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Q&A: Strategies for making online education more accessible

When it comes to the web, most higher education institutions are complex organizations. They have central IT, edge IT, and individual centres of excellence.

University College London. — Image © Tim Sandle.
University College London. — Image © Tim Sandle.

Josh Koenig, Chief Strategy Officer at web operations platform Pantheon, is focused on how to make online education more accessible in 2024. This includes a few tactical considerations for technology leaders preparing for perpetual hybrid education.

Digital Journal: In your view, how has the concept of making online education accessible evolved in recent years, particularly in the context of higher education websites?

Josh Koenig: In earlier days, communications leaders on campus might have been primarily concerned with managing a university style guide for brand consistency and appearance, but that’s no longer the primary consideration. Institutions of higher learning have become increasingly aware of the need to think more holistically about how the institution shows up digitally. Accessibility is a first-class part of that governance challenge, and must be prioritized when revitalizing digital experiences.

DJ: Higher education institutions are mandated to meet certain accessibility standards, unlike technology vendors. How do you think this regulatory discrepancy impacts the overall accessibility of online education? What measures do colleges and universities need to take to bridge this gap?

Koenig: Universities need to be vigilant when evaluating vendors from an accessibility standpoint, since accountability for this ultimately rests with them. Most institutions already have a voluntary product accessibility template (VPAT) as part of their procurement criteria, and many are increasing their expected level of compliance for vendors. Pulling these concerns forward into any evaluation or implementation allows problems to be identified and workarounds planned. Accessibility at the last mile is increasingly a thing of the past.

DJ: As a website operations platform serving internal web teams, what unique challenges do you encounter in the higher education sector, especially in terms of ensuring accessibility?

Koenig: When it comes to the web, most higher education institutions are complex organizations. They have central IT, edge IT, individual centres of excellence, as well as a range of stakeholders from the communications side. This is a challenging environment for governance, which includes accessibility. Helping universities strike the right balance of freedom within a framework is key to creating a scalable and sustainable approach.

DJ: Reflecting on the impact of COVID-19, how did the pandemic highlight the importance of accessibility in online education? Looking ahead, what do you believe are the next steps for institutions in terms of technology adoption and maintaining accessibility standards?

Koenig: The rush to adopt online tooling during the pandemic led to some institutions unfortunately having a less than ideally accessible digital presence. Putting aside the threat of legal liability, a lack of accessibility means a poor student experience. Now that even a fully on-campus education still has significant online components, it’s incumbent on every institution to consider accessibility a vital part of the student experience. It starts with awareness: organizations unsure of the state of accessibility should find the resources to conduct an audit to establish their baseline, and then set up ongoing monitoring to measure consistent and steady improvements (and to prevent backsliding).

DJ: How does the adoption of design systems and tools for monitoring website accessibility contribute to better governance and standardization of accessibility in higher education websites?

Koenig: The adoption of design systems represents a tremendous opportunity for IT and communications to truly partner. By establishing a living definition of the components out of which digital experiences are composed, institutions can allow a wide range of stakeholders to move quickly and autonomously, while staying brand compliant and accessible. Monitoring and the ability to test before launching new experiences ensures that issues are spotted and resolved quickly, whether that’s from something custom being introduced at an “edge” of the organization, or an issue that needs to be solved centrally within the design system itself. This is one of the keys to finding flexibility within a framework.

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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