Eric Joyce, Marketing Specialist
Students have played an active role in reimagining the transcript of the future, informing product development for edX and brainstorming new functionality for Problem Roulette – and that was just in the last month.
Throughout the month of March, the Office of Academic Innovation hosted three Student Design Jams inviting students to share their insight and expertise in the design and development process. Each design jam is a unique opportunity for students to apply the skills they’ve learned in the classroom to develop solutions to improve structures, processes, products and tools at the University and beyond. Students participating in these events learn new skills as well as network and partner with their peers.
In the last three weeks, students worked with representatives from the Registrar’s Office to build prototypes that visualize student transcript data in new and useful ways, shared their thoughts on credentialing and social learning with edX and presented their prototypes for new functionality in the exam study tool, Problem Roulette.
Compete or Collaborate? New functionality in Problem Roulette
Working in three separate teams, students collaborated with the Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG) to discuss, design and present their ideas for new functionality in Problem Roulette, a web-based practice tool that offers random-within-topic access to a large library of past exam-like problems.
Mike Wojan, User Experience Designer at DIG, and Jaee Apte, School of Information graduate student and DIG Fellow, framed the design jam with an overview of DIG, Problem Roulette and the opportunity for students to shape the tool for future learners.
“It’s really important to get in touch with the user community, like you guys, about how we can improve it,” Wojan said.
Apte set the agenda for the event and prompted the open-ended design questions central to the design jam:
- Imagine Problem Roulette is being used in a study group. How can you make Problem Roulette a collaborative platform where students work with each other to solve problems? Assume these students may not always be in the same physical space.
- Alternatively, how can you make Problem Roulette a competitive platform where students work against each other to solve problems? Assume these students may not always be in the same physical space.
She urged students to consider how new functionality would impact the user experience for students using Problem Roulette both collaboratively and competitively.
“What will a competition look like?,” Apte asked. “Are [Problem Roulette Users] challenging themselves, are they challenging their classmates?”
Working with members of the DIG team, the student teams spent 90 minutes brainstorming, transferring their ideas to sticky notes, drawing wireframes and iterating on their design ideas. After their ideas for collaborative and/or competitive features in Problem Roulette were solidified, teams prepared a brief presentation to showcase their prototypes to their fellow students as well as faculty and staff interested in their design solutions.
Ideas shared by the teams included developing student profiles and collaborative study groups, real-time chat functionality, videos and competitive leaderboards. One group incorporated gamification in their design by representing student progress by various forms of transportation including by foot, bike, car and airplane. In this team’s prototype, “bus stops” represented opportunities for students to help their peers who are “stuck” on various questions in the platform.
“We want to demonstrate a competition in a collaborative way,” one student said.
In the spirit of competition, students who developed “Problem Roulette Tennis” were named the “winning” team with their idea to let students accumulate points by “serving” questions to other students. Students who receive a “serve” are challenged to provide the correct answer and counter with a question of their own. Students said this question volley would continue until a player answers incorrectly and a winner is determined.
“We think that if this is a game, it will make students want to practice and study more,” one of the student presenters said.
Interactivity, Social Learning and Digital Credentials in edX
Earlier in the month, students had a chance to work directly with members of the edX product development team to share their perspectives on social learning and digital credentialing.
The design jam took place one day after the Academic Innovation Forum to Broaden the University of Michigan where President Schlissel announced the new Teach-Out Series and Dr. Anant Agarwal, edX CEO, shared a keynote on the digital transformation of higher education.
Iain Kennedy, Vice President of Product Development at edX, shared the five-year history of the online learning platform and its partnership with leading institutions to provide “the best education in the world available to everyone in the world.”
“We looking to get any insights you have,” he said. “These are wide-open questions that are important to solve in order to satisfy our mission:”
- How can online education platforms increase interactivity and communication among learners? How can they better facilitate social learning opportunities and/or online learning communities?
- How might we record online learning differently? What makes a digital credential – like a badge or certificate – meaningful and useful to a learner? How can we maximize the utility and value of digital credentials?
Students shared their insight directly with representatives from edX and Academic Innovation staff to guide future product development in edX. Prior to these individual discussions, Dr. Rachel Niemer, Director of the Gameful Learning Lab, said the design jam was an opportunity to bring new voices into the design process for edX.
Transcripts for the Future
How should student transcripts evolve in the digital age? Do transcripts accurately reflect a student’s journey throughout the University?
These were a few of the questions posed at another Student Design Jam lead by Paul Robinson, Associate Vice Provost and University Registrar, and Lisa Emery, Associate Registrar for Faculty and Staff Services, from the U-M Office of the Registrar.
Robinson said he was “passionate about making these documents better” and was looking for student input about ways the to improve traditional, paper transcripts.
“It certainly does not reflect enough, the good work and experiences students have,” he said.
Emery provided an overview and examples of current transcripts at U-M noting its lack of depth in its current form.
“It shows what classes did you take, what grades did you get and what’s your [grade point average],” she said.
Dr. Tim McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Principal Investigator for DIG , said the student transcript is often thought of as the “permanent record” for a student’s time at the university. He said the the transcript reflects the “story” of student’s experience that is largely focused on a student’s final grades rather than their extracurricular experiences.
He later called grades a “bad measure of learning” and a student’s grade point average is a measure of performance, suggesting transcripts should better reflect the intellectual breadth, disciplinary depth, effort, engagement and range of experiences throughout a student’s time at the University.
“We measure lots of different things, but we choose a very limited subset of those right now,” McKay said.
To help students get started, Dr. Chris Teplovs, Lead Developer for DIG and Adjunct Lecturer at the U-M School of Information, asked students to rethink the layout of a student transcript beyond a chronological list of courses.
“Maybe there’s room for a deeper analysis of your entire course experience,” he said.
He proposed alternatives such as grouping a student’s course history by subject, scaling by performance or organizing courses to assess the disciplinary diversity of a student’s academic history.
Dr. Benjamin Koester, Learning Analytics Research Specialist Senior at the U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, also shared an alternative visualization of the student transcript as a timeline highlighting changes in a student’s grade point average.
“The metric isn’t how well did I do at the end, but how much did I improve throughout my time here,” he said.
Students were then asked to brainstorm explore the following design questions:
- What kinds of data do students need in order to make informed choices about their enrollment in future courses or programs?
- How can course data and student performance be represented differently to optimize for accessibility, relevance, user experience, etc.?
- How might we break away from the restrictions of a paper document (i.e., linear, static) to produce an interactive, dynamic visualization of transcript data?
The insights students shared individually within small groups will guide ongoing discussions at the Office of the Registrar to modernize and transform the transcript of the future. In addition, the DIG team will soon pilot new visualizations to reflect student learning in Academic Reporting Tools (ART 2.0), a digital tool to help students, faculty and administration make more informed decisions by presenting U-M course and academic program data in an intuitive visual format.
These valuable insights will shape the design and development process at the both the University of Michigan and edX to better help students review class material, craft a social learning environment for learners around the world and visualize transcript data in new and more useful ways. We encourage students to join us at future Academic Innovation events by checking our event page at ai.umich.edu/events
Eric Joyce, Marketing Specialist
How can the University of Michigan community develop “just-in-time,” rapid response models for teaching and learning in the online, residential and hybrid spaces?
Earlier this year, faculty and staff explored this topic during a recent “Innovation Hour,” a gathering hosted twice a month by the Office of Academic Innovation featuring a different theme each session. These events are one component of the Academic Innovation Initiative, a charge by the President’s office to to engage in a University-wide conversation to “consider how U-M will lead the way for higher education through the information age and further strengthen our impact on society.”
The discussion surrounded questions about changes to systems and structures to support just-in-time teaching and learning models and ways the University can leverage technology to create timely, interactive learning experiences that deliberately bring outside learners into the experience.
Part of the answer came quickly, as President Schlissel announced the new University of Michigan Teach-Out Series during the Academic Innovation Forum on Broadening the University of Michigan Community on March 13. Modeled after “Teach-Ins” first introduced by Michigan in 1965, the Teach-Out Series are just-in-time learning opportunities inviting learners from around the world to join a community discussion about a topic of widespread interest. The first of four Teach-Outs examines the shifting political systems in many countries around the world and launches on March 31. More information about the new Teach-Out Series is available at ai.umich.edu/teach-out.
Dr. Rachel Niemer, Director of the Gameful Learning Lab, framed the discussion during the Innovation Hour by asking how best to enable faculty to experiment with teaching outside of the traditional curricular process.
“What are ways we can create new credit bearing or non-credit bearing experiences that can have the impact we want to see?,” Niemer asked.
Participants identified common barriers to just-in-time residential offerings due to the curricular approval process as well as the physical space and time constraints. The inherent interdisciplinary nature of just-in-time teaching models further compounds these challenges according to the group.
In response, the group expressed a need to develop teaching models to increase the University’s agility in responding to current issues. This involves a willingness to create impromptu teaching experiences to share the intellectual breadth and depth of the university in an accelerated and timely way.
“There are so many experts at the University in current topics that we really want to share with the world,” said Dr. Tim McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Principal Investigator for the Digital Innovation Greenhouse.
Participants divided into small groups to brainstorm new ideas to build pathways from impromptu teaching experiences into more formalized teaching experiences. One group examined “just-in-time” teaching models in residential courses while another group discussed ways to engage the external community with hybrid models.
In a conversation about mechanisms to connect to the external community with online and hybrid teaching models, Dr. Melissa Gross Arthur F Thurnau Professor, discussed a current gap in pre-program training for students in graduate-level Kinesiology programs. This lead to the identification of two potential modes of just-in-time teaching: “just-in-time for all of us” and “just-in-time for me.”
McKay defined “just-in-time for all” as learning experiences that examine timely issues important to many individuals, similar to the Teach-Out Series. Alternatively, “just-in-time for me” reflects the individual needs of learners, and might involve preparation for the college experience, or advanced training for an upcoming course or a first job.
“It’s about practicing and preparing yourself for something that you are going to need or do,” he said.
Ideas posed by the faculty innovators and staff included:
- a buy out of 10 to 25 percent of a graduate student’s time to allow them to explore interdisciplinary campus experiences
- post-credentialing large events by tying them to other learning experiences
- integrating just-in-time models as a component of the course preparation process
“If we think about just-in-time teaching as part of course development, it might fit better into our system,” McKay said.
Join us during the next Innovation Hour! View our list of upcoming events to learn about future Innovation Hour discussions.
Eric Joyce, Marketing Specialist
“No celebration of U-M’s historic leadership in higher education can be complete without also looking forward, to imagine what our leadership will look like in future decades.”
– President Mark S. Schlissel
President Mark S. Schlissel announced the new University of Michigan Teach-Out Series to more than 200 faculty, students, staff and members of the broader U-M community at the Academic Innovation Forum on Broadening the University of Michigan Community. The event on Monday, March 13, in the Michigan League ballroom, marked the next step in the University’s mission to serve the public and reaffirms Michigan’s commitment to furthering its societal impact throughout its third century.
Teach-Outs are just-in-time global community learning events focusing on current issues, that enable a wide variety of people to join the University of Michigan’s campus community in exploring a timely topic. Teach-Outs reflect the University’s deep commitment to engage the public in understanding the problems, events and phenomena most important to society. More information about the Teach-Out Series is available at http://ai.umich.edu/teach-out
“Within each Teach-Out, faculty share their professional knowledge on the topic, with the goal of fostering greater understanding of a complex problem,” Schlissel said. “The Teach-Outs will explore historical transitions to authoritarian rule, fake news, creating conversations between experts and the public, and the Affordable Care Act.”
More information about the first four Teach-Outs in the new series, and options to enroll, is listed below:
Understand how contemporary changes in political systems fit into the larger historical context of how countries shift between democratic and authoritarian governments.
School of Natural Resources and Environment
Can you distinguish credible news from “Fake News”? Learn to identify biases and become a critical information consumer.
College of Literature, Science, and the Arts
In this Teach-Out, scientists and non-scientists reach out and RELATE to build communication skills to more effectively discuss knowledge.
College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, School of Public Health
Understand the facets of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and how the different options for its future will impact the US healthcare landscape.
School of Public Health
The Teach-Out Series is modeled after the historic U-M Teach-Ins, which which first took place in 1965 in response to President Johnson’s escalation of US involvement in Vietnam. Faculty who had considered taking a stance against this escalation of troops instead brought together experts for a marathon educational event, the Teach-In. This original event sparked a series of similar events on more than 35 campuses across the country that continued for about a year. The idea remains fresh however, and versions of Teach-Ins continue to occur on a wide array of topics.
“The University of Michigan Teach-Out Series is precisely the type of idea we hoped would emerge from the creativity of our faculty and staff through our Academic Innovation Initiative,” Schlissel said.
President Schlissel charged the Office of Academic Innovation with the Academic Innovation Initiative last fall to foster deep conversations among all members of the University of Michigan community. This highly engaging and collaborative community discussion connects the University’s commitments to academic excellence, inclusion, and innovation in order to continue Michigan’s leadership role in defining how the world learns from and with a great public research university. The initiative has led to the rapid launch of 20 experimental projects and has stimulated excitement among U-M faculty innovators.
Prior to the President’s formal remarks, attendees were asked to participate in a community brainstorm sharing their ideas about problems, events and phenomena U-M should share expertise with the public in order to meet the diverse needs of alumni, engage pre-college learners and create new pathways to the University. Overall, members of the U-M share 80 new ideas. These ideas and the ideas generated by the Ideas 2017 Challenge will guide the development process for future innovations at U-M.
During his keynote address about the the digital transformation of higher education, Dr. Anant Agarwal, CEO of online learning platform edX, asked the U-M community to consider education in the next 20 to 30 years.
Citing a report by the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity estimating about 2 billion, or about 50 percent, of global jobs will disappear due to automation, technology and artificial intelligence by 2030, Agarwal said the global workforce will require extensive retraining and retooling.
“If new fields are burgeoning every day and if people have to be re-skilled and up-skilled, our education system simply cannot deal with this,” he said.
Agarwal said educational systems will need to address this need while also building residential and digital learning environments conducive to both millennials and continuous, lifelong learners.
He said Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), MicroMasters, and now Teach-Outs, are examples of innovative new learning modalities to address these impending challenges. Agarwal added a digital transformation in education leads to more sharing between universities, more access for learners, more modular programs and better engagement for residential learners.
“Is the future of education going to be continuous, lifelong? Is it going to be hybrid?,” he asked. “A lot for all of us to think about and try to help garner, and foster, the future of education.”
The forum then turned to a U-M innovator panel discussion moderated by Dr. Barry Fishman, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Education and Information, who reflected upon the theme of the evening’s event, “broadening the University of Michigan community.”
“How can we open up new channels for communication that not only flow outward from Ann Arbor, but provide a means by which the rest of the world feels they can be active participants and stakeholders in the research and teaching that goes on on this campus?,” Fishman asked.
He then shared an introduction of each of the U-M innovator panelists, which included:
- Dr. Arun Agrawal, Samuel Trask Dana Professor, School of Natural Resources and Environment
- Dr. Thomas Finholt, Dean & Professor of Information, School of Information
- Dr. Kedra Ishop, Vice Provost for Enrollment Management & Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, Office of the Provost
- Dr. Joanna Millunchick, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, College of Engineering
Topics of the panel discussion surrounded reaching diverse student populations, re-imaging the admissions process, engaging with pre-college learners, MicroMasters and the origins of the Teach-Out Series.
“[The university] should be a place where what we do connects to the broader society. It has a way both of resonating with what’s going on in society, and of informing what is going on,” Agrawal said. “And I think the kind of work we do is particularly well suited to this idea of making larger connections, and this mechanism of the Teach-Out makes it possible for us to do so.”
He said both the Michigan Teach-In and Teach-Out series stimulate an intermixing of different opinions, viewpoints and ideologies and the Teach-Out Series is revolutionary in two distinct ways.
“One, we can offer a medium through which people can learn about something in a very short amount of time,” Agrawal said. “Second, given the way we are structuring Teach-Outs, we can explode education into a million little bits and we can offer people who are taking these bits the flexibility, and the option, and the imagination to connect them themselves instead of us telling them how they must connect what they are learning.”
Dean Thomas Finholt said the User Experience (UX) Research and Design MicroMasters from the School of Information has provided a pathway to the university for a global audience of more than 50,000 learners. Upon earning the MicroMasters credential, learners who are admitted to the School of Information may apply credit toward a master’s degree.
“We thought that it would be a front door to our program for people who might otherwise have been intimidated or felt like they didn’t belong here and, therefore, diversify our master’s student population in the residential program,” Finholt said.
Dr. Joanna Millunchick described how M-STEM Academies is expanding interest in the STEM fields among a more diverse audience of pre-college learners. She said she is currently working with the Office of Academic Innovation to explore options to turn these academies into digital experiences enabling students and alumni to lead academies in their local communities. Millunchick called this model a “distributed campus.”
“It’s no longer about just the campus here in Ann Arbor, in Dearborn and in Flint,” Millunchick said. “It’s really a Michigan campus everywhere Michigan students are.”
Dr. Kedra Ishop shared how Wolverine Pathways is another mechanism to provide access to a more diverse student pool. She said her Office uses Wolverine Pathways to help prepare middle school and early high school students for success at the University.
“Really what we need to do is look across a K-12 platform, identify under-resourced areas and help find ways to supplement those students’ education,” she said.
Millunchick said digital innovations should be used to enable online learn opportunities, such as MOOCs, to do what they do best and residential courses to do what they do best.
“I would argue that MOOCs are great for what they do and let’s not try to make them do everything and replace the residential experience,” Millunchick said. “And allow the MOOCs to free us to do what we want to do in the residential experience more deeply.”
Agrawal said the University should continue to strive to help students and global learners to better reflect and learn from one another.
“We need to free ourselves from teaching facts and become places where people connect, and reflect, and become different, better, more capable citizens,” he said. “It really is just incumbent on us to re-imagine what the University is.”
Written by Laurel Thomas Gnagey, Michigan News
ANN ARBOR—Authoritarian rule and fake news are among the topics for the University of Michigan Teach-Out Series, a new open online opportunity for global learners.
U-M President Mark Schlissel kicked off an Academic Innovation forum March 13 with the announcement of the first four global community learning events on the edX platform, intended to encourage public discourse about relevant issues.
“The University of Michigan Teach-Out Series is precisely the type of idea we hoped would emerge from the creativity of our faculty and staff through our Academic Innovation initiative,” Schlissel said.
The four offerings that will begin on a Friday and run through Sunday night include:
- Democratic to Authoritarian Rule (March 31)
- Fake News, Facts and Alternative Facts (April 21)
- Reach Out and RELATE: Communicating and Understanding Scientific Research (May 5)
- The Future of Obamacare – Repeal, Repair or Replace? (May 12)
Teach-outs are modeled after the historic U-M teach-ins, which started in 1965 in response to military action in Vietnam. Faculty who had considered taking a stance against President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of troops into the country instead brought together experts for a marathon educational event.
As a result, similar teach-ins were held at 35 other campuses, and years later the model inspired the first Earth Day event, which had its origins at U-M.
Those who have orchestrated the Michigan Teach-Out Series hope to leverage technology to bring a global audience of learners to U-M.
“The University of Michigan Teach-Out Series can be a model for a new era of engagement between institutions of higher education and the global communities they serve,” said James Hilton, U-M vice provost for academic innovation. “Part of our public mission is to create opportunities for citizens to be informed, because the more informed people are, the more informed debate can be.”
Academic Innovation leaders refer to the teach-outs as digital just-in-time community learning events, designed to take place over a short, fixed period of time.
“These are intended to be relatively small scale experiences which enable a wide variety of global learners to join our campus community in exploring a topic which is timely for all of us,” said Timothy McKay, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics and director of the Digital Innovation Greenhouse within the Office of Academic Innovation. “We hope learners across the world will see them as an opportunity for a healthy conversation—a give and take of ideas and information.”
In the fall, Schlissel announced an Academic Innovation Initiative, encouraging faculty to further embrace digital technology, learning analytics and innovation in their work at Michigan and across the world.
This year, the Office of Academic Innovation announced a partnership with Microsoft to deliver online content and three MicroMasters programs on edX in the schools of Information, Education and Social Work. In addition, several faculty innovations have been scaled for campuswide use, and learning analytics—the use of data to inform educational choices—has been employed by students and faculty alike.
Schlissel’s announcement of the Teach-Out Series came at a two-day forum “Academic Innovation Forum on Broadening the University of Michigan Community.” The CEO of edX presented a keynote at the forum that also included a panel discussion and student design jam.
“We are honored to work with University of Michigan to empower our community of global learners to engage with the critical issues and challenges of our time,” said Anant Agarwal, edX CEO and MIT professor. “This online series connects learners with experts, academic theory and current events in real-time, which is made possible by the power of technology.”
James DeVaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation said the goal of this program and the ongoing work of his office is to “activate public engagement by bringing U-M to the world while bringing the world to U-M.”
“We’re building on U-M’s longstanding commitment to public engagement and our leadership role as a pioneer in online education to create new opportunities for learners to explore the problems, events and phenomena most important to society,” he said.
“We’re starting to see the benefits of an experimental and collaborative mindset that guided us first to prototype rapidly in a nascent MOOC space, next to open access to U-M through new models like the MicroMasters programs, and now to transform public engagement through the Teach-Out Series.
“We expect the teach-outs to provide new social learning experiences that combine the reach of MOOCs with the focus of well-timed community events to accelerate the creation of opportunities for public engagement in ways that fit naturally with the strengths of a great public research university.”
Arun Agrawal’s teach-out on authoritarian rule will debut the series roughly 52 years after the first teach-in.
“Contemporary political landscapes around the world are in extraordinary flux—from BREXIT, to the upending of conventional politics in the U.S., Philippines and Brazil, to the slower moving shifts in other countries. How are we to make sense of these seemingly overwhelming changes?” said Agrawal, a political scientist at the School of Natural Resources and Environment.
“We look forward to engaging online learners in this teach-out. Our historical and comparative lens will inform how societies and citizens have responded to the back and forth of more democratic versus more authoritarian political structures. The almost-daily churn of the current political climate makes our just-in-time approach to the learning experience ever more relevant.”
Eric Joyce, Marketing Specialist
Last fall, accessibility and universal design experts from University of Michigan shared their insight into ways to enhance access to course content for residential students and U-M learners around the world.
The discussion was held during an Innovation Hour, a gathering hosted by the Office of Academic Innovation two times per month featuring a different theme each session, and featured the following accessibility experts from across campus:
- Jane Berliss-Vincent, Assistive Technology Manager at Information Technology Services
- Jack Bernard, Associate General Counsel and Intermittent Lecturer in Law at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy
- Stephanie Rosen, Associate Librarian and Accessibility Specialist at the University Library
- Scott Williams, Web Accessibility Coordinator at the Office of Institutional Equity
These experts discussed methods to integrate accessibility and universal design principles into organizational policies, the potential for cost and time savings from constructing accessible environments and the imperative to build inclusive learning experiences for all learners. Read a full recap of the discussion here.
We followed-up with a few of these local experts to gather additional insight into accessibility best practices for faculty, students and staff at U-M:
What are the distinctions between accessibility and universal design?
Jane Berliss-Vincent: Accessibility generally refers to items that are designed to be usable by individuals with disabilities, with or without additions to the standard product configuration. For example, visual impairment exists on a continuum. Some low vision users need hardware or software additions to a computer (“assistive technology”) so that they can access a website, while others won’t need any modifications if the site is thoughtfully designed–e.g., reasonable default print size and color contrast (no yellow text on a lime background, thank you).
Universal design expands this idea to include the needs of a much broader audience. The Center for Universal Design defines it as, “The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” On our campus, this might include ensuring usability by disabled individuals, individuals who speak English as an additional language (EAL), individuals with limited prior technology experience, elders, and other contingents.
Why are the areas of accessibility and universal design becoming increasingly important in higher education?
Stephanie Rosen: These areas are becoming increasingly important because with the shift to digital, there comes a new possibility for “born accessible” content, tools, and learning environments. Whereas a print book would have previously been remediated for a student with print disabilities—read aloud to them by a person or, later, scanned and converted to an electronic file then read aloud by a machine—now an electronic book already has the capacity for remediation built into it (as long as it’s built right). Along with the shift to digital, there is a simultaneous shift in content creators. Faculty are now not only curating learning materials (in the old form of the syllabus reading list) but also designing and creating them, or seeing them designed and created by other entities of the University.
The old model of accommodations, where a dedicated office would remediate materials for students with disabilities, is giving way to a model of universal design, where materials are built to work for everyone from the beginning. This is very exciting, but it presents challenges because the expertise of universal design needs to be disseminated among whole new populations of content creators.
What aspects of accessibility and universal design are commonly overlooked or misunderstood? How should schools, colleges, departments and units approach these practices?
Jane Berliss-Vincent: The biggest myth is that accessibility/universal design exists in a vacuum–that it only benefits certain groups. In reality, it benefits a majority of users. For example, there is a proliferation of everyday things that have their roots in designs to accommodate people with disabilities–typewriters, TV captioning, text messaging, even football huddles. When mobile devices came along, the designers incorporated as a standard features that had long been used as assistive technology, such as touch screens, virtual keyboards, Zoom capabilities, word prediction, and so on.
The best approach, then, is to do away with labels–“this is for disabled students, this is for EAL speakers”–and put the focus on what just works well. There’s a lot of stigma around using technology that signals “difference”–my friend Jim Tobias wrote an exquisite short essay on this some years ago, and it’s still true. I’ve worked with students who are reluctant to use assistive technologies or strategies that could save them significant time and effort simply because they don’t want to be perceived as less competent than their peers.
The flip side is that U-M has a license for a software program called Read & Write Gold (the license covers both Windows and Mac) that is on all public Sites machines and that we can also distribute for free to every current student, faculty, or staff member. It was designed and is marketed as a kind of Swiss Army Knife of features for individuals with learning disabilities, but many of these features have universal appeal. The two most unusual are a homonym checker that helps you make sure you’re correctly using confusable words like “there,” “their,” and “they’re,” and a set of virtual markers that let you highlight text and then easily extract it to a Word file–the Windows version will also insert any bibligraphic information. Who wouldn’t want those? Any current operating system is also stuffed with assistive features, some of which are not necessarily identified as such. A personal favorite is the Windows setting that lets you change all the system icons so they open with one click instead of two. Much easier on all index fingers, and invaluable to anyone who can’t remember, never learned, or doesn’t want to bother knowing when double clicking is necessary.
Stephanie Rosen: The most common and most harmful misunderstanding about digital accessibility is that it is a matter of compliance that can be managed as a last minute checklist. Unfortunately, this resembles the way that accessibility is managed in architecture, as Jos Boys point out in Doing Disability Differently. Checking for accessibility compliance at the last minute can easily result in unnecessary delays and expenses — and can in the best of cases only result in a compliant resource. Alternatively, when accessibility and universal design are considered up front as design constraints, they may spark creativity and innovation that result in real advances in design possibilities for users.
How can faculty design online courses or adjust their residential courses to follow accessibility/universal design best practices and standards?
Stephanie Rosen: In the classroom, faculty can look to resources already available on campus such as the SSD Office’s 10 Instructional Accessibility Tips, the CRLT Resources on Inclusive Teaching, and workshops regularly provided by the CRLT and by the Library.
In the online space, faculty can create more accessible syllabus documents by learning from the Accessible Syllabus project and using the SALSA tool, and can make Canvas content more accessible by following General Accessibility Design Guidelines.
Are there any tools available to help faculty, students and staff make their content more accessible to learners?
Jane Berliss-Vincent: A few years ago, several of us put together a set of Instructional Accessibility Tips that represents a variety of needs. Scott Williams’ website is a gem, and he also runs the Web Accessibility Working Group, which has monthly meetings and a listserv. Scott, Stephanie, myself, and the staff of the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities are always happy to be resources around any questions that U-M community members might have.
Stephanie Rosen: I mentioned that accessibility is too often “checked off” at the end of a project, but there are many “checker” tools that are useful at any stage of a project:
- Color Contrast Checker to design font and background colors for legible text
- WAVE and aXe to evaluate accessibility problems on web pages
- Tools to improve Microsoft Word document accessibility and PDF accessibility
Beyond checkers, there are also tools that support the creation of more accessible content, such as:
There are new tools and projects all the time. I recommend following the #a11y (short for accessibility) hashtag on Twitter to keep up with developments, and paying attention to what people are doing in the academic field of Disability Studies. This field helps us understand our own ideas about disability (where our ideas come from, how they’re changing, how they affect different bodies) and, most importantly, gives voice to the knowledge produced by people with disabilities, who are constantly creating innovative ways to be in a world not designed for them.
Scott Williams also shared a list of resources faculty, staff and students may find helpful when constructing accessible learning environments and user experiences:
- Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0
- U-M web accessibility website
- Webinar: Creating Accessible Course Content
- Accommodating Students in Canvas
- aXe Chrome Developer Tool (Deque)
- WAVE Accessibility Checker and WAVE Toolbar (Chrome)
- Accessibility Developer Tools for Chrome
- snook.ca Color Contrast Checker
- Colorblind Web Page Filter
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