Bridging the Gaps: Insights from Digital Accessibility Conference 2024

by Mark Thomas, Learning Technologist

Click to listen to the audio version of this blog post

The Digital Accessibility Conference (DAC) 2024 hosted by Nottingham University last week was my first experience of a “distributed conference”. It brought together an international audience, with 20+ institutions taking part. The welcome session made it clear that the conference boasted over 800 individual online sign-ups (not including those watching in groups, like us). There was also a sizeable gathering of in-person attendees. Our idea at Sussex was to join the day’s events by hosting all three rooms, running in parallel, and their programme of talks and round tables. The three rooms reflected the main themes of the conference:

  • Leadership and Governance
  • Delivering Capability
  • Realising the Benefits

In this blog post, I would like to give you my top five takeaways from DAC 2024.

A brightly-coloured illustration of a laptop computer on a desk, showing participants in a meeting or, as in this case, an online conference.
Adobe Stock

Change does not happen in isolation

The three themes of the conference were billed as the key drivers of change. In the welcome speech, Julian Tenney, Learning Content Team Leader at Nottingham, spoke about how nothing would improve unless senior and school leadership – along with programme managers – invested in projects that identified and developed the capabilities to support accessibility as universal standard as part of how and who we design education for. Unless the benefits of these capabilities are realised and evidenced then lasting and embedded accessibility will continue to elude those who really need it.

Accessible STEM materials are tricky to create

There was a thread of Maths and STEM subjects woven throughout the programme. One academic showcasing some of the tools and techniques they have been using hammered home the point that STEM text is not natively accessible and Maths notation is tricky to format. Using LaTeX, HTML formats, Pandoc Mathpix, and Mathjax are a few examples that were shown, while quite rightly (yet still frustratingly) highlighting their shortcomings. One interesting process, which was news to me at least, was that saving a Word document as an HTML file will extract images from the doc and save them all in a sub folder. This was useful when Maths notation images had been used and would help for adding it to a Canvas module, perhaps (with alt text, of course).  

AI does not have all the answers

There was a lot of talk around the issue of alt text to support access to images and data. There were some damning numbers from the presenter where 5700 images they audited had no alt text at all. This highlights the issue that I feel is commonplace across institutions: a lack of awareness when designing materials and VLE/LMS modules. Can AI save the day and help rectify this problem? The answer from several talks was no, not really! It can help but is not the one-stop-shop to change. AI can help describe what can be seen in commonly known images from the internet but AI does not give context for the image, which is an integral part of the guidelines for alt text use. When images are less known to the generative bank of information, the descriptions are less accurate. This was based on a comparison between Microsoft’s Alt Text option, Dall-e (Open AI product) and the Alt-Text AI website.

Student voice matters

We all strive to provide user-friendly, inclusive materials to enhance student experience and learning outcomes. Even with the best intentions in the world this cannot match what can be understood from feedback and input from those for whom accessibility is most important. “Action not Reaction” was a phrase that came up once or twice throughout the day and it is most important in this case. It is imperative that student input is gathered appropriately and promptly to ensure that processes and procedures are proactive and not reactive.

Time, and time again

The most often quoted but least surprising reason for accessibility targets not being met is the reported lack of availability of staff time to make the changes to their materials. A staff-student co-creation project funded by a Students As Change Agents programme reported how staff in the faculty were being supported by students. Students were trained how to make existing materials more accessible (Word docs, PPT and PDF). The project is helping them understand the process of converting learning materials to improve accessibility and helping the faculty gain a greater understanding of the experience of students using assistive technology to support their learning. Students also reported the benefits of them being upskilled in digital technology as a positive knock-on effect.

What next?

One of the most inspiring elements of the entire conference was the amount of enthusiasm for delivering capabilities and demonstrating the benefits. As part of the plenary, the discussion moved toward the future and one key message was that a unified and standardised approach across institutions would have a big impact. If we could agree on the accessibility guidelines and non-negotiables for the creation of a Power Point slide deck, for example, then anyone working in an institution who then moves elsewhere will be held to the same standards. With conferences like this bringing people together it really makes me feel that that is a realistic next step.

Helpful Links

A Padlet board from a roundtable conversation about what is happening in other institutions regarding accessibility: ConversAction Padlet

The Ability Net website: AbilityNet

Making Things Accessible (A UCL, Westminster Uni and Brunel collaboration project)

Posted in Accessibility, Inclusive teaching, Learning Design, Learning Technologies

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We are the Educational Enhancement team at the University of Sussex. We publish posts each week on using technology to support teaching and learning. Read more about us.

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