Assistive Technology Empowers All Learners
ISTE Student Standard 1
Students leverage technology to take an active role in choosing, achieving, and demonstrating competency in their learning goals, informed by the learning sciences
- 1b Students build networks and customize their learning environments in ways that support the learning process.
ISTE Coaches Standards
- 1b Facilitate equitable use of digital learning tools and content that meet the needs of each learner.
- 4c Collaborate with educators to design accessible and active digital learning environments that accommodate learner variability.
Accommodations in higher education can be challenging to navigate. On one school’s disability support website, it indicates that “To receive assistance, students must have diagnostic documentation according to documentation guidelines. This documentation should explain the nature and extent of the disability, and may include professional recommendations for support services.” On another they state that “Students need to be aware that it could take between 1-5 weeks, sometimes longer, to receive and implement accommodations with DRS.” This isn’t because departments are trying to be difficult, but because the process and the needs can be complex. In fact, according to the University of Washington’s Disability Resources for Students website, there are more students with disabilities in college now than ever before. In a conversation with a colleague I know who works in a disability support office, even with that increase, there are still a number of individuals who may qualify for support, but never use it for a variety of reasons, including stigma. There is also a population of students who may need additional support with their learning, who do not qualify for a specific accommodation. Are there tools that can help make the classroom space and their education experience more inclusive?
My question for this module is How do assistive technologies, used for specific accommodations, empower all learners?
An Online Conversion Tool
Today, there are many tools that can help learners, SensusAccess is a particular tool that I want to focus on because it is a self-service tool that anyone can use. SensusAccess is an entirely automated self-service solution intended for everybody with a need to convert material into alternate formats. The service supports a substantial number of languages and some target formats even has multilingual support (Christensen & Stevns, 2017). At a conference I attended by the UW DO-IT center, the presenter called it “fast-food translation.” It’s not a complete replacement for all file conversions. Currently, there is still no automated tool that can completely replace a human converting a file or transcribing audio for a video or podcast. That said, for many individuals, this fast-food style of translation allows them to work independently and for some, never need to disclose their disability, or go through the process needed to qualify for a disability, in order to receive learning support.
Christensen & Stevns go on to say that “Knowledge workers are often expected to know how to use word processors, presentation software, PDF converters and similar in a correct and accessible way without proper instruction, few are aware of the principles of digital accessibility and even fewer attempts to comply with these. The result is that the vast majority of all published material is inaccessible to readers with print disabilities.”
What can Captions Do for Learners?
Another more practical way an assistive technology can benefit all learners is captions. When we reflect on what captions can do, it becomes easy to see how they can empower learners. The bullet points below were pulled from my department’s wiki page:
- Captions improve comprehension of a subject for all learners
- Captions can be read by people who benefit from seeing and hearing words together such as people with certain learning disabilities, or visual learners, or English language learners
- Captions provide access where sound isn’t allowed, such as labs without speakers or compensate for noisy backgrounds or for poor audio quality.
- Captions can help clarify when a person is unfamiliar with the subject terminology or the pronunciation of certain words
- Captions are searchable, allowing people to search media files for a topic of interest
Empowering Learners isn’t just the Technology
While technology can help a lot, it still requires all of us who work with students, to improve our own understanding, on how to make content more accessible to everyone. Universal Design for Learning is a way of thinking about and creating a learning environment that makes student participation and engagement as ubiquitous as possible. An accessible course is designed with different learning styles and abilities in mind, so that the maximum number of students can participate without additional accommodation. If accessibility is built into the structure of the course upfront, it will likely take less work to facilitate an accommodation later on.
Three common barriers to accessible content for all students
- Items lacking contrast
- Missing alternative text tags for images
- Empty or broken links
Eighty-five percent of homepages have issues with presenting low contrast text. Nearly 68 percent of pages were missing alternative text for images. More than half of the websites included empty links or missing form labels. (Baule, 2019)
Technology Can Help you UDL
On my department’s website we list a handful of tools that can help address those three common barriers as well as other important areas too, such as document structure and captions for videos.
As more content is moved online, it becomes imperative that instructors are aware of the impact as well as how to remediate some of the barriers that keep students from fully participating in their courses. This includes the design of the course and materials used, but also knowing about the technology available to support and empower all learners.
Baule, S. M., (2019). Ensuring accessible content for all students. https://www.ecampusnews.com/2019/06/17/ensuring-accessible-content-for-all-students/?all
Captioning panopto videos. https://wiki.spu.edu/x/T4IcCg
Christensen, L. & Stevns, T. (2017). A self-service approach to promote self-sufficiency, independence and inclusion amongst disabled students. https://www.sensusaccess.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/A-self-service-approach-to-promote-self-sufficiency-independence-and-inclusion-amongst-disabled-students-Published.pdf
Frequently asked questions. http://depts.washington.edu/uwdrs/faculty/faqs/