The Barcarolle from Les Contes d’Hoffmann, one of my favourite arias (see? I’m not just a metal-head!)
Today’s accessibility session covered the importance of using properly nested headings to improve page structure and navigation, especially for people using screen readers who particularly rely on structure for navigation. Also discussed was using a table of contents with links to the content in Word / PDF documents, again to improve navigation. And finally, which was fairly new to me, the WAI-ARIA guidelines – that’s Web Accessibility Initiative, Accessible Rich Internet Applications, for the acronym averse. This is a set of standards for marking up HTML5 web content to improve accessibility, especially web apps.
Silhouetted peace signs. Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash
Today I attended an Advance HE webinar on gender based violence, not directly related to my core work, but something which everyone should have some education on. This was a panel discussion led by colleagues in Scotland, where the approach to education and prevention of GBV in HE and FE institutions is tackled more holistically than in England, where it tends only to be seen through a criminal justice lens.
The session began with a definition of gender based violence from James Lang, as “any form of violence used to establish, enforce or perpetuate gender inequalities and keep in place the gendered order. Gender based violence is a policing mechanism.” A good definition which is inclusive of the violence which can be directed towards the LGBT+ community who face particular forms of violence such as outing and being denied access to medical treatment. There was a good comment about the LGBT+ community being targets of violence because we are “doing gender wrong”.
The discussion moved on to talk about the Equally Safe in Higher Education initiative which is being piloted at the University of Strathclyde. This is a toolkit of resources designed for HE and FE institutions to help approach and address the issue, including things such as how to educate staff and students, and how to design inclusive and supportive policies. The website is well worth a good read, and contains numerous helpline and links out to other organisations that can help.
CanvasCon had to go online this year due to the pandemic, but the (very small) silver lining, is that it meant I got to attend. Some things worked very well in the new format, others not so much, but the content of the sessions was very high. I attended all of the keynote addresses from both Instructure and the guest speakers, a handful of the partner sessions, and a number of HE admin and Faculty led sessions which were presented by colleagues at institutions using Canvas.
The day began with a keynote and welcome address from Instructure which was the standard corporate fare of how well they are doing and how great Canvas is, but one slide really stood out for me (first screenshot above), on how they have managed capacity during the pivot to online learning. To paraphrase, all usage records have been broken, but not Canvas. Can confirm: we’ve had no significant outages or degradation of service at Sunderland. Interestingly they saw this coming in February when the impact of the pandemic was starting to be felt in Asia, and took pre-emptive action before lockdowns were implemented in the US and Europe.
‘Education makes you dangerous’ is a quote I’ll remember from LeVar Burton, the first guest keynote speaker who talked about his passion for education, storytelling, and his work with Reading Rainbow. Another nugget which struck a chord was the ‘right to define your own destiny’. It was a good speech, invigorating, a reminder of the purpose of education and why I have chosen this career.
Instructure’s Chief Product Officer, Mitch Benson, gave a presentation on their focus on innovation, and how they are going to continue to respond and adapt to the changing needs institutions have as a result of the pandemic, such as integrating more options for online tutoring and pastoral care. This segment was delivered as a newscast, and I have to say they absolutely nailed it. This could have been really cringy, but the mix of content and professionalism of the delivery was spot on. Bonus points for the panda co-host.
I then attended a couple of user-led sessions in the HE Admin conference strand. First, on how instructors are really using Canvas by Bob Edmison at Virginia Tech, who developed a ‘depth of use’ metric of data points indicating how, and how well, staff are using the VLE. I say VLE, because they started this work prior to migrating to Canvas from Sakai, and the metric was designed to be platform agnostic. It was a really interesting talk which will feed into the VLE usage standards project which is ongoing at Sunderland. The second session was Jim Federico at Microsoft who talked about how they are working with Instructure to build deeper integrations with Microsoft products, particularly Teams. It was a little hush-hush, I’m not sure how much I can say about this, but what they showed looked really good, and I’m looking forward to seeing these features rolled out over the coming year. Jim win’s my Pun of the Conference award for including a photo in his presentation of ‘On-Lawn Learning’.
I also jumped into some of the partner sessions which replaced the usual conference stalls where partner companies can showcase their wares. One good one I looked at was Qwickly which allows tutors to make batch changes to things like announcements and adjusting assignment settings. The partner sessions were delivered on a platform called Remo which attempts to replicate the boardroom style aesthetic of conferences. You can see this in one of my screenshots which I’ve posted above. I get what they are trying to do with this, but for me it absolutely did not work. I found it artificial and annoying. Rooms which had a presentation had an unnecessarily small thumbnail for it at the top where a stage would be, and the table metaphor was awful. To interact with anyone, you had to join a table and then you could only chat with people at that table. But it’s so artificial, and then it didn’t even work within its own context, as you can see in the screenshot, despite the ‘tables’ having six ‘chairs’, I couldn’t join a table with an open spot because it was actually limited to 5 for some reason. I have a feeling a lot of people shared my experience, as there was little interaction or evidence of any significant use in any of the rooms I entered, and I quickly lost interest in trying to engage with them.
That was it for me on the live day of the conference, as I wasn’t able to engage with any sessions running in the afternoon as, despite my boss instructing us to treat this like we were going away to a conference and keep our calendars free for it, people still put meetings in for me that I couldn’t decline, so that was something else that didn’t work. Not a failing of the conference itself, but of culture. I note it because it is something to be aware of when planning or attending online conferences. The flip side success is that Instructure recorded all of the presentations, so I was able to watch a few more things that I had missed out on in the following days.
The big one was the second guest keynote from Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy. This took the form of an interview which was a nice break, another example of doing something different from the usual format which worked well. Sal talked about how he founded and grew Khan Academy, from teaching maths skills to his immediate family, to 110 million users today. I enjoyed seeing Sal’s humanity, and humility; the extent of his sci-fi book collection which you could see behind him, and the need for a human touch was a theme that came up throughout the interview, and a key factor he attributes to the success of the Academy.
I also watched a few more end-user led sessions, including from Kona Jones on ‘Designing for Kindness’ in which the theme was something that goes that little bit beyond accessibility, to making content which induces students to learn by being helpful, friendly, and well-structured. It wasn’t so much the ‘tips and tricks’ that I got from this session, as I was pleased to note we’re pretty much doing everything that Kona recommended, but the emphasis on why. Checking the quality of your captions, for example, is not a chore we should do for the sake of legislative compliance, but an act of kindness towards students who may need to use them. That did resonate, and will inform how I deliver accessibility staff development in future. Finally, I watched the ‘Owning Your Data’ session from a couple of the techies at Instructure which talked about changes and improvements to the Canvas Data Portal and related planned changes to simplify the database structure.
Finally, finally, my coveted Bookcase of the Conference Award! If there is one big positive that has come of pandemic home working, it’s getting to nose at people’s bookcases. And judge them. Both LeVar Burton and Sal Khan gave their keynotes in front of some impressive collections, but they both lose points for having haphazard stacks. LeVar’s collection appears the more elegant and classy, very important considerations, but ruined by a TV right in the middle of them! For shame. Therefore, the award must go to Sal Khan and his impressive sci-fi. Well done Sal, and well done Instructure for managing to deliver an engaging and useful online conference which had some genuinely innovative ideas and experiments.
A summary of Sunderland’s flexible working schemes
Attending some HR training today on the University’s new Flex Select work scheme, but which also covered flexible working in general. Flex Select is a new scheme that has been launched to – and everyone’s being very honest about this – save money in these hard Covid times, and is set to run for the next 12 months. The scheme is designed to enable staff to request more flexible working, such as reducing their hours, without having to go through the old, more formal flexible working policy which was drafted with flexible working legislation in mind. Given the workload of myself and the team, I doubt there will be anyone who can work fewer hours! But in pre-Covid times I did have one of my team move onto compressed hours, 37 over 4, which had to be managed carefully within the team.
Nevertheless, it’s good to be up to speed with these things, and I got a lot from the session. It’s good that the University is trying to change its culture a little. Of course practically the whole university was forced into a remote working when the lockdown began in March, and now with some people going back on a hybrid model, managers are being asked to have a ‘default yes’ position to requests under Flex Select, and to consider all requests with an open mind, considering other options where appropriate. I did not know, for example, that buying extra annual leave is often a better option than reducing hours because it doesn’t affect your pension and no contract changes are required.
Apart from Flex Select, I learned a lot more about the differences between our other various options, including buying annual leave, job sharing, career breaks, and phased retirement (popular with academics). I also learned, to the surprise of no-one, that flexible working is vastly more popular with women and people on lower salary bands. (Grumble, destroy the patriarchy.)
It’ll be interesting to see how many of these changes are kept, and how much of a cultural shift will be permanent when we get on top of the pandemic; a very big question a lot of people will be asking.
Screen capture of this blog in ‘Blurred Vision’ mode
Our accessibility webinar this week was really useful. They demonstrated the Color Contrast Checker I mentioned last time in more detail and showed how it can be used across applications and web content, and then explained a bit about the science behind contrasting colours and how the W3C derived the contrast ratios which we use.
Most strikingly impressive though was a demonstration of Chrome’s ‘Emulate Visual Deficiencies’ tool which is somewhat buried in their Developer Tools. I had to DuckDuckGo for a guide on how to find it, but you can just click this link. In the screenshot I’ve posted here you can see what my website looks like with ‘Blurred vision’ emulated, and the tool can also emulate various types of colour blindness.
Don’t forget that Chrome and Google are still evil and don’t care about your privacy though. Firefox also has a developer tool for accessibility called the Accessibility Inspector, it’s just not as striking and impressive as Chrome’s emulator. Hopefully they’ll steal the idea.