How one institution in Oregon repurposed student workers to address the needs of multiple groups of students

Blog Post
Shutterstock / Rido
Nov. 13, 2020

In the spring, the coronavirus pandemic abruptly sent college students across the country home, putting hourly student workers in a precarious financial position. At the same time, with the pivot to online courses, students who needed accommodations often struggled to succeed in classes that seemed to be leaving them in the dust.

“Just like everybody in the world, we had to immediately shift our on-ground teaching to remote learning,” said Christine Ward, an instructional designer at the Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT). “The sheer demand for accommodation needs exponentially exploded.” Ward noticed that many students who needed accommodations for their learning success—such as closed captioned recorded lectures—found the pivot very difficult.

Ward also felt for the student employees who lost their main source of income. “My heart was breaking for both of these populations of students,” she said. Then, in early March, a “crazy idea” popped into her head while she was walking her dog. In a two birds, one stone plan to address the concerns of these populations, Ward wanted to hire all the displaced student workers with federal work study (FWS) dollars, and teach them how to incorporate learning accommodations into online courses. She took the idea to her provost and got it approved, training her first students in late March.

By this time, Ward has been an instructional designer for over a decade. She initially came into higher education looking at the explosion of online learning and saw first-hand how poorly it was done. One problem was the lack of faculty onboarding, specifically training educators in how to support learners who need accessible content. This spurred her passion for instructional design.

OIT is a fairly small polytechnic college with 39 percent of its student body being first-generation college students; it’s this unique population that Ward had in mind when she created this program. She contacted OIT’s human resources department for the contact information of the displaced students, and reached out to each individual student to introduce herself and explain the opportunity. In the end, 56 students were hired on to work on this project. Students hired into the program made content accessible by adding alternative text to powerpoints and images, converting PDFs to reader-friendly versions, and adding closed captions to videos for faculty. There are times when a faculty member uploads a photocopy of an article without any screen reader capabilities, and in some instances the university doesn’t have the original article. Students step up and retype the article. All of this could easily be done remotely: students just needed an internet connection, a computer, and the ability to type.

Originally, this program was paid for with FWS dollars. Now, OIT is also using CARES Act funding for these positions. Using CARES funds helped keep students’ FWS funds available to them so they can eventually fully return to their appointed positions. But until then, this was a great way to provide financial security to students. “Being able to continue my job through COVID-19 has helped me to remain stable,” said Abigail Shaw, a senior nursing student. “Without this position I likely would have had to move to find work or face other financial difficulties.”

The program also provides a great deal of support to faculty, particularly as they also navigate the pivot online. “Right now with the stress of having to teach remotely …. it’s a lot of work for faculty, and I completely empathize with their near-vertical workload,” Ward said.

“While most instructors do the best they can to make their classes accessible for students, we don't always have the knowledge or tools to do so,” said Sharon Beaudry, an associate professor of business management OIT. “Christine found an innovative way to train an army of students to upgrade our classes behind the scenes. …. This project has a long-lasting impact on our classes since this work can be used over and over, term to term.” Instructors are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to make sure their courses are accessible to all students.

Ward’s team has a locked team Canvas page (OIT’s learning management system) with resources, where they share documents and files. If a faculty member had a class in the spring term and now has a class with the same content and accommodations, the team is able to bring back historical documents that have already been made accessible.

Alishia Huntoon, a psychology professor who has been at OIT for 16 years, called the program a “win, win.” She said Ward’s student workers have helped her identify video clips that needed accessibility modifications and then assisted in providing those modifications.

To manage workloads, the team is primarily focusing on classes with students enrolled who need accommodations. Ward said she constantly reminds her student workers that their first priority is their own classes, and have a federal maximum of 20 hours a week.

“The student workers I could not be more impressed with, they have been so dedicated,” Ward said, she described her students as becoming more appreciative of accessible learning. Students have even taken this passion outside of their working hours, including telling their professors about how to incorporate accommodations into their coursework.

Student worker Pamela Jackson, a senior (also concurrently earning a master’s degree) studying renewable energy engineering, explained the process: “Sometimes there will be a high-priority project that we all work on together to get finished as quickly as possible. If it’s a large project, we sign up for what sections we are able to complete, to make sure that everyone gets hours that they want, but also that everything gets done. We have a large shared area of documents where we can access all of the content that needs to be adjusted to be accessible. Everyone claims what they are working on by adding the word ‘draft’ to the front of the document name so that we don’t double up and start working on something someone else is. And once it is done, we move it to the ‘done’ folder, and those with access to the online courses can post the finished documents.”

“Our schedules are completely flexible,” said Jackson. “But when something with high priority comes along, we make an effort to finish it as quickly as possible. It’s also rewarding work to know that our efforts are helping people get the course content they need in a way that works for them.” Ward echoed that sentiment. “They are thrilled they are able to contribute,” she said the students are glad they’re doing something to help their classmates. “That kind of empathy is something that I think should be celebrated.”

Ward said it is helpful to have students working on courses in their field of study, because students in those programs are better able to describe what’s happening in some of the course content they are modifying and can fill in the gaps for more technical materials. Additionally, the student workers are learning about new technologies, such as speech-to-text.

Right now on the residential campus at OIT, 100-200 level courses and labs are taught face-to-face, while 300-400 level courses are remote delivery. With so much unknown around the pandemic, Ward said, she envisions this program to continue at least spring through 2021.

Other institutions should consider adopting similar programs, using more of their FWS dollars or other funds to put students to work promoting student learning. To do this, collaboration and communication across campus is critical. Collaboration with, and reliance on, librarians and library resources is also essential to the success of this program. Libraries are an excellent place to start for help with making content more accessible, especially in cases where course material has been uploaded and is not compatible with screen readers. The library may have access to other versions of that material.

Ward suggests that institutions should “really, really have stronger conversation with your disability services team to find out what the most pressing needs are for their students. You have to be close knit with those guys. You’re not working in a vacuum, ever.”

Whoever oversees this program will need to know exactly what accommodations are needed. Closed captioning has traditionally meant whatever is being spoken, but if there is a powerpoint in the background or a recorded video that’s being referenced, you need to capture that too. There can’t be any gaps in what is being presented. (Ward said that this has been one of the eye-opening things for faculty.) Students and team leaders will need to know the nuts and bolts of creating accommodations. Basic functions include scanning a PDF to see if it is readable, and being able to test that without requiring Adobe Pro software. Training student workers prior to their beginning work on this project will make the transition go smoothly.

To implement a program like this you don’t need to know which students need accommodations, just which classes they’re in and their accommodation needs. Ward also said to talk to offices that deal with student employment to find work-study students who have been displaced. But it doesn’t require a pandemic or displaced student workers for schools to adopt a program like this. Colleges and universities can already use FWS dollars—or their own institutional monies—to employ students in roles that promote student success, while providing students with valuable and rewarding work experience.

Ward said she couldn't imagine her “far-fetched idea” working so well for so many students, but it did. Campuses across the country should consider innovative programs like this that support student learning, as well as providing students with valuable work experience and financial security.

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