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How Disability Services Departments Are Embracing Digital Transformation

min read

As momentum behind digital transformation is building in higher education, digital services departments have made significant progress with positive, technology-driven change.

How Disability Services Departments Are Embracing Digital Transformation
Credit: MiniStocker / Shutterstock.com © 2021

Imagine this . . . You're an administrator in the disability services department of a public college or university. The job attracted you because of your genuine interest in educational equity. Working in this department allows you to address the barriers that students are facing in the classroom and helps you to know that you're making a difference in learners' development.

But there's a problem. One key area of your work—the provision of note-taking services—is swallowing up more and more of your time. The analog system you have in place, in which student volunteers supply their own class notes to eligible peers, is showing cracks. It's a legacy system you inherited when you started the job. And it causes all manner of headaches.

You need to recruit more students to take these notes for their peers, but volunteers are limited. Those who are already signed up often return illegible or patchy notes (if they return them at all), which you must correct, scan, and email to the relevant students.

It's a flawed system, with plenty of elements that can disrupt your work, but it's the way things have always been done.

From Macro to Micro

Discussions about digital transformation often address the topic on the macro level. Huge Dx projects are under way on campuses across North America to fundamentally upgrade learning infrastructures, pedagogies, and administration. Naturally, sweeping changes grab the headlines.

But as we can see from the case above, there's huge potential for positive change on the micro level too. The daily frustrations that staff and students experience with an analog system such as note-taking services make a powerful case for grassroots digital transformation.

Dx in Disability Services

We surveyed professionals from 95 higher education institutions, aiming to learn how disability services departments have been affected by the pandemic and how institutions are preparing to meet the challenges of the future.Footnote1 We discovered that the disability services community is taking the initiative. One survey respondent, a director of disability services, commented: "The most urgent thing we can do to improve student experience is streamline processes and procedures to make it easy for students to access accommodations and other services on campus." Another respondent noted: "Our main priority is to bring the office into the digital age."

Just as an August 2021 EDUCAUSE QuickPoll found that 44% of higher education institutions surveyed are now engaged in Dx, up from 13% in 2019,Footnote2 our survey found a similar pattern within disability services departments:

  • 58% of our respondents believe that digital transformation is a key priority for their institution.
  • 67% want to increase their use of inclusive technology over the next five years, with many expressing a desire to move away from peer notes systems altogether.
  • 43% want to reduce their use of peer notes systems.
  • 44% believe that peer notes have been harder to administer during blended learning.
  • 65% are already using inclusive technology as their primary note-taking accommodation.

Why the Change?

Administrative burden is just one reason the disability services community is seeking new digital solutions.

While a functioning peer notes system meets a student's immediate need for notes, it fails to build learning independence and does little to remove barriers in the classroom. Driving the movement toward digital transformation is the broader aim of making learning accessible by design.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) aims to do just that, which is why it's gaining momentum within the disability services community.Footnote3 UDL advocates argue that barriers within the classroom—such as note-taking—can be remedied by introducing more options for how students receive, interact with, and express learning.

By embracing UDL principles, institutions can ensure that classrooms lower barriers to learning, allowing disability services departments to offer more holistic support to students. And technology provides the best route to this future.

Inclusion through Technology

Inclusive learning technologies help departments meet the needs of their students while scaffolding the skills needed for classroom independence. But digital tools also allow staff to track usage and effectiveness of the accommodation, helping institutions understand the impact achieved for their investment.

By employing digital technology on UDL principles, disability services departments are leading the line in transforming experiences. It's Dx in action.

Note-taking is just one small example. But it's a case study in how Dx can both solve immediate practical problems and deliver greater experiences for learners.

Dx is an opportunity for a post-pandemic renewal of the offer made to learners by higher education. Let's use digital transformation to deliver greater equity and widen access for all.


Discover more about equitable Dx from edtech experts and educators at Glean's webinar series.

  1. Glean, "COVID, Blended Learning, and Digital Transformation," white paper, accessed September 10, 2021. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Mark McCormack, "EDUCAUSE QuickPoll Results: Institutional Engagement in Digital Transformation," EDUCAUSE Review, August 6, 2021. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. "UDL and Modern Learning," Learning & Notetaking (Glean blog), July 2, 2021. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.

Dave Tucker is Founder and CEO of Glean (formerly Sonocent).

Luke Garbutt is Content Writer for Glean (formerly Sonocent).

© 2021 Glean