Open Pedagogy 9/19 Recap: Access Beyond the ADA

Open Pedagogy participants discussing access beyond the ADA.

On Thursday, September 19, faculty and staff from City Tech, CUNY, and other New York City universities (e.g. Pratt University)  got together for the first of two Open Pedagogy events the OpenLab is hosting this semester. Participants discussed “Access Beyond the ADA”

Note that the discussion was framed around access rather than accessibility. As we noted in our post announcing the event, the term accessibility conveys the degree to which a space, process, or concept is accessible. By contrast, access denotes the process by which accessibility is achieved. Our focus on Thursday evening was on broadening our understanding of “access” beyond compliance with the ADA. We considered the following questions:

  • How can open digital pedagogy impact, augment, and enhance access?
  • What are the limits of technology’s impact on access and accessibility?
  • What barriers to access have you encountered as faculty and staff? What about the barriers you’ve experienced students facing? 
  • What resources have helped you to improve access in your academic courses and projects?

Participants kicked off the evening by recounting how some of their own assumptions around access had been called into question. For example, a participant shared that once they included language in their syllabi inviting students to talk about their different learning styles, they experienced a drastic shift in their relationship with students. This faculty member noted that students had opened up to them in unexpected ways; most simply wanted to talk about how they learned and how they studied. Some were looking for advice, validation, and acknowledgement. Few were looking for technical “accommodation.” None, the faculty member emphasized, were looking for what some disparagingly call “preferential treatment.” Most students simply wanted to be heard—to have their differences recognized. This anecdote helped ground the evening in a principle that might be captured by a simple maxim: trust your students. Students are often quite aware of their needs and can tell you how to improve access to learning in your class. But they need to be given the space to do so.

Several participants echoed these experiences, including alluding to experiences of attempting to accommodate student needs and facing institutional guidelines that restrict faculty agency to grade, grant extensions, or even appropriately refer students to other offices on campus that may provide support. Even the simple awareness of which offices serve which purposes can be obfuscated to first-generation students and part-time, temporary, or contract faculty and staff, so it can be difficult to advise students on the best course of action without a thorough orientation, a luxury that seems to have diminished under austere working conditions in higher ed. 

Similarly, disabled teaching and non-teaching faculty in the room recounted having to stay in the disability “closet” for much of their careers. Rare are those occasions on which university instructors are invited to share the accommodations they might require. Some noted that the use of open digital pedagogy—and platforms like the OpenLab—had made their lives much easier. The ability to create interactive and accessible web content, and to teach meaningfully through this content has been invaluable, especially for instructors with chronic illness, autism, and other disabilities that impact their ability to stand, communicate verbally or nonverbally, and other traditional pedagogical expectations  in a classroom.

But significant barriers remain. The physical environment is a major obstacle to access: many participants remarked on the difficulty of getting around the CUNY campuses when disabled, remarking on simple architectural inaccessibility in the forms of steps and stairs and nonfunctional elevators, and other issues such as overcrowded hallways that can be difficult to navigate during class changes. Another barrier is that the websites students and faculty depend on—including the database search for the library—are not always easily read with a screen reader. Finally, while technology is arguable a prerequisite for improving access to learning, it can also be an auditory and visual distraction for students in the classroom. Participants noted that they sometimes struggle with what to ask their students to do with cell phones: should these be allowed on desks in class? For one math instructor, a smartphone can supplant the need for an expensive calculator as well as acting as a common means of accessing online material. But what about when they become a distraction and possibly undermine a student’s success in a course?

Finally, participants emphasized at multiple points that improvements to access must come from people—not technology. On its own, technology cannot transform a student’s learning or an instructor’s teaching or service to the university. But it can be employed with the intention of making learning affordable, accessible, and varied; it can be used to adapt teaching to different learning styles. The key word here is intention. To focus on access, participants noted, is to value the ongoing human energy that is required to meet people’s accessibility rights and, conversely, the energy people must put in to have their own rights met . The processes at play are not automatic. They have to be enacted. Our conversation last Thursday evening was one way to redouble our commitment to this enactment.

Let’s continue the conversation! Please comment on this post with thoughts/ questions. And don’t forget to join us for our next Open Pedagogy event, on November 7!

Pedagogy Profile: Jason Ellis

What is your role on the OpenLab team?Headshot of a white man with voluminous hair and a beard smiling while wearing a black jacket and green striped tie

I am an OpenLab Co-Director and part of the OpenLab Community Team. This is my first year as a part of the OpenLab leadership, but I have been using OpenLab for the past five years and continue to use it in my current ENG2575, Technical Writing class.

Screenshot of Prof. Ellis's homepage for Technical Writing, featuring a lefthand sidebar image of a femme in a helmet with analog computing text spelled backwards across the visor. The main page contains the title of the course and another retro sci-fi image of space ships and a white head with short brownish hair.
Prof. Ellis’s Technical Writing course homepage

Describe your experience using the OpenLab to support your pedagogy.

Before joining the City Tech faculty, I used WordPress and various social media platforms with my students at Georgia Tech. When I heard about the OpenLab at City Tech during my transition, I jumped at the chance to try out this homegrown platform that combined WordPress with social media elements via Buddypress. 

OpenLab enables me to help students learn more about openness, collaboration, public-facing audiences, multimodal composition, and by doing rather than simply showing. I have taught classes from ENG1101, English Composition I to ENG2420, Science Fiction to ENG3760, Digital Storytelling with the OpenLab.

And, I like sharing a quote with my students from the science fiction writer William Gibson: “the street finds its own use for things.” This is true for OpenLab. I make use of it to meet the goals set for my classes and those that I want to offer my students. Likewise, I encourage my students to learn how to use OpenLab as they would any other digital tool and imagine how they can use it for their purposes and leverage it to meet the goals that they set for themselves.

Photo of a black-and-white plastic cat with their head cocked atop a beige box with the words "professional computer" displayed in white text on a black background
courtesy of Prof. Ellis

Can you describe the ways you have integrated the OpenLab into your pedagogical practices here at City Tech or elsewhere?

I want to make information easily accessible to my students in the places where they are (on smartphones and computers), I want my students to realize that the writing that they do has more audiences than their instructors and includes many possible audiences online, I want my students to read and engage the writing of their peers, and I want to offer students open educational resources (OER) or zero textbook cost (ZTC). OpenLab supports all these pedagogical initiatives.

For students’ needs as they transition to the workplace or graduate school, I encourage students to think about how the writing that they do on OpenLab creates a record of their intellectual development and how the projects that they post serve as proof that they have needed communication skills. Students can curate their work into a Portfolio that they can link to from their profile, personal domain, or resume.

I share my reasoning with students behind the things that I do and the things that I ask them to do with or on the OpenLab. It’s important that they understand why OpenLab is an invaluable, homegrown resource that improves their access and interaction in the classroom while preparing them for job seeking and the workplace.

How have the OpenLab and other open digital pedagogy tools transformed or expanded your pedagogy, and the pedagogical values you’re able to realize in your courses and educational practice? 

OpenLab makes it very easy for me to work with students in the classroom and asynchronously between class meetings. I keep my past classes on the OpenLab, because students have reported back to me that they refer to them to remember something relevant to their other classes or work. And, I tell students that they are free to browse my other classes on OpenLab, because they might learn something from them or consider taking one of my other classes based on what they discover. 

Aside from courses, how does the OpenLab support your pedagogical practices and ambitions? 

In addition to teaching with the OpenLab, I use it for collaboration and outreach. I started the project site Science Fiction at City Tech about four years ago to promote the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, advertise our annual science fiction symposium, and share teaching materials. Also, and perhaps more importantly, the project site has grown to promote student involvement in the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, such as through helping build the finding aid and class visits, and it is a central resource for sharing video of past symposium presentations. 

Photo of Samuel L. Delany, an older Black man with a long gray beard, holding a copy of one of his books in the City Tech Library science fiction collection. He wears all black and carries a black cane, a pleased look on his face
Snapshot of Samuel R. Delany visiting City Tech’s Science Fiction Collection

I created the Retrocomputing at City Tech project site to catalog the vintage computer resources that I keep in my office and regularly use in my classes. My intent was to highlight these artifacts that are available—some I own, and some CUNY owns—for use in classes. While I’m still working to make this project site as successful as the Science Fiction at City Tech site, the fact that I could get it up and running quickly with OpenLab, I consider a win.

Open Pedagogy Event (9/19): Access Beyond the ADA

Access Beyond the ADA

Thursday, September 19, 2019, 4:30-6:00pm (N227 Faculty Commons)

*Refreshments will be served. (Thanks to Faculty Commons for its generous support of this event!)

*Part-time faculty are eligible to receive a stipend for participation.

*Please RSVP by commenting on this post. Please share this invitation with your colleagues!

In frameworks of disability justice, the term accessibility conveys the degree to which a space, process, or concept is accessible, while access instead denotes the process by which accessibility is achieved. Join the OpenLab Team, City Tech faculty and staff, and CUNY colleagues at our next Open Pedagogy event, where we’ll be discussing different ways of thinking through access on the OpenLab and in digital pedagogy more broadly.

While the ADA governs the widespread adoption of reasonable accommodations for faculty, staff, and students in higher education, we’re curious what other forms of access are important to consider in open digital pedagogy. We’ll work to expand our understanding of “access” beyond compliance and discuss some practical skills and tools that may help augment a more inclusive pedagogy that anticipates and values difference in teaching and learning. We’ll consider the following questions:

  • How can open digital pedagogy impact, augment, and enhance access?
  • What are the limits of technology’s impact on access and accessibility?
  • What barriers to access have you encountered as faculty and staff? What about the barriers you’ve experienced students facing? 
  • What resources have helped you to improve access in your academic courses and projects?

This event is the first of two in our Fall 2019 Open Pedagogy series on access in open digital pedagogy. We’re excited to continue our conversation around how “access”–practically and conceptually–can be integrated into teaching and learning on the OpenLab.

Save the date for our upcoming Open Pedagogy event, “Access Pedagogy,” where we will discuss some strategies for implementing access into teaching materials, assignments, and student engagement on November 7, 2019 from 4:30-6:00pm in N227 Faculty Commons

Recommended Readings:

*If you’re interested in the Hamraie article above, please reach out to for a PDF copy

Image credit: useless-3 by rené van haeften is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.