by Julie Lineback

The University of West Georgia continues to make its mark as an innovative, progressive leader in online curriculum development. Recently, several UWG staff members earned an accessibility award from an international software giant as part of a system-wide distance learning initiative that calls the UWG campus home.

Building Better Courses: USG eCampus Engages Students, Wins Award for Online Learning Accessibility
L to R: Steven Schretzmann and Lauren Hamel, eCampus, University of North Georgia; Ngoc Vo, Yi Jin and Michael Harris, eCampus, University of West Georgia

University System of Georgia (USG) eCampus—a system-wide service unit housed on the UWG campus and staffed by UWG employees—received the Excellence Award for Accessibility from D2L’s Brightspace, an industry leader in distance learning software. The mission of USG eCampus is to provide quality, affordable, high-demand, post-secondary online degrees and courses not only to students at UWG, but also to students at institutions throughout the state. With the wide reach of USG eCampus-supported online programs, the need for accessible curricula and engaging content is of the utmost importance.

“In online education, there are not as many extrinsic motivators to keep students engaged,” said support team member Wesley Steverson, director of instructional design and development for USG eCampus. “They do not have to come to a scheduled class session, so it is easier to lose focus and fall behind. We wanted to provide a course experience that would keep students engaged, no matter their learning needs or accessibility challenges.”

The award-winning project grew out of a need to increase accessibility standards within the system’s eCore courses, which are supported by USG eCampus and offered through 22 colleges and universities in the system, explained Instructional Designer Dr. Ngoc Vo.

“Before, our eCore course templates and content were mostly text based,” she described. “We did have tools in place, such as ReadSpeaker, to address accessibility issues and promoted discussions for course interaction. However, our courses felt ‘flat’ and could sometimes create obstacles for students with disabilities.”

Early last year, the Instructional Design and Development (IDD) team decided to redesign all eCore courses to make them more interactive and media rich. The designers worked with multimedia specialists to create a new set of HTML templates that had the desired look and functionality.

“All pages have a consistent layout and repeat elements throughout the courses, but they are also highly adaptable depending on the subject matter,” said Yi Jin, USG eCampus instructional designer. “It enhances the functionality by incorporating interactive functions. Students can interact with the content and are provided immediate response or feedback.”

Someone typing on a computerAnd although the award may be new, Vo said accessibility has always been at the core of their design philosophy, and that is why they include built-in accessibility elements in the templates.

“For example, elements that appear to be visually hidden in the courses can still be read aloud by screen readers,” she added. “We also really pay attention to providing alternative ways to access course materials. For example, text versions of the interactive simulations are available for students who have difficulty in loading the simulations. Captions are also required for all videos used in the courses.”

Although the course template is being implemented gradually and the project still has some time before completion, the overall satisfaction rate with content and design has significantly increased.

“So far we’ve had a lot of positive feedback, but this project has only just begun,” Steverson said. “It’s nice to have such an encouraging award granted to eCampus when we are only one year in.”

Posted on September 14, 2017