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AHEAD: Association for Higher Education Access & Disability
AHEAD: Association for Higher Education Access & Disability

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Distance Teaching - Navigating New Seas

Throw a Lifebuoy

In this current situation, distance teaching and learning has become topical and essential. Many educators are looking for practical advice about how best to deal with the challenge of engaging with their students online and for many this may be their first time exploring the seas of online teaching. Although it may seem daunting, there are many solutions at hand to help with this scenario.

To note, throughout this article several sources have been linked to, so I would like to thank the great work of staff nationally and internationally for creating helpful information, a lifebuoy of a sort, that helps educators stay afloat to support online teaching and learning in these challenging times. Some simple principles that apply across all of the techniques and resources described are:

  • Be mindful of the accessibility of the online learning materials you are using (particularly important in online teaching).
  • Offer choice and flexibility to your students where possible and offer variety in types of supporting materials provided. You may already have a wealth of useful materials which can be easily utilised with some creativity and imagination.
  • Provide multiple opportunities/ways for students to engage with both you and each other, and give them a channel to raise issues with you. Let them know you are trying and that you are open to hearing their feedback, especially where accessibility is concerned.
  • Where you are unsure about how to support students with disabilities on your programme in an online environment, liaise with your Disability Support/Access Service or contact AHEAD for advice.

Be Mindful of Digital Accessibility

Firstly, please be mindful of students with disabilities by ensuring your learning materials are accessible. Some key considerations include ensuring your documents are accessible and that any videos you are making are captioned. This webpage outlines helpful tips about creating accessible Word documents so that students using screen reading software and other assistive technologies can engage effectively with the material. As regards accessibility in PowerPoint, helpful guidelines on making accessible Presentations can be found here. Information on making accessible PDFs and web pages can be found in this website, however it is important to note that you should use word formats over PDFs where possible as they are more accessibility friendly and allow students to customise their experience to a far greater extent (e.g. change fonts, colours, read aloud etc.).

Also, this webpage offers helpful tips about general considerations for students with disabilities when teaching online. The principles included in this video on creating engaging and accessible face to face presentations, also mostly apply to online settings where live webinars are concerned. When conducting live webinars or online meetings through Zoom, Teams, Adobe Connect or another platform, be sure to consider accessibility and use any built in auto captioning facilities if applicable e.g the auto captioning facility on Microsoft Teams. Some video conferencing platforms (e.g. Zoom) can facilitate live captioning through interactions with professional captioning services and this may be applicable to you if you have students who are deaf/hard of hearing in your class (liaise with disability support services). 

Solutions may be closer than you think

Do you have a Learning Management Systems (LMS)/ Virtual Learning Environments (VLE)?

If you work in Higher or Further Education then you likely have access to a learning management system like Moodle, Blackboard, Brightspace, Canvas or something else. Most of these systems have features like live video presentation, discussion forums, quizzing and other tools that can be used to engage your students built in. Your Institution may have created videos on how to use these different features and many colleges will have a YouTube channel with helpful videos on how to utilise these tools. Additionally, your college may have instructional designers employed to guide you in using these tools when shifting your teaching online. Sometimes solutions for these matters may already be at hand so just explore what is immediately available to you. There may be multiple solutions already in your VLE. It's important to try to ensure that the tools you use are accessible to all students and where you are unsure, to offer choices in how students engage with the materials on offer.

Screen Capturing Tools

Most teachers making the emergency move to online teaching will already have a large range of presentations prepared for their planned face to face interactions. So, if you already have the content for your lectures, then one way to deliver teaching online is to repackage it as video and then offer ways in which students can engage with you/each other about the material (e.g. discussion forums or video meetings). When using video as a teaching material, it's important to ensure that closed captions/subtitles are added to ensure accessibilty and that you adhere to the guidelines on PowerPoint accessibility listed above.

PowerPoint has features built in which enable you to record a basic narrated slide show and then export your recorded presentation as a video. If you'd like more control over how your presentation looks, Camtasia is also useful way to record the screen of your computer as you display a PowerPoint or demonstrate anything on your screen. You can download a Camtasia trial and create a video that supplements your slides with your voice. Additionally Camtasia allows you to edit your recorded video afterwards by zooming in and out, annotating key points etc. Once you produce a completed video, you can upload it directly to a VLE/LMS or YouTube (mark it as unlisted if you don't want it to be seen by the general Public) and share the link to your class. YouTube will automatically add closed captions to your video shortly after it's uploaded which means it can be better accessed by students who are deaf or hard of hearing. However the auto-captions added do need a little editing to correct any mistakes made by Youtube's software engine and that is very easily done in YouTube itself. If you prefer to upload your video directly to the VLE, your institution may sanction a professional transcription service to caption your video for you, particularly where this may be an identified reasonable accommodation for a deaf/hard of hearing student.

Screencast - omatic is another useful screen recording tool which has extremely cheap subscription plans offering a useful feature set. Just sign up for free, and like Camtasia, you can record your computer screen or pay a small subscription for extra features. You may be presenting a PowerPoint or conducting a software demonstration and when you are finished you can create a video, download it and upload it to where it needs to go.

Other Ways Of Adding Narration to a Presentation

Adobe Spark is a tool I have used quite a few times in the past. Just login and use the ‘Slideshow’ option you can put a presentation together. This feature allows you to easily add your voice to each slide by just pressing a button then say your part and your voice is added automatically. If you have a PowerPoint, you can turn it into a Spark Slideshow. Just save your PowerPoint as a Jpeg (each slide is exported as an image) and then add each PowerPoint slide image to the Spark Slideshow. Then add your voice and when you are finished you can share a link to the video or download it and upload to your VLE/ LMS.

Another way to share the video is drag or upload the video to a folder in your OneDrive account or a folder in your Google Drive (depending if you have Office 365 or Google Suite) and just share the folder with the relevant student via their email addresses.

Microsoft Office 365

Office 365 has many tools that can help you over and above what has already been mentioned. One we will focus on here is the online version of PowerPoint that has a terrific auto subtitling feature (also available in very recent versions of desktop PowerPoint). Before you begin your presentation go to ‘Slideshow’ and click on ‘Always use subtitles’ and explore the settings here. Now go to Presenter Mode and as you speak, automatically generated subtitles will appear on your slides - they are not 100% perfect but will act as a very useful support for many students. If you then record this presentation with Screenomatic or Camtasia as recommended above, your final output will be a video of your presentation with serviceable subtitles on screen. 

So, if you have made your Presentation accessible, as mentioned in the accessibility section about, and if you use screen recording software to record it, you end up with an accessible PowerPoint file and a video with subtitles. Providing 'multiple means of representation' like this is key to the principles of universal design for learning'. This type of App Smashing process where you begin to use multiple technologies to create multiple types of material can be an effective way to engage different learners.

Google Suite

One Google Suite tool which is very effective is the collaboration feature in Google Docs. As an Educator, you could create a Google Doc for group work with your students to work on an assignment. Go to your Google Drive then open a Google Doc and give it a name. Go to the ‘Share’ button on the top right and a box will appear and add your students email address. Replicate this to create several groups who work on a document. They can work both synchronously and asynchronously and you can view who is engaging in the work by going to ‘File’ Then ‘Version History’ and finally ‘See Version History’. This colour codes the content in the document to a specific student so you can see who has contributed and allow you to contact students who may need assistance if they are not engaging.

Podcasts

As an educator, you may have very confident speaking skills. In this case maybe the medium of Podcasting may suit you. Damian Gordon from TU Dublin recommended two types of Podcasting websites called Beansprout and Podomatic. These both offer help setting you up and all you need to do is record your voice and then share the Podcast with your students.

A simpler way to create an audio piece would be to download a voice recording app and record yourself speaking out loud. Think about how you would condense your lecture into key information that can supplement the slides you offer your students. Then download the audio recording and email to your students. AS your confidence builds you may then go on to try the richer Podcasting options and think about recording online conversations with other lecturers about the learning materials etc. Remember that if you are using pure audio as a learning material, it will not be accessible to deaf/hard of hearing students in your class, so a transcript should be provided for those students or another way to engage with the same concepts discussed in the podcast should be provided.

Creating content - Speech to Text.

Also, a point to note about Google Docs and the online version of Word is that both have speech to text options so you can create written content with your voice. Whether you are a student or educator this is a useful way to write or brainstorm, especially if you are a confident speaker.

In Google Docs which is freely accessible to anyone with a gmail account, this is called ‘Voice Typing’ and can be found in the ‘Tools’ tab. Then in the online version of Word, found in Office 365, the speech to text tool is called ‘Dictate’ and can be seen in the top right of your Word document. Just like Google Docs, simply speak and generate text in the document with your voice. Remember you can say ‘New Line’ to begin a new paragraph and ‘Full Stop’ at the end of your sentences. It takes a little time to acquire this habit, but the benefits do pay off. It's useful to demonstrate these features to students too to support them in creating their online assignments etc.

Once the document is completed just remember to make your document accessible, using the links above for direction about heading types and alt text on images, so all types of students can engage with your reading material. 

Empower students to engage with written material

Helping students to engage with written material can happen in various ways and technology can help. Encourage your students to convert information into their preferred method of learning. So, if a student prefers to listen rather than read then recommend RoboBraille, it has been around for years. Just go to their website and you can begin to convert text into an MP3 format. 

Begin by clicking on the ‘Text’ radio button, paste your text in the text box and then follow the instructions and you will receive an MP3 version of the text. Just press play and listen to the article or website you copied into the box. Useful to listen to the information so you can take notes. Also, add your MP3 file to your phone and listen to you as you go for a walk.

Students all have mobile devices and for the sake of this paragraph I’ll focus on iPhones and iPads. These devices can read aloud text from a website, Word document and PDF by just going to ‘Settings’, ‘General’, ‘Accessibility’ and then go to ‘Speech Options’ as seen in this infographic. Plug in your headphones and listen to the information being read aloud.

To create written content iPhones and iPads have a free app installed called ‘Notes’ that can allow you to write your assignment or report with your voice. A small dictation icon on the keyboard of your screen, as seen in this infographic, when pressed simply transcribes your voice into text.

Already we can see that there are numerous ways for students to engage with and create written material. As Educators, who diversify our own digital skills, this may lead us to encourage students to diversify their digital skills. Maybe students can begin to match their learning strengths to the appropriate technologies too. Maybe there can be positives from this situation?

Engagement

A number of Multiple choice question apps are available like Kahoot and Socrative. Set up multiple choice questions and then at an agreed time, initiate the quiz and you can instantly get feedback from students about their level of understanding of a topic through the questions you are posing to them. YouTube has useful videos to help you get set up with either of these tools.

Another online tool that supports students' understanding is called ‘Peer Wise’. An article about ‘Peer Wise’ can be found here in this inspiring website called TELU. The aim of ‘Peer Wise’ is to encourage students to create their own multiple-choice questions based on the course material and to offer these questions to their classmates online. As students engage in the questions and answer them correctly, they accumulate points so in short it gamifies knowledge and comprehension.

Long term benefits of creating online material

For some educators this online approach to teaching is new so it can seem like a lot of extra work at times, but the benefit is in the long term. As you create online material like Screen Recordings and Podcasts, encourage online group work, host online quizzes and even gamify learning, you will be developing a library of supports that can be reusable in the long term.

Feedback

Ask for feedback from your students about what technologies they find beneficial and even how you use technology or not use technology too. They may offer insights that can help you edit and adapt your online teaching strategies.

Other Lifebuoys

  • Explore this resource called DigitalEd created by GMIT, IT Sligo and LYIT and has a collection of technology recommendations by Educators.
  • The Teaching and Learning National Forum has posted this webpage that is collecting a growing number of webpages from Educational Institutions with supportive information about online teaching.
  • The CDETB Curriculum Development Unit (CDU) is a support organisation within CDETB has this webpage has a number of recommendations too.

Also, engage with educators who are using technology already and share experiences as well as new technology tools. Twitter has a strong community of learners that can be found by searching Twitter with the following hashtags:

#distancelearning #remoteteaching #education #learning #edutwitter #edtech #remotework #teachers #onlinelearning #edshareie

If you have any online teaching and learning suggestions that can guide these ships through the night just email me at Trevor.Boland@ahead.ie or tweet @BolandTrevor.

In the meantime, anchors aweigh me hearties. 

( I may have merged my Sailor and Pirate slang there)