Thursday 30 May 2024

A visit to Google’s Accessibility Discovery Centre

Kathryn Drumm, Educational Technologist at City, University of London, shares her experiences of visiting Google's Accessibility Discover Centre.

A group of City staff and our Google host standing in front of the Google building. Everyone is smiling. Above the entry to the building is a large Google logo.
Just before Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2024, I was part of a group from City who visited Google’s Accessibility Discovery Centre in the heart of London’s Kings Cross.

The group was made up of colleagues from across City, all of whom have an interest in digital accessibility. There were staff from the Library, the EDI team, academic staff from the HCID (Human-Computer Interaction Department), Marketing, the ERES from IT and, of course, the Digital Education Team. If nothing else, it was great to see how many people are committed to expanding awareness of digital accessibility across the university.

We were greeted by Hans (to the far right in the group photograph) and taken up to the ADC to meet with Praneeth, our other host for the day. Praneeth explained that Google has three ADCs across the world, and their aim is to collaborate with people outside of Google, especially members of the disability community, to make Google’s services accessible for all.

Praneeth, a young Asian man, stands in front of the a large wooden sign for Accessibility Discovery Centre and a smaller copy.
The ADC sign, behind Praneeth in the group photo, was an interesting lesson in accessibility. It was created as decoration for the room, but was also meant to be accessible via touch to those with vision loss. However, the feedback from users was that the sign was too large for anyone to interact with, so a smaller, more user-friendly version was created and installed next to it. It’s a reminder that while you can have good intentions, you always need to test your proposed solution with the intended users.

Speaking of testing, to further develop their products and services, Google invite testers to come to the ADC where take part in talk-aloud, task-based tests and use tools such as eye tracking software to get feedback. At the moment, they have to carry out this testing at Google’s London HQ, but they intend to create a virtual lab for those who can’t travel.

A video game with a wobble switch and pressure button controller
We then saw their accessible gaming arcade, the result of their work with the Manchester charity Everyone Can. Here games could be controlled through pressure switches, wobble switches or via eye-tracking. Hans impressed us all by only crashing his virtual car a few times when he raced it around the track using only his eyes.

We then looked in more detail at some of the accessibility tools aimed at those with sight or hearing loss.

The huge leaps in creating live captions was of particular interest to me, as I was a subtitler in a previous life, and remember how it used to take 10 hours to create 20 minutes of subtitles. Now, we are used to captions being generated automatically as a conversation takes place or a video plays. We also saw how Google Nests could be programmed to trigger different coloured lights to alert d/Deaf users to specific sounds, such as a red light for the doorbell or a blue light for a baby crying.

For those with sight loss, we saw specialised Braille displays. But Praneeth also demonstrated how improvements to Pixel phones can guide users via vibrations to frame objects in the camera. Not only does this allow people to take their best selfie, it also means they can centre the camera on labels or documents. The phone then recognises the text and can read it out. So it would be possible to scan a tin in your cupboard and work out if it contains tomato soup or pineapple.

Praneeth also showed us accessibility features into Android phones such action blocks which allow you to condense common multi-stage tasks into one action represented by an icon on the phone’s home screen. For example, calling a loved one can be represented by their photo, meaning that those who struggle with complicated processes for whatever reason can now complete them with one tap.

I was saying to a colleague later that while the visit was interesting, I had felt that I’d seen a lot of the technologies or similar versions before. But thinking about this further, I realised that rather than feeling disappointed that my mind wasn’t blown by some new technology, I should see it as a testament to how pervasive many accessibility tools are now. We are no longer astounded by automatically generated subtitles, but only notice where they go wrong. We expect the miniature computers in our pockets to read labels or translate conversations. And a centralised home hub, controlled through our voices, turning our lights on, playing us music or ordering our groceries online is no longer the wild imaginings of sci-fi but the everyday. It reinforces the idea that we should always be aiming towards the point where we just assume that technology will be accessible to everyone, where we’re not having to raise awareness through special weeks and that it stops being extraordinary and is instead the ordinary.

Wednesday 15 May 2024

Digital Accessibility at SOAS


Today, we're diving into an insightful presentation by Sultan Wadud, the Learning Technology Manager at SOAS, who shared at the Spring 2024 Moodle User Group Greater London (MUGGL) event hosted at King's College how the team has worked to introduce Digital Accessibility.
In his presentation, Wadud sheds light on the importance of digital accessibility, emphasising its role in ensuring that content, websites, and applications are usable by everyone, including individuals with disabilities. He also touches upon how digital accessibility contributes to compliance and standards, making online content more inclusive.
One of the highlights of Wadud's presentation is the introduction of Ally, a powerful tool aimed at enhancing accessibility in digital course content. He elaborates on how Ally scans content within the LMS, generates alternative formats, provides insightful analytics, and offers feedback to improve accessibility - truly a game-changer in the realm of digital accessibility.
However, Wadud doesn't shy away from discussing the challenges the team encountered along the way, including delays in contract negotiation, technical hurdles, and limited academic engagement. Despite these obstacles, he also shares some notable achievements, such as creating online guidance, conducting workshops, establishing a working group, and notably improving the institution's overall accessibility score.
Looking ahead, Wadud outlines the team’s plans, which include renewing the contract for Ally, ramping up training and awareness initiatives, collaborating with specific departments, producing more concise educational videos, and striving to reach and exceed the Ally sector average of a 78% accessibility score.
Link to recording:

Thursday 25 April 2024

Distance Learners share their experiences of decolonisation

The Bloomsbury Learning Exchange (BLE) joined forces again with the Centre for Online and Distance Education (CODE) and the London International Development Centre (LIDC) to extend the conversation around the decolonisation of digital education, which started last year with our first joint webinar. On 17th April, our follow-up webinar, Decolonising Digital Education – Lessons from Distance Learnersfocused on distance and online education, and specifically on the experiences of remote learners. We were delighted to convene a panel comprising three students who had recently completed or were currently pursuing online courses offered by the University of London. What followed was a lively and engaging panel discussion, chaired by CODE Fellow and vice-principal for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at the Royal Veterinary College, Dr Christine Thuranira-McKeever, with thought-provoking questions posed by the audience.

photo of the panelists

Our student panelists each introduced themselves and presented the ways in which they have experienced decolonisation in respect to technologies used to deliver online courses. Conrad Francis is an Australian Sri-Lankan dual Olympian (Sydney 2000, Athens 2004) who has coached across the world, working in schools and universities in countries including China, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea. Conrad completed a PGCE in International Sports Management at the University of London in 2022 and provided a truly international perspective. Conrad stated that student empowerment lies at the heart of decolonising education. He encouraged students to question what they already know and what they are learning.

Dr Swati Aggarwal holds a doctorate in AI and has extensive experience in research and teaching in India. Moving to a teaching position in Norway in 2023, she completed the online Postgraduate Certificate Learning and Teaching in Higher Education provided by the University of London. As an educator herself, Swati drew on her experiences of decolonisation both in delivering and being a recipient of learning. She exposed the need to diversify the voices that shape education itself to reflect the multi-cultural world.

Finally, Sanjeeva Singh, an Olympian Archer, shared his experiences of working towards a Post Graduate Certificate in International Sports Management at the University of London whilst studying at a distance in India. Shaped by his distance learning experience, Sanjeeva argued that decolonisation in education comes down to three key components: inclusivity, diversity and innovativeness. He believes that learning material should be as diverse as the students accessing them.

The audience posed many interesting questions regarding access to digital technology, differences in cultures, and how institutions can ensure inclusivity and promote diversity to prevent prejudice and bias towards Western approaches to learning and teaching.

Dr Linda Amrane-Cooper (Director of the University’s Postgraduate Certificate Learning and Teaching in Higher Education) responded to the need to acknowledge sensitivities and apply feedback from learners in order to ‘decolonise’ the professional framework in which educational providers must work. Taking on board these lived experiences can only improve the quality of the courses that are delivered. As Elizabeth Charles (Assistant Director of Library Services at Birkbeck) reported, the panelists’ “different perspectives were a wonderful cross-section of learning from theory and applying to their individual loci and how enriched they felt as a result of this. Linda’s contribution was also very welcome; that level of engagement of acknowledging where the programme or institution is located and starting from, given the validation requirements, yet not shying away from the need to turn that critical lens on the epistemological pillars that support the programme”.

You can watch a recording of the event here:

Wednesday 17 April 2024

AI for the Overwhelmed: a webinar


Report on the BLE webinar held on 16th April 2024

image of Metal Mickey, the robot from a TV show
This session served as a supportive introduction to GenAI and what it can do in the context of higher education. It was purposefully not recorded in order to offer attendees a safe space to find out what GenAI is, to share experiences and to feely ask the questions they were too afraid to ask for fear of looking ignorant. Over 80 people registered for the webinar, which in itself spoke volumes. Attendees represented a broad range of staffing areas including teaching, research, course administration, HR, library, IT and digital education. So many colleagues wanting to gain a better understanding - and to discover what others know/are doing. We are, after all, human and not machine. So many of us are feeling overwhelmed by AI in different ways, from what it is to how to help others.

screenshot from CoPilot
CoPilot's response to the query 'What does GenAI mean?'

I opened the session with a personal explanation of why I had organised the event. And here it is again in a nutshell: Upon returning from parental leave at the start of February 2024, the emergence (or crash-landing) of GenAI was being discussed everywhere – e.g. the impact it was having on learning, teaching and particularly assessment. There was a constant stream of events being organised, courses to take, articles to read, policies to develop - I felt I was very far behind everyone else and I panicked that I had too much catching up to do. Being out of my depth in the world of technology was something I hadn’t experienced before – I was drowning in a sea of information and discourse, and I didn’t know where to start. I was overwhelmed. But the more I spoke to learned colleagues, the more I realised that everyone was feeling the same. I hadn’t really fallen behind – the development and pace of AI is so fast-changing, it is hard to keep up - and many people still haven’t had the chance fully engaged with it at all. I wanted to connect with others feeling the same as me and to start to investigate how the BLE could support them (us).

image of robot Johnny 5 from the Short Circuit movie

Deborah Grange, Head of Student Learning Development at Birkbeck, has been running a regular workshop specifically for students since the start of this calendar year. Interestingly, staff have also been attending. I knew she was the person I needed to provide a gentle introduction to GenAI. Deborah ran through the most commonly-used Gen
AI tools (or Large Language Models, LLMs) that are available. She explained in simple terms how they work and why we need to use cautionary behaviour when using them. AI outputs are only as good as the data that is fed in; the tool doesn't 'think' and it can offer incorrect yet convincing-looking responses ('hallucinations'). Deborah demonstrated Microsoft's CoPilot (based on GPT-4, the same 'engine' that Chat GPT uses) and Google's Gemini by entering a query and comparing the results. 

From this 'basics of AI' presentation, I then invited Sultan Wadud, Learning Technology Manager at SOAS, to share how he uses AI in his every day work. Wadud's talk presented several advanced examples of AI usage from generating images to convey concepts for presentation slides to helping him make a start on writing policies and emails.

Throughout the session, attendees contributed to this Padlet board to share their motivations for attending the session, examples of their use of GenAI tools and then what the BLE can do next. The BLE Team will be using both this and the chat contributions made in the session to inform our planning. Suggestions for follow-ups so far include regular online 'show and tells with AI' to share what people are doing and a hands-on workshop to try out tools for those who are not experienced. Please contact us here if you would like to make a suggestion.

In conclusion, like the web browser, which changed the face of education forever, GenAI is already doing the same - and it is here to stay (well, evolve), We can’t avoid it – we have to embrace it, or at least acknowledge and work with it.

If you work for one of the BLE partner institutions*, join our mailing list here to be the first to find out about all our events and activities:

* Birkbeck, LSHTM, RVC, SOAS, UCL and the University of London

Thursday 22 February 2024

Launch of our latest course: Is a PhD Right for Me?

Is a PhD Right for Me?

The BLE's new three-week course on FutureLearn offers a comprehensive approach to considering, applying for, and beginning doctoral study in the UK. The course dispels misconceptions, examines real-life concerns and speaks to a wide range of groups and individuals traditionally under-represented in doctoral study.

Throughout the course, learners discover strategies to help them work effectively, manage their wellbeing, maintain good working relationships with supervisors and clarify potential career paths after the PhD.

Week 1 helps the learner decide whether to pursue doctoral study. We provide an overview of  fundamental personal, practical, and financial aspects of the decision.
Week 2 provides guidance on making a PhD application, such as how to  search out opportunities, put together a research proposal, find the right supervisor and apply to an institution or research project.
Week 3 focuses on managing day-to-day life as a doctoral student. 

Learners take an active role in their learning, completing reflective and practical tasks and  taking part in conversations with each other. Highlights include interviews with current doctoral students, supervisors and staff who share their experiences, expectations and advice. Learners also follow four diverse student characters in their  journey to decide whether or not doctoral study is the right path for them.

Really amazing! [This course] opened my mind to the ''secrets'' of PhD study and had so many tips to follow. (Learner feedback). 

Video link for course introduction

Course introductory video