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John Scott

Jan 27, 2020

An Evolution in Access through Empathy

Inclusive Design and Culture at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Resources Regardless of Need

From the College of DuPage, we made the four hour drive down Highway 55 towards St. Louis to Southern Illinois Edwardsville University for our 41st stop on the Ally Tour. Home to over 13,000 students, including 430 international students representing 51 countries, SIUE’s commitment to diversity and inclusion echoes across the campus, from their their core institutional values to various programs and events celebrating their multicultural student body. Matt Butler, Vice President of the Student Government, shares what he’s observed during his time at SIUE: “Every year here we’ve taken another step forward in allowing our students to see all the resources available to them, whether they need them or not.” 

Access to resources regardless of need captures the spirit of an inclusive approach. During a student’s tenure at a university, circumstances may change that impact their ability to succeed- they may sustain an injury that causes a temporary disability, family or financial circumstances may cause increased anxiety, stress or depression, or they may find themselves struggling with coursework due to a learning challenge that went undiagnosed. Knowing where to locate resources on campus for support before something happens provides a sense of security and helps ensure that if and when a need arises, students can act quickly and decisively before they find themselves in danger of failing or drop-out. 

Ally sign with list of alternative formats perched on red table cloth with swag next to glowing touch-screen. Sign says "College is Easy, make Ally your ally."

At the center of SIUE’s efforts to support their diverse learners sits the Office for Accessible Campus Community & Equitable Student Support, referred to as the ACCESS office. The Office focuses on the entire student lifecycle, from disability diagnosis to content remediation to study skills and life skills, preparing students to succeed both in the classroom as well as in their future careers. Professor Laura Fowler (Historical and Museum Studies) describes how the office’s name and role have changed during her tenure at the university: “I think the office of ACCESS, just as an external observer, has become much more visible on campus. They changed their name from Disability Support Services to ACCESS, which I think in and of itself talks about a change in methodology and perspective.” During our visit, we had the chance to sit down with the director of ACCESS, Dominic Dorsey who shared more about the evolution of their inclusive mission.

Our number one form of accommodation is just being that of a faculty-student liaison and really helping faculty understand the mechanics of their own courses... It’s helping faculty, staff, and administrators understand complex learners and the nuances and the different experiences they are having because many of them just don’t know.

– Dominic Dorsey, Director of ACCESS  



Building Empathy into Course Design

Empathy is of course fundamental to good design practice. In the context of course design, an empathetic approach begins by matching the requisite skillset and intended goals of a course with the needs and abilities of the students participating in that course. In our conversations with the ITS-  Instructional Design and Learning Technologies team at SIUE, they expressed a concerted effort to truly understand their students, and work with faculty to leverage tools and pedagogies that meet the changing needs of their students. Jennifer Albat, shared that they discovered their online learners were an average age of 25, and were therefore more likely to have families, jobs, and other obligations outside the classroom that could impact their participation. 

Instructors might not know what situation a student is in at every moment. You have to have that empathy and just ask “Where are you reading these materials?” And I think the Ally reporting helps to see what they are downloading, but also just asking “When do you study” What do you do when you study?” Because it’s changing and it will continue to change.

– Emily Keener, Instructional Designer


Providing students with access to tools that can support their changing needs, and providing instructors with tools to help them anticipate and address those changing needs are two of the reasons why SIUE chose to make Ally part of their LMS experience. Reflecting on using Ally to address accessibility issues in his course, Professor Mark Poepsel (Mass Communications) challenges the idea that a commitment to accessibility needs to be a time burden. Instead, he’s found that the time he commits to improving the accessibility and usability of his course content at the beginning of a term translates into time saved during the term because he spends less time answering student questions and clarifying points of confusion.


During the Ally Tour, we’ve documented the ways clarity, consistency, and usability in course materials and design can help students feel more confident, participate with greater autonomy, and enhance their engagement. At SIUE, student Jason Pappas described a case where he was required to read a scan of a magazine article for one of his courses. Where a low-quality scan of a multi-column magazine article poses numerous usability challenges that may frustrate or affect a student’s engagement, he was able to use Ally to download an HTML version of the document, which he found to be cleaner and easier to read. 

As a student ambassador at SIUE, Jason knows first-hand as well as through his interactions with his peers on campus that freshman year can feel like a daunting, even overwhelming experience. Given 30% of college freshman drop-out after their first year, providing tools and resources that empower them as learners and that facilitate effective learning strategies can have a significant impact on their success in the classroom and beyond. When we departed for the EDUCAUSE conference in Chicago, it was clear that SIUE’s focus on empathy in their course design and in the support structures offered to their diverse students has become ingrained in the campus culture and plays a crucial role in their journey to more inclusive education.


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