Instructor Brita Clothier overcomes obstacles in making biology classes more accessible
Photos and Story by Celina Baguiao
Portland Community College has an “ally” in its quest to ensure its website and digital platforms are accessible for all students.
PCC and the state’s other 16 community colleges have invested in Ally, which is software that automatically checks websites for accessibility issues. Funded by the Oregon Community College Distance Learning Association, the software helps institutions build a more inclusive learning environment and improve their courses’ usability, accessibility and quality.
The program scans all of the online materials and provides an Ally score for every instructor. The score reflects things that the faculty member is doing well and notes areas for improvement to make their course offerings more accessible. It also allows students to download content in multiple formats that suit their needs.
“Disability services has seen a lot of communications from faculty since it became available to them, noticing the feedback that they’re getting and wanting to know what to do about it,” said Jennifer Lucas, who formally served as the college’s accessible content specialist. “Some instructors have been proactive with it, which has been great to see. They now have this information, and they want to know how they can do better, which is exactly the point.”
Through Ally, PCC users have scored consistently well, but biology faculty Brita Clothier’s scores are off the charts.
“I was impressed because it’s a biology class and those are very difficult to make completely accessible,” said Lucas, who currently works as PCC’s instructional media specialist for online learning. “She provides a free digital textbook, synchronous support notes for the lectures and she has flexible assignments. Her navigation and readability are great.”
Lucas was also impressed because Clothier’s classes were not created to be taught remotely. When the pandemic started and all classes were pivoted to be conducted online, many were not under the usual oversight that PCC’s Online Learning office provides. Without that support, Clothier still managed to create an exceptionally accessible course.
“It was a big transition to move completely to online delivery of my class,” said Clothier, who joined PCC in 2013. “I would say that it dovetailed nicely with being successful with Ally in the sense that I was already evaluating all of my teaching materials, and because that was the case, it was easy to pair it with the information or the feedback that Ally provided about my materials.”
While Clothier was already looking at how accessible her teaching materials were, creating equitable student success in her classroom has always hit close to home. One of her brothers has a genetic disorder called Usher syndrome, which can cause deafness or hearing loss, and he lost his eyesight as he got older.
“I think the conversations about accessibility have been threaded throughout my life,” Clothier said. “The work that my parents had to do to advocate for him for basic instructional support in and outside of the classroom was a backdrop of my childhood. Accessibility has always been something that I’ve thought about.”
Even when classes can return to in-person instruction, she believes that the information she learned from Ally will help her teaching and students in the future.
“This past year has been a revealing opportunity to see how valuable and how meaningful having lots of modalities for students in lots of different ways of accessing information can be,” Clothier explained. “It reinforced the value of accessibility and reinforced the need for accessibility in our classrooms. In a face-to-face class, I might go back to handing out worksheets, but those will still be available on my online shell.”
Accessibility at PCC
Learn how the college is developing a culture that is welcoming to students, staff, faculty and visitors who experience disability and to identify and dismantle barriers.
Seeing firsthand what it can be like for someone who does not receive the support they need to be successful in the classroom, Clothier believes that making materials accessible helps all students reach their educational goals at PCC.
“I kind of see it as the bare minimum,” Clothier added. “I see it as the entry-level point where materials should just naturally be. All of our materials should be accessible. That should be seamless from the student’s point of view. It shouldn’t be a question of whether or not our materials will be accessible. They just are.”
As PCC embarks on a new strategic plan, the college wants to create a sense of belonging in its learning environment as a college priority, and as a key factor in equitable student success. This includes an online environment and accessibility.
“Promoting accessibility not only provides a more equitable and equivalent experience for students with disabilities but also benefits all students,” said Online Learning Program Manager Rondi Schei. “Accessible materials are more cost-effective and allow students to engage in materials in ways that suit their needs. This means better retention, which can lead to more graduates, a better-educated workforce, and better hiring prospects. In general, those with a disability are less likely to earn a degree and this gap continues to affect employment and earning opportunities well beyond college.”