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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.

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

Celebrate Innovation this Giving Blueday

Eric Joyce, Marketing Specialist
@ericmjoyce

Giving Blueday 11-28-17Next week marks the University of Michigan’s fourth annual Giving Blueday, a university wide-day of giving building upon the Giving Tuesday global movement.

This year not only marks U-M’s Bicentennial, but an explosive year of innovation across the University catalyzed by the Academic Innovation Initiative, a charge to the Office of Academic Innovation by the President and Provost’s office “to consider how U-M will lead the way for higher education through the information age and further strengthen our impact on society.”

The U-M community has responded by ushering a new era of faculty public engagement with the launch of the University of Michigan Teach-Out Series. These just-in-time learning experiences have stimulated global conversations on some of the most critical issues facing society such as fake news, the future of the Affordable Care Act, sleep deprivation and more. We hope you will also join us for an examination of the opioid crisis in our next Teach-Out starting Monday, Dec. 4.

Highlights from our office throughout 2017 include the launch of a new community of innovators across higher education with HAILStorm; a re-launch of Problem Roulette, expansion of ECoach, new developments in M-Write, and the addition of Problem Roulette, WILD and Healthy Minds to the Digital Innovation Greenhouse portfolio; the first MOOC co-created by students for students; as well as the first Gameful Learning Summer Institute, the public release of GradeCraft and a new MOOC supporting gameful learning in schools from our Gameful Learning Lab.

Your gift this Giving Blueday will support the Office of Academic Innovation’s work to connect faculty experts from across the university to scale personalized residential learning with digital tools, motivate learners in new ways with gameful pedagogy and expand access to U-M content for lifelong learners around the world through massive open online courses and Teach-Outs. Contributions on this day of giving will also enable multidisciplinary instructional teams of faculty, staff and students to continue to pioneer academic R&D and further Michigan’s reach beyond 6 million global learners.

Gifts may support our top priorities or a specific area of focus:

Engaged Learning – 326407
Gifts will be used to explore innovation in the residential experience to enhance learning for U-M students on campus through new technology-enhanced initiatives fostering broad and enduring participation at U-M.

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Lifelong Learning – 326408
Gifts will be used to support new modes of learning, from flipped classrooms to residential MOOCs to interdisciplinary programs, to accelerate lifelong learning and reach diverse communities of learners around the globe.

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Personalized Learning & Learning Analytics – 326409
Gifts will be used to support faculty and student research to create customized data driven, learner-centric experiences informed by learning analytics to improve student outcomes.

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Teach-Out Series – 329467
Gifts will be used to fund the University of Michigan Teach-Out Series, which provides just-in-time opportunities for learners around the world to come together with our campus community in conversation on a topic of widespread interest.

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Gifts this Giving Blueday will continue to enable faculty, staff and students to experiment with digital learning tools and platforms to enrich the residential experience for U-M students and enable new pathways for continued educational growth for more than a half a million Michigan alumni worldwide. Faculty innovators and Academic Innovation’s creative team of developers, behavioral scientists, media specialists, learning experience designers and more will continue to investigate new learning technologies to enhance and evolve the learning landscape while assessing the impact of these innovations along the way.

Your generous gift, no matter the size, will help unlock new opportunities to further faculty public engagement, support personalized, engaged and lifelong learning for the U-M community, and ultimately shape the future of higher education for the 21st century. Give to Academic Innovation.

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A Look Inside the Video Production Techniques Behind the University of Michigan Teach-Out Series

Cy Abdelnour, Instructional Media Specialist, shares the importance of production quality for educational courses with this look into the production techniques utilized in the University of Michigan Teach-Out Series.

Connecting Schools and College Across Campus with “Traveling Innovation Hours”

Rachel Niemer, Director of the Gameful Learning Lab
@rkniemer

Sarah Moncada, Academic Innovation Initiative Project Coordinator
@scsutter

In preparation for the November 14 Academic Innovation Initiative Summit, the Office of Academic Innovation has expanded its “Innovation Hour” event series in an effort to foster dialogue and collaboration between units across campus. This expanded series, called “Traveling Innovation Hours,” is a set of informal conversations, each co-hosted by Academic Innovation and a pair of U-M schools and colleges.

During the 2016-2017 academic year, Innovation Hours were gatherings hosted biweekly by Academic Innovation during which U-M community members could drop in and discuss a particular topic or open question related to teaching and learning in higher education. Each Innovation Hour followed a theme, with topics ranging from accessibility, students’ educational pathways, “just-in-time” teaching models, and many more.

Last year’s Innovation Hours took place at the Office of Academic Innovation–either at the Digital Education and Innovation Lab on Washington Street or on the 8th floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library. While we drew a diverse set of participants to these events, we wanted to introduce new voices and ideas this year by bringing the conversation to familiar spaces across campus and focusing on themes that are especially pertinent to nearby schools, colleges, and programs. We decided to take Innovation Hours “on the road” and invite facilitators from the host units to determine the theme for each session. The Traveling Innovation Hour was born!

Traveling Innovation Hour participants seated in discussion around a table.

One goal of Traveling Innovation Hours is to showcase innovative teaching and learning work from the host units. An example of this took place at the first Traveling Innovation Hour, where Don Peurach (School of Education) and Katie Richards-Schuster (School of Social Work) shared their experiences creating content for their schools’ online MicroMasters courses and led a conversation on the unique challenges of building meaningful online learning experiences for fields like theirs in which in-person interactions are so key to practice. At the most recent Traveling Innovation Hour, Elisabeth Gerber (Ford School of Public Policy) and Michael Bloom (Law School) described the ways different technologies have helped them manage course projects in which students interact with external clients. They invited other attendees to brainstorm solutions for the unique difficulties of coordinating student-client interaction.

Another goal of the series is to introduce attendees to individuals outside their unit who have similar goals and priorities. Fortunately, we are seeing evidence that Traveling Innovation Hours are meeting this second goal as well: One participant of the Traveling Innovation Hour co-hosted by the College of LSA and the School of Information remarked the most useful part of the event was the chance to meet colleagues from other departments who have an interest in helping students find personalized pathways through U-M. In addition, at the end of the Traveling Innovation Hour co-hosted by the Schools of Kinesiology and Public Health, one attendee from Kinesiology took a moment to suggest that the two co-hosting schools clearly had a lot in common and should continue these conversations. A (comedically brilliant) Public Health faculty member timed her response perfectly, “What, are you asking us out on a second date?” Not only do those schools have shared intellectual interests — the people present also have very similar senses of humor!

We are currently planning next semester’s Traveling Innovation Hours. If you have an idea for a theme you would like to discuss at a future Innovation Hour, please share via email at academicinnovation@umich.edu. Details about next semester’s Traveling Innovation Hours will be forthcoming on the Academic Innovation events page.