Leading the Way in Accessible Learning

The work of digital accessibility, or rather the inclusive practice of removing barriers to equal access of information and education, is ongoing at Michigan State University whether through online or face-to-face consultations, extended research, or experiential learning and practice.

The College of Arts & Letters is leading the way in this effort, both on campus and beyond, through its research, curriculum, and the educational opportunities it offers including an international Accessible Learning Conference and a new study away program focused on accessibility.

A crowded room of people seated at tables and facing a stage with a speaker in front of a podium at the Accessibility Learning Conference
The 2017 Accessible Learning Conference was held December 1-2.

Experiential Learning in Silicon Valley

For the first time, the College of Arts & Letters is offering a week-long study away program to Silicon Valley focusing on accessibility professions in the tech industry. Students of the program will visit leading tech companies, such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Adobe, and Microsoft, to learn more about their accessibility efforts and the potential career opportunities in the field.

“This is an opportunity for students to get hands on, face-to-face experience with major tech companies,” said Kate Sonka, faculty leader and Assistant Director of Academic Technology in the College of Arts & Letters.

Students will participate in professionally productive activities such as pitching project ideas, discussing career trajectories, and portfolio/resume review and will come away with a better understanding of professional work processes in the industry.

woman in black dress and teal cardigan speaking at a podium at the conference
Kate Sonka, Assistant Director of Technology in the College of Arts & Letters, welcoming attendees to the 2017 Accessible Learning Conference.

International Conference on Accessibility

The Accessible Learning Conference, an international conference devoted to issues concerning accessibility, took place December 1 and 2 at MSU’s Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center. The conference brought together a variety of academics and professionals to talk about the importance of accessible learning in higher education, technology, and industry.

“The conference is a marker of efforts being made by people at MSU and beyond to think about and work towards accessibility,” said Madeline Shellgren, a Ph.D. student in Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures, who presented at the conference as well as served on the conference planning committee. “It wasn’t just a place for people who do one thing related to accessibility, it’s really becoming a space for a variety of people to come together, new to accessibility or not, to think about what it means and why it is important.”

2 men giving a presentation at a podium at the conference
Experience Architecture students Anderson Day (left) and Darrell Williams (right) presenting at the 2017 Accessible Learning Conference.

For Shellgren, the conference was a chance to showcase the work that’s continually being done on accessibility.

“Efforts to support the conference were made across various levels and roles on campus – students, assistant deans, academic specialists, staff, and faculty, who are all invested in accessibility,” Shellgren said. “What is telling about these groupings is that accessibility is not just a College of Arts & Letters issue…It is a university-wide and community issue.”

Many students who attended the conference found it to be beneficial to their transition from student to professional, including Darrell Williams, Ed Tech intern for the College of Arts & Letters.

“Being in an academic environment surrounded by professionals who have their minds all the way into their work is just really rewarding,” Williams said. “It really preps you for moving away from being a student to being a professional.”

image of a woman sitting at a tables of resources at the conference
Sarah Swierenga, Director of MSU Usability/Accessibility Research and Consulting, seated at a resource table during the 2017 Accessible Learning Conference. 

Accessibility Curriculum and Research

Accessibility also is included in a wide variety of curriculum across the College of Arts & Letters. From Experience Architecture and Professional Writing, to Digital Humanities and Computer Science, students are placing an emphasis on accessibility in their studies and their work.

Katie Musial, junior Experience Architecture major, currently interns as a Digital Content Accessibility intern for the Broad College of Business where she ensures that digital content for classes is accessible. She also is researching how to make math accessible within the Broad College of Business for screen reader users.

Musial presented research at the Accessible Learning Conference. Her presentation, titled “How to Make Professors Care About Accessibility Without Really Trying (Just Kidding, You’re Going to Need to Try Really Hard),” looked at ways professors from across the University discuss and teach accessibility and how those implications affect student learning.

Musial’s research on this topic has continued since the conference. She currently is working with professors on how they can practice accessibility in their classes and coursework.

sign at the conference that says "making learning accessible conference"

Continuing the Conversation Beyond MSU

At the end of last year, Sonka, who is the Director of the Accessible Learning Conference Planning Committee, was invited to the annual think tank with PEAT (Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology) held at Microsoft’s Innovation and Policy Center in Washington, D.C., with 50 leaders from industry, academia, government, and the disability community.

Sonka was invited to represent the experiential learning going on at Michigan State University, including the Accessible Learning Conference and the new study away opportunity in Silicon Valley.

The purpose of the think tank was to focus on hiring people with disabilities and to address skills and knowledge gaps in employment.

Sonka said she hopes these knowledge gaps are being filled by current MSU students through experiences such as the Accessible Learning Conference, internships, and the upcoming study away, to name just a few.