One fact emerging from the rapid shift to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic is that many online tools are not fully accessible to students with disabilities. This, together with increasingly stringent provincial and federal accessibility legislation and general awareness of the need for greater web accessibility, is leading the rapid growth in Mohawk College’s innovative Accessible Media Production program.
Established by its coordinator, Professor Jennifer Jahnke, the program has many unique features, including a curriculum developed on principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) that provide an opportunity for all learners to succeed. Scaffolded course sequencing, a capstone course with an experiential learning component, and extensive industry partnerships are other elements contributing to its uniqueness.
The Accessible Media Production program began as an in-class post-graduate certificate in 2014. Professor Jahnke wanted the program to be online but at the time there was not a fully accessible online platform. The pandemic forced a move to fully online with a blend of synchronous and asynchronous delivery, even though she says there are still some challenges with existing online platforms. Nevertheless, the program will remain online now, especially because of the flexibility online learning offers learners who are working full-time and those not within commuting distance of campus.
Eleven three-week courses make up the program. Following UDL principles, each course allows learners multiple pathways to achieve learning outcomes. For example, when studying disability legislation learners have asynchronous lessons with readings and videos to solidify their understanding. Leading experts from the field then speak to learners about legislation and how it is being implemented. To demonstrate their knowledge of legislation, learners have the option of submitting podcasts, videos, or written work.
Scaffolded sequencing of content is another design feature of the courses. This requires learners to always apply their previous learning to new learning as they progress through a course and, indeed, the entire program. An example of this is when they learn how to write in plain language, using inclusive language and terminology, they are expected from then on to always write in plain language.
A capstone course with a 70-hour placement in a workplace gives learners valuable applied experience in enhancing an organization’s digital accessibility. The placement may be either in the learner’s own workplace or in an organization arranged for by the program. The organizations may be profit or not-for-profit and of any size.
A requirement of the capstone course is for learners to develop and report on an applied research project with an industry partner. This project acts as a case study throughout each of the courses. The expectation is for learners to identify an industry problem, propose a plan of action, and then create a solution. The projects are showcased at the end of each year. Typically, they are reviewed by industry experts who may have a disability. Professor Jahnke encourages students to share their projects beyond the program such as at conferences and other venues.
Industry partnerships are key to the program’s success. Approximately 50 partners are involved in various roles, such as instruction, guest speaking (sometimes as often as twice a week), hosting learner experiential placements, and reviewing student work. Some partners serve on the program’s advisory board. The list of partners includes, for example, learning platform vendor D2L, Pearson Canada, OCAD University, McMaster University, Mohawk College, the Accessibility, Accommodation & Adaptive Computer Technology (AAACT) program with Shared Services Canada, and Shopify Inc.
Benefits and Outcomes
Graduates of the program are in high demand as there is a shortage of professionals skilled in accessible media, according to Professor Jahnke. Learners laud the program for the skills they acquire, how they learn them, and its flexibility. Several representative comments are:
- The program already is proving highly useful, as I am developing the skills and mastering the tools I need to create an accessible website for one of my employers.
- Because courses take place two evenings a week, I am able to continue working, while also getting a hands-on, and interactive experience. The sequential program format also creates a unique and immersive learning environment.
- This program was the first time that I found I was heard in the classroom and that I could learn the way that I wanted to learn; not everything was a multiple-choice test or essay. We got to choose how we handed in our work…[and] did most of our learning in class from each other, another way I personally love to learn.
- In this program… you learn from experts about accessibility. These new skills are easily adapted and welcomed by prospective companies and clients needing this special skill set.
- In addition to practical skills, the program helped us developed a sense of social affiliation with the accessibility community and motivated us to advocate for the community outside of class.
One of the program’s graduates, Allison Fitzgerald, a faculty member of Sheridan College, produced an accessibility resource for faculty as part of her capstone project. The resource provides a course template for the design and delivery of accessible educational materials that has been shared widely across Canada and internationally.
Various industry partners also praise the program and its graduates as the following comments illustrate:
- The opportunity to attend the end-user sessions and to share the results within our organization was an invaluable experience. This project helped us to identify gaps and deliver a successful project to a high-profile client.
- Our expectation is that we will continue to partner with the Mohawk program, as a means of supporting a long-term accessibility strategy to serve all [customers] going forward.
- [We] worked alongside…to develop a landing page for our website specifically for Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities, such as the legally blind. This was a great program for all involved.
Mohawk College benefited as well as tuition incentives are available to employees who enrol in the program. These employees in return can apply their skills to improve the College’s digital accessibility.
Challenges and Enhancements
Learner workload is an ongoing issue due to the intensive nature of the program, particularly the internship. Synchronous classes are held twice weekly in the evenings, which sometimes creates scheduling conflicts for participants. This problem is addressed by recording all classes for later viewing.
Professor Jahnke does not expect to make any changes to the program in the foreseeable future as many modifications were made since it began, such as trying different times of the week to hold classes.
Professor Jennifer Jahnke
Coordinator, Accessible Media Production Program
Hamilton, ON, Canada L9C 0E5