New Resource for Accessible Teaching

posted in: Newsletter, Resources | 0

Faculty can enhance instruction by considering how the design and delivery of their content in a digital and/or web environment can overcome barriers to learning.  For example, one might inquire whether ‘accessibility’ could revolve around how students with visual impairments can access video and multimedia products, or how faculty can ensure that a student who is deaf can access content in their audio podcast.

In the broadest sense, ‘accessibility’ refers to the degree to which a product, device, service, or environment is accessible by as many people as possible. This brief article focuses on resources that promote accessible teaching in both digital (computer) and web (online) settings.  Berners-Lee, founder and Director of the World Wide Web Consortium, defines web accessibility as putting the internet and its services at the disposal of  all individuals, whatever their hardware or software requirements, their network infrastructure, their native language, their cultural background, their geographic location, or their physical or mental aptitudes (Berners-Lee, Hendler, Lassila, 2001). Limited digital and web accessibility disproportionately impacts person with disabilities, who make up approximately 12% of the civilian non-institutionalized population in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). In higher education, 9% of undergraduates are reported to have a disability (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002). Barriers to access include visual (blindness, weak vision, color blindness), auditory (deaf, hard of hearing, high/low frequency hearing loss), mobility (repetitive stress injuries, arthritis, spinal cord injuries, loss of limbs/digits), and cognitive/emotional (learning disabilities, psychiatric/mental health impairments).

Faculty Development is hosting a new website offering resources that promote accessible teaching for the NIU community.  The purpose of this website is to increase awareness of digital and web accessibility issues as well as offer faculty practical assistance in improving the accessibility of their online content and delivery.   The website is organized into several topic areas impacting accessible teaching: Pedagogy, Technology, Legislation, Guidelines, and Learning Management Systems.

Pedagogy -   In examining methods to improve instruction, faculty might consider how an accessible design might be used to expand access to all users, whether a disability exists or not (Brewer, 2003, slide 3). While accessible design of content is commonly believed to benefit only persons with disabilities, Anson, Marangoni, Mills, and Shah (2004, ¶1) report that accessible design as universal design, benefits all users, independent of disability.  Universal Design, according to Danielson (1999), “is the design of instructional materials and activities that makes the learning goals achievable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to hear, see, speak, move, read, write, and a host of other cognitive functions (pp. 2-3).”   According to Scott (2002), “Universal Design Instruction offers a proactive alternative for ensuring access to higher education for college students with disabilities. By providing faculty with a framework and tools for designing inclusive college instruction, the dialogue surrounding college students with disabilities changes from a focus on compliance, accommodations, and nondiscrimination to an emphasis on teaching and learning (¶4).” This section of the website provides resources for faculty wishing to expand their knowledge of Universal Design principles, as well opportunities to view examples of best practices.

Technology – Adaptive technology refers to assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices targeting people with a range of disabilities. A faculty member’s approach to designing and delivering instruction can be better informed by having a greater understanding of how technology is used to enhance accessibility for students with disabilities.   In the context of digital and web accessibility, hardware devices and software products which increase computer access include accessible on/off switches, flexible positioning or mounting of keyboards and monitors, speech input, specialized voice and Braille output devices, screen readers, captioned videos, alternatives to audio output, and text to speech programs. The resources in this section of the website include overviews of adaptive technology and computer applications for persons with disabilities, as well as the training necessary to locate, compare, and implement adaptive/assistive technology.

Legislation –This topic area links to resources describing landmark federal and state legislation promoting expanded accessibility. Although these resources offer both a historical and developmental view of accessibility legislation, more importantly, they provide instruction on implementation. Legislation includes the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and more recently, the Illinois Information Technology Accessibility Act of 2008. Of particular importance is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 amended Sections 508 (1998) which mandates that programs and services be accessible to people with disabilities.

Guidelines – In promoting accessible teaching, it is critical to provide guidelines or standards that support an understanding and implementation of web accessibility.  The guidelines for Section 508 compliance and those provided for web content accessibility by the World Wide Web Consortium provide guidance for web authors in producing accessible webpages (Brewer, slide 20). In addition to reviewing guidelines and standards, users are encouraged to submit their course website for an evaluation of accessibility.

Learning Management Systems– Resources in this topic area are geared toward expanding accessibility for users of the Blackboard learning management system. Resources include a Blackboard Quick Start guide on universal design and accessibility, video sessions in which a user who is blind uses the screen reader ‘JAWS’ to interact with and complete various tasks in Blackboard Learn including submitting an assignment, taking a test, building content and grading students, and even a description of new features in Blackboard 9.1 on accessibility. There are a number of helpful resources for users of Wimba, a synchronous/asynchronous collaboration tool integrated with Blackboard. These include examples of applying accessibility technology, product accessibility templates, and an accessibility best practices guide.

In addition to being structured by topic areas, the teaching accessibility resources website is also organized by links to NIU-based resources, NIU support units, and general resources not affiliated with NIU.  Resources are provided in the form of organization/informational websites, blogs, videos, pdf documents, PowerPoint presentations, and even an archived Wimba session.  A principal feature of this website is the ongoing modification of content, with the addition of newly identified resources that become available, while outdated or inactive websites are removed.  In addition, it is anticipated that new resources, in the form of brief practical tutorials, will be developed and added to further enhance faculty skills in expanding accessibility for teaching. Users are invited to suggest additional resources not currently featured. Faculty are welcome to explore the many resources at:


Anson, D, Marangoini, R., Mills, K., & Shah, L. (2004). The Benefit of Accessible Design for Able-Bodied Users of the World Wide Web. Assistive Technology Research Institute at Misericordia University.  Retrieved  on September 20, 2010 from

Berners-Lee, T., Hendler, J., & Lassila. O. (2001). The Semantic Web. Scientific American, 2001 May 284 5:34-43.

Brewer, J. (2003). Online Overview of the Web Accessibility Initiative. Retrieved from September 29, 2010, from

National Center for Education Statistics (2002). Profile of Undergraduates in U.S. Postsecondary Institutions: 1999-2000 Statistical Analysis Report.  U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, NCES 2002-168.

Scott, S. (2002). Universal Design for Instruction Fact Sheet. Retrieved on September 21, 2010 from:

United States Census Bureau, Selected Social Characteristics in the United States: 2009, Retrieved on September 21, 2010 from:

What is Universal Design (UD)? (2008). Retrieved on November 1, 2010 from:

Teaching First-Year Students

posted in: Newsletter, Teaching | 0

With anticipation each fall, faculty look forward to a new year on campus: new courses to teach, new teaching strategies to try, and a whole new group of students. In addition to the returning students faculty have not met before, many of the new faces faculty see each new semester are college freshmen, otherwise known as first-year students. Although first-year students differ in age, experiences, traditions and backgrounds, the majority of them are between 18 and 22 years old.

According to 2009 Beloit College Mindset (Nief & McBride, 2009), students today are different than those of just a decade ago and include some of the following demographics.  More students:

  • are older than 25
  • are working while taking classes
  • are veterans
  • need remedial classes
  • are part-time students
  • are from single-parent or step-parent homes
  • have a minority or immigrant background
  • have English as a second language
  • have a learning or physical disability
  • have taken college courses while in high school

Here are a few tips and techniques that can help faculty understand, engage with and effectively teach first-year students.

Connect with First-Year Students

Make connections with students despite age, values and experiential differences. When discussing new or controversial course content, bring in examples to which students can relate. For example, use a reverse-debate format in which students take opposing side to what they believe.  Here are a few tips for interacting with first-year students in the classroom from Carnegie Mellon University (1997):

  1. Ask lots of questions in class that stretch students’ thinking. For example, begin with simple recall questions such as, “List the” and “Who did” and increase the complexity of the question to those that challenge students higher order thinking such as “Which _____ is the best? Why do you think so?” and “Give and justify your opinion on _______.”
  2. Mingle with students as they work in groups to encourage dialogue and interaction.
  3. Toss a Koosh ball to students. The student who catches the ball is expected to answer the question. Students can then toss the ball to another student, and so on. This interactive nature of questions and answers can lead to more engaged learning. The activity can also relieve stress, especially at the beginning of the semester.
  4. Have students write responses to questions on flip chart paper or white board using colorful markers.
  5. Use games and simulations to help students “visualize complex systems” such as simulating an environment otherwise not possible in the classroom. For example, provide color-enhanced images of the inside of a cell or show a video of chemical reaction. Each of these strategies can help students better understand the environment (Oblinger, 2004).
  6. Learn students’ names. Students are more likely to interact when called upon by name.
  7. Relate required reading to lectures and course discussions. Ensure course assessments (quizzes, exams, and assignments) include material from required readings.
  8. Arrange students to work in groups to encourage out-of-class interactions.
  9. As part of the non-instructional course objectives, teach first-year students how to prepare for assignments and exams. Provide previous exams and sample of graded papers so students get a feel for how course work is graded.

Be Personable

Share some personal experiences, such as how interest in the subject started or stories from college days. Faculty can let students know that faculty can be trusted and that students can share feelings and questions. This is especially helpful for first-year students seeking to establish a place in the university community. Sprinkle in a bit of humor now and then to reduce the formal nature of class.

Make Course Content Relevant

Relate what may be new course content to many first year students, to their knowledge and interests. Show students the importance of the content, how content relates to required readings, and how content can actually be used.

Give and Receive Feedback

Provide ways to give and receive feedback throughout the semester and use rubrics to help students understand expectations and methods of assessment. Grade assignments and exams quickly so students can use feedback to prepare for new content and future assessments. Give meaningful and timely feedback and solicit feedback to add credibility to teaching approaches. Some examples are:

  1. Give frequent quizzes – Blackboard is an easy-to-use venue for low-stakes assessments.
  2. Use email to set up appointments, clarify course expectations and communicate with students. Establish email protocols such as how quickly questions will be responded to, if questions  will be responded to over the weekend, how faculty would like to be addressed and if using complete sentences and proper punctuation (instead of “texting” language) is expected.
  3. Give short assignments that increase in complexity to measure comprehension of course content.
  4. Use “One-minute-papers” to get a snapshot of student comprehension of ongoing content. These papers allow students to quickly reflect on content just covered in class and will help identify areas that might need further review.
  5. Ask questions such as, “What was the clearest point in today’s class?” and “What the muddiest point was in today’s class?” Ask students to write their responses on note cards and submit before leaving the room. Incorporate student responses in the next lecture or address them directly in class.

Believe in Students

Begin each semester with the assumption that all first-year students come to class eager to learn. Although the faculty member is an expert in the discipline, students should be allowed to express their points of view. Listen to what first-year students have to say, allow discussions that diverge from the planned lecture and invite students to help devise course policies and rules related to projects and assignments. Students who have a voice in their own learning will find a more rewarding learning experience.


It is essential that faculty help first-year students successfully adjust to new living and learning environments. By understanding what it means to be a first-year college student and recognizing the demands first-year students face while transitioning to the university community, faculty can provide engaging, challenging and supportive learning environments.

Selected Resources and References

Carnegie Mellon University (1997). Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence. Best practices for teaching first-year undergraduates: Strategies for experience faculty.  Retrieved from PublicationsArchives/InternalReports/BestPractices-1stYears.pdf

Nief, R., & McBride, T. (2009). The Beloit College mindset list.  Retrieved from

Oblinger, D. (2004). Boomers & gen-xers millennials: Understanding the new students.  Retrieved from

Strategies for Managing the Online Workload

One of the foremost concerns of online instructors is that teaching online requires more time than the traditional face-to-face classroom setting. The Strategies for Managing the Online Workload (SMOW) video podcast offers a collection of short descriptions, tips, techniques, and methods developed and used by experienced online educators to manage their time more effectively in the online teaching environment. *Note – The free iTunes software is required in order to download and view the video podcast episodes.

Here’s a video introduction to the podcast by Larry Regan, Director of Instructional Design and Development, Penn State University World Campus:

Additional contributions to this collection are welcomed. If you have an idea of how to save time when teaching online, contact Larry Ragan at Penn State University at for additional information on how to add your idea to this collection.

Greener Teaching Techniques

Happy Earth Day!

Greener living has increasingly become a central issue in American life. In our personal lives, we recycle, use reusable bags at the grocery store, and light our homes with CFL bulbs. However, what can we do to make our teaching practices environmentally friendly? There are many simple changes faculty and instructors can make to decrease the impact their classroom has on the environment.

For example, use less paper by posting class documents online (in Blackboard, for those at NIU). Accept assignment submissions electronically rather than  on paper, and return grades and feedback the same way. Even something as simple as turning off classroom lights can save electricity and help make teaching more environmentally friendly.

For even more techniques, go to the new Greener Teaching Techniques resource page compiled by the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center:

If you have any additional suggestions, post them in the comments or send them to!

Online Teaching Brown Bag Discussion

This Friday, April 10, 2009 we will be facilitating an open online discussion about online teaching from Noon – 1pm CDT. At NIU we’ve offered face-to-face online teaching brown bag sessions in the past but this will be our first attempt at holding such informal discussions online. We’re not limiting the discussion to just NIU folks but are opening it up to anyone who would like to participate.

Some initial questions to get discussion started include:

  • What does every online instructor need to know?
  • What recently has worked really well in your online teaching?
  • What recently have you tried that wasn’t as successful as you had hoped?
  • What advice do you have for others who are considering teaching online for the first time?
  • Any new tips, tricks, or tech that you’ve found and have implemented in your online teaching?

For more details and to register, visit

Please pass this info onto anyone at your campus who you think might be interested in participating. If there is enough interest, we could consider offering similar sessions in the future.

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