York Technical College in Rock Hill, S.C., knows how to be proactive. When other educational facilities in South Carolina faced litigation around their lack of accessibility for students with disabilities, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) gave technical colleges in the state an opportunity to receive feedback on their compliance measures. Ginger Dewey, distance learning department manager at York, seized on OCR’s offer. “We found some things we wanted to fix, and we wanted a tool that would help us across the board,” Dewey says.
Because the college had already deployed the Brightspace by Desire2Learn (D2L) online learning management system (LMS), Dewey’s team faced the twin tasks of boosting accessibility while also finding a solution that could cleanly integrate with the existing software. ReadSpeaker, along with its docReader and TextAid products targeted at learning and documentation-heavy environments, was the answer. The text-to-speech platforms addressed each of the team’s accessibility concerns and also had built-in capabilities to align with the college’s LMS without missing a beat.
The implementation followed a phased-in approach that begin in September 2015 with the installation of docReader. After evaluating York’s student-facing offerings against OCR’s statewide findings, Dewey says the team identified several opportunities to improve accessibility. Students with low vision who were using computers or mobile devices, for example, had few options to increase readability. Dewey recalls, “They were needing to blow the text up so large.”
Zooming in on the limited screen real estate afforded by many smartphones and tablets left students with a cumbersome experience as they attempted to navigate a single page. “Instead, ReadSpeaker gives them the option to just listen,” Dewey says.
Mobile accessibility was another area where students had been seeking better support. With the implementation of ReadSpeaker, York now enables students to download content as MP3 files so they can listen to course material through any compatible player. “It’s a positive move, because students want to be mobile,” Dewey says. “They don’t always have a computer in front of them.” Learning can now continue whether students are commuting to or from school, taking a break at work, or relaxing at home in the evening.
At York, usage of the ReadSpeaker systems typically peaks at the beginning of each new term and when exams roll around, with more than 1,300 downloads recorded at the start of the most recent fall quarter. That reflects a use rate of more than 20 percent of York’s nearly 5,000 students. The data also shows that students are increasingly turning to ReadSpeaker to bolster their educational efforts, with downloads steadily climbing each term.
York’s students can also access a broader range of content than ever before. Websites and other information—any digitized document, essentially—can be read aloud with ReadSpeaker TextAid, which the school implemented in October. Using a browser bookmark, students have easy access to the tool through their D2L login. “It speeds up their research,” Dewey says. “It’s helpful for those who are English as a second language (ESL) students, for those who are low readers or who have low vision, even those who are simply auditory learners.”
Class content wasn’t the only thing students wanted to access via text-to-speech, and York understood that research and other related activities could all be better supported through the ReadSpeaker platform.
Benefits Beyond Accessibility
Increasing students’ ability to access course content hasn’t been the only upside from York’s ReadSpeaker deployment. “If you use two or more modes of learning at the same time, you retain information longer,” Dewey says. It’s a concept she experienced firsthand while captioning video-based course material. “I was seeing it with my eyes as well as hearing it with my ears, and I was retaining an awful lot as a result.”
Paul Stisser, ReadSpeaker’s business development manager for e-learning and mobility, says clients in the education sector frequently discover a broader need for text-to-speech technology once their students have access to the system. “We’re seeing students who are undiagnosed or who are protective of their disability and don’t want to disclose it,” he explains. “It can result in course failures and increased dropout rates.” An access-anywhere tool such as ReadSpeaker means those students don’t need to visit designated areas or classrooms to use text-to-speech. “ReadSpeaker fills that gap by giving them a button they can press and listen to their content,” Stisser says.
A variety of student needs can be supported through the platform, and Stisser says everyone, from students who aren’t native speakers to those whose classes include complex terminology, can benefit from text-to-speech. “Being able to hear a word while also seeing it highlighted is a great way to support the educational needs of a range of students,” he explains.
Once an unexpected glitch with the existing LMS system was resolved—several installations within South Carolina’s educational arm had been inadvertently combined into a single administrative instance and needed to be separated out—Dewey says the ReadSpeaker deployment was “very quick, very slick.”
Training for York staff consisted of little more than a short introduction that alerted them to the presence of the system and provided an overview of the features—highlighting and playback speed options among them—that were available to students using the program. “A quick email took care of all that, and then faculty pointed the students to the ReadSpeaker button,” Dewey says.
Students’ use of ReadSpeaker began immediately after installation. “Even before any literature was distributed, they found the prominent button and started using it,” Dewey says. The metrics tool within ReadSpeaker enables download rates to be monitored for trends and spikes. “Just in the first day, we had a couple hundred downloads,” Dewey says.
App at a Glance
Since installing ReadSpeaker's docReader and TextAid text-to-speech technologies, York Technical College has seen the following results:
- use of the applications by nearly 20 percent of its 5,000 students;
- more than 1,300 downloads at the start of the most recent fall quarter; and
- increased compliance with state and federal accessibility regulations.