A Future Date: Translating Maps and Geographic Data to Non-Visual Formats

This session reviews different uses of map images and different strategies to make them accessible including tables, ALT text, long description and tactile/3D graphics.

Presented at the 2020 A Future Date Virtual a11y Event. Thanks to Matt May of Adobe, 3Play and other corporate sponsors for organizing this.

Download Slides No Audio with Notes

Map of PA Congressional District 12 with Braille title

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SDR Accessibility Files

Zip files to download.

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A Visit to Maker Commons

This post documents the experience of getting a print from the Penn State Maker Commons service.

The good thing about Maker Commons is that you don’t need direct access to a 3D printer nor do you need to learn how to load plastic media or make sure the nozzle is properly cleaned and aligned, because the Maker Commons staff is there to do that for you. However, you will still need to interact with some media software, most of free and you will need to an investment of time, especially for your first print. And there are some restrictions you might have to keep in mind.

Build a Model in Tinkercad or Wherever

If you’re interested in building a basic model, you may want to get a free Tinkercad account. It’s a cloud service which lets you build a model from scratch or import and edi a model/vector graphic file. MakerCommons has some Tinkercad tutorials on their tutorials page.

Another non-cloud option is Google SketchupMake. Maker Commons also has tutorials for this service. Or you can find and download a 3D model. Or you can use a graphics program which allows you to export a 3D model.

Edit in MakerBot

No matter how you create your model, you will need to import it into the free MakerBot Dekstop editor. This software is designed for the MakerBot printer and will let you resize your image, set print quality and export it for print.

It’s important to follow the guidelines from MakerCommons or your print could be rejected or ruined. An important one is a relatively new 100 gram plastic restriction. Another is a size restriction of 9.9 inches L x 7.8 inches W x 5.9 inches. Finally, your Quality setting needs to be “Low” or “Standard.”

You also need to make sure the print is to be centered and lie flat on the print bed. The guidelines show you exactly how to do this.

Submit the Print

Here you will need to submit your model file through Makerbot Innovation Center with your Penn State email address. This will allow you to choose the model and even select the color plastic you want. Again, it’s important to follow all the instructions.

Ready to submit? Then click the Submit button on Maker Commons site. You will receive a message when the print file is submitted to the queue, when the job begins to print and when the print is complete.

Pick up the Print

Once you receive an email that the print is ready to be picked up, head to either Patee/Paterno at University Park or a location at another campus. You will need to bring your Penn State ID as verification.

If all has gone well, you will receive your print in a clean brown paper envelope. Take off the “raft” and enjoy.

Orange Hindi E on top of can of peanuts

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Leadership Philosophy

As a leader, I will rely on the expertise of my team and colleagues but provide vision and direction to move us forward. I will strive to maintain calm in the face of chaos and communicate clearly in a sea of noise. Above all, I will be honest with my team and “customers” and treat them with integreity and respect. I will always seek to learn more about leadership needs, especially from my mistakes.

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Book Review: The Storytelling Animal

About the Book

This book reviews the roles and uses people make of “narratives”, both the positives of using stories to teach cultural morals and negatives of people being deluded by their own stories and nightmares. I became interested in this topic because a lot of our knowledge is organized around different “stories” in ways we don’t always take into account as educators. The author of the book, Jonathan Gottschall, is also notable for being an English instructor working with Darwinian theory.

From a personal perspective, I have to say I agree with the idea of a universal storytelling instinct. How else could Joseph Cambpell have discovered The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Like many instincts though, it can serve people well in the sense that stories help people bond over a shared experience (e.g. Downton Abbey, Star Wars, Gone With the Wind) and serve as an organizer of information. I personally can recite the wives of King Henry VIII because I have seen lots of Tudor movies. I can also tell you a little bit about the Declaration of Independence based on the musical 1776. On the other hand, stories can also present and crystalize misinformation like “We only use 10% of our brain” (not true). Educators often use stories instinctively in the form of anecdotes, but do we understand how narratives and learning work in a structured way?

ISBN and Chapter Info

Gottschall, Jonathan (1994, 2012) The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human New York: Mariner (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). <br /?
ISBN 10: 0544002342

Table of Contents

  1. Chapter 1: The Witchery of Story
  2. Chapter 2: The Riddle of Fiction
  3. Chapter 3: Hell is Story Friendly
  4. Chapter 4: Night Story
  5. Chapter 5: The Mind is a Story Teller
  6. Chapter 6: The Moral of the Story
  7. Chapter 7: Ink People Change the World
  8. Chapter 8: Life Stories
  9. Chapter 9: The Future of Story

The Universality of Story

Not surprisingly, Gottschall discusses the universality of stories in human cultures in multiple medias. Stories began as an oral genre, but in the modern world they can be found in books, radio, movies and TV. They can even be found in role playing games and competition reality TV (e.g. WWF wrestling and The Bachelor). As we all know, there are lots of people trying to make money around the world providing narrative content for people to consume.

Gottschall also mentions that children like to make their own stories and adults can also make their own in the the forms of original stories or fan fiction type genres. What’s the evolutionary purpose of story? Gottschall discusses several theories but one he mentions is a connection to the mechanism of imagination. People do use scenario building as a way to play more mundane activities like food gathering/hunting or actual social events. Both are aided by trying to create a mental model of what people or animals are likely to need and do.

The Dark Side of Story

Interestingly, Gottschall spends a lot of time talking about the dark side of stories. One theme that emerges is that a lot of stories are actually about bad things that happen. Even if a story has a happy ending, there is typically some sort of bad situation that needs to be resolved. Gottschall presents some studies of children creating stories, and those too involve lots of bad events like kidnapping, murder, assault and theft.

In a similar vein, Gottschall presents research that most dreams are usually nightmares. Gottschall metions a model that one functions of narrative is to allow individuals to model different “dilemmas” and then possibly find solutions (or not). One offshoot of this theory are science fiction stories that explore potentials for modern technological developments. Mary Shelly questioned how far science should go in saving a life in Frankenstein much like robot stories question how artificial intelligence would impact our life in the future.

Fiction and Conspiracy Theories

Another potential dark aspect of stories is that people also use stories to build conspiracy theories. Gottschall comments that every person considers him/herself to be the hero of their own story (even if no one else does). Normally the realities of life check our impulses to be too “heroic”, but a mental illness can often result in delusions of paranoia or grandeur where all the world is full of villains and only the hero knows the secret mission.

Similarly, people may build a story to connect inexplicable events in a “coherent” narrative. As Gottschall notes though, the resulting narrative can often be wildly inaccurate and can be politically dangerous. One interesting example was a conspiracy theory in West Africa that health care workers were actually creating Ebola (while many in the U.S. felt Ebola was a plot controlled by President Obama). In case you are wondering if the “educated” middle class is immune, consider the damage of the conspiracy theory that vaccines can cause autism. In late 2014, the drop in vaccination rates led to a measles outbreak in California. This was caused by one scientist’s hoax that a lot of people’s “intuition” felt was true.

As a final step, Gottschall notes that sharing a common story can bring people together in a common cause, but again he warns of the dangers of a common story becoming a negative force. A positive example might be people who believe in the values of the American democracy and may celebrate key moments like the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But the same story can also lead to prejudice against non-Americans (or not-yet-American immigrants). In the worst case scenario, Gottschall described how Hitler used a story with theatrical accompaniments to convince many Germans to follow his Nazi agenda. Scary stuff.

Fiction and Empathy

Returning to a more positive aspect, Gottschall notes that a benefit of reading others’ stories is that the reader can feel empathy for different people in situations they might not experience in real life. Some models suggest that stories can act as a social skills simulation zone. Etiquette lessons are often taught by showing what happens to heroes who follow the codes versus villains who break them. More importantly, a story can also show different points of view in a way that’s deeper than just presenting the information. Interestingly modern role playing games take that a step further by involving true social interaction within a fictional framework.

What’s an ID to Do?

Gottschall’s book is a good introductory narrative on narrative that raises a lot of interesting points. Ultimately though, I think it’s important to dig a little deeper into what this means for cognition and pedagogy. One aspect that I think Gottschall missed is how narrative is used to structure “data”, particularly historical data or scientific data.

As I mentioned earlier, I was initially intrigued by the notion of using narrative to help learners build meaning. I remember novelist Morgan Llewelyn commenting that she couldn’t understand why students found history boring because “it’s all sex and violence.” That is, instead of concentrating on memorizing dates, it is likely more important to focus on the story behind the dates. I also think that story can be a good introduction to a particular field of study…although it can’t end there. One skill set that many students must learn is how to use data to build a quasi-accurate narrative, but they also need to learn caution not to extrapolate too much from their limited data. This is very important for fields like archaeology or psychology.

I was also intrigued by the idea of linking story and empathy. I think one of the hardest learning objectives to teach are affective goals, but stories appear to be a way to open a window into the mind (and soul) of a student. In the past, educators have talked about using games and simulations for the same effect, but is this really a byproduct of re-enacting a narrative?

Finally, I do think Gottschall points about the dark side of story are very important for education. I think all educators can think of examples of how scientific facts become distorted by meme simplification (aren’t memes just a really short story?). Similarly, they can all think of inaccurate stories that lead to prejudice and incorrect beliefs. Understanding how and why these stories are built can help us build better narratives for our students.

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Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

About the Book

Obstensibly, this book is about “self-segregation” or the idea that many African American students will, in fact, sit and work together in a racially mixed environment. Ultimately though, it is an explanation of how African Americans experience the world which is still very much dominated by Whites. It also gives a framework to understand how the dynamics of a dominant vs. non-dominant groups play out, particularly for issues of race and ethnicity in the U.S.

ISBN and Chapter Info

Tatum, Beverly Daniel (1997, 2003) Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? 5th Edition New York: Basic Books/Perseus Book Group
ISBN 10: 0465083617

The table of contents of the book is:

  • Chapter 1: Defining Racism: Can we talk?
  • Chapter 2: The Complexity of Identity Who am I?
  • Chapter 3: The Early Years: Is my skin brown because I drink chocolate milk?
  • Chapter 4: Identity Development in Adolescence: Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?
  • Chapter 5: Racial Identity in Adulthood: Still a work in progress
  • Chapter 6: The Development of White Identity: I’m not ethnic, I’m just normal
  • Chapter 7: White Identity and Affirmative Action: I’m in favor of affirmative action except when it comes to my jobs
  • Chapter 8: Critical Issues in Latino American Indian and Asian Pacific American Identity Development: There’s more than just Black and White you know
  • Chapter 9: Identity Development in Multiracial Families: But don’t the children suffer?
  • Chapter 10: Embracing a Cross Racial Dialogue: We were struggling for the words
  • Continuing the Conversation
  • Getting Started Resources for the Next Step
  • Reader Discussion Guide

The State College Environment (A Personal View)

One of the challenges of discussing race in a location like State College or central Pennsylvania is that while there is relatively little overt racism, the culture is still very much White (or Anglo) dominant and the result can seem hostile. There can also be lingering instances of bias or lack of understanding.

What this book does is help explain that while a person may never be overtly prejudiced, he or she can be very oblivious to the African-American perspective. It presents the experience of someone from a non-dominant culture in a way that explains that person’s frustration while not necessarily putting blame on a White person. It shows how the legacy of a racist past lingers, even when people are not aware of it. As Tatum points out, unless a White person sees how an African American navigates the world, the implicit bias does not seem apparent. I know I got more insights, and I had been aware of some issues for many years.

As an instructor, I think this is a timely reminder of what experiences a non-White student may have gone through and how it impacts their interaction in a Penn State classroom.

A Racist System

In the first part of the book, Tatum distinguishes individual prejudiced behaviors which most people call racist from a racist system which is structured to benefit a dominant group. In a racist system, a member of the dominant class can be neutral or even benign in terms of individual race relations, but still benefit from being in a racist system.

Although a lot of the mechanisms from the clearly racist Jim Crow apartheid system have been dismantled, Tatum explains how Whites still remain dominant and benefit from the system. For instance, clothes and cosmetics designed for paler skin tones clothes are very readily available, while a person with a different skin tone must search harder.

A more pernicious example is that a White stranded at a bus station late at night can generally expect assistance from a security guard or the police, but a person with a different look might be considered a criminal in the same context. In fact, many urban areas like Ferguson and Staten Island are dealing with the demographics of White police officers policing “crime-ridden” African American neighborhoods.

I would also add here that although the North never had the same kind of overtly discriminatory practices that the Jim Crow South did, there were other kinds of systematic policies to discriminate against African Americans. <or instance a Whites only preference for 1930’s era FHA loans meant that African Americans in northern cities had a very difficulty buying and maintaining a home except in relatively poor “ghettos”.

This kind of practice to led to racially segregated neighborhoods in Northern cities with hostile attitudes between groups.Similarly, African Americans may be charged higher interest rates, pay higher insurance rates or have less chance to get student loans based on “statistical data” (see Wikipedia Red lining).

Can African Americans be Racist?

Tatum answers this question by saying it depends on what you mean by “racist”. Tatum does acknowledge that African Americans and other non-Whites can have negative stereotypes about Whites or other ethnic groups, but feels that White domination means that African Americans cannot benefit in a racist system. That may be generally true for now, but as African Americans obtain more status and wealth, some may be able to build structures meant to benefit African Americans at a cost to other communities. Every group should consider that once a group becomes more successful, they will gain privileges which can be abused.

Levels of Privilege and Non-Privilege

On the other hand, Tatum points out that not all Whites necessarily feel their “White privilege”. Lower income Whites may feel some of the same injustices as African Americans. Women who are White often experience gender discrimination and non-Christians, including Jews, may suffer from discrimination or lack of institutional support for religious holidays or other occasions. Even “nerds” may feel unprivileged from a social point of view if they suffered bullying in school. As a linguist, I have to point out that, English speakers from all ethnicities will have access to more technology resources options at a price point than speakers of other languages. African Americans may enjoy some privileges not available to non-English speaking or non-Christian groups.

It’s Not a Competition

When discussing comparative privilege, I think it’s important to clarify that it shouldn’t be a competition of which ethnic group or community has suffered the most. It’s an unfortunate truth that many groups, particularly those who have emigrated to the U.S. and other save havens, have suffered from different types of oppression. Rather, I think the point is to empathize with experiences of other groups and try to build a bridge of understanding. I think Tatum would agree on this point.

The Affirmative Action Debate

An issue impacting higher education is the idea of affirmative action, or finding ways to assist under-represented groups, including African Americans, gain access to higher education. One issue that many agree on is that one needs to distinguish class from ethnicity. There are African American (and Latino) families who have a long tradition of being college educated. It is important that this group be represented in a university, but not be the ONLY representation of an ethnicity.

In terms of affirmative action, Tatum and others talk about the fact that any first generation college student will experience similar challenges in terms of financial support or cultural discordance. Many members of this group may suffer linguistic prejudice if they do not natively speak Standard English. In fact, using Standard English or following other cultural expectations of academia may feel like a betrayal of the home culture.

Tatum raises another issue that is not easy to address – the idea that Whites may feel that African Americans in any kind of affirmative action program are not as qualified as a White person would be and that they are getting a “free ride.” There is no easy answer for this issue, but I would say that no affirmative action program could work unless this bias is somehow addressed.

One issue facing some younger African Americans are instructors who misunderstand African American Vernacular English language and culture. A child commenting that “Fractions don’t make any sense” is more likely to be helped than one commenting that “Fractions don’t make no sense.” Similarly racial stereotypes may persuade teachers that a rowdy white child is smart but just needs a little discipline, while a rowdy black child could be seen as a criminal in training. Certainly, the type of open questioning of an instructor that might be supported in some suburban schools could be seen as “threatening” in other contexts.

What is “White”?: Rethinking Ethnic Identities for “Anglos”

An issue that Tatum discusses is that if a White lives in a mostly White environment, he or she may not feel any kind of ethnic identity at all (i.e. “I’m just white”). Nor may there be an understanding of how ethnicities may differ culturally. Even if there are non-Whites (or non Anglos) in a town, they may have felt the pressure to just assimilate completely to the dominant culture, at least in public. There could be the illusion that everyone has the same experience regardless of skin tone and can be treated as “the same”.

Although the idea of “not seeing color” seems fair to Whites, it can in fact be offensive to non-Whites because it can be perceived as lack of awareness. I believe it can also be harmful to Whites who could equate a generic White identity to a disconnection with their heritage. In contrast Tatum notes that Non-whites have often explored their heritage more in order to understand their place within the dominant culture.

Following up on this idea, I would advocate that Whites learn about their individual ethnic heritages as much as possible. Although White is the dominant race in America, most Whites are descended from ancestors fleeing some sort of persecution or impoverished circumstance. Indeed, many groups which are now mainstream, including Irish, Italians, many Slavic groups and different Jewish groups, experienced intense discrimination or poverty in this country. This can be a way to help empathize with current immigrants/non-dominant groups.

Having said that, there is the flip side that some Whites claim they don’t understand why African Americans can’t make the same transition that their ancestors did. Unfortunately, skin tone continues to be a huge factor in a perception of inferiority in this country and, sadly, elsewhere.

A Little Beyond Black and White

Just as not all Whites have the same ethnic background, not all African Americans (or Blacks), Asians, and Latin Americans have the same ethnic background. A person with black skin could be an African American, Haitian American, from a Spanish speaking country or from an African family. These groups have different cultures and different experiences in America. The same is true from Asian (Chinese? Korean? Vietnamese?) and Latin Americans (Mexican> Puerto Rican? Dominican?).

I think the ultimate challenge is overcoming the fear of discussing ethnic differences in post-racial America. Non-whites (and many Whites) want people to know their heritage, but many Whites have felt that it can be a difficult question to ask politely. That’s a shame really because the stories are actually very interesting when told correctly. Just ask anyone who has watched the unexpurgated Finding Your Roots stories.

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ID-2-ID: What is my Learning Objective?

LING 100

As an instructional designer we’re always asking faculty to think beyond “topics” and determine what the true “learning objectives” are. That is, what skills should a student have when they exit the course. This can be particularly tricky for Gen Ed courses because we know that most students won’t continue on in future courses to perfect the skills of a linguist. The goal is to help students understand some basic principles and maybe whet their appetites for more courses. But how are these principles defined?

Well, I had the same dilemma for intro LING 100. Most instructors do divide the course into topics like phonetics, sociolinguistics, syntax and so on. Reading the Dirksen book helped me reflect on what my goals were and I finally realized my true goal was to help students observe language use more closely. This included understanding pronunciation, observing how new words are formed, seeing how rules of spoken language differ from written language, understanding cultural ettiquette conventions, perceptions of different social dialects, observing when and how people switch languages, and of course language change. These are all the topics of a traditional course, but thinking about them in terms of how they can be observed allows me to think about how to push students into making these observations.

I really appreciate that I finally got to put my own course under the ID microscope.


In general, I do think the program has been successful in expanding the ID network and allowing people to share common issues and tips with one another. I also like having a core learning activities like the book readings. I would definitely recommend the program to an ID trying to figure out the Penn State environment.

Likes: Book

I liked having the both of us read the book because it can provide a structure for a large chunk of meetings. Plus, I feel that participants can get insights from the book even if there are logistical issues with actually discussing the book. FYI – I ended up getting a duplicate version of the book from the Kindle store. It turns out that I could read it online in the office so I didn’t have to remember to put the book in the car at various times.

Recommendation: UNL/PSU Group Activity

I heard some comments about having a joint meetings with the UNL cohort, and I think it’s a good idea. One idea that could maximize benefit to Penn State is to have the UNL group talk about their observations from the program, particularly in regards to Penn State. If they would be willing to do a presentation for the entire Penn State cohort, everyone would benefit. And perhaps sub group from Penn State could do the same thing for UNL.

Recommendation: Expand “Joint Event” Options

One aspect of the program that may need to be looked at is the “joint event” recommendation. It’s a good idea, but for various reasons, it’s always been a joint webinar for me and my partner, and for me at least it can be problematic. The worst case was a JAWS training session where the presenter just had all sorts of technical issues and it disrupted his entire presentation. When partners can’t attend a live session together, I was wondering virtual options could be expanded to include articles, a Web site or an online tutorial module.

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Accessibility: Should We Kill the Carousel?

The more I work with accessibility, the more I see the connection that accessibility and usability are strongly tied together. If a type of interface element is difficulty to make “accessible”, chances are that there may be a problem with usability even for “abled” users.

The carousel (the interface element that rotates images on a Web page with links to amazing, can’t-miss content!). As with any animated element, screen reader accessibility will be an issue, but as it turns out carousels can be inaccessible to a number of audiences and turn out to NOT really do what the site designers want them to do – namely point users to different types of content on a site.

Carousel Accessibility Issues

For the record, here are the issues one might encounter when considering carousel accessibility when it’s constantly rotating.

Screen Readers

The headlines at least need to be identified and be accessible as links. Images may need an ALT text as well if they have content. What’s more problematic though is that if a headline changes and is not properly announced, a screen reader user may not know anything has changed. The person may click Link 1 and end up at the page for Link 2.

Keyboard Accessibility

In addition to screen reader accessibility, any interface needs to work with a keyboard, even for sighted users who may have motion impairments. This can be done, but it leads to the more serious problem of figuring out which dot to click.

Sighted Users with Less than Perfect Reading Skills

Imagine that you have some form of dyslexia, or are a low vision user zooming in on content, or are a non-native speaker, or haven’t had your morning caffeine yet. You may not have time to read that headline before it tastefully dissolves into another headline. You can experience this phenomenon at http://shouldiuseacarousel.com. In a truly awful rotating carousel, you have to wait for all the headlines to cycle through before seeing the headline. In a better carousel, you have to remember which dot number you want to access. That gets hard for anyone if there are five or more dots at the bottom.

It should be noted that some users could not overcome the distraction of the constant rotation so could never really read the content and advance to the right page. For this reason, any content set on constant rotation without a pause button does not comply with WCAG 2.0 Guideline 2.2

Yet paradoxically, if a user clicks the the Pause button, will he or she know what to click next? The major problem with carousels isn’t accessibility, but poor link scent.

Other Issues

This article The Unbearable Inaccessibility of Slideshows by Gian Wild points these and other issues about typical carousels out in full detail.

Not Usable Either

As it turns our, carousels aren’t really clicked on by sighted users either. One one study by Erik Runyon of his university’s homepage carousel, only 1.07% clicked on any one slide. Of those, only 10.9% clicked slides 2-5. A version of non-rotating carousel still exists. It may be WCAG 2.0 compliant, but it’s not fulfilling its function.

Does keeping the auto-rotate feature affect click rates? A little, but not much. On the site with rotating carousel, only 9.4% of users clicked anything, and of those, only 45.43% clicked anything other than slide 1. That’s still a lot of missed content.
Note: Full disclosure – the home page of this university also has a non-rotating carousel. No one happened to ask my opinion….

In addition to this study, other usability studies (e.g. Nielsen Norman Group) have found that not many users click on carousels. One problem is banner blindness which happens when users interpret loud showy elements as ads which can be ignored. The other is that dots or arrows don’t provide a lot of link scent, especially if a slideshow carousel is embedded on a home page. Users may be more likely to interact with other links where the destination is more apparent.</p

Some Decent Carousel Interfaces

Despite these objections to the rotating carousels, I would say that not all carousels are bad. There are some interesting examples which do work to guide the user to the appropriate content.

One type is the carousel or slideshow meant used to display a specific set of themed images. An example is this Penn State Paris vigil gallery. The purpose of the slideshow is reasonably clear – to show photos from a nighttime vigil. The interface allows you to go at your own pace and includes keyboard navigation as an option. Each image also includes an ALT tag.

The next two examples show a usable, and quasi accessible layout. Thanks to those who pointed these out to me. One example is the top sliders at the Corning Museum of Glass and the other is from The Economist which lists all available headlines after the carousel image. Both are usable in the sense that the content of each carousel item is visible readable on a screen reader. Images either have an ALT tag (Economist) or the text is embedded in an SVG graphic (Corning Museum). The Economist version is also keyboard accessible although the CSS should be modified to make location of the cursor more obvious. There is also some keyboard function with the Corning Museum site, but the sliders don’t slide all the way across.

The most interesting thing about these carousel layouts is that they are much more easy to make accessible without too much in the way of special techniques (other than ensuring keyboard accessibility).

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ID-2-ID: The More Things Change…

One lesson I have gotten from this is that communication over the phone adds an extra layer of challenge to the relationship. I know I’m still interrupting (I think eastern urbanites tend to jump in quickly so they don’t lose their place in the queue). Fortunately, my partner has been very patient with me and we figure it out. I’m really glad we’ve both committed to calling each other every other week and keeping up with the book (even if we’ve read it just that morning).

One of the reasons I was glad to partner with someone from outside of Penn State is that it gives me a chance to learn what is happening outside of my Penn State TLT centric bubble. One thing I have learned about the set up at University of Nebraska is that many IDs are on one central organization (Office of Online and Distance Education) but assigned to different colleges (e.g. business). I think it has a lot of good advantages in that each ID has access central resources, but gets to know a smaller set of instructors on a more personal level. I don’t think that organization would be possible at Penn State, but I do think figuring out ways to establish communication channels between units is very important to the Penn State community.

We’re also having interesting discussions about Canvas which is in pilot mode at both Penn State and Nebraska. The difference is that we’re moving from an older LMS, but Nebraska might be moving from the newer Blackboard LMS which my partner likes. Both of us are discovering that our current LMS systems have features not (yet) available in Canvas. However, I feel that no matter what new LMS an institution chooses, it will never exactly replicate every feature from the older system, so there will always be an issue of finding alternatives for missing functions and explaining how they work to instructors who may not be willing to make the change.

A final interesting revelation happened in relation to accessibility. Unlike Penn State, they have not been involved in any legal actions, so there tends to be less awareness of the issue among instructors and, in fact, the number of students needing accommodation for sensory impairments is very small in comparison to Penn State. My partner noted he was more likely to encounter an accessibility accommodation request at his local community college. Unfortunately, I suspect that there are still a lot of barriers preventing students with accessibility from being able to attend an R1 institution, so numbers remain low and the problem has not seemed critical until recently. Going online though makes accommodation requests more likely because students with disabilities feel that the environment is more favorable. At Penn State the college with the most accommodation requests is World Campus. Harvard and MIT received a complaint from the National Association for the Deaf for uncaptioned videos associated with their OER resources. If Nebraska does significantly increase their online education presence, they will probably see that accessibility is no longer a theoretical issue.

Of course, a lot of things are just the same for every instructional designer. We both have to deal with quirky faculty, flaky students and occasionally balky LMS platforms. My partner asks me if I have any advice and a lot of times I just shake my head and tell a crazy war story. This reminds me that we have a long way to go in understanding how to design learning that works for humans. Which is great for job security I suppose.

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ID2ID: Always Good to Review the Basics (Dirksen)

This year I’ve been participating in the Penn State ID-2-ID instructional designer mentoring program with another ID from the University of Nebraska. One of our “assignments” was to read and discuss a book together. The one we chose was Julie Dirksen’s Design for How People Learn, and I think it was a good pick.

This book is meant to be a review of instructional design theory and practice, but aimed for non-specialists. It’s perfect for a faculty member or Web designer who wants to “branch out” into online education, but isn’t always aware of what factors go into building an effective online course (or effective face to face course). Chapters cover important issues such as student background, motivation, memory and understanding different instructional goals. For each chapter, she

As a “practicing ID”, I was also glad to review basic concepts as a refresher. There are so many factors that go into a good design that it’s easy to lose track of some of the issues. I have also found that if I teach a course in my original discipline (linguistics), I am in the kind of expert mode that makes it even more likely I will lose track of instructional design practice. To this day I am still shocked that people are as interested in Latin grammar as I am.

Of course the book is somewhat of a simplification. I personally am not sure what the distinction between “knowledge” and “skill” is other than the difference between background knowledge. This comes up in accessibility training where background is very important. If you know a lot about accessibility but are learning a new HTML editor, you just need information about where to insert an image ALT tag. But if you are new to accessibility, you need to understand what an image ALT text is.

Dirksen has a good discussion of diagnosing what you need to cover based on audience prior knowledge. But one good discussion I had with my ID-2-ID partner was how to handle a mixed background audience. Truthfully this is probably the most common situation I have encountered, yet can be one of the most frustrating. Normally the result is that everyone is forced to revisit introductory concepts, but this discussion reminded me that it’s important to introduce some customization into the learning, especially for a longer course.

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