22 March 2007

CSUN 2007/California State University and the ATI

The session that described the Accessible Technology Initiative in the California State University system was rough to listen to - university administrators being so fond of acronyms that most of their speech is incomprehensible to anyone outside the system - but it was well worth listening to because every school, at every level, in every nation, will need to perform similar tasks very soon.

But much does begin in California, including lawsuits, and CSU campuses have been sued over and over for failing to properly support disabled students, the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has come down on the system as a result.

The ATI begins with building an understanding of both the law and of best practice. That's fairly radical on (at least) US campuses, where the legalities of Section 508 or the Americans with Disabilities Act (much less international accessibility expectations) too often seem like annoying infringements on academic freedom and creativity.

And then it sets out specific annual deadlines and reporting requirements for the 23 campuses in the system (ranging from the 800 student Maritime College to the 36,000 student Cal State - Fullerton, and including, of course, CSUN) in a series of areas:
1. Web Accessibility
2. Instructional Materials
3. Technology Procurement
4. Library Materials
with the goal of a Universal Design-based system fully in place and operating by 2012. Responsibility is placed on the Campus Presidents, accountability to the plan seems built-in.

The project has a couple of goals right-away, including the mantra, "Repair to the Law, Design to Best Practice," and is designed to create collaboration, not just among campuses to eliminate unneeded duplication of effort, but also between "Communities of Practice," tech staffs, faculty, and students, to best define "what works" and police progress.

Students will be frustrated by the "top down" timetable. After all, it is the campus workstations and course content inaccessibility that frustrate students every day. But it is a logical way to progress, especially when the need to train faculty, university staff, and university technology departments is so massive (I can testify to the number of "Special Education" faculty members who hand out inaccessible PDFs for course readings or who pick out textbooks far too late for students to get alternate formats in time), and accessible workstations need accessible servers, and accessible course materials do need to exist on accessible course software.

CSU, as one of the largest universities in the world (over 410,000 students) is doing good work here, for themselves, for the world - since publishers and digital journal suppliers must respond to a system like this. They are producing excellent ideas and resources along the way, and their experience will provide a fabulous case study in creating the universally designed university.

- Ira Socol from Los Angeles

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