Technology

Cal State's Strong Push for Accessible Technology Gets Results

David Wallace for The Chronicle

December 12, 2010

When Apple launched iTunes U in 2006, dozens of prominent colleges joined the service and posted free course lectures, campus tours, and other materials. Stanford, Duke, and MIT praised the software's ability to distribute high-quality education to the public.

But California State University balked.

Officials at Cal State were troubled­ that the iTunes software was impossible for many disabled people to use. Blind students and faculty couldn't use screen-reader programs with it. Closed captioning for deaf users was not properly supported. Officials approached Apple. "We got a lot of glad-handing from them" but few substantial fixes, says Deborah Kaplan, who until this year directed Cal State's Accessible Technology Initiative.

So Cal State asked its 23 campuses not to use iTunes U in most situations until these basic issues were solved.

Over the past five years, Cal State has waged one of higher education's most aggressive campaigns for accessible technology. It has adopted stringent standards for vendors and employees. Along with other groups, it has helped force Apple, Google, and Blackboard to improve their software or lose the ability to reach Cal State's 430,000 students.

But the system has also struggled, in ways that reflect problems that all colleges face on the Web. Recent budget cuts have reduced the number of staff members who train employees and convert materials to accessible formats. Ms. Kaplan left in July for another job and has yet to be replaced. These cuts hurt, especially because Web use has advanced to the point where anybody on campus can upload large numbers of documents and Web pages that may or may not be accessible.

Cal State's dealings with Apple a few years ago, however, show the positive effects that a large university can have. In February 2008, still unhappy with iTunes and iTunes U, the system's chief information officer and others flew to Apple headquarters to press the company to make more significant changes. In the conversation, Ms. Kaplan recalled, Apple officials noted that no other campus had raised such forceful concerns. (Apple declined to comment for this article.)

"We have an unusual responsibility, given our size, to throw our weight around occasionally," says Mark Turner, director of the system's Center for Accessible Media.

Those discussions were followed by additional pressure on Apple from the National Federation of the Blind and the attorney general of Massachusetts. Apple responded by rolling out changes that made iTunes much more accessible to blind, low-vision, and deaf users. The company has since become a leader in making its products accessible, advocates say.

But Cal State has had to pull back on some ambitious goals of its own as its budgets fell victim to the state's fiscal woes. During the time it was negotiating with Apple three years ago, the system had vowed to make all materials on all campuses meet federal accessibility standards by 2012. This year, though, the system shelved that plan. Officials at several campuses had complained it wasn't realistic with available resources.

"I don't think it was really understood how broad and sweeping those requirements were, what was really involved in a system as big and as diverse as CSU," says Ms. Kaplan, who is now a senior adviser on technology accessibility at the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Suggestions, Not Mandates

Cal State officials say they realize they were pushing too fast. Instead of trying to require complete compliance, they are now focusing their efforts on encouraging continual improvement on each campus and helping campus officials share best practices.

Public colleges in most states are required to show that their technology is accessible under state laws based on Section 508 of the federal Rehabilitation Act or related standards. But Cal State's strategy shift illustrates how difficult it is for colleges to ensure full compliance. The challenges have multiplied in recent years, as the use of technology in the classroom has grown and digital media have become more complex.

How, for example, can officials explain accessible ways to format a Word document to every person—professor, student, and administrator—who can upload materials to a course Web site? How does a campus prevent faculty members from playing uncaptioned videos in class? How can it police a Web site with a half-million pages?

Short answer: It can't.

"Every content producer, every tech person and manager and maintenance worker—this goes from the student workers who make eight bucks an hour to full professors—every one of them has to understand what accessible technology is and what 508 is," says Eugene R. Chelberg, an associate vice president for student affairs at San Francisco State University. "Well, boom, that's not going to happen."

That, he says, is because disability officials simply don't have the resources to talk to everybody about each new technology used on campus. Even if they did, changing people's habits when they use computers can be a long, frustrating struggle, he adds.

So instead, Cal State officials say they are focusing on big-ticket items. In 2008 the system raised the minimum price at which a technology contract must be vetted for accessibility, from $2,500 to $15,000. Inexpensive programs are often used by small groups, while expensive programs like learning-management systems or billing software are often used campuswide.

San Francisco State, for its part, has worked on improving its most-trafficked Web sites first and then moving down the list, Mr. Chelberg says. And instead of explaining to everybody how to make an accessible document independently, officials are building a system that makes it easy for a wide variety of people to produce such material.

For instance, when a group on campus redesigns its Web site, the university asks it to use a template that gives the site an accessible foundation, he says. Sites created with the template will have image descriptions used by screen readers, for instance. The university also created syllabus-building software that helps faculty members put their syllabi into accessible formats.

Academe's 'Balancing Act'

Mark Turner, the accessible-media official, says what the Cal State system has learned is when to handle things centrally and when to avoid "micromanaging the implementation." The system typically handles an issue centrally if it saves money, helps establish common reporting objectives or other priorities, or provides leverage over outside vendors or companies that resist spending money to make their work accessible.

But at times, the twin goals of avoiding micromanagement and gaining systemwide leverage conflict. Take textbooks, Mr. Turner says. Because faculty members, not institutions, choose which textbook to use, colleges find it difficult to band together and demand versions that can be read by screen readers or other assistive technology.

As a result, publishers have been slow to make both paper and electronic textbooks accessible, he says.

But requiring professors who teach similar courses to all use the same textbook would be a nonstarter. Faculty members have complained that efforts to coordinate textbook selection infringe upon their academic freedom.

Acknowledging those valid concerns while meeting federal statutes like the Americans With Disabilities Act is a "balancing act," Mr. Turner says. "One of the gentle conversations that needed to happen in our case was to recognize that things like academic freedom exist in the context of a variety of laws," he says. "Academic freedom is not something that provides a pass from, say, ADA."

That conversation is critical, he says, because if professors don't insist on accessible texts, publishers won't provide them. "When leverage fails, access support wanes."