New Resource for Enhancing Accessible Online Instruction

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While faculty may be spending more time contemplating the design of their online course offerings, an equally important consideration is ensuring accessibility of their content to students. Just as faculty differ in their level of experience, competence, and comfort in the area of online instruction, they may also differ in recognizing the need to ensure their course content is accessible to students with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. Proactively addressing accessibility issues can support student engagement, encourage quality collaboration, and promote a greater sense of inclusivity and community among students in online courses.

Blackboard, the course management system used at Northern Illinois University, recently developed a resource to address the issue of accessibility. Working in collaboration with a consortium of accessibility minded personnel from universities in the United States and abroad,  this online course was designed with the goal of improving accessibility for its users by encouraging faculty to build courses that are usable and accessible.  This new resource appears to reflect Blackboard’s commitment to expanding accessibility. Blackboard Learn 9.1 was recently awarded National Federation of the Blind Gold Level of Certification.

The new Blackboard resource is in the form of a self-paced course in Blackboard entitled, “Universal Design and Accessibility for Online Courses”.

While the public perception of the term “accessibility” may be tied to a student population with physical or cognitive disabilities, an important feature of Universal Design  is that its inclusive instructional design elements benefits a broad range of learners.  Given the increasingly diverse characteristics of students, (i.e., educational background, age, gender culture, ability, disability, primary language) faculty can design a more supportive learning environment by anticipating the student needs rather than reacting to them.  One example would be to include a transcript of a narrated lecture capture which could be useful for students whose native language is not English.  Similarly, faculty who utilize videos as supplemental course material, might only select videos that have captioning available, a feature that could be beneficial for students with a hearing impairment.

Universal Design

 

While the learning objectives of this self-paced, online course focus on applying, promoting, and expanding awareness of Universal Design principles, the online course also includes modules on Accessibility for Online Learning, Assistive Technology, and Learning Styles.

Module Areas

While the public perception of the term “accessibility” may be tied to a student population with physical or cognitive disabilities, an important feature of Universal Design  is that its inclusive instructional design elements benefits a broad range of learners.  Given the increasingly diverse characteristics of students, (i.e., educational background, age, gender culture, ability, disability, primary language) faculty can design a more supportive learning environment by anticipating student needs rather than reacting to them.  One example would be to include a transcript of a narrated lecture capture which could be useful for students whose native language is not English.  Similarly, faculty who utilize videos as supplemental course material, might only select videos that have captioning available, a feature that could be beneficial for students with a hearing impairment.

Discussions on design guidelines for universal accessibility include helpful suggestions to keep the webpage layout simple and consistent, use alternative text for images, and the need to design large buttons. Assistive Technology provides enhancements to interacting with software and hardware required to accomplish required task (i.e., screen reader, hearing aide, and voice recognition software). The module on Learning Styles offers suggestions for designing appealing material with different learning styles in mind in order to more effectively engage learners.

This course will be available to faculty through the Blackboard course management system in March 2012. It will appear as a new course in the “My Courses” module.

Listing of My Courses

Faculty are encouraged to explore this new resource.  In  addition, they are also invited to visit a resource compiled by Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, ‘Resources for Accessible Teaching’ available at www.niu.edu/facdev/resources/accessibility. For questions, contact Dan Cabrera, Multimedia Coordinator for the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center.

Facilitating Group Work on Blackboard Next Generation

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It has become an axiom in education that students learn best when they are actively involved in the learning process. Active involvement can be facilitated by integrating group activities with other learning strategies.   Davis notes that “regardless of subject matter, students working in small groups tend to learn more of what is taught and retain it longer than when the same content is presented in other instructional formats” (Davis, 1993).

While group collaboration on student projects is a common feature in face-to-face instruction, successful implementation is dependent upon a number of elements.  These include planning each stage of group work, demonstrating the relevance of group work course objectives, creating group tasks that require interdependence, structuring these tasks for an equitable division of labor among group members, dealing with student concerns and reservations about group work, and evaluating group members’ performance (McInnerney, 2007; Davis, 1993). Faculty may also need to instruct students in group work skills such as active listening and conflict resolution.

Creating Groups

Conducting group activities in an online environment can be facilitated with proper preparation and design of learning activities and a set of appropriate collaboration tools.   Blackboard, the learning management system used at NIU, offers a number of useful tools that can enhance group collaboration.  Earlier versions of Blackboard included a ‘group creation’ function. Faculty members were able to create single groups and manually assign students to each of them.  However, Blackboard Next Generation, the most recent upgrade, includes a number of expanded group features. While faculty can still create a single group, they are now able to create multiple groups, known as a “group set.”

In addition, there are now three ways to assign students to groups (see Figure 1):

  1. students can still be assigned manually by the faculty
  2. students can self-enroll, determining for themselves what group to join
  3. students can be randomly assigned to groups (random assignment can be helpful in the context of larger class sizes and creating multiple groups)

A faculty member’s preferred method of assignment may reflect their individual teaching philosophy. For example, a faculty member may assign students to groups based on specific criteria, such as prior achievement or level of academic preparation. On the other hand, students may be permitted to self-enroll in cases where students are more familiar with each others’ preparation, abilities and skills. Finally, faculty members may utilize random assignment to ensure maximum heterogeneity as well as to expedite group creation with larger class sizes.

Figure 1

 

 

 

 

Figure 1. Methods of Assigning Students to Groups

 

Group Page (Group Area)

Group members have access to a customizable group page/area, with a collection of collaboration tools to facilitate communication and enhance completion of group activities (see Figure 2).

In addition to group tools available in previous versions of Blackboard  (i.e., chat, virtual classroom, file exchange, email, and discussion board), several new ones have been integrated into Blackboard Next Generation.

  • Group “blogs” allow group members to post their reflections or discuss and analyze group work. Only group members can participate and contribute to their group blogs.
  • A group “wiki” tool allows members to create and contribute to one or more pages of group-related work. Unlike course wikis where all students can read and contribute, group wikis are only accessible by members of a particular group. Group members can create and edit pages, as well as comment on entries.
  • A group “journal” is a self-reflective tool that can be read by faculty and all group members. However, only individual students and faculty can add comments to journal entries.  Students enrolled in groups have ready access to them from the group’s palette below the Course Menu.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Group Page (Group Area)

 

Group Assignments

Another new group feature is the ability of faculty to create “group” assignments. Faculty have the option to assign the same activity to all groups, or create different assignments for each group. Group members can access each new assignment from within their Group page (see Figure 2), work together using a combination of group collaboration tools to communicate, prepare, develop, edit, post, and exchange group documents. After the group assignment is submitted, faculty can review and enter a grade for the group as a whole (although there is the option for individual grades to be adjusted/overwritten where necessary).

Faculty considering integrating group activities to their Blackboard courses may want to register for a new hands-on workshop to be offered by Faculty Development November 2011:  “Facilitating Group Work on Blackboard Next Generation.” Participants will have the opportunity to create a single group as well as group sets, explore different methods of enrolling students, and create group assignments.

For more information on creating groups in Blackboard Next Generation, as well as a description of group tools, view the Blackboard Groups Quick Guide: http://www.blackboard.niu.edu/blackboard/guides/groups.pdf

References

Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Roberts, T. S.,  & McInnerney, J. M. (2007). Seven Problems of Online Group Learning (and Their Solutions). Educational Technology & Society, 10 (4), 257-268.

New Resource for Accessible Teaching

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Faculty can enhance instruction by considering how the design and delivery of their content in a digital and/or web environment can overcome barriers to learning.  For example, one might inquire whether ‘accessibility’ could revolve around how students with visual impairments can access video and multimedia products, or how faculty can ensure that a student who is deaf can access content in their audio podcast.

In the broadest sense, ‘accessibility’ refers to the degree to which a product, device, service, or environment is accessible by as many people as possible. This brief article focuses on resources that promote accessible teaching in both digital (computer) and web (online) settings.  Berners-Lee, founder and Director of the World Wide Web Consortium, defines web accessibility as putting the internet and its services at the disposal of  all individuals, whatever their hardware or software requirements, their network infrastructure, their native language, their cultural background, their geographic location, or their physical or mental aptitudes (Berners-Lee, Hendler, Lassila, 2001). Limited digital and web accessibility disproportionately impacts person with disabilities, who make up approximately 12% of the civilian non-institutionalized population in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). In higher education, 9% of undergraduates are reported to have a disability (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002). Barriers to access include visual (blindness, weak vision, color blindness), auditory (deaf, hard of hearing, high/low frequency hearing loss), mobility (repetitive stress injuries, arthritis, spinal cord injuries, loss of limbs/digits), and cognitive/emotional (learning disabilities, psychiatric/mental health impairments).

Faculty Development is hosting a new website offering resources that promote accessible teaching for the NIU community.  The purpose of this website is to increase awareness of digital and web accessibility issues as well as offer faculty practical assistance in improving the accessibility of their online content and delivery.   The website is organized into several topic areas impacting accessible teaching: Pedagogy, Technology, Legislation, Guidelines, and Learning Management Systems.

Pedagogy -   In examining methods to improve instruction, faculty might consider how an accessible design might be used to expand access to all users, whether a disability exists or not (Brewer, 2003, slide 3). While accessible design of content is commonly believed to benefit only persons with disabilities, Anson, Marangoni, Mills, and Shah (2004, ¶1) report that accessible design as universal design, benefits all users, independent of disability.  Universal Design, according to Danielson (1999), “is the design of instructional materials and activities that makes the learning goals achievable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to hear, see, speak, move, read, write, and a host of other cognitive functions (pp. 2-3).”   According to Scott (2002), “Universal Design Instruction offers a proactive alternative for ensuring access to higher education for college students with disabilities. By providing faculty with a framework and tools for designing inclusive college instruction, the dialogue surrounding college students with disabilities changes from a focus on compliance, accommodations, and nondiscrimination to an emphasis on teaching and learning (¶4).” This section of the website provides resources for faculty wishing to expand their knowledge of Universal Design principles, as well opportunities to view examples of best practices.

Technology – Adaptive technology refers to assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices targeting people with a range of disabilities. A faculty member’s approach to designing and delivering instruction can be better informed by having a greater understanding of how technology is used to enhance accessibility for students with disabilities.   In the context of digital and web accessibility, hardware devices and software products which increase computer access include accessible on/off switches, flexible positioning or mounting of keyboards and monitors, speech input, specialized voice and Braille output devices, screen readers, captioned videos, alternatives to audio output, and text to speech programs. The resources in this section of the website include overviews of adaptive technology and computer applications for persons with disabilities, as well as the training necessary to locate, compare, and implement adaptive/assistive technology.

Legislation –This topic area links to resources describing landmark federal and state legislation promoting expanded accessibility. Although these resources offer both a historical and developmental view of accessibility legislation, more importantly, they provide instruction on implementation. Legislation includes the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and more recently, the Illinois Information Technology Accessibility Act of 2008. Of particular importance is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 amended Sections 508 (1998) which mandates that programs and services be accessible to people with disabilities.

Guidelines – In promoting accessible teaching, it is critical to provide guidelines or standards that support an understanding and implementation of web accessibility.  The guidelines for Section 508 compliance and those provided for web content accessibility by the World Wide Web Consortium provide guidance for web authors in producing accessible webpages (Brewer, slide 20). In addition to reviewing guidelines and standards, users are encouraged to submit their course website for an evaluation of accessibility.

Learning Management Systems– Resources in this topic area are geared toward expanding accessibility for users of the Blackboard learning management system. Resources include a Blackboard Quick Start guide on universal design and accessibility, video sessions in which a user who is blind uses the screen reader ‘JAWS’ to interact with and complete various tasks in Blackboard Learn including submitting an assignment, taking a test, building content and grading students, and even a description of new features in Blackboard 9.1 on accessibility. There are a number of helpful resources for users of Wimba, a synchronous/asynchronous collaboration tool integrated with Blackboard. These include examples of applying accessibility technology, product accessibility templates, and an accessibility best practices guide.

In addition to being structured by topic areas, the teaching accessibility resources website is also organized by links to NIU-based resources, NIU support units, and general resources not affiliated with NIU.  Resources are provided in the form of organization/informational websites, blogs, videos, pdf documents, PowerPoint presentations, and even an archived Wimba session.  A principal feature of this website is the ongoing modification of content, with the addition of newly identified resources that become available, while outdated or inactive websites are removed.  In addition, it is anticipated that new resources, in the form of brief practical tutorials, will be developed and added to further enhance faculty skills in expanding accessibility for teaching. Users are invited to suggest additional resources not currently featured. Faculty are welcome to explore the many resources at: http://www.niu.edu/facdev/resources/accessibility.

References

Anson, D, Marangoini, R., Mills, K., & Shah, L. (2004). The Benefit of Accessible Design for Able-Bodied Users of the World Wide Web. Assistive Technology Research Institute at Misericordia University.  Retrieved  on September 20, 2010 from http://atri.misericordia.edu/Papers/Web_Accessibility.php

Berners-Lee, T., Hendler, J., & Lassila. O. (2001). The Semantic Web. Scientific American, 2001 May 284 5:34-43.

Brewer, J. (2003). Online Overview of the Web Accessibility Initiative. Retrieved from September 29, 2010, from http://www.w3.org/Talks/WAI-Intro/Overview.html

National Center for Education Statistics (2002). Profile of Undergraduates in U.S. Postsecondary Institutions: 1999-2000 Statistical Analysis Report.  U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, NCES 2002-168.

Scott, S. (2002). Universal Design for Instruction Fact Sheet. Retrieved on September 21, 2010 from:

http://www.facultyware.uconn.edu/files/udi2_fact_sheet.pdf

United States Census Bureau, Selected Social Characteristics in the United States: 2009, Retrieved on September 21, 2010 from: http://fastfacts.census.gov/servlet/ADPTable?_bm=y&-geo_id=01000US&-ds_name=ACS_2009_1YR_G00_&-_lang=en&-_caller=geoselect&-format=

What is Universal Design (UD)? (2008). Retrieved on November 1, 2010 from: http://www.universaldesign.org/universaldesign1.htm

Screencasts as a Pedagogical Tool

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Have you considered developing a brief computer-based tutorial as a means to extend course content to students who would like to view complex lab demonstrations again or for any students who cannot attend a particular classroom session to review what was demonstrated?  If so, you may
Screencasting as a Pedagogical Tool
consider developing computer-based tutorials or ‘screencasts’ that can be viewed by students whenever and however many times they need for both initial learning and subsequent review.

Screencasting is a digital recording of a computer screen’s sequence of actions. The resulting file is encoded into a format similar to video. With an accompanying voice narration or background audio from a program, screencasts can be ideal for developing on-screen tutorials and distributed for easy viewing in an online setting. As with other computer techniques, screencasting is valued for its support of self-paced learning, just-in-time instruction, and 24/7 access.

Screencasts can be designed to engage learners through a well-conceived sequence of planned activities and assignments.  For example, faculty can organize instruction by alternating screencast episodes with assignments students must complete before moving on to the next episode. When a screencast is well-designed, students can feel they are sitting with the faculty while viewing and hearing a sequence of instructional steps. Students can follow-up via email or face-to-face with questions for further clarification, if necessary.

There are a number of software products available for developing screencasts, ranging from free downloadable programs (such as Jing or Screenr) with limited features, to fee-based products (such as Camtasia or ScreenFlow) offering a host of editing options such as zooming and text captioning.

Screencasts have been applied in a number of innovative ways in higher education including capturing lectures, conducting website tours, software and database training, demonstrating library functions, and providing feedback to students. Regarding feedback, students can benefit greatly as faculty can review portions of students’ submitted assignments on-screen, highlight specific areas of text, and give his or her audio feedback on the students’ assignments. Students can view the recorded feedback at their convenience and follow-up with questions via email or face-to-face.  Faculty can also assign students to develop their own screencast episodes for certain course activities.

Students can benefit from screencasts whether they are used for initial/follow-up instruction, as reference when needed, or for review for an upcoming exam.

The duration of screencasts can range from just a few minutes for limited instruction to an hour or longer for a captured lecture. Examples of screencasts can be viewed from the NIU Blackboard Tutorials website at: http://blackboardtutorials.niu.edu/category/view-all. Examples were created using Jing: http://www.jingproject.com

The Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center is offering two screencasting workshops during the Spring 2010 semester. "Quick and Simple Creation of Educational Tutorials" is offered on April 13, 2010. This hands-on workshop will introduce the free Jing screencasting tool and explore several practical applications for implementing simple educational tutorials in the classroom.  Faculty and staff can gain familiarity with the more advanced "Screencasting: Design, Development, and Delivery," offered on March 16, 2010. Visit the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center web site at http://www.niu.edu/facdev to register for these workshops.

Resources

Educause Learning Initiative. (n.d.).  7 Things You Should Know About Screencasting. Retrieved on February 17, 2010 from http://www.educause.edu/ELI/7ThingsYouShouldKnowAboutScree/156815

Mobile Learning Trends in Higher Education

While online instruction has been an increasingly common component of the university environment for several years, a recent innovation has been making its presence felt in higher education. Advances in computer and communication technologies resulted in the development of portable digital devices that change pedagogical possibilities. Cell phones, personal digital assistants, netbooks, iPods, digital still and video cameras, MP3 players, GPS, and portable e-books enhance establishing and participating in online communities of learners. The pedagogical application of these devices has lead to the development of ‘Mobile Learning’, a rapidly expanding area of instruction. According to Quinn (2000), Mobile Learning is defined as “the intersection of mobile computing (the application of small, portable, and wireless computing and communication devices) and e-learning (learning facilitated and supported through the use of information and communications technology) (para. 8).” Quinn predicted mobile learning would one day provide learning that was truly independent of time and place and facilitated by portable computers capable of providing rich interactivity, total connectivity, and powerful processing.

Some essential features of Mobile Learning are that it is dynamic, operates in real-time, is collaborative, is comprehensive, provides multiple paths for learning, and aids in building learning communities forged by participants (Leung & Chan, 2003). Indeed, the emphasis in Mobile Learning is placed on the interaction between learners/instructors/content and the technology used. This suggests to some investigators that learning is a social process (Sharples, Taylor, & Vavoula, 2007). For example, users can post content and have it instantly disseminated to a community of learners, who in turn, review the content, provide feedback, suggest refinements, and collaborate in team or group activities to an unprecedented degree.

A recent survey of U.S. adults reveals a significant increase in the use of mobile devices to access online sources (Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, 2009). Thirty-two percent of Americans have used a cell phone or Smartphone to access the internet for emailing, instant messaging, or seeking information, which is an increase of one-third since 2007. The findings also reveal a 73 percent increase in Americans using mobile devices to access the internet.

Some academic institutions have begun incorporating mobile devices in the development of curriculum for both face-to-face and online instruction. Potential uses of mobile devices in higher education include providing recordings of entire lectures, textbook materials, journals, songs, music, novels, and radio programs to students via podcasts. These devices are used to access multimedia materials, produce student presentations, assignments and projects, facilitate field studies, and conduct tutor/peer/self-evaluation (Nie, 2006). Professional organizations have also been observed using mobile devices to facilitate their tasks and activities. For example, public health workers in developing countries are increasingly collecting health information with PDAs rather than with the traditional paper and pencil method for a speedier dissemination of data.

Collaboration with Mobile Devices was a featured topic in the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center sponsored ‘Teaching with Technology Institute’, held in June of 2009. Faculty Development is continuing to pursue an interest in current pedagogical and technological advancements by developing workshops in mobile learning. Please check the Faculty Development website to learn more information as well as new offerings in this area.

References

Leung, C.H., Chang, Y.Y. (2003).  Mobile Learning: A New Paradigm in Electronic Learning. Proceedings of the
3rd IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies (ICALT’03)

Nie, M. The potential use of mobile/handheld devices, audio/podcasting material in higher education.  Retrieved from http://www2.le.ac.uk/projects/impala/presentations/Berlin/The%20Potential%20Use%20of%20Mobile%20Devices%20in%20Higher%20Education

Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.  Mobile internet use increases sharply in 2009 as more than half of all Americans have gotten online by some wireless means Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/Press-Releases/2009/Mobile-internet-use.aspx

Quinn, C.  mLearning. Mobile, Wireless, In-Your-Pocket Learning. Linezine. Fall2000. Retrieved from http://www.linezine.com/2.1/features/cqmmwiyp.htm.

Sharples, M., Taylor, J., & Vavoula, G. (2007) A theory of learning for the mobile age. In R. Andrews and C. Haythornthwaite (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of elearning Research (pp. 221-247). London: Sage.

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