VoiceThread Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

Tools don’t teach — teachers do.  I am a teacher. And before I started using VoiceThread in 2007, the only tool I had access to was Blackboard. I taught art appreciation and art history online using a discussion forum. At that time, there was no YouTube. There were no smartphones. Recording audio and video was still a big deal. When I discovered VoiceThread, it provided me with a visually-centric environment where I could see and hear my students respond to the media I had placed on a slide.

I remember the first time I heard one of my online students respond to a work of art. I don’t remember the art and I don’t remember exactly what that student said. But I remember pausing, pushing myself away from my desk, and being moved to tears. It was that moment that I felt the power of the human voice and began to understand how it provides valuable information about learning. I could hear the emotion in my students’ voice as she looked at a representation of art and shared her thoughts about it. That was the moment that I began to grow as an educator and understand that there is more to learning than cognition. Learning is social and emotional.

I remember the first semester I taught a class with a student who was dyslexic. She was the only student in that class who elected to use her webcam to leave video comments. I remember listening to her deeply engaging comment and comparing it with the fragmented sentences in her discussion board posts. That moment made me understand how classes that use text-based assessments shut out opportunities for students with cognitive learning disabilities.

Over the years, I’ve blogged a lot about VoiceThread. I published a study about how to improve students’ willingness to participate in voice and video. You see, students, just like faculty, do not openly embrace the vulnerable feeling one feels when speaking to a webcam. But human voices breed connection. They are integral to developing relationships and a sense of community that underpins powerful online learning experiences. Moreover, speaking and listening skills are essential to leading a meaningful and successful life.

Yet, while VoiceThread supported the needs of more learners, many students with disabilities were excluded in by its multimodal learning. Students who are deaf had no way to access the voice and video comments. Moreover, students who are blind could not navigate its flash-based interface.

Around 2010, VoiceThread released VoiceThread Universal, which is an html version of the tool that provides an alternative access to the content in a VoiceThread to students who are blind and use a screenreader.

In 2015, VoiceThread enabled an option to site-license holders to integrate third party captioning for comments and central media with sound. In 2016, my team, Teaching & Learning Innovations at CSU Channel Islands wrote and implemented a detailed accommodations plan for students who are blind and students who are hard of hearing. We have shared this accommodations plan with a CC-BY-NC license, with the hope that more educational institutions will leverage it to craft their own plans.

Click here to view the VoiceThread Accommodations Plan from Teaching & Learning Innovations at CI.

Here is a video that walks you through how we caption VoiceThreads at CSU Channel Islands using a site license integrated with Automatic Sync Technologies.

I continue to receive emails from faculty who want to teach with VoiceThread, but are told, “No, it is not accessible.” I hope this helps. I hope we will not continue to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Tools do not change the world. But the right tools paired with institutionally-provided faculty support resources can empower dedicated teachers to design learning experiences that build relationships and communities for all students across distance.  And that will be key to the future of higher education.

My colleague, Kristi O’Neil Gonzalez will be presenting an overview of CI’s accommodations plan at the 2017 CSUN Assistive Technology Conference. 

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