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How can you remove online barriers to Higher Education?

Every organization strives for excellence, and for educational institutions this means providing the best learning environment for each and every learner. We know that providing a supportive experience for your learners is at the forefront of everything you do, but does your website also live up to your standards?

A student working in a classroom

Creating a true first impression

First impressions count, and your website gives prospective students all the information they need to know before deciding if they would like to study with you. It’s important that your content is accessible, so that your welcoming messages are delivered to every single one of your potential future learners. Just as you would make adjustments to physical accessibility, the same should be done within your digital presence, to ensure that your content is equally accessible to individuals with learning or cognitive difficulties. 

Given today’s current global pandemic, this has never been more crucial for educational institutions. In recent research conducted to review the effects of Covid 19 on Higher Education, 45% of US-based high school seniors said they are very likely to look for a different institution, with one of the most commonly cited reasons including doubts about the quality of remote learning. In addition, if institutions have to shift to remote learning in the fall, 32% of students reported that they’re most likely to look for schools with better online capabilities. 

An inclusive and accessible website demonstrates that you’re committed to creating great online experiences for all, and for students with disabilities, this is key. 

Ensuring a brighter future, for everyone

Around 13% of Canadians aged between 15 and 24 years identify as having one or more disabilities, and 1 in 10 people have neurodiverse traits, such as dyslexia, ADHD, and aspergers. This means that content is accessed and processed in various different ways. Making sure your web content can be accessed using assistive technologies such as computer readers and screen magnifiers, can help remove some of the barriers neurodiverse students face in accessing higher education.  

This is especially important as we look to the future of education. The current pandemic has seen students around the world moving to remote learning. Educators have had to react to make sure that the supports are still there for every one of their students. Institutions are being prompted to look at their online platforms, to improve the suitability for remote learning. And, for those in the Higher Education sector, they’re working to understand the potential impacts of COVID-19 on enrollment for the year ahead. In fact, 86% of college presidents put fall or summer enrollment numbers at the top of their most pressing issues in the face of COVID-19

As we look to a future where blended learning could very well become a preferred viable model for educational institutions, there has never been a more crucial time to review the inclusivity of your digital communications.

Getting one step ahead with legal compliance

Taking the time to review your website and applications process, and making the effort to help increase inclusion for all individuals, can also help you to get one step ahead with legal compliance.

For a long time our increasingly digital world has led to a call for digital inclusion. But today, with the rise of remote learning, this is a calling that can no longer be ignored. The topic of web accessibility is rising up the priority list for many, and equality initiatives, such as Bill C-81, The Accessible Canada Act, aim to protect individuals from barriers they would otherwise face in everyday life. They put the onus on providers of services, to ensure that everyone has equal access to the services they provide, and the tools in place to support diverse needs. 

Whilst at the moment, the Act is applicable to parliament, the Government of Canada, and the federally-regulated private sector, every organization should share their vision - a world where everyone is empowered to participate fully within their communities without barriers. 

Attracting a wider and more diverse student body

An accessible website also helps to attract a wider and more diverse student body, including international students who are considering studying in Canada, but where English is not their native language.

As the world’s third-leading destination for international students, a staggering 642,000 foreign students are studying in Canada. This market generates $22 billion annually to the country’s economy.


So what can you do to become more accessible?

Web accessibility standards exist to help organizations become more inclusive. Existing guidelines such as WCAG 2.1 use the POUR guidelines, which outline what it means for a website to be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust - in other words, accessible. Accessible websites allow assistive screen readers to read content, so that all site visitors can access content in a way that suits their needs.

Using the POUR guidelines, we have identified some actions you could take to kickstart your efforts and help you on your way to welcoming a diverse student body.


Perceivable

Image of Texthelper holding binoculars with the letter P

Every part of a website should be able to be perceived by every visitor. This means that content should be available in multiple formats. It also considers accessible design choices. For example, good color contrast and typography. This makes it easier for users to see and hear content.

Your Action

  • Provide content in multiple formats, including downloadable content too
  • Use metadata to provide text alternatives to images
  • Minimize visual overload with inclusive design
  • Use good color contrast between text and background elements
  • Use a font size that’s easy to read (for example a font size of 12pt/16px)


Operable

Image of Texthelper holding a spanner with the letter O

Web content must be able to be accessed by every visitor. This includes people who use adaptive devices, and those who may suffer seizures or physical reactions. It must also be easy to navigate, helping users find content, and decide where they are.

Your Action

  • Help users to navigate and find content, including visitors using screen readers
  • Help users to determine where they are on screen
  • Optimize web code to ensure that all functionality is available from a keyboard
  • Do not use content that causes seizures


Understandable

Image of Texthelper having a light bulb moment alongside the letter U

Content that someone can access is not necessarily accessible. It must be readable and understandable. Factors to consider are the use of language, abbreviations and pronunciations. This principle also considers how intuitive the website is. Meaning whether it acts in a way which users would expect. Additionally, where visitors are asked to input information, support should be in place. So that users can avoid and correct mistakes.

Your Action

  • Use language that can be understood by all site visitors
  • Give users enough time to read and use content
  • Be transparent, so visitors understand what actions to take on the site
  • Help users to avoid and correct mistakes


Robust

Image of Texthelper holding a checklist alongside the letter R

Each individual accesses the web using technology which suits their needs and preferences. That means your website should be compatible for use across different devices and browsers, including assistive technologies.

Your Action

  • Optimize your website for use with assistive technologies
  • Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools

Our solution, ReachDeck, can help. In this guide, we outline how it can help you with the actions we've outlined above. Download our guide and discover how ReachDeck can help you to become more inclusive.