Creating and Publishing Openly Licensed/Open Access Content

Chapter 22 – Open and Inclusive Education – Connections to Universal Design

Kaela Parks

by Kaela Parks, Portland Community College (bio)


Affordability is a key factor in making educational resources accessible; if students cannot afford a given text or course material fee, they are not going to have access. If, however, we are able to ensure that cost is not a barrier, what else is necessary to ensure that resources are accessible and that students cannot only afford a given opportunity, but make good use of it?

This chapter explores how we can ensure that learning materials are not only affordable, but equitable for a diverse population. We start by discussing what it means to be accessible, then review connections to universal design. The chapter concludes with a case study of how collaboration and a focus on accessibility has helped Portland Community College lower costs for students taking math courses, lower institutional costs for remediation, and reduce delays in providing accessible formats for students with documented disabilities.

An Introduction to Accessibility

As defined by the University of Washington’s DO-IT program, “accessible,” “universal design,” and “usable design” can be roughly paraphrased as follows:

  • Accessible design: design that is aligned with accessibility standards and guidelines to ensure independence for people with disabilities. There are specific dimensions and tolerances, for example, defined for the construction and renovation of the built environment (United States Access Board), and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for online content (W3C, 2017; WAI, 2018; WCAG, 2018).
  • Universal design: design made with a conscious, proactive attempt to minimize barriers so that environments, activities, programs, and offerings, like books and videos, are usable without the need for additional adaptation.
  • Usable design: design that is end-user-tested—though testers don’t tend to be disabled themselves unless this demographic is purposefully included within the testing plan.

One definition of accessible from the Office of Civil Rights is often cited in compliance reviews and resolution agreements related to inaccessible digital resources, and is good for those working in open education to understand:

“Accessible” means a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. (Office of Civil Rights, Resolution agreement with South Carolina Technical College System, 2/18/13)

Open educational resources (OERs) are most often created and shared in digital formats, which can be accessible without being more expensive or difficult to make. By ensuring that digital materials conform to web content accessibility guidelines, they are made robust, flexible, and far more likely to be useful to a much wider segment of the population.

By ensuring that digital materials conform to web content accessibility guidelines, they are made robust, flexible, and far more likely to be useful to a much wider segment of the population.

However, it is easy to see how the ideal—access for the broadest population possible—can become separated from practice, with access being impeded during content creation. Accessible design, for example, requires content creators to be aware of accessible design issues. If creators are not mindful, institutions must work to ensure accessibility prior to use, an effort which requires resources of people, technology, and time. If institutions don’t follow through, it falls to end users to report barriers as they are encountered, which requires time to make a formal complaint, and time to see it through. And if these end users lack the capacity or the will to advocate for themselves, the perpetuation of inaccessible learning materials and environments can flourish.

Unfortunately, even a quick scan of the legal landscape reveals a grim picture in which complaint after complaint highlight the same problems— learning systems, websites, and other digital materials that are not usable by those with disabilities. The problems persist, and higher education has been ill-equipped to provide the accessible digital environments and materials needed for equity. (EDUCAUSE, 2015).

When digital learning materials are not designed to be accessible, it takes time to create alternate formats each time a student requests a disability-related accommodation. This can lead to inequity, and can also come at a cost to institutions, each using resources to create accessible alternatives at the point of consumption. It is much more efficient and effective to work during the design stage to ensure a base level of accessibility.

There is a common belief in higher education that the disability-related accommodations will “level the playing field” to ensure equity. But as described by Refocus, a project aimed at shifting practice in higher education, our traditional reliance on the accommodation process can “give the illusion of equal opportunity, while in reality requiring disabled students to accept special treatment and take on burdensome responsibilities” (Funckes, Kroeger, Loewen, & Thornton, n.d, Examining Our Practices Section, para 4).

Consider the following quote published in the Journal on Postsecondary Education and Disability:

“Imagine if you will, a university where women or students of color are required to self-identify, provide documentation, and be made eligible to obtain textbooks, ­take exams, utilize technology, or participate in field trips. We would consider such an institution to be absurd and discriminatory in their attitudes and actions. So why, given the knowledge and technology we have available to us today, do we continue to require similar actions from disabled students?” (Haven, 2010, page 18).

One critically important part of this quote is the phrase “given the knowledge and technology we have available to us today,” because the truth is that we do know enough to do better. Well-established and internationally vetted standards have been in place for years (WCAG, 2013), including guidance in the form of “Dear Colleague” letters (U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education, 2010), and free online training and technical assistance sources.

Design practices that can help ensure the accessibility of learning materials are readily available. They just aren’t always practiced, and this is where open education provides important new opportunities.

Design practices that can help ensure the accessibility of learning materials are readily available. They just aren’t always practiced, and this is where open education provides important new opportunities. Open educators are steeped in the values of sharing, and want to share the materials we create as broadly as possible. Our field’s initial focus on broad access through the use of open licenses gives us a framework for considering the ways in which open education can promote equity, not just through lower costs and greater accessibility, but through other approaches as well.

Open educators can choose to bring in voices that aren’t often heard. Students can be learners as well as producers. Primary sources can be cultivated from around the world, not simply obtained from commercial producers in the U.S. These producers have again and again failed to do right by students and faculty with disabilities. Open educators can reject the dominant practice, and do better (CCCOER, 2018).

By using workflows that ensure good alignment among materials, activities, and instructional goals, open educators can reduce barriers and promote equity. They can, for example, help faculty improve materials which were not created with a focus on accessibility, and reshare these materials. They can also make sure that metadata is used to track these improvements, so that future educators can more easily find the accessible versions.

Open education funding can be structured to explicitly address accessibility, as some grant initiatives have done. Even in the absence of an external motivator, however, we as educators can choose to address not just affordability, but cultural relevance and student voice. Open educators can choose to bring in and have learners generate socially relevant and personally meaningful connection points to enhance student engagement and the learning experience.

Universal Design

Universal Design (UD) has been explored and described in a variety of ways. Ron Mace, credited as the father of UD, described it as “Design that’s usable by all people, To the greatest extent possible, Without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (1985). It is a model that first gained ground in architecture, and has been expanded to the design of objects for daily living and of educational materials and spaces. Because education-related ideas focus on building flexibility into structures to support diverse learners, the ideas translate well to open education. UDI, or Universal Design for Instruction, adapts Mace’s original principles defined to the design of instructional offerings.

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST, 2015) has worked to promote Universal Design for Learning (UDL), leveraging neuroscience and framing UD in terms of three key ideas, as described in Table 1.

Key Element in UD Neuroscience Connection Open Education Connection
Multiple means of Engagement Motivation and persistence Open education can pull in socially relevant authors or data sets as fuel for student-centered explorations
Multiple means of Expression Interactive elements and networked connections Open education can support flexible assessments and interactive activities to document engaged learning
Multiple means of Representation Accessible multimedia content can be perceived Open education can use rich robust content that is designed to work well across different modalities
Table 1: UD and Open Education


We are All Learners and Collaborators

Our students come to us from many different backgrounds, and those of us at community colleges and other open enrollment institutions know we serve a critical role: making a space for people to change their trajectory. We need approaches that are built for diversity, and that can ensure greater equity.

In approaching the problem of inaccessible curricular materials, it is important to remember that administrators, educators, student support staff, and instructional support personnel are all learners as well. It is thus essential to start with an understanding of the characteristics of adult learners. While a combination of policies, politics, organizational structures, and leadership shape institutional practices, the practices are implemented by people, who are themselves learning and/or reinforcing those practices on a daily basis.

In approaching the problem of inaccessible curricular materials, it is important to remember that administrators, educators, student support staff, and instructional support personnel are all learners as well.

Effective teaching and learning depends, in part, on being responsive to learners (Davis, 1993; Gadbow, 2002; Hiemstra, 1990). In talking about teaching ourselves how to align with standards and reconsider workflows, we must see faculty and staff as learners. Andragogy, defined as the education of adults, was described by Knowles as being distinct from Pedagogy, with adult learners tending to be defined by five characteristics: self-direction, reliance on experience, identification with social roles, problem-centered approach, and internal motivation (Hiemstra, 1990; Knowles, 1970; Pratt, 1993). An adult accumulates a growing reservoir of experience, which is a rich resource for learning (Hiemstra, 1990; Knowles, 1970; Kolb, 1984; Pratt, 1993).

Adult educators who are drawn to open education may also be self-directed problem solvers who are motivated toward social justice. The motivation to lower costs for students is a motivation to address a barrier. This same principle can drive us to make sure the high-quality, low-cost materials we create, adopt, revise, and cultivate can be used by the full range of learners eligible to participate.

The problem of inaccessible curricular offerings cannot be addressed solely by focusing on students in the classroom, but must first be understood in terms of the mechanisms by which we equip our faculty members, instructional designers, librarians, technologists, procurement officers, and support staff. Too often, we hire people into roles that require participation in the offering of educational opportunities without providing them the chance to gain practice and experience with the process of ensuring accessibility. If progress is to be made, it will be through the development of a greater sense of shared responsibility (Vance, Lipsitz, & Parks, 2013).

Multiple Means of Engagement

Educators who use and share open resources apply to these resources the arts of teaching and learning. By cultivating materials and activities in ways that are both reasoned and creative, they provide connection points that make sense, that challenge and support their students. With open practices the educator can utilize the best resources, not just those easiest to find.

Crafted and cultivated collections of open materials and activities can ensure that educators align these resources with course goals, and do so in ways that explicitly acknowledge and bring focus to socially relevant applications. Open educators can provide students with multiple means of engagement, connecting course content to their actual lives, and moving conversations from the abstract to the real world.

Multiple Means of Expression

Students need different ways to demonstrate what they are uncovering, questioning, and learning along the way. Open educators can be thoughtful and eclectic in terms of allowing more student-led participation that is not pre-scripted, but is instead created and evaluated within the flow of each individual course.

Students may, for example, be assigned to work in groups to create something that demonstrates their learning during the course. They may choose to create one of any number of things, with each group learning from the others as well as from the process of creation itself. Selected artifacts could become content for future classes, allowing students to learn from each other over time, using and being inspired by previous work.

Multiple Means of Representation

Videos and music, charts and arts, physical spaces and virtual realities—educators can use these resources, and more, to expand the traditional classroom world of written material, lectures, and discussion, and to expand student exposure to a course’s core ideas and concepts.

Ideas and concepts can be represented verbally, narratively, numerically, symbolically, graphically, and physically. They need to be explorable in different formats because different representations will resonate in different ways for different learners.

Case Studies: Partnering to Ensure Accessible OERs

Two case studies of partnerships between math faculty, librarians, and disability services at Portland Community College (PCC) help illustrate how accessibility and UD can be embedded within open education. The first details use of an open homework system called WeBWorK, while the second looks at a partnership for a developmental education math course.

Case Study One: From Accessibility Study to Dedicated WeBWorK

In 2011, PCC convened a large group of stakeholders to advance a commitment to accessible online curricular materials. One outcome of those conversations was an offer from college leadership to fund subject area studies. Faculty were given release time to engage in a discipline-specific investigation of the barriers related to creating and facilitating accessible online education in their subject area.

Mathematics—a subject with high class enrollments, and thus high rates of participation by students with disabilities—was the first subject area study to be funded. The highly technical nature of mathematical notation, as well as the visual nature of graphs and charts, raised specific concerns about achieving technical accessibility for digital content.

In 2012, two faculty members were selected to for this initial subject area study. The two had different approaches to creating math content, but both had experience teaching math courses at different levels within the college. They decided to take the following approach to the study:

  1. They sent a short survey to all math instructors across the college, with questions about the most common techniques for producing or adopting curricular materials.
  2. After learning which techniques were in heaviest use, they spent time “test driving” these techniques with students who rely on assistive technology, in the process gaining a rich appreciation of the degree to which design decisions impact end-users.
  3. They then prepared a report to share with their colleagues.

One of the systems tested during the subject area study was WeBWorK, an open system supported through the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). The faculty members found that it was not only lower in cost than other options tested, but had a significantly more accessible interface than the more heavily used commercial publisher platforms. When this became clear, the faculty members and Disability Services requested a dedicated server for the WeBWorK platform.

Accessibility personnel from Distance Education and Disability Services worked together with math faculty to document areas in which accessibility could be improved, and then sponsored a code camp for WeBWorK contributors. The result was a more accessible platform and an updated product accessibility template.

Since the subject area study, mathematics faculty have not only expanded the use of WebWorK, but have leveraged a combination of institutional and external funding to support further development, increasing the number of problem sets per course and the number of courses using the system. This work has not only led to lower course fees for students, but has also saved the institution money in the form of reduced accommodation costs.

PCC now has math courses using openly licensed texts integrated with WeBWorK, meaning that students are provided with free access to homework sites, and also have access to materials offline or via low-cost hard copy. The online versions contain interactive elements such as homework problems and targeted feedback, all built to conform to web content accessibility guidelines. Students can access resources on the devices of their choice, and these resources can be magnified, read out loud, or accessed via refreshable braille display. All with relative ease, and with an expectation that accommodation will be provided should a barrier be encountered.

We continue to address potential barriers by conducting end-user testing of new features, including more interactive elements, and reviewing and testing accessible authoring interfaces and other features prior to their release.

Faculty working on the project, with support of a campus president, have established a process by which a small fee for printing on demand fuels a Math Success Fund, which provides both math student scholarships and OER faculty development funding. Our efforts to support accessible and affordable math learning opportunities are being nurtured in ways that should provide sustainability.

Connections to Universal Design

The mathematics subject area study and related WeBWorK projects demonstrate the application of UD:

  • By ensuring that online content conforms to web content accessibility guidelines, and by engaging in frequent end-user testing, the math faculty working on WeBWorK and related open education projects are ensuring that materials are robust, perceivable, and usable by those using a range of technologies.
  • By offering online interactive, offline, and hard copy versions, the math faculty working on these projects have ensured flexibility for users who have needs or preferences for particular formats.
  • By engaging faculty as the chief problem-solvers, and providing a space to work with instructional support, disability services, and end users, the college is recognizing employees as adult learners who will thrive when stimulated, challenged, and supported.

Case Study Two: A Pre-College Math Workbook

In 2015, a group of PCC math faculty teaching beginning level pre-college math developed a workbook to give students physical models with which to work when exploring topics such as fractions.

While the original idea was to create a word-processed document, Disability Services partnered with the faculty to ensure the workbook could be openly licensed and disseminated in a variety of formats to support flexibility in use, optimizing the content for output as HTML with MathML, as Word files using MathType, as PDFs (for ease of printing), and as Braille ready files for embossing or use via refreshable display.

Disability Services also recruited a student to develop a 3D model for the fraction kit activity. Our student used 3D modeling software to create a kit that was slightly larger than the commercially produced versions, and had a lip on the edge to allow the pieces to stack. The model was tested at multiple points during the design phase by both students and educators, and adjusted at each review point. The final product was licensed under Creative Commons and shared, and kits were printed and distributed at each campus for use by instructors.

Connection to Universal Design

The pre-college math activity packet and fraction kit project also demonstrate the application of UD:

  • Using HTML with MathML allows students and instructors who use screenreaders, text-to-speech, or magnification to access content directly online (via MathJax as needed).
  • Adobe PDF versions are provided for those who prefer to print a hard copy.
  • Microsoft Word docx versions allow offline access via screenreader, text-to-speech, magnification, or voice recognition.
  • Braille Ready Files ensure refreshable braille display, or can be printed as hard copies.

The same math courses are often offered in different ways by different faculty, with some using an open text and homework system, and others using commercially produced materials.

In the case of courses using open resources and systems, the Disability Services office may simply need to ensure that students know how to use the features of their accessibility software to make use of the structure already in place. If not, the source files are often available, and can be used and adapted to ensure access in a timely manner. The open homework sites used by our math faculty tend to employ MathML, allowing the material to be read aloud, converted to braille, or magnified on screen.

For the commercial materials, however, the department is often only able to obtain a version of the text that the publisher is willing to share. Because the math is not always available as HTML with MathML, and there are rarely LaTeX or other source files available, Disability Services personnel may need to recreate each weekly homework set in an alternate format, and an aide may have to be provided to assist the student in completing the homework assignments.

In comparison to the students using assistive technology in the open courses, students in courses using commercially produced texts and systems are less able to work independently. This means that not only are students asked to pay steep prices for these commercial resources, but the institution, in needing to provide student with additional resources, bears a higher cost as well.


Courses using open systems allow for a greater sense of community among learners. Everyone can use the same materials, and there is no difference in access related to the ability to pay, or see, or use a mouse.

Open education can provide learners, both educators and students, with opportunities to grow, to cultivate and create, and to share and enrich. With a focus on equity, and with an approach informed by universal design, we can make sure that materials are not just affordable, but also accessible, socially relevant, and engaging. Below are recommendations for open educators to consider.

With a focus on equity, and with an approach informed by universal design, we can make sure that materials are not just affordable, but also accessible, socially relevant, and engaging.

Funding and the Necessity to Require Line Items for Access Reviews and Remediation

Open educators might find themselves in a position to serve on an advisory board, work group, or committee tasked with establishing criteria for funded projects. It can be very helpful to voice  the need for line items for accessibility reviews and for remediation or other technical assistance needed to bring quality up to standards. If not explicitly called for, these items can often be overlooked and opportunities can be missed.

Metadata and Other Means of Communicating to Users

It is important to make end users aware of the specific strategies being used to ensure accessibility of the resource.


The key is to success is to bring individuals together from different areas; we should not limit ourselves to traditional academic partnerships. Bringing academic affairs and student affairs together with facilities and IT, for instance, can be incredibly productive.


Ideally, conformity with web content accessibility guidelines (WCAGs) can be written in as a requirement of funded projects to ensure alignment. This has been done at federal, state, and institutional levels, with good success.


As educators, we need to be committed not only to lowering costs, but to removing barriers. We need to ensure that our students can afford to participate, but also that the materials we bring into focus put content into context. We have to be certain that materials are not only affordable, but accessible in equitable ways. Universal Design helps ensure that more people get a better experience, and a better shot, more of the time. After all, open education isn’t open if it isn’t accessible.


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Author Bio:

Kaela Parks is the Director of Disability Services at Portland Community College. She has been active in professional associations, serving as national chair of the Disability Knowledge Community with NASPA, co-chair of the Standing Committee on Technology within the Association on Higher Education and Disability, and past-president of ORAHEAD. She is also co-editor of the publication titled “Beyond the ADA: Proactive Policy and Practice for Higher Education” and is a frequent presenter at both regional and national conferences. She has taught courses on assistive technology and universal design, college survival skills, disability in society, disability in film, and accessible multimedia.