Supporting All Learners: Leading Our Way Through a Culture of Fear

As an online college instructor, I am familiar with the legal requirements associated with section 508 of the American with Disabilities Act. In accordance with the law, the web-based content within an online course offered by an educational institution that receives federal funding must be “accessible” to all students, regardless of their disability.

I fully support this objective. But in our quest to ensure compliance of this policy, I wonder if we are simulatenously building barriers to innovation at a time when the greatest opportunities are just an arm’s reach away. This blog post reflects on what I’ve learned about accessibility throughout my ten years of college teaching experience — honestly and openly.

As a faculty member, I understand that accessibility refers to the content and environments that my students engage with in my classes. In essence, when I design my courses I must ensure that the videos I create, as well as those I link my students to, must be captioned or transcribed (depending on whether the content is instructional or merely an announcement or “talking head”). That is clear to me. If I have audio files integrated into my courses, they must be accompanied with transcripts too. And visual content, like images and videos, must be shared in accordance with text descriptions so students who are blind and rely solely upon a screenreader to navigate the content on their screen will have access to understanding the content communicated visually through the image.

These elements are critical in order for a course to comply with the law or, more importantly, for the needs of students who are blind and deaf to be able to access the course and learn. I fully support that mission. But there are deeper layers to this topic that concern me.

First, video technologies have revolutionized our society in recent years. Today, we can arguably learn about anything on YouTube — and much of the video content available there for free, even from a mobile phone, is simply outstanding. Yet, despite the fact that YouTube offers a very simple process for closed captioning videos, very little of the content is accessible. In order for me to legally utilize this content in my class, I must add captions to the videos which, first, is immensely time consuming and, secondly, cannot be done from within YouTube because creating captions is only an available to the user who uploaded the video. An option is a site called Universal Subtitles, which is a community-based effort to increase the translation and captioning of online videos through a volunteer-based system — or you can do it yourself. Simply enter the url of a video from YouTube, and begin to create a transcript on this site by manually listening to the words and typing them into their caption builder, a close captioned version of the video is created.

As noted earlier, if I create my own videos and upload them to YouTube, captioning is available as long as I can also upload a transcript into YouTube — it’s the transcript that takes so long to produce. Click here to view a video demonstrating how to add captions to a video in YouTube. What I don’t quite comprehend is why, if accessibility is truly a priority, aren’t faculty provided with a copy of Dragon Dictation to streamline this process and assist us creating our own video captions? Or why isn’t there a (grant-funded?) service extended clearly and openly to all educators that provides us with, for example, a simple email address to send a video link to and have the transcript be send back to us within a designated time period, say 48 hours? Faculty need more support than they currently receive in order for accessibility laws to be complied with.

When Innovation Violates Policy

In 2007, I began using VoiceThread in my online classes. I made the decision based upon my concerns that my online art history students weren’t able to meet the learning objectives of the course when I was relying solely upon the tools in my course management system (which, at the time, was basically a discussion forum that didn’t allow me to integrate images in any way other than linking out to online versions). When teaching a visual discipline an instructor needs, well, a visually-oriented environment and Blackboard simply failed in that area.

I was immediately thrilled with the learning results I was witnessing in VoiceThread — my students were engaging with images, actually annotating on them (circling examples of visual terms), and leaving voice comments that were synched to these “Doodles” (which is what VoiceThread refers to them as). Students responded favorably to VoiceThread as well — an in more areas than just visual learning. In fact, when I surveyed 101 online students (and received an 88% response rate), 80% of the students agreed that VoiceThread increased their sense that they were part of a community (which they agreed increases their motivation), 94% of students agreed that hearing my voice (in my comments and feedback) increased the sense that I was actively present in their learning environment and 98% agreed that my video comments produced the same results. These were impressive statistics that floored me and inspired me to see “online learning” in an entirely new way — warm, rich, and community-oriented.

However, not everyone was so supportive of my use of VoiceThread. I knew early on that there were accessibility concerns with it, as VoiceThread is built in a flash-based wrapper which does not support screenreaders used by blind students. Despite these concerns, I kept using it because I knew it was important and I knew it offered a much more effective learning environment to most of my students than the dry, text-based discussion forums inside my course management system. I knew I was violating policy and when I shared the tool with others and discussed the impressive outcomes I was finding, most other faculty and administrators pushed it away, deeming it “inaccessible” and a violation of legal policy. After offering to present a workshop to faculty about how I was using VoiceThread, I was scorned and warned not to proceed. Interestingly, one of VoiceThread’s first university-wide adoptions came from Gallaudet University, which serves deaf students. Why? Because in VoiceThread, users can leave video comments, opening up opportunities to have online conversations in sign language.

A Culture of Fear Prevents Change

This is the heart of the problem. In education, most of us have acquired a mindset that promotes the enforcement of policy — at all cost. As a result, we have done an outstanding job of creating a culture of fear that directly undercuts experimentation and innovation in the field of teaching and learning — which, as we continue down the corridor of the 21st century, is desperately needed. Very often, faculty are afraid of using new tools because they realize they may be inaccessible and they may be violating policy.

As I continued to experiment with VoiceThread I learned some other very empowering and unexpected things about teaching with video. When students are granted choices in how they express themselves (VoiceThread gives each student the option to comment in text, voice, or video), versus being forced to read and write everything (remember, text is the most accessible type of content as it can be read by a deaf student and a blind student using a screenreader), some magical results surface. I keenly remember a student who I will call Megan. Early in the semester, Megan sent me a video email using an emerging tool called EyeJot. When I opened the email, I watched her speak to me in a recorded webcam message. She shared that she was taking my class online because she was very ill and preparing for a major surgery. She also apologized for sending the video message, as opposed to a “normal” email, and went on to explain that she is severely dyslexic and conveying her ideas in writing is very difficult for her. In the following weeks, Megan was one of the few students in my class who elected to use the video comments in our VoiceThread activities. I remember being moved to tears as I listened to her deeply reflective comments (which were also heard by her peers). She sent me more messages that semester, sharing with me that she was learning more in my class than she had ever learned in another class because she wasn’t required to read and write everything. I began to see the concept of “accessibility” in an entirely new light and think about all my online students who struggle in text-dominated learning environments.

As I moved forward with my use of VoiceThread I developed a relationship with the company that was initiated by the VoiceThread team upon seeing some of the content I had created with their tool. They wrote to me, “Wow, great stuff!” I wrote back, “Great tool! But…did you know it’s not accessible to students who are blind?” And that’s how it began — a back and forth dialogue, a partnership between me, a single faculty member with a vision, and a web 2.0 start-up company.

Over the next three years, we had phone conversations and continued to prod for a screen-reader friendly environment. VoiceThread was responsive and, within a year, hired an accessibility specialist to work with them to develop a solution. And in the spring of 2010, it was unveiled — VoiceThread Universal, a “back door” to all the VoiceThreads you create that provides access to the same content (and the ability to comment) within an html environment.

Education Needs Leaders, Not Managers

The moral of the story is that 21st century education needs to continue to meet the needs of all learners. But we must realize the power that technology holds to support the needs of students with cognitive disorders like dyslexia and dysgraphia — who are more likely to attend community colleges.   Today, our options for achieving accessible learning environments are not the same as they were twenty, ten, even five years ago. Regardless of what your role is in education today, you must lead, rather than manage. According to Hughes (2009), “Managers focus on compliance with existing procedures, leaders take a step back and ask why…” (p. 631). We must embrace teaching as a practice which demands us to embrace risk taking, experimentation and sharing of successes and failures. Educators — regardless of your title — must view themselves as change agents and be encouraged to foster partnerships with companies who are responsible for the development of the tools we see potential in — like mobile devices!

Managing by enforcing policy at all costs has created a culture of fear in higher education that greatly undercuts innovation in teaching.   Moving forward, you are either part of the solution or part of the problem. Which path will you choose?


Hughes, R. (2009). Leadership: Enhancing the Lessons of Experience, 6th Edition. Irwin/McGraw-Hill.

Note of transparency:  I have used VoiceThread in my teaching since 2007. From 2011-2012, I  was a consultant for VoiceThread in which I presented one webinar each month for the VoiceThread higher education community.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.