Event: Blackboard World 2016

Date: 7/14/2016

Presentation Title: Celebrating inclusive classroom


Building an inclusive classroom means anticipating the diverse needs of students in the classroom and ensuring your pedagogy, content, and classroom technology can easily adapt to meet the needs of every student. In support of Global Accessibility Awareness day 2016 the Blackboard team ran a contest to find the most inclusive classrooms in the United States. We were looking for teachers who went the extra mile to ensure their classrooms were set up for inclusion and enabled students of all abilities to succeed. We’re excited to provide the winners, Cheryl Kautz and Szymon Machajewski, with the opportunity to share their stories during this rocket session.

The following is the presentation in acceptance of the Most Inclusive Classroom award by Szymon Machajewski during the Blackboard World 2016 Conference:


 In my practice of teaching I use gamification and storification.  My current approach to teaching Computer Information Systems and Computer Science is through the stories of medieval Vikings.  So, let me start by sharing with you what a Viking father might have done for his newborn son.  A Viking father would put a cold, crucible steel sword in a crib next to the baby and said: “I shall not leave you property to inherit. You have nothing but what you can acquire for yourself with this sword” (Brownworth, 2014).

Vikings had yet another custom associated with children.  When a baby was born with a noticeable disability, the baby would be killed.

One of the greatest Vikings, Ivar the Boneless, who subdued most of England and accomplished more than other Viking leaders, was likely a Viking with a disability (Discovery Civilization, 2003).  Some researchers suggest that he had a brittle bone disease, which meant that from childhood he was different from other Vikings kids.  Simple sneezing could break the child’s bones.  Viking Sagas tell us that Viking warriors carried Ivar the Boneless on shields into the battle.  Ivar excelled at strategic thinking, tactical war, and leadership.

This reminder, that even in the most discriminating and hostile cultures, people with disabilities are able to succeed, is an important one.  It tells us that some disabilities may actually result in higher levels of skill and advantage.  At the same time, the success of some people with disabilities should not automatically reflect on the inclusiveness of the entire culture.

Two recent examples may help us in making a connection from the past to present time.  Malcolm Gladwell in his book “David and Goliath” (2013) writes about a lawyer, David Boies, who excelled at staying focused during trials and demonstrating superior questioning techniques.  This lawyer had dyslexia.  His attention to detail and ability to view the situation from different perspectives proved professionally important and made him extraordinary.

Another recent example is that of Srikanth Bolla, a student in India (INKtalks, 2015).  After being denied participation in a science major during pre-college education, he sued the government.  He was then permitted to pursue science as a major “at his own risk”.  He scored 98% on exams, but was denied admission to the Indian Institute of Technology.  He then applied to other schools and was admitted to MIT.  Now he is a CEO of a company worth millions.  By the way, after his birth Srikanth’s parents were advised by the village community to smother the baby.

Why are we focused today on accessibility and why is accessibility a main theme of Blackboard World Conference?  I would submit there are two major reasons.  First, our online programs have grown rapidly creating an expectation of access to knowledge.  Second, the society in general is more litigious. Both of these trends can be detected at the University of the People (UoPeople), an online University, which is growing at a rapid rate.

UoPeople is a tuition free university, nationally accredited in the US, and grants Bachelor and Master degrees (University of the People, 2016).  Students in Africa are completing their courses and degrees on mobile phones or in cafes on public computers.  The idea of accessibility is totally redefined there. The innovation of UoPeople is in peer assessment, where faculty are administering courses, but students take on the roles of evaluators and instructors.  I chatted recently with Shawn Mustafa, an Associate Provost at University of the People, about the program growth and student attitudes.  It seems to be the case, that with much autonomy, collaboration, and responsibility granted, some inexperienced students fall to attitudes of entitlement and litigiousness based on a wider social trend.

Online programs are in a peculiar situation today.  When we conduct lectures in the classroom, we practice the craft of teaching, just as doctors or lawyers practice their profession.  This means that we can make adjustments as we accomplish our institutional goals and the learning goals of the students.  If a student with a disability attends an in-person lecture and I ask a question, the student may request that I re-phrase it.  Perhaps I used colors as an important teaching instrument.  A student, who is blind, may not be able to understand the illustration.  I can re-phrase and receive immediate feedback from the student that my efforts were successful.  This is an example of an accommodation.  Online programs often do not provide this synchronous flexibility.

Online courses deployed to a Learning Management Systems can be considered software packages.  This is why, instructional designers are asked to use web development techniques for providing accessibility compliance.  Such activities may include adding Alt Text tags to images, providing descriptions to HTML tables, and using heading tags for navigation.

I had the opportunity of working with the Mozilla Foundation on improving accessibility of the Open Badges project (Mozilla, 2013).  Technical accessibility can be helpful to all online users, not just students with disabilities.  For example, captioning of video benefits most people, not just hearing impaired.  Like Mozilla Open Badges, many projects strive to provide accessible environments voluntarily even if they are not legally required to do so.  Within this project we worked on a VPAT, or the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template document.

We need to remember that compliance with the law on accessibly is not a checklist of items.  It is more of a spectrum of techniques, a continuous process.  Most online courses reach only some level of accessibility, which can be always improved.  Just as the Romans in their litigious society used to say, “give me a man and I’ll find a case against him”, I would say “give me a course, and I’ll find a case against it”. Faculty would do best to avoid saying that their course is accessible, because this is a legal issue.  Faculty, in general, are not practicing lawyers specialized in the matters of the Office of Civil Rights.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a broad civil rights law, which provides an umbrella protection against discrimination based on disability.  When it comes to online content, there are some organizations that try to apply ADA to web resources to create technical standards.  The most known standard is the Web Content Accessibility Guideline WCAG 2.0 by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).  WCAG provides three levels of accessibility: A, AA, and AAA.

A good example in demonstrating the accessibility spectrum is in video content.  How do we make a video accessible in an online course?  Perhaps we add captions.  Ok, but what if the student is blind?  Captions are not helpful.  Ok, let us also provide a transcript. No, a transcript will not do.  In this situation, a higher level of WCAG 2.0 may ask for audio descriptions, which is a second audio track in the video explaining and describing any visual information not captured in the audio portion of the video presentation.

This is not the first time teachers find themselves in a legally challenging situation.  When the Copyright Law was released it included the Fair Use clause, which allows faculty to use copyrighted resources without asking for permission of the copyright holder.  However, it applies only in the physical classroom.  So, when online programs started to take classroom content and put it online, teachers found themselves in a legal trouble.  This is why the Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act of 2002 (TEACH Act) extended provisions for teachers to use resources online.

At the moment, the application of ADA or Section 508 of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) is translated into technical terms by standards like WCAG 2.0, but the spirit of the law is to prevent discrimination.  Faculty should fulfill the spirit of the law by learning about disabilities, making reasonable attempts to accommodate students, and listening empathetically to their student community.

While it may be illegal to lack technical accessibility in academic content, it is not illegal to be a bad teacher. In 1975 there was a computer game called Tenure (Bogost, 2010).  The game demonstrated what should be a priority for teachers if their goal was to be re-hired for another year of teaching. This was a text based game, where the player made decisions based on the storyline.  A game scenario might have been that a student arrives late to class.  You can A) speak with the student B) speak with the principal C) speak with another faculty.  So, you pick A, because you want to handle issues.  You find out that the student arrives late, because another teacher in a Math class holds the class back, until the entire problem on the board is resolved.  So, now you again have the same A, B, C choices.  The moral of the game was that the key elements that help faculty to keep their job are the relationship with the supervisor and navigating office politics.  The pedagogy itself was of lower priority.

To make a distinction between compliance and accessibility let me use an example of the current Blackboard Learn 9.1 process.  Most courses include a banner image.  The image is visible at the top of the course content. When faculty upload the banner, they have no way of adding a custom Alt Text in the current version of Blackboard Learn.  The word “banner” is added for them.  Well, this image is “compliant” in that it has an Alt Text.  However, is it accessible?  No.

So how does inclusiveness fit into this picture?  On the continuous spectrum of accessibility, we may reach compliance, then improve accessibility to reach new standards, but the higher ground is inclusiveness.  Let’s take a step to understand how other students, who may not have a medical record of disability, also need accommodations. Let’s consider microaggressions and stereotype threat.

Dr Claude Steele from Stanford explains stereotype threat as the wasted thinking cycles, that a minority student may be burning in a classroom, where the teacher activates a stereotype (Palo Alto University, 2012).  In a study, where a test was given to a group of men and women without specific comments, both groups performed in a similar way.  However, when the test was preempted by the faculty stating that women perform particularly poorly on the test, women did perform poorly.  The reason Dr Steele suggests, is that students try to overcompensate for the activated stereotype and much of their thinking is wasted on the stereotype.

Another inclusive teaching concept is that of microaggressions.  Professor Wing Sue from Columbia University suggests that these are well intentioned comments, that may turn off the learning process in students (Wiley, 2010).  An example may be: “You are very smart for a black person”, or “Your English is very good”.  Such statements suggest low expectations and imply a stereotype.

Barbara Gross Davis, in a book “Tools for Teaching” (2009) comments: “There are no universal solutions or specific rules for responding to ethnic, gender, and cultural diversity in the classroom.  Perhaps the overriding principle is to be thoughtful and sensitive”

To celebrate today’s occasion, I created an Amazon Alexa skill called Teaching Craft, which includes a number of suggestions for faculty to make their classrooms more inclusive (Machajewski, 2016).

Teachers should not be discouraged by the formalities of compliance.  If your course content is exciting, important, and challenging it will generate questions.  If you are working in a good place, your organization will help you to make your students successful.  Try to aim at inclusive teaching, and you will fulfill the spirit of the US law on accessibility.  As teachers and researchers we need to focus on producing content worth accessing.


Thank you

Szymon Machajewski



Bogost, I. (2010). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. MIT Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=GC7MD17YvJEC

Brownworth, L. (2014). The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings. Crux Publishing.

Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Discovery Civilization. (2003). The Strangest Viking Documentary (Ivar the Boneless). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvGWM3Lw5RA

Gladwell, M. (2013). David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants (First edition.). New York: Little, Brown and Company.

INKtalks. (2015). Srikanth Bolla: Seeing no obstacles. Retrieved 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxS5He3KVEM

Machajewski, S. (2016). Inclusive teaching: Amazon Alexa Skill for BbWorld16 session. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VC640nEVi-0

Mozilla. (2013). Mozilla Foundation Letter. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2a5PV2o

Palo Alto University. (2012). Stereotype Threat. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/BbWorld2016threat

University of the People. (2016). About Us. Retrieved from http://www.uopeople.edu/about/

Wiley. (2010). Microaggressions in Everyday Life. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/BbWorld2016Micro