Making Math More Accessible at Portland Community College

Written by Dr. Chris Hughes, Alex Jordan, Scot Leavitt, Kaela Parks, Karen Sorensen

At Portland Community College (PCC), Disability Services (DS) is tasked with ensuring the accommodation process unfolds appropriately across and throughout a district serving approximately 90,000 students per year, 50,000 of whom are seeking credit.  In recent years the options for curricular content format and delivery have changed considerably, bringing new barriers, but also new opportunities for making math more accessible. Many courses are now designed around online engagement points that tap vast databases, generating individualized browsing sessions any time of day or night, giving users valuable and almost instantaneous feedback. While Disability Services can convert known problem sets ahead of time, and hire aides to serve as readers and scribes, it is not practical, nor does it provide equally effective communication, to try and address barriers on the fly.

The truth is that while there will always be some need for individualized accommodation, for example creating tactile representations of graphs, there is much that can and should be done on the front end to minimize the need for manual adjustments. If online engagement points comply with established Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and use proper structural markup for math content, users who rely on text to speech, braille translation, magnification, or voice recognition, can still typically get what they need. The content is built for flexibility. However, when these best practices are not honored, there is often no way DS professionals can ensure equally effective communication. We can’t reach behind the firewall and “fix” content by adding descriptions to images, putting equations into MathML, or redesigning the interface to ensure keyboard navigation.  What DS can do, and should do, is partner with Faculty, Instructional Support, and other stakeholders to help the institution recognize our shared responsibility to ensure equal access through ethical course design and curricular material adoption processes.

At PCC, online instructors develop their own courses within the learning management system. They choose the color and formatting of their text, the media, publisher materials and third party web sites and applications to use in their courses. And since the spring of 2012, all new and revised online courses paid for development by the Distance Education (DE) department are reviewed for accessibility. But how is an instructor supposed to know what’s accessible and what isn’t?

The Distance Education department has seen accessibility as an area that instructors need support. To that end, they hired an Accessibility Advocate who trains instructors and reviews courses for accessibility. And last fall (2012) the DE department co-sponsored with the Math department, two math faculty in their study of accessible mathematics. This subject specific study was so successful that the DE department hopes to emulate it with other academic program areas, especially in the STEM fields.

Math faculty members, Scot Leavitt and Chris Hughes investigated both the accessibility of content generated by the instructor and that which is delivered by homework management systems. In addition to studying commercial homework management systems such as MyMathLab, they ran a battery of accessibility tests (assisted by Math faculty Alex Jordan) on WeBWorK. The results from the WeBWorK experiments were superb- the screen reader JAWS was able to navigate easily around the web page and, most importantly, could read even the most complicated mathematical expression with the greatest of clarity.

WeBWorK is currently the only math homework management system fully endorsed by the Disability Services Office at PCC, and they are providing strong support in the creation of a dedicated server to host it. The server should be fully functional by the end of Summer 2013, and ready for wide-spread use across the college at some point within a year. Supporting WeBWorK in this way allows PCC to provide instructors with an alternative to commercial offerings that have known accessibility issues. By establishing our own WeBWorK server we ensure our community has access to a powerful homework management system that is more usable to more people more of the time. It also provides the institution with a means to ensure access for students who are enrolled in sections built around inaccessible engagement points by providing an equally effective alternative.

Details of the Math accessibility study and other resources can be found at http://www.pcc.edu/resources/instructional-support/access/.

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