subsequently the other two instructors implemented this content in their courses. Amy, who now oversees the Informatics major, regularly checks in with the instructors of the course to ensure it still contains learning objectives and activities about accessibility.
An outcome of this curriculum change is that the Informatics program educates 280 students on basic web accessibility annually. This also led to accessibility additions to INFO 200, the Informatics major’s foundations course. The course now dedicates an entire two-hour lecture to the foundations of accessibility and the relationship between accessibility and information access. Informal feedback indicates that students find this information interesting, with many asking about follow-up courses on the topic and research opportunities related to accessibility. Some students with disabilities also reported finding that teaching about accessibility made them feel more included in the class and more interested in pursuing the Informatics major.
While Amy’s and Terrill’s time was partially funded by AccessComputing, the work itself did not require any funding. It took strictly time and interpersonal effort to engage colleagues to make a change.
There are some considerations that can help to ensure that efforts to include accessibility topics in the curriculum are successful.
- Facilitate change by identifying a champion—whether this is you or someone else in your department—who can survey the landscape for incentives and capacity for change, create sufficient incentives and capacity, find colleagues motivated to change, effectively manage the change, institutionalize the practice, and repeat these steps as necessary.
- Consider who best to engage. Faculty or instructors who are already redesigning a course may be receptive to adding new content. Tenure-track faculty may have the most power for encouraging curricular change.
- Provide resources for faculty and instructors who may not know about accessibility, but could potentially integrate the material into their curriculum. Consider which courses could easily integrate accessibility content and approach individuals who teach those courses. Motivate faculty and students by showcasing companies that are looking to hire employees that know about accessibility.
- Give long-term thought to including accessibility and add scheduled time to check that the efforts put forward are not forgotten or waylaid.
- Resources on teaching accessibility
- Where can I learn about incorporating accessibility topics in computing/IT courses?
- Who teaches accessibility?: A survey of U.S. computing faculty.
- Where can I find examples of engineering senior design projects that help individuals with disabilities?
- How can you prepare engineering students to work with people with disabilities?
- What are some examples of engineering courses that teach about disability, accessibility, or universal design?
- Teaching Accessibility: Including Accessibility in Your Courses
- ABET recognizes accessibility
- 30 Web accessibility tips
- World wide access: Accessible web design