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How to make the student experience more accessible and inclusive

Guy Carberry, 12 July 2021

Acknowledging that your students are not like you is the first step. Devising personas and profiles representing the broad student community will provide you with a solid means to objectively assess your work and empathise with users.

What do we mean by accessibility and inclusivity?

When we talk about accessibility in the context of a website we are referring to people being able to easily perform a task easily regardless of disability. Disability can mean being blind, partially-sighted, deaf, having manual dexterity impairment, neurodiverse issues, and more.

Inclusivity is about being open to all regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sex, age, and all the things that make up a person’s identity. It also includes disability so is a broader term than accessibility. Many students do not have access to fast broadband or might be using their games console or mobile device as the only way to access the internet. Critically, somebody shouldn’t feel excluded by a service or product that we design.

Why be accessible and inclusive?

By making your product or service accessible and inclusive you are widening the reach and audience. As a higher education organisation you have a moral and legal duty to be accessible and inclusive. There are guidelines, policies, and procedures governing the service you provide and by not meeting them you may be subject to complaints from students and staff.

Everybody is different and everybody will experience some level of disability over the course of a lifetime. Consider your own needs. Perhaps you have trouble using a mouse or struggle to read. You may even design with your own needs in mind. Being accessible and inclusive means acknowledging that not everybody is the same, not everybody is like you. Designing accordingly will result in a better student experience, increase positive sentiment and feedback and enhance the reputation of your institution.

How to improve accessibility and inclusivity

Would you be confident in answering if somebody asked you how accessible and inclusive your digital service was? How would you go about finding out? The first thing to do is to understand the standards that all Higher Education establishments are measured against.

Guidelines are your friends

The Web Content Accessibility (WCAG) 2.1 Guidelines are your first port of call. You can use checklists to help you evaluate your website. You may have developers and analysts who can make sense of the more technical guidelines for you. If not, you could seek professional help from a third-party consultancy like us. You can also use automated tools like Siteimprove or browser-specific features and plugins. Microsoft also maintains a great Inclusive Design resource kit.

Don’t forget the content

Accessibility doesn’t just mean your technical code, HTML, CSS, and Javascript are all accessible to web browsers and assistive devices. It also means your content must be readable, understandable, and digestible. Video and audio content being supplied with alternative, equivalent content such as captions (subtitles), audio description, and transcripts. Infographics and diagrams need to have alternative texts and long descriptions as well as working just as well on small screens and when zoomed by those with visual impairments.

To make your site or service more inclusive you need to ensure that you are not alienating anybody with your choice of language, imagery, or technology. If your website only works in the latest and greatest technology, you will be excluding people with older technology. If your website only includes images of white, middle-class, middle-aged people it may alienate anybody who isn’t. If the language you use is complex and dense you may be excluding a large segment of your potential audience.

Test with people

Whilst you can make assumptions about how accessible and inclusive your website is, there is no greater way to evaluate it than consulting with students themselves. Talk to a broad range of representative students, conduct user research and evaluation to know what’s working well and what isn’t. Once you know where the problems are, you can set about thinking about how to resolve them.

Involve your students in the design process. At every step along the way, seek feedback from the people who will actually be using your service. Understand how it feels to them. How will it meet their expectations? Put measures in place to inform continuous improvements. You can ask students to help you generate personas, user profiles, and journey maps that you can use over and over again when making changes or adding new content. Your website is an ever-evolving organic source of help and support. Invest in it!

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