Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Faculty Development and Document Accessibility

I recently presented at a faculty development workshop at DePauw University. It was dynamic and full of positive energy. I want to thank Diane Hightower, Dean of Student Academic Support, and Allison Cath, Director of Academic Support Programs for presenting such an energetic workshop. The other presenters were Heather Stout and Sally Coffman from Purdue University.

Reconsidering Our Approach to Faculty

I believe the nature of AT in higher education is rapidly evolving and this invitation made me reflect on how we communicate this to faculty. In the past, such presentations focused on an isolated student with a disability and how an instructor might have to make adjustments or accommodations in the class for the student. However accurate this perspective may have once been, it does not reflect the new classroom landscape.

Our advantage now is that much of what helps a student with a disability also very favorably impacts all students. That is how to frame these presentations; focus beyond what is accessible and emphasize how these techniques benefit all students. For example, a text based PDF is the bare minimum for a student with a disability, but it is also much richer and more useful educational material for all students by being a searchable document. I will get back to PDF in a bit.

Demonstrating Kurzweil 3000

You can make a pretty entertaining workshop around Kurzweil 3000 (K 3000) or similar products. Remind the audience what word processors did for writing and then explain that this technology is a “reading processor.”

First and foremost let the instructors know that this is a “play” session and they are not expected to learn how to use K 3000. They should just relax and play with voices, create notes, try to “break” the dictionary and highlight text. Along the way the participants can try reading by highlight and saving highlights out to an outline.

These features have been on K 3000 and similar products for several years and I do not mean to imply that they are new and innovative. My goal was to get the faculty intrigued and engaged in the possibilities and for them to understand what a useful tool this is for students.

By the end of the workshop they were making mp3 files, creating voice notes and easily interacting with various aspects of the program.

Creating Accessible PDF Files

Once the faculty saw how alternative documents could really help a struggling student, it was time to discuss what they can do to help.

I started off with PDF files “copies”, that is, PDFs of journal articles etc. I showed two truly hideous examples from an actual course packet. One had a shadow across about a third of one of the pages. The other had a similar shadow, but also had underlining and margin notes in handwriting. I pointed out that these were not readable by machines or people! I think they got the idea that “clean’ originals were an essential starting place. I did not stop there. We talked about the effectiveness of educational materials. Here the point was made about a searchable text-based PDF being far more useful to all students over a picture-only version. It is important to leverage the fact that these instructors use PDF files in their own work and they know that a searchable version is a much more useful and more versatile document. I pointed out that if they were using Acrobat Pro to create PDF files it could convert them to text-based files quite easily.

We moved from PDF “copies” to PDF “originals.” These are files created in a word processor and then made into PDF. By making small changes in how you create these documents you can make them more structured and navigable. MS Word is the word processor that integrates well with PDF production. The participants learned that by using Headers Style rather than simply bolding a word (that is a header) makes the document more readable for students using computer reading aids. They found it was easier to use the column formatter in Word rather than fuss with multiple tab and enter keys to create columns. And this preserves the correct reading order in the PDF. The participants got tips on how to make tables more readable and how to create brief text descriptions of images. It is interesting how many faculty are inserting the image of their textbook cover (no doubt thanks to amazon.com) into the syllabus.

The participants were surprised to learn that creating a structured and readable PDF took only slightly longer than their old, and far less accessible, methods.

Creating Accessible PowerPoints

This gets a little tougher. Accessibility has never been a strength of PowerPoint presentations. It is usually presented in real time as a backdrop to a lecture. The handouts are also notoriously either inaccessible or incomplete. Nevertheless, steps can be taken to not only make PowerPoint more accessible, but also a freestanding and accessible study aid or review tool.

Before I get any further, I want to thank Greg Kraus from LecShare, Inc. He worked very hard to support this presentation and contributed to its success. LecShare Pro is a great tool for making PowerPoint presentations more accessible and packaging them for future use. LecShare is a great product and I predict it is going to be an indispensable tool for most colleges. By the way, I own no stock in the company nor do I benefit in anyway from the program’s success.

We spent time on the basics of accessible and solid presentation creation. Choosing a good (san serif) font and a reading-enhancing color combination was the start. We discussed animations and slide transitions and that they should only be used to clarify or advance the presentation. The group learned to add text descriptions to images and graphics.

LecShare include tools to clean-up alt-texts and change slide titles. While LecShare exports to four different file types, the html export is probably the most accessible. Each slide is its own web page with “next” or “previous” links for easy navigation. Another link makes the slide text only.

LecShare also creates a very nice replay package in the form of a movie file. The instructor can read text from the notes page of the presentation onto an audio track. The text of the notes page then becomes captions that appear with the slide. Such a “package” could be posted to Blackboard or Moodle as excellent content review material and again, this works for all students.

I don’t want this to get too technical, suffice it to say that the faculty participating in this workshop learned some fairly easy ways to make accessible PDF and PowerPoint files. A final point that was made was if this work seemed burdensome, the faculty should strongly encourage their department to hire a student worker who could make these changes on the files before they are made available to the students.

The big point here is that accessible electronic documents or presentations are more useful for all students than their inaccessible counterparts.

When putting together a faculty development workshop on accessible materials, seize the momentum that already exists. Faculty already know from personal experience that some files are more useful to their work than others and you should play to this awareness.

Faculty will continue to make increasing amounts of instructional materials and the more they embrace universally accessible materials, the easier your job will be.

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Managing the Assistive Technology Process

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1 comment:

Talking Books Librarian said...

Hi there, I just discovered your blog. I write a blog that offers lots of free resources for those with disabilities, with an emphasis on library related "stuff". Feel free to check it out at http://talkingbookslibrarian.blogspot.com

Talking Books Librarian