Introducing the “All Hands on Deck Writing Jam” for Visual Descriptions of Images

Rebecca Quintana, Learning Experience Designer
@rebquintana

Yuanru Tan, Learning Design and Accessibility Student Fellow
@YuanruTan

Background

In the context of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), adding a visual description to images that exist within online course materials is one of the most important aspects of creating an accessible learning experience. For example, faculty members may use images within video lectures, such as bar graphs, scatter plots, and photographs. These images can bring a course to life and help make lecture topics even more engaging and understandable. Faculty often describe the images in their lectures verbally, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Learners who are visually impaired may miss important information that is contained within these images. One solution is to provide visual descriptions of images as part of the downloadable files that we make available to learners (e.g., PowerPoint slides). Learners who use screen readers are able to listen to a visual description of images contained within lectures. Additionally, these visual descriptions are available to all learners, thereby creating opportunities for deeper engagement with course content. For example, a learner who is experiencing difficulty interpreting a graph could benefit from a clearly written, high level summary of the big idea behind the graph.

Yuanru Tan seated at the end of a large conference room tab with a monitor behind her reading "All Hands on Deck, Alt Text Writing Jam @DEIL"

However, course design teams who are tasked with creating and supplying instructional materials for learners face a significant challenge. Writing visual descriptions for images requires not only a lot of time and effort, but also a great deal of subject-specific content knowledge. At the Office of Academic Innovation, course design teams endeavor to include faculty and associated experts in the process of writing visual descriptions throughout the design process. However, sometimes additional effort on the part of Academic Innovation staff is needed to get the job done. Inspired by crowdsourcing approaches that leverage the expertise and time of willing participants, the “All Hands On Deck Alt Text Writing Jam” event series was born.¹

Writing Jam Format

At the writing jams, staff from Academic Innovation and from the University of Michigan (U-M) Library assembled to learn about effective methods for writing high-quality visual descriptions and to get down to the business of writing visual descriptions for U-M MOOCs that contain complex images. Led by Yuanru Tan, Learning Design and Accessibility Student Fellow, participants received instruction on how to write visual descriptions for both simple and complex images, and were given resources and reference materials to make the task easier. Each participant worked through a series of images, creating visual descriptions, and then reviewing the writing of others. To date, Academic Innovation has hosted two writing jams, but our plan is to make this a regularly scheduled event.

In the first writing jam, participants completed visual descriptions for 99 images in one hour for courses within three MOOC specializations, Applied Data Science with Python, Web Applications for Everybody, and Leading People and Teams. Participants worked independently before pairing up to review each other’s work. In the second writing jam, participants completed visual descriptions for 65 images in one hour for six courses within the User Experience (UX) Research and Design MicroMasters Program. Participants worked collaboratively, using a paired-writing approach, and drawing on subject matter expertise from all participants. Areas of expertise included web development, UX design, accessibility, learning design, and publishing. See below for an example of a visual description that was written for a screenshot image used within a course within the UX MicroMasters Program.

This is a screenshot of a Google search and results. It shows “user expe” typed into the search bar and the autofill results as “user experience,” “user experience design,” “user experience designer salary,” and “user experience researcher.”

Visual description of image: This is a screenshot of a Google search and results. It shows “user expe” typed into the search bar and the autofill results as “user experience,” “user experience design,” “user experience designer salary,” and “user experience researcher.”

 

Feedback

Feedback from participants regarding the writing jam approach has been overwhelmingly positive. Monica Miklosovic, Iteration Manager at Academic Innovation, reflected , “It was a collaborative experience, at the end of which we had accomplished a meaningful short-term goal.” Ben Howell, Accessibility Specialist within the User Experience Department at the Library Information Technology Department, stated , “The concepts and practice of writing alt-text are challenging for beginners and for experienced accessibility staff. The group activity effectively crowdsourced writing alt-text for [Academic Innovation] courses. It was very helpful to identify, contextualize, and describe various images, infographics, etc.” Molly Maher, Behavioral Scientist at Academic Innovation, commented, “It was great to learn some of the key guidelines for image descriptions, especially through practice.” Stephanie Rosen, Accessibility Specialist at the University of Michigan Library, said, “I was so impressed with the amount of work we were able to do. I think the activities we did are excellent for educating people about alt text and accessibility in general.” Dave Malicke, Operations Lead at Academic Innovation, stated, “I enjoyed the paired writing approach. It was both fun and resulted in higher quality descriptions.”

Participants also had useful suggestions for ways to incorporate the writing jam approach into future activities and events. Ben Howell commented, “I look forward to using this practice where we can with librarians and content creators in the library. We’d also like to participate in more accessibility/design jams in [Academic Innovation].” Dave Malicke reflected, “My number one takeaway is that more of these events are needed in order to build an ever stronger and informed community of accessibility practitioners.”

In 2018, our goal is to host monthly writing jams. These events may focus on specific subject areas (e.g., humanities courses). We intend to invite course design team members including faculty members, instructors, learning experience designers, media specialists, design managers, and mentors, as well as U-M students who are interested in learning how to write visual descriptions. In addition to creating a high number of visual descriptions at our writing jams, we have found this “think aloud” collaborative approach was instrumental in helping Academic Innovation design teams reflect on how to improve our design processes. We learned the process of writing visual descriptions can reveal aspects of images that may be unclear to learners (e.g., an unlabelled y-axis). By adopting the practice of writing visual descriptions early within a design process, there is the potential to improve images (e.g., by labelling the y-axis!) that are included in lecture videos. We see this as an instantiation of the principles of universal design—following good design practices improves the learning experience for all.


Yuanru Tan will present on “Improving MOOC Course Accessibility” at the Web Accessibility Working Group Meeting from 1-2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, January 9, in the Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery Lab. The event is open to all.

 

¹Alt text is a short word or phrase that describes images that are used in websites. Visually impaired users who use screen readers will hear an alt attribute that describes the image. We use the term “visual descriptions” in this post, because many of the descriptions that are added to our MOOC course materials are much longer than the typical alt text that is used to make web sites accessible for the visually impaired.

Welcome to Origin Stories. A Podcast Series for Academic Innovation Digital Edtech Tools

Amy Homkes-Hayes, Lead Innovation Advocate
@amynhayes

When we started developing digital edtech in the Office of Academic Innovation in 2015, we could only just imagine the tremendous growth we would experience in two and a half years. As the use of our digital tools becomes more profuse throughout (and sometimes even beyond) the University of Michigan’s campuses, the stories we tell about our tools evolve as well. As we take stock of how much we’ve grown, and our motivations for building and scaling “homegrown” digital edtech at U-M, we think the time is ripe to look back at the beginning of our tools by interviewing the faculty, students, and staff who imagined them.

We are excited to announce the launch of our Origin Stories podcast series, which will feature each of Academic Innovation’s digital edtech tools, and examine them in more depth. This series will uncover early motivations for building software for teaching and learning at U-M. We will explore what motivated our faculty to take their burgeoning tools and seek out partnership with Academic Innovation to grow their software, and we will entertain what the future of our tools may look like with the folks who pioneered them.

GradeCraft, origin stories podcast series

Up first, GradeCraft with co-founders Dr. Barry Fishman, Professor of Information and Education and Director of the of Bachelor of Science in Information Program and Caitlin Holman, Lead GradeCraft Developer and PhD candidate in the School of Information. Listen to Barry and Cait talk about how they responded to student feedback in a course on video games by building what is now a learning management system centered on game theory–or the elements that make up great games. Hear from Barry and Cait as they discuss the history of Gradecraft and how far it has come from its first use in Barry’s class to what is now a commercial tool being employed in K-12 and higher education settings.

 

 

We are excited to showcase the interesting stories of how our tools came to be. Join us as we learn about the opportunities and implications of building edtech software in a university with a focus on personalization, and in an era when we are committed to scaling smart technology in parallel with effective pedagogy.

Academic Innovation Supports Local Community During Holiday Season

Trevor Parnell, Events and Marketing Specialist

Engaging with and giving back to the local community is a part of the value system that helps guide the Office of Academic Innovation. The University of Michigan’s United Way Campaign, along with the United Way’s Holiday Card Making Program, offered up multiple opportunities for Academic Innovation to get involved around the holidays.

According to the organization’s website, www.uwwashtenaw.org, the United Way of Washtenaw County connects people, resources and organizations together to create a thriving community for everyone. Their values include equity, inclusiveness, community, volunteerism, caring and integrity.

As part of the University of Michigan’s United Way Campaign, Academic Innovation organized an internal event to help generate donations, through which the Academic Innovation team was able to raise $400 to donate to United Way.

Academic Innovation staff members smiling for the camera standing behind a table of handmade holiday cardsAdditionally, a handful of Academic Innovation team members visited the United Way of Washtenaw County on Friday, November 17 to make holiday cards for homebound senior citizens and adults, veterans, families in shelter as well as local families and children. Reflecting on her experience, Megan Taylor, Research Associate for Academic Innovation, stated, “It was such a joy to volunteer with my co-workers at United Way. I appreciated how my co-workers challenged themselves to really think creatively about how to help spread holiday cheer in their cards.”

“This experience gave me both a fun and meaningful opportunity for camaraderie with my co-workers, the joy of the holidays, and giving back to the community I call home,” said Amy Homkes- Hayes, Lead Innovation Advocate for Academic Innovation.

The Office of Academic Innovation is committed to U-M’s United Way Campaign and looks forward to participating again in the future.

Opioid Crisis will be Topic for New Teach-Out

Join Us in Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement

Donald Peurach, Associate Professor of Educational Policy, Leadership, and Innovation in the School of Education
@dpeurach

The University of Michigan School of Education invites you to join us in an experiment aimed at catalyzing a world-wide community of professionals committed to engaging educational innovation and improvement as a field of study and a domain of practice.

This initiative celebrates the launch of our Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement MicroMasters program,  a series of five massive open online courses on the edX platform that introduce the theory and practice of large-scale, network-based continuous educational improvement. The program was designed in collaboration with the Ross School of Business and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, with contributions from over 40 leading educational professionals, researchers, and reformers across the US. I had the honor of serving as the lead designer of the program.

We are launching Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement at a fascinating moment in the history of US public education. Over the past five years, a new educational reform movement has taken shape, one that has practicing educators, researchers, and reformers collaborating in novel “school improvement networks” to address educational problems, needs, and opportunities using formal methods of continuous improvement. In Fall 2017, school improvement networks became the centerpiece of a $1 billion grant program announced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that aims to improve academic success, high school graduation, and college placement among black, Hispanic, and poor students in the nation’s most challenged schools.

Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement locates learners at the center of this rapidly evolving “improvement movement”, and supports them in developing the foundational knowledge, capabilities, and dispositions needed to become active members.

Toward that end, we designed Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement not only as a series of massive open online courses. We designed the program as a platform for building a new type of trans-institutional, trans-national educational reform community. All core courses use an instructional approach called “Self-Directed/Community Supported Learning” that combines presentations, enrichment activities, scenario-based team practice exercises, and community-wide discussion, with the aim of drawing diverse learners in the US and around the world into a community of discourse and practice.

From January — April 2018, I will guide a cohort of learners in completing curated versions of the two courses that comprise the core of Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement:

I will be complementing the existing online resources with supplemental instructional guidance, online office hours, guest webinars, and blogging opportunities, all aimed at enriching learners’ experiences and supporting their success.

These special, curated versions of LeadEd502x and LeadEd503x courses are open to practicing educators, graduate students, faculty members, and reformers across the US and around the world. They are also being offered as part of a 3-credit seminar in the School of Education open to all graduate students and upper division undergraduate students:  EDUC 639 — Engaging Educational Innovation and Improvement.

Together, we will use these curated versions of LeadEd502x and LeadEd503x as a laboratory in which to explore new approaches to developing foundational understandings of cutting-edge educational theory and practice, new ways of using open-access instructional resources to support place-based professional development, and new ways of collaborating to accelerate the redesign of graduate programs in response to dynamic policy environments.

Indeed, our aim is to collaborate in a grand experiment using a new, online learning platform to do what world-class public research universities do best:

  • Convene diverse groups of stakeholders around pressing issues of social importance, and rally their passions and wisdom.
  • Inform conversations among them with new insights about theory and practice.
  • Empower them to move forward, together, in making a big difference for many people, especially those who are too often disempowered and disenfranchised.

Stay tuned! We will be using this blog to report on our progress over the winter semester.

If you would like more information about participating in this initiative, please click here for an FAQ about the MicroMasters program that also provides more details about the special, curated versions of LeadEd502x and LeadEd503x.

If you would like to join us for this initiative, please click here to complete a general information form by December 15, 2017. We are using this form to build an email list of potential participants. On 12/16/2017, we will be mailing specific guidance for registering for these courses on the edX platform.

As always, please feel free to email me (dpeurach@umich.edu) for additional information.

We hope you are able to join us in celebrating Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement!