Last week’s presentation (because I’m running behind again) on Assistive Technologies by Heidi, Holly, Allison, Launel, and Benita was a good kick in the pants for me. In my unit, because we have to work ahead of time on courses as much as possible, we rarely know if there will be any students who will require assistive technologies. Unlike the K-12 system where the teacher appears to be more involved (am I right? correct me if not), the process is somewhat different at U of R.
The issues around assistive technology and other supports come through the Centre for Student Accessibility at the University of Regina (with some students more specifically through Campus for All). They are the ones who meet with students and ensure proper documentation to proceed with authorizing supports. Based on the evaluation submitted (and the type of evaluation depends on the type of issue a student is dealing with), they work with the student to determine what sort of accommodations a student may need, technologies, etc. Sometimes it is a technology, like Kurzweil, or being able to make an audio recording, often it isn’t. Each semester, the student can then make the decision about whether or not they feel they might need to use their potential accommodations and, if so, a letter is sent to the instructor to notify them of which accommodations a students is authorized for. The student and instructor are then supposed to meet to determine which of the accommodations the student actually wants. The control, in a large part, is supposed to be in the hands of the students. That’s both great and… not so great.
Student can request the accommodation letter be sent partway through a semester. This means that material covered prior to that won’t have been prepared and there could be a bunch of back work during a busy time and in a rush. For example, for instructors who use videos, there are not always closed captioning options or transcripts. Sure, the hope is that the transcript might be available (did the instructor have notes if they recorded the video?). But a lot of the videos I deal with don’t have a closed captioning option and there is no transcript as far as I know. In that case, suddenly there is a concern. How best can I and the instructor balance the needs of one student with the desires for the course (what if a video isn’t available with closed captioning because it was a small documentary company that made it?)? How much time will it take to rectify the situation? Transcription and closed captioning aren’t cheap. My unit has investigated options before, with the hope that we could just do this for every video, but there are no programs yet that are accurate enough to use to get a transcript without a lot of double checking. So basically, the technology is manual. It requires a person actually writing the transcript which is time consuming and expensive. Technology has not yet solved this. The closest would be Dragon Naturally Speaking or Dragon Dictation but that program only learns one person’s voice and that also takes time.
There are some things technology makes easy, like giving students extra time on quizzes or assignments. That is super easy for me to do and nobody needs to know about it at all except the instructor and me. There are no obvious cues within the course that this has happened for anyone else. We don’t have to make a special quiz or put them in a separate room. I wish it could all be that easy.
Sometimes it is hard not to get stuck. I want to support students. I want to give them options for how to approach material, provide a variety of options so they can learn on their terms and be supported regardless of whether they are registered for accommodations or not. But sometimes I get stuck. Sometimes the timeline defeats me. Sometimes I don’t even get content until shortly before it is needed with no time to discuss anything. Sometimes the content is there but the warning that something is needed or will cause a problem is short notice. Sometimes my time is short and filling in everything I should fill in to match with Universal Design for Learning just aren’t there (alt tags, I am sorry, I try).
This has not been a big push at U of R which is unfortunate. For example, check out the W3C Markup Validation check for the U of R homepage: 36 errors, 22 warnings. Not great. I can’t imagine how problematic it would be for a web reader. Adam and Naomi in her comment raise the issue of insufficient support as funding cuts reduce the number of people available. I know at U of R adding an Assistive Technologist could get tricky: whose unit would they be in? who has access? what are their job boundaries? Being in one of the units that has a high technology use, I would love access to someone to give suggestions but I also know that frequently the focus is on face to face students.
So if you were in my shoes, what would you target first? What would be your first step into Universal Design for Learning and making all online courses more accessible with the most impact for the effort?