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Learning Out Loud: Make Online Courses Meaningful and Accessible

Developing critical listening and speaking skills is an essential element of a student's higher-education experience. However, verbally presenting one's ideas and listening to contributions made by student peers are not typical experiences for online students, as most activities in online classes consist of reading and writing. As online course offerings increase, institutions have an obligation to ensure faculty are empowered to teach with tools that enable students to learn out loud. These tools and the content created with them must be accessible to all learners, including those who are hard of hearing and have vision impairments.

The case for learning out loud extends beyond the development of effective communication skills. An asynchronous, multimodal learning environment that invites students to verbally converse with one another has been shown to improve the social and emotional elements of learning. Surveys of my own online students found that 83 percent of students (n=82) reported an increased retention of information when expressing ideas through spoken language; 95 percent of students (n=82) reported that listening to peers led to an increased ability to reach the learning objectives; and 86 percent (n=109) agreed that learning out loud made them feel connected to their peers.

The human voice is a powerful medium for conveying emotion and context. It fuels human connection when students learn in physical isolation from one another and reduces the likelihood of hurt feelings that result when written exchanges are misunderstood.

Instructor video feedback has also been shown to improve social presence, which is correlated with the development of an instructor-student relationship. In online the instructor-student relationship has been shown to play a role in student engagement and persistence, particularly with Latino students. In short, voice and video conversations can take online learning from mundane to memorable. Yet, students are rarely expected to contribute ideas verbally in online classes.

Supporting All Learners

While multimodal learning environments support the needs of more learners, they require special attention to ensure they are accessible to students who are hard of hearing and/or visually impaired. Supporting students with disabilities is not only an important social justice issue, it is the law.

My experiences interacting with members of higher education institutions have taught me that there is widespread support for the spirit of accessibility. Educators agree that all students deserve access to all instructional materials. However, few institutions have clear, well-communicated plans that document how accommodations will be provided to students who need them.

Faculty are the ones in the trenches developing content and activities for students. And most faculty today are bewildered about accessibility—what it means, how to determine if a tool and the content generated through the tool complies with accessibility regulations, and whom to contact for support. When faculty do not feel supported they will not be empowered to try new teaching approaches.

Accessibility Is a Process, Not a Box to Check

Currently, I am a member of the Teaching and Learning Innovations (T&LI) team at California State University, Channel Islands (CI). CI has a site license for VoiceThread, a cloud-based tool that fosters asynchronous conversations in voice or video around media. Some of the ways CI faculty use VoiceThread include flipped student presentations, peer review, instructor video feedback, critical discussions, reflections, foreign language practice, mobile field trips and book conversations. (View examples shared by CI faculty here.)

As part of the site license acquisition process, CI has developed a plan to provide accommodations for CI students with certain disabilities who use VoiceThread in their classes. CI's VoiceThread accommodations plan empowers CI faculty to cultivate humanized, connected online and blended learning experiences that align with our institution's values of innovation, high-quality teaching and student-centered experiences.

The accommodations plan is critical to supporting students with disabilities, but there is much that is not revealed in its details. The plan does not show the level of collaboration and commitment to accessibility that were necessary to make it come to fruition. For example, to develop the accommodations plan for students with vision impairments, members of my team worked closely with CI’s web accessibility specialists to perform a thorough screen-reader test on VoiceThread Universal, an html-based instance of VoiceThread that supports the use of screen readers. A screen reader is an accessible technology device used by people with vision impairments to navigate computer software. To initiate the testing process, my team developed step-by-step scenarios of student workflows, which our web accessibility specialist performed on a computer by listening to cues read by a screen reader and navigating the interface strictly with the use of a keyboard.

To develop the accommodation plan for students with hearing impairments, members of my team met with VoiceThread’s director of support to understand VoiceThread’s captioning process, which uses a third-party captioning company to process captions upon request. While the process appeared to be an effective solution, CI requested to use an alternative captioning company, Automatic Sync Technologies (AST), as our institution receives discounted consortium pricing for captioning provided by AST through the CSU Chancellor’s office. This custom request was honored, but required additional collaboration between VoiceThread and AST to design the necessary technical integration.

Too frequently, I hear the question, “Is that tool accessible?” Accessibility is not simply a box to check. It is much more complex than that. When institutions identify accessibility as a priority, all members of that institution have a duty to participate in the process of creating accessible tools and materials. Conversely, educational technology companies must also value accessibility as a priority and actively listen to understand the needs of their clients. As the nature of educational technology continues to change, ensuring instructional tools and materials are accessible is a problem that will require higher education institutions to work together with educational-technology companies and share practices.

Michelle Pacansky-Brock (@brocansky) is a Teaching and Learning Innovations Specialist at California State University, Channel Islands and the author of "Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies." 

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