Workshopping Inclusion: Canvas and Accessibility

“Canvas Accessibility” Workshop Conversation — Recorded October 29th, 2021.


SARAH: Welcome, friends, thank you for being a part of our faculty workshop series. This workshop is dedicated to the idea of Canvas accessibility, but we’ll also talk a lot about the concept of accessibility and where we think it might come into play in your pedagogy.

RYAN: So we have three major takeaways for this session.

The first is to recognize that accessibility is for all learners. So we’ll touch on aspects of universal design for learning, as well as broadening our understanding of what accessibility means in general.

Our second takeaway is to recognize that accessibility is a theological invitation. So what does it look like to expand what it means to be a theological learner? And how does our particular location at a school of theology call us to seek justice in this arena?

And our third takeaway is to recognize that accessibility is already a part of canvas. Built into the learning system is a way to check for accessibility needs on your class site, as well as some general guidelines from canvas to ensure that all learners succeed.

So first, accessibility, what is it? Well, let’s start with what it’s not. Accessibility is not a list of specifications. You don’t need to ask what do I need to do to check off this box in order to satisfy legal requirements and Department of Accessibility Services requests? Rather, accessibility is about establishing a mindset, an approach that considers everyone that you teach and focuses on variations of abilities.

Next, accessibility asks that we be flexible so we don’t always know what our students are going through. Not everyone is willing to share these things even with their peers, much less with their professors. So having the flexibility in your course designed to adjust to every student’s needs and strengths is essential. And Sarah will cover some concrete examples of how to implement these small changes that make a huge difference.

And finally, accessibility cannot be an afterthought. It’s an approach to re-prioritize not just core structure and design, but to change how you see your students and what that means for your teaching.

So let’s take a moment now and do a thought exercise together on accessibility. I want you to think about a student. They could be an abstract student or someone you’ve taught recently. Outside of your classroom, what do you think theological education looks like for them? What are some particular contexts and commitments outside of Candler that the student has, and how does this shape their seminary experience?

Sarah, do you have someone in mind?

SARAH: I do, actually. There are two different students that I had in mind there in my class this semester.

One of them is a single mom who has a middle school aged child who has a full time job and has really focused her entire life on getting through seminary, despite those things. She has a lot of commitments outside of class. And that’s not even speaking to her vocational development, which is a complicated thing in her denomination. So she’s carrying a lot right now. And it’s been really helpful for her to see the space of the classroom as a respite in some ways from everything else that’s going on around in her life. But it’s not always easy for her to find that space.

The second is a student who has a young child, two young children, and he spent this semester being a stay at home parent for one of them and also working on another full time job with commitments and job responsibilities that often take away. A lot of the time he would normally have spent preparing for class.

And so I spent a lot of time this semester really thinking critically about how to make the space of the classroom a space that serves their needs as well as the needs of the other students in my class, some of whom are only students and have just left college. So the whole spectrum is really represented in that class this year.

RYAN: Yeah, those are great examples of the characteristics that we assume of our theological learners really do have implications on how we shape our pedagogical practices. And it sounds like you have shifted your classroom to be a space of not only education and academics, but respite and information and just a place where you can maximize theological education.

And so I want to take this thought exercise and move us into some theological considerations.

So the first is expanding the theological classroom. Accessibility invites us to expand what we think about the theological classroom, and it asks us to rethink who our theological learners are. What do we assume about them and what do we want them to get out of our classes?

Expanding the classroom means that we must address varying and diverse abilities in our pedagogy. In the spring of 2019, student leaders, staff and faculty across Candler advocated for a community climate assessment. This assessment was to examine how commitments to diversity and accessibility actually impacted our community. So I encourage you to look at this assessment and its recommendations to the faculty and administration. And if you don’t already have it, I will be happy to send it to you. Our role in creating accessible and inclusive learning environments is essential as we explore a justice framework as a school of theology.

And a third theological consideration is that it is an invitation to communion. When we create equal opportunity among theological learners, we are embodying communion, a common union, a shared moment where both faculty and student are impacted by the spirit of God.

SARAH: Thanks, Ryan. I think as we move into some of the practicalities of how to make our courses more accessible, it’s really important to take the
theological themes that Ryan has invited us to consider and also think critically about the role that disability plays in our classrooms and at the School of Theology.

Jay Dolmage has this wonderful article that’s referenced here on the screen, and he argues that disability is central to higher education, mostly because building more inclusive schools and classrooms actually allows better education for all. A key facet of how to make that function in your classroom is a framework universal design for learning. I bet many of you have heard about universal design for learning. It’s a framework for curriculum development that aims to give all students equal opportunities and access to the learning that happens in your classroom. This includes instructional goals, methods, materials and assessments in particular that work for as many students as possible. There are three core components to universal design for learning, and those are on your screen here, multiple means of engagement, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of representation. And you can see all of those elements on this slide.

And another fabulous quote from Dolmage to just really ponder here for a minute is that universal design isn’t about buildings, it’s about building – building community, building better pedagogy, and building opportunities for student agency. And as we move into some of the practicalities of this, I want you to keep that idea in mind that all of these accessibility things, like Ryan said, aren’t a checklist. They’re really an invitation to building better connections between you and your students, between your students and their contexts, and between the students in the world.

So let’s break down each of these individual elements.

The first is having multiple means of engagement. This is the why of what’s happening in your classrooms. It involves helping students find motivation and cultivate persistence. This is about meeting students where they are and seeing them as whole, people that bring all kinds of things in your classroom space. This involves providing options for self-regulation, opportunities for cultivating skills of self assessment and for cultivating opportunities for personal reflection. There are lots of ways that you can consider doing that, and I’m going to say in a minute a couple of those, but I think the key here is thinking critically about how you can use an assessment mode that’s varied over the course of your semester. Are you asking students always to do the same thing and in the same format? If so, that’s going to leave a lot of students by the wayside.

So let’s look at a couple of specific examples from our faculty these past few semesters. The first is a class that Alison Greene does on contemporary American religious culture. She has an amazing project where she has students read Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne as part of her course requirements. After they read that book, they are asked to identify a contemporary cultural item, an object, a film, a meme. The sky is the limit for her. And she asks them to analyze that contemporary object’s meaning as it’s connected to Jesus and John Wayne. The idea is for students to think of a cultural item that encourages them to think about real world life implications of the themes of the course in general and of this particular text in particular, she says. Maybe you could choose something around gender in evangelicalism or something about resistance to that frame. And the idea here, again, is that it’s asking students to take class concepts and apply them to actual objects in their real world experience.

Susan Reynolds, practical theology intro class is a similar kind of assignment. She has students read an essay on communicating a dangerous memory and M. Shawn Copeland’s Memory, Black Lives Matter and theologians. And as part of this, she asks students to write about a dangerous memory of their own. She asked them about specific experiences that compelled them to study theology or that has indelibly shaped the way that they approach their work. She asked them what theological questions did this memory raise for you and is there in some ways a tie between this ancestral memory or national belonging or what are you doing theology for? It’s a fabulous way to connect those themes of practical theology to the lived experience and inspirational formative moments that our students bring into the classroom space and asking them to name that specifically in connection to class material.

A slightly more practical example is what Kyle Lambelet does in his skill training assignment, which is part of his political organizing course. The course examines practices of Christian Witness and in particular, ask students to provide documentation for communities wanting to do specific organizing practices. So part of what he’s invited them to do is to create a workshop handout that helps future organize, organize in communities, do a particular skill exercise like a surgical procedure, for example. And he actually is working right now with the Candler Foundry to think about ways that these skill building exercises can find a wider audience beyond the classroom space at Candler. All of these practices, these types of assessments, work to help reduce anxiety and increase engagement and motivation by asking students why they’re here and why they want to learn what they’re learning. Hopefully these assessments produce students who are purposeful and motivated.

After our understanding of engagement, the second sort of leg of the universal design for learning component is representation, and we’re going to be focusing particularly on representation on modes of delivery. The what’s the content of the learning in your classroom space? And the question here is, are you presenting information in a variety of ways while making a connection between those pieces of material? Are you only using text words? Have you considered graphs, charts, images, videos, demonstrations, Hands-On activities? And are the representations of this learning material actually relevant to your students contexts? This is an invitation for us to avoid one size fits all learning paths. Is it possible to give choices for your students and how they access information and possible opportunities, many different opportunities for students to show mastery of this kind of information?

So let’s look at some specific examples of the classroom space experience rather than assessment for this particular kind of representation. And for the first example, I’d love you to hear a little bit more about the way Beth Corrie has brought the practice of deliberative pedagogy into her classroom. Deliberative pedagogy is a specific set of teaching practices inspired by the goals of deliberation and deliberative democracy. These very scaffolded scripted classroom exercises teach students to consider viewpoints different from their own. It invites them to reflect on what their own views might leave out or give up. And most importantly, it invites them to move beyond either or thinking to integrate a variety of perspectives into new approaches that do not accept the simple us versus them position. Over the course of that particular classroom experience, students will be asked to embody different perspectives on a particular topic and conclude with some really reflective exercises on them as practitioners thinking about ways the exercises has invited them to move beyond the way they began to enter this particular subject.

Similarly, but a little bit different, you can consider roles that the ways, like a flipped classroom experience could invite your students to embody different ways of learning particular ideas. So, for example, in my classes on medieval theology, we spend one day of our week doing a fair bit of work on content, download, tell them about monastic practices. I tell them about medieval women. But on Thursdays I have them do close reading exercises, which are a core component of every history class. But I ask them to do that work through the lens of a contemporary reading practice. For example, I give them a whole series of Carolingian thinkers and I give them texts from each of these Carolingian thinkers like Alcuin and Duoda and Charlemagne and Einhard. But instead of asking them to report on those in a traditional format, I ask them to create Twitter profiles for each of these folks. I asked them to create a series of tweets with hashtags and memes related to that particular Carolingian thinker. And just the invitation to think in a different frame produces some of the most insightful close reading that I’ve seen at my time in my time at Candler. So close reading, but in a creative visual format can invite students to use the space of the classroom to really get into the content that we provided and apply it in a new and interesting way.

All of these opportunities for using the physical space of the classroom or virtual spaces, the classroom in a way that invites students to engage material in positive redundancy. So the idea here is we’re maximizing the chance that takeaways will actually be taken away by different students because we presented the material in multiple ways. Not everybody learned through a download of information, through a lecture. Sometimes a hands on activity can provide that learning experience that’s much more formative and meaningful. None of this is one size fits all, and it produces students that we hope are resourceful and knowledgeable in creative ways.

Our last leg of universal design for learning is action and expression. This is the how of learning. Are there different ways to work through the information that you provide? Are you helping students figure out how to write, how to demonstrate a skill? And can you provide tools for them to actually learn how to do this in the space of the classroom, one that we often forget? Are there options for physical action, expression and communication? Are you inviting students to think of themselves as whole, people who in assessment mode and in classroom spaces engage more than just their intellectual capacity? Are you asking students what skills are relevant to their future vocations that are also connected to your field? How is what you teach relevant to the world at large?

So let’s look at some specific examples of faculty engaging this material in meaningful ways.

We have several faculty this semester and in previous semesters who have taken the scholar blog option to help students see the relevance of the content of the class and translate that class content to a wider audience. The Scholar blog is Emory’s proprietary version of WordPress. So it’s a basic WordPress site. It gives students a practical skill of learning how to edit wysiwyg site, which all of them will have to do in the future of this digital world. But it’s also asking them to think about how to talk about what they’re learning in class, in a digital public environment.

So, for example, Amy Valdez-Barker’s Class on World Methodism talks about specific current UMC issues, and it’s designed to empower the content of this class to be a part of upcoming general conferences, empowering lay leaders and church leaders to think about the issues that are currently being talked about in this class, but shouldn’t be limited to the scope of this class. Ellen Ott Marshall had a slightly different take on this, where she had her doctoral seminar make its final papers a digital scholarship publishing opportunity, by reframing those papers in a blog format and turning it into a piece of formal public scholarship that was designed for these doctoral students’ CVs. It was a really great invitation to connection and public scholarship, all within the frame of the class itself. Lahronda Little’s class this semester is also using as an actual pastoral care blog where students process materials and things they’re going through in that class.

Another example that’s a little bit less process oriented but is a little bit practical is thinking about multiple response modes for assessments. What would it mean to instead of asking students to respond to regular IDs, instead say, hey, here’s a sample that you might see on a Twitter feed or on your Facebook feed. Respond to Aunt Karen on this Facebook feed and tell me why she’s wrong in what she understands Judaism to be or why she’s wrong and what she understands Hagiography to be. Just the invitation to a slightly different mode of expressing what they’ve learned gives students the agency and the creativity and the invitation to that creativity to take the work of your class and put it into words that are meaningful to them and their contexts. One thing I’ve done in my own class, and it’s found really, really, really interesting, is that instead of asking students to put certain things on a timeline, I’ve said, what are the five most important dates you’ve learned in this semester and why do you think those are the most important? So, again, all of these are activities are asking you to think a little bit creatively. But in doing so, you can actually provide students with an opportunity for thinking strategically and with a goal in mind. Hopefully, all of these assessment modes give students the opportunity to manage information and resources in a way that’s relevant to their own lives.

All of this is integrating a lot of digital scholarship ideas, and that’s intentional because the technology side of what we’re talking about is important as much as we’re talking about the pedagogy, multimodal assignments as in assignments, which asks students to learn certain materials and multiple ways, means that students will work with new material and they will learn that material more effectively because they’ve engaged it in multiple media. One of my favorite books, intentional tech, that you see on your screen here talks a lot about thin slices of learning. How can we ask our students not just to produce something, but to really make the process of learning and the formational sides of learning visible to you as an instructor? One fabulous example that Bruff gives an example of is a design school where students were asked to design a storefront window and the faculty person said for years, I would say I would judge these these windows on their effectiveness. And they’re the way that she felt they had accomplished their particular goals. But one semester she asked them just to write a paper explaining the choices they made that accompanied that creative activity and that opened her eyes. The more we understand about what and how our students are learning, the more responsive we can be to their learning needs. It makes something a formative assessment where we see how they process the material in addition to the ultimate product of their thinking. And it really helps students think critically and value the formative aspects of her education and not focus so much on that one final project that they get a grade on.

We’ve talked a lot in the abstract about the role of accessibility, especially in a theological institution. We also talked some about how the pedagogy of your live classroom space and your assessments can impact students. Now we’re going to move to some really practical Hands-On activities related to Canvas, all of which can help all learners, but can also particularly help and impact the experience of students who have accessibility concerns. The first thing I want to say, and I hope you hold on to if you remember none of these other details is simplicity helps everyone. A streamlined organization to your canvas site can help screen readers for students with visual issues, but also help students of all types access content. Keeping things simple and direct and chunking information into segments really can be helpful.

So the first step to that is taking your left hand navigation, which I’ve circled expertly over here on the side to be much more straightforward and streamlined. You don’t need to have every single thing out here on the left hand side of your page. The other piece is to really stream streamline your particular homepage. As you can see on this homepage, we’ve got all the crucial bits of information, my name, ways to access the class, links to library course reserves and links to student support. We also think that chunking can be particularly helpful, as you think of ways to organize the modular structure of your class.

Adding things like modules and headings within modules can really again help screen readers, but also help students access information. What do I need if I’m going back to look for things from Tuesday when we’ve got Tuesdays class recording right here and the slides from that class, we also have assignments that are built into the modules. So the modules become kind of a chronological digital syllabus that has all the things students will need when they go back to look at your classes thinking. We’ll talk a little bit later about recordings and accessibility of recordings, but I highly recommend you make recordings of the class available for anyone to see. It’s amazing how many of our students through covid said specifically that having recordings made their life a little bit less stressful. They knew if they missed something in class or in their notes, they could go back to that day and access it. So organizing this material and making material available is one of the best things you can do. Try to avoid having lots and lots of clicks to get to things. And if you have a to do list like I do here, make sure you chunk that content with headers so that screen readers can organize the material for your learners.

One of the things that I like to do is also to hyperlink things. But one of the dangers with hyperlinking is that sometimes these links get broken, especially if you copied over content from a previous site. So one of the things you might not know about in your settings is a really handy tool called validate links in content. When you click on this, it will run a process by which it tests all of the links in your site and it’ll tell you which ones are broken. This is much better to do before your semester starts than waiting for your students to say, hey, Dr. Bogue, that whole thing that you linked on that. So it’s gone. I don’t know what’s going on with that or worse, having them not tell you when that actually happens and you get. A class of students have had access to something that they haven’t had access to for a long time. In addition to the course length validator, there’s also a really interesting thing that’s been added to campus recently. And we’ll see here they found 10 broken links. They’re there on the Trump proclamation that I used to talk about Thomas Becket, it no longer exists because it’s not on the White site.

The other piece of actual tools that you can use inside canvas are an accessibility check. What this does is it it works through all of the material in your site and things critically about whether or not it’s visible to screen readers, it organizes it by easiest to fix errors only or all issues, and it breaks it down to suggestions and actual errors. So in a couple of my tables that I used for the to do list, I didn’t have table headers, which meant they weren’t organized in a way that a screen reader or a student who has processing issues would have abilities to access it. It also noted several places where the alternative text to my images was just the name of the file, which isn’t the same as an alternative text setting. So every time you’ve got images, make sure you’ve got alternative text in there as well.

The other thing I want to show you as you think about visual content is audio visual content. If possible, it is best practice to always have everything that you have transcribed so that there is an accessible way for students to read captions. This is useful for people who have auditory processing disorder, as people who are English as a second language learners and people like me who just don’t focus unless there is text on. I watch all my Netflix, all my Hulu and all my Amazon with subtitles on because that’s how I learned to focus. So you may be daunted by the option of having to to actually caption all of your material. No worries. Studio Canvas studio over here on the left hand side of the page has the option of capturing anything you’ve provided. So all you have to do is add a new piece of material. You can also record natively inside studio. Both of those options are up here on the top right corner of your screen. But if you would like to upload something, which is usually what I’ve done, a recording, I made a zoom or something else like that, all you have to do is upload that material. And then once you’re in there, you have the option to create captions or to manage existing captions. In this case, I had actually had studio process these captions and you can go through and actually edit those captions, much like you can do in the zoom transcription window.

The last bit that we wanted to talk to you about is the ability to do live transcriptions in Zoom. You may have known for a long time that Zoom would would provide transcriptions after recordings are processed. Now, there’s actually an option in your resume window to click live transcript and an A.I. interpreter will live transcript your classes as they’re happening. Of course, as with any material, not going to be perfect. And that’s OK. You can actually go back and edit that later on, as you do with any other Zoom transcript. But again, the ability to have that option available to a student in your class is a really, really great gift. The good news about this, too, is that once you turn on live transcription in the Zoom room, students can opt into or out of that service so it won’t distract students for whom subtitles really are distracting.

Thank you so much for thinking about accessibility with us. Thank you for being the kind of faculty person who’s interested in the experience that students have in your classroom space and for being open to the ways that you might make your classroom space more accessible and inviting to students. We hope that you will be in touch with us if you have questions about the content of this lecture. Ryan and I are available at any time at candlerdigitallearning [at] emory [dot] edu. We’d love to talk both big picture about the goals of accessibility that we have in theological education or about the specifics of your class. Thanks so much for joining us.

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