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How to Make your Course Readings Accessible

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By Heather Fitzgerald

Posted on September 19, 2023 | Updated September 29, 2023, 9:00am

Filed in Faculty

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Accessibility has always been a concern for ECU instructors: we have a vested interest in making sure that all students can access and learn from our course materials. Even before the pandemic, some instructors recognized that assigning a long dense text for class reading was a barrier to learning for some students, so they responded by creating complementary audio recordings of those readings.

Students now had a choice as to how they “read” the assigned texts: they could read them in a more conventional way or listen to them as they did their studio work or commuted. By offering two different modes of access, these instructors reduced barriers to learning and made it more likely that students would actually do their readings. Seemed like a win-win, which is why I wholeheartedly supported these initiatives whenever I heard about them.

But this practice has had unintended consequences for other instructors: some students are now so accustomed to having audio versions of readings that they are demanding them from instructors who may not want to provide them—either for reasons of pedagogy or labour. This is particularly problematic for our non-regular colleagues who may worry that failure to comply with student demands will harm their prospects for future employment.

While I am in no position to articulate an official institutional response to this issue, I have a few thoughts. The first of which is that there is no single one-size-fits-all response to accessibility. The best response will depend entirely on why instructors are assigning readings, and what they hope students will gain from reading them.

In some cases, instructors might want students to read the actual texts because reading skills are connected to the course learning outcomes. They may want students to practice skimming and scanning techniques, for example, which might require students to move through the reading in a non-linear fashion, which an audio recording wouldn’t allow. In this case, instructors will need to make those learning outcomes clear and perhaps provide support for students to gain required reading skills. (Sara Osenton in the Writing Centre has many resources to support reading skill development.)

In other cases, where students are reading to gain information about a topic, there may be other resources that students could easily substitute for the assigned reading (videos, podcasts, etc.). Instructors could either search for these materials themselves or invite students to search for and propose alternate materials. This latter approach would have the added benefit of developing students’ research skills and empowering them to exercise agency in their own learning.

In still other cases where there is a demonstrated need for audio recordings, instructors could look for alternatives to recording the readings themselves: they might suggest students use freely available text-to-speech software to listen to assigned readings. Or they could invite students in the class to create audio recordings of readings as part of a participation grade – some students love to read aloud and would be thrilled to contribute to the class in this way. In cases where readings are likely to be used for many offerings of a course, the TLC has even been able to hire student assistants to help with these types of accessibility projects for asynchronous online or large lecture classes.

At the end of the day, though, it is up to each instructor to determine how curriculum should be delivered. While we can try to accommodate student demands, there is sometimes a limit to what and how much we can do, especially if the demand stems more from student preference than actual need. If you or an instructor you know is feeling pressure from students or anyone else to change how you teach your class or provide your course materials, please come and speak to us in the TLC. We can work with you to develop solutions that meet your and your students’ needs.