Expanding Opportunity through Access

Digital solutions that are developed to provide access for individuals with disabilities also tend to be the solutions that help everyone, regardless of ability.

Defining Access

If you haven’t had a chance to read the recent Digital Content Guidelines Update Memo from the Provost, I would recommend checking it out before reading on. It is an important reminder and provides important context for my argument.  

You don’t have to look very far to realize that student “access” in higher education is an important challenge today, but what can be confusing is that access is defined several different ways:

  • The institution’s responsibility in being financially considerate in keeping costs low so that more students can access or join the learning experience.  
  • The digital “availability” of course materials designed to work on every device that a student owns, and in ways that will be centrally supported by the institution.  
  • The practice of creating course materials that everyone can access regardless of disability and designing inclusive learning experiences from the start.  
  • Presenting course materials in ways that helps students enter into or access the learning more easily and encourages flexible engagement between students, faculty and the content.  

Given my role at MSU, you might think about accessibility in the context of disability – most days I usually do – but for the purposes of this article I think that it is important to recognize that there are a wide variety of definitions when we are talking about student access.  


Hand holding a key, connoting access

It is worth noting that digital solutions that are developed to provide access for individuals with disabilities also tend to be the solutions that help everyone, regardless of ability. I think about things like closed captioning as being helpful in noisy environments like the gym or restaurants, but they were originally developed as an aid for those who are deaf or hard of hearing to read audible dialogue. 

A great example from our campus comes from Adi Mathew, Mike Hudson and Stephen Blosser’s fantastic work on the MSU Guide App in the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, which helps both persons with disabilities and new visitors navigate our campus.  

Digital Access

Specifically, when we talk about digital access, I am convinced that technology — when used thoughtfully and effectively at our institution – positions us best to meet all of these student access challenges.  

And this is why Provost Youatt’s update is so important from my perspective.

In order for us to meet access challenges at MSU, everyone who is involved with the student experience need to apply effective technology solutions that provide access, in order to help our students be a successful as possible.  

In my last post on accessibility, I shared that as a land grant institution founded on the commitment to expand opportunity based on merit, we have a responsibility to provide opportunity to our students through digital access.  

If opportunity is our business, then the currency we trade on is to provide access and remove barriers.  

The technologies that you choose, and the way that you provide digital materials will do more than you know in providing this opportunity; it is one of the most important things that we can be thinking about for our students in the digital age.  

This is why at the Accessibility Review Committee has endorsed the Provost’s recommendation to use native formats like Microsoft and HTML rather than converting your content into secondary formats like PDFs that make it difficult for students to access them.  

When we choose to work with and provide our students digital materials in native formats like these, we give all of our students the best opportunity for access, and success. At the same time, we also remove barriers that are inequitable to some students.  

Think about it. When you provide a syllabus or assignment in a native format like Microsoft Word, you provide your student:   

  • Learning materials that can be accessed for free under MSU supported licensed software (by the way, they are free to you too).  
  • Learning materials that will work across every device that they own: computers, tablets, mobile, and voice-enabled devices.  
  • Learning materials that can be made accessible to students with disabilities.  
  • Learning materials that are flexible and easy for them to use.