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Faculty Spotlight: Sam Flaxman

In June 2016, Assistant Professor Sam Flaxman reached out to the Office of Information Technology’s Academic Technology Design Team (ATDT) to further his efforts to improve the student experience. His focus was on EBIO 1210: General Biology, a large, introductory course that reaches approximately 1400 students. The challenge was to enhance outside-of-the-classroom activities to improve student engagement and preparation for class. One recommendation from this project was to improve accessibility and optimize learning for all students.

Sam dove into this work by first focusing his efforts on converting lecture slides and course content to become aligned with Universal Design principles. Sam worked with Alaina Beaver, Universal Instructional Designer, to learn the concepts and better understand rationale behind accessible authoring of course materials, including properly applying layouts to PowerPoint slide decks and utilizing alternative text for images and infographics. He then began converting his EBIO 1210 lectures to an accessible format and hired student workers to help convert his lectures from other EBIO courses in addition to course materials shared by other faculty in the EBIO Department.

Once Sam gained a firm grasp of Universal Design principles and best practices, he coordinated and led brown bag lunches and workshops with his colleagues to increase awareness and promote accessibility and inclusiveness efforts among the department. He shared with his colleagues the benefits of accessible content, showed them how to convert materials into accessible formats in a manageable workflow, and encouraged others to follow Universal Design principles when developing or updating their courses’ content. Sam is a champion when it comes to influencing and inspiring instructors to make large lecture courses more accessible for all students.

Sam further worked with Alaina to conduct focus groups on the “Universal Design experience”--or, user experience with regard to accessibility--of the PowerPoint decks in the course. Sam encouraged students to participate in the focus group and welcomed one of the ATDT’s student assistants into his course to conduct observations; the outcome was a more robust understanding of student note-taking behaviors when explicitly exposed to UD features of class content.

The ATDT continues to collaborate with Sam to better understand the needs of his students and help students succeed in his course. He implemented pilot opportunities that enabled students to discuss content and ask questions online, reviewed accessible products to potentially pilot in future courses, and participated in our project’s accessibility review process.

Sam Flaxman cares deeply about his students and their success and satisfaction with their learning experiences at CU Boulder. He is an exemplary faculty member who takes the initiative to improve student learning and modestly champions efforts within and outside of his department to make CU a more accessible, inclusive campus.

Assistant Professor Sam Flaxman was recognized at the Disability Services Awards Ceremony Spring 2017 semester for his dedication to improving accessibility and inclusiveness for all students.

Left to right: Samuel Flaxman, Erika Randall (accepting award on behalf of Bailey Anderson), Jill Schneider, Esha Mehta with guide dog Dragon, Hilary Love, Eddie Tak and Aaron Schultz