A Tradition of Supporting Equity and Access in Education
Accessibility and Social Justice
During my stay in Boston, Massachusetts, I had the chance to visit the “Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular” exhibit at The Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibit featured Kahlo’s iconic self-portraits hanging alongside the artifacts of Mexican folk art that inspired her imagery. The artist’s desire to elevate these treasures of Mexican and Indigenous culture to the status of “high art” is realized in the inclusion of these artifacts in the museum. It reminded me of my visit to Lesley University earlier in the week, where I learned about their rich tradition of making education more inclusive for all, especially for those groups who have been historically marginalised or excluded from higher education.
Central to the mission of higher education today, diversity and inclusion are recurring themes in university “vision statements.” But for institutions like Lesley University in Cambridge, a social justice mission is woven into the fabric and spirit of the campus from its founding. Today that mission is reflected in the number of Lesley students who declare they have a disability- the third most in the state at 23% according to Assistant Provost for Academic Success Randi Korn. Considering that as many as 66% of students in higher education do not disclose they have a disability, whether because of stigma or lack of awareness, Lesley’s commitment to an inclusive culture means students feel more empowered to seek out the services they need to help them be successful.
In the second episode of the BbAlly Tour Podcast, I sat down with Heather Tillberg Web (Associate Provost, Systems, Planning & Administration), Kristina McElroy (Director of Academic Technology), Danielle Powell (Instructional Technologist), and Robyn Belair (Instructional Technologist) to learn more about Lesley’s history around inclusive learning as well as how they are using Ally today to support their mission.
As an institution with a school of education and a very heavy focus on Universal Design for Learning and accessibility, we have faculty who also are really interested in [Ally], interested in building it into what they do.
– Heather Tillberg Web, Associate Provost, Systems, Planning & Administration
An Empathy-First Approach
What stood out to me in conversations with faculty and staff at Lesley was their empathy-first approach in their teaching, which begins by recognizing the diverse needs and abilities of their students. During the course creation phase, for example, instructional designer Robyn Belair described to me how they have faculty walk through their courses as students to better understand the course experience from their perspective, identifying and correcting points of confusion and barriers to information. Building on this empathy approach, Professor Lisa Spitz discussed how she anticipates learner variability and designs her courses for a “spectrum of abilities,” which includes providing students multiple options for how they participate and contribute to the learning experience.
Faculty also empathize with the challenges students may face in being able to access and afford education, and the important role technology can play in opening up those opportunities for students. Professor Susan Patterson of the Graduate School of Education, whose own research and teaching focus on ways new technologies can contribute to the democratization of education, described that when she was first introduced to online education, she was skeptical about its effectiveness. However, she has since realized the important role online education can play for so many students who encounter barriers to on-campus learning experiences, such as those students in remote rural areas or students from low-income families.
Access Remains the Hardest Part
Director of Academic Technology Kristina McElroy, who helped bring Blackboard Ally to the Lesley campus and has been leading their roll-out, felt from the beginning that Ally’s close alignment with the social justice mission of the university would appeal to faculty. For this reason, after a brief implementation and pilot phase, her team decided to move forward quickly in making Ally available to the entire campus. The response from faculty has been positive so far, and while they still face challenges in addressing accessibility issues with their course content, such as untagged PDFs from library resources, they have taken some key first steps in improving awareness and making simple changes to their course materials.
Aware of these persistent challenges, Special Education faculty member Professor Linda Lengyel explained to me that one of the hardest part of education today remains ensuring students have equitable access- not just physical access, but access to the learning concepts themselves. This means continuing to develop and refine creative, research-based pedagogy to support students in developing those key understandings so that can advance in their education. Like the arte populare in the Museum of Fine Art, when diverse voices are empowered to participate and contribute in the classroom, everyone’s experience becomes enriched by the unique perspectives and worldviews they bring to the conversation.