Monday, March 21, 2011

VoiceThread Universal: Support for Screenreaders

Three and a half years ago I began using VoiceThread to support my students' learning.  I quickly began to see how VoiceThread supports more learners than traditional text-based discussion forums.  Studetnts are given options to contribute through voice, video or text -- supporting more learning preferences and fostering more emotional, "off the cuff" reflections that are typically edited out when communicating through text alone.  It also gave me a quick and easy way to communicate with my students through voice and video -- providing personalized, helpful and supportive feedback without the hurt feelings that text-based communications can result in.

I can't remember when exactly but soon after I learned that VoiceThread did not support the use of screen readers, a type of accessible technology used by blind students to navigate and understand the electronic content on their screen.  I remember sharing this concern with Ben Papell and Steve Muth, the co-founders, more than three years ago.  I didn't stop using VoiceThread, however, because I was seeing its potential to improve my online students' learning experiences and I wasn't going to let that go.  Instead, I started surveying my students and asking for their feedback about how and why VoiceThread was different and beneficial as a learning environment.  The results were staggering to me.  I also saw other inspirational uses of VoiceThread by non-traditional learners, like the video conversation between deaf students facilitated by Rosemary Stifter.  I witnessed my own dyslexic students use the video commenting feature and contribute amazing insights -- the same students who are commonly perceived as "failures" in distance learning classes built exclusively around text-based discussion boards. 

These experiences made me aware of how frequently educators throw the baby out with the bathwater when they discover a tool is not fully 508 compliant.  While I wholeheartedly support the spirit of web accessibility, if we refuse our obligation to explore and experiment with new tools that are not compliant, how will we discover which ones provide valuable opportunities to empower more learners (while aren't yet ready for ALL learners?).

This week, VoiceThread is unveiling VoiceThread Universal, a version of VoiceThread that is accessible to screen readers.  The official announcement from VoiceThread should go out Tuesday morning (tomorrow).  I am elated and wish to applaud the VoiceThread team for their hard work and dedication to making their tool more accessible to more learners than any other online tool I've ever used.  You can take a peek at the new VoiceThread Universal here. More bells and whistles are coming...but, for now, our students who rely upon screenreaders can now effectively navigate a VoiceThread -- click play, listen to comments, record their own -- and learn in community. They now will have the experience of listening to the voices of their peers describe the visual media on each VoiceThread slide, rather than a mechanical voice read an alt-description of an image on their screen.  I have not tried the interface out myself with a screen reader but I'd really love to hear some feedback and thoughts from any of you who may be able/willing to do so.   

Finally, I have one final thought about this journey (which will continue, rather than end, here).  I frequently hear educators state that we (faculty, administrators, staff -- all of "us") should ban technologies that aren't accessible to prove a "point" about the importance of 508 compliance in the age of online technologies.  I'd like to suggest a different path.  I believe, alternatively, we need to see ourselves as stakeholders in a very important conversation about accessibility.  We are advocates for our students.  Most developers of social media tools don't view their jobs in this context -- it's our job to educate them, show them the value of their tools in student learning, and encourage them to develop accessible interfaces (sometimes even explain what that means exactly).  We need to initiate and guide this conversation.  The strong-arm approach won't work here.  These tools are not created "for education," yet we know many web-based tools frequently hold tremendous value for crafting relevant learning experiences for our students.  This is a conversation that we need to participate in, follow up on, and make a priority in our professional endeavors.  I hope you'll join me in this conversation and share your own success stories along the way.
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