Making Technology Accessible

I have the great fortune this week to be attending a workshop entitled “Differentiating with Technology” by EdTechTeacher. Our facilitator is the brilliant Beth Holland. After the first day, the workshop has me thinking a lot about what I have NOT been doing for my students.

Lifestyle photo shoot for the McKay School of Education, Friday January 30, 2015, Utah Valley University (Nathaniel Ray Edwards, UVU Marketing)

I generally consider myself pretty adept with educational technology. I have been a classroom teacher, an instructional designer, and a college professor specializing in adolescent psychology and technology integration. I currently run the Educational Technology Master’s degree program at Utah Valley University. I have developed copious online materials, engaged my students in podcasting, movie making, collaborative writing, and great digital formative assessments. I’ve even created SCORM-compliant interactive flash activities to enhance learning and retention.

But today’s topics have opened my eyes to the great disservice I have been doing to the majority of my students, particularly those with hearing or visual impairments, and for students who are English-language learners. I have been teaching to an average that does not exist.

Happily, the workshop has not left me in despair. Rather, I have been exposed today to a variety of simple and amazing tools that can help my students access and engage with my class materials in a variety of ways. My plan is to create a page that I will put in the LMS for each of my courses that will introduce my students to these tools and encourage them to use them to maximize their learning. Here are just a few of the tools I have learned about today:

dictionaryGoogle Dictionary (Chrome extension) – will define any word my students highlight in online materials. This is particularly useful for English-language learners and my struggling readers. On the iPad, users can hold their finger on a word and then choose “define.”

SpeakIt (Chrome extension) – will read any online text aloud for my students who are visually impaired or who learn better through auditory means. I can also save the computer-read text as an audio file for students to access. On the iPad, users can enable the Speech Selection feature under Settings>General>Accessibility and then hold their finger on any word or select any text passage and choose “Speak.”

readlistsReadlists – allows me to compile a list of websites that I want my students to read in one place. Students can then print them, read them online or download them as an ePub (for iBooks, Google Play Books, Kindle, etc.) or PDF and annotate them as desired. This also works with SpeakIt and other screen readers.

NewsELA – hosts articles that you can customize to individual students’ lexile levels, allowing every student in your class to engage with the content at THEIR level.

Google Docs – I know, I know. This is NOT a new tool! In fact, I was kind of annoyed when they started talking about it. But then Beth paired it with NewsELA, creating ability groups with their own folders in Google Docs, saving the leveled readings to the folder, and then pre-loading the readings with questions using the Comments feature. Students in the group then engaged with the reading, replying to the comments and asking their own questions.

The whole workshop was built around the Universal Design for Learning framework, which focuses on three principles: Engagement, Representation, and Action & Expression. In short, how can we better engage students in the learning process (why), represent content (what), and allow students to act on the content and express their understanding (how) in ways that reach all of our students. You can learn more about UDL at


I know that I won’t be able to do everything that I need to with regard to UDL and accessibility by the time school starts in August, but I can definitely make some positive steps forward. I can make a quick page that exposes my students to these tools and others that I will learn about tomorrow, advising them on how to use them to enhance their learning, and include that page in my LMS. I can send the videos that I frequently use in class to our Accessibility Services department for closed captioning. And I can think seriously about how to use technology and other resources to make my instruction more engaging, to offer multiple representations of content, and to offer students opportunities to act and express themselves.

I can’t wait to see what tomorrow’s session brings, and to share it with you!

by Suzy Cox – UCET Board

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is Director of Technology for the College of Education and Human Services at Utah State University. In that role, he also directs The Adele & Dale Young Education Technology Center (The YETC) located in room 170 of the Education Building on Utah State University's Logan campus. The YETC is a combination student open­access computer facility, a K­12 curriculum materials library, a NASA Educator Resource Center for Utah, and a technology training center. Nathan served eight years (2004­2012) on the Board of Directors for the Utah Coalition for Education Technology (UCET) He was re­elected in 2014 to serve another two year term on the board. A former elementary school teacher, Nathan has taught students every age from young children to senior citizens. He has had the opportunity beginning in 2011 to train international high school teachers from all over the world about technology in education, through the U.S. State

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