E59 – Interview with John Tubbs

John Tubbs is an educator working for about thirty years in the area of high tech, digital education, online learning. He discusses accessibility and accomodations for students with disabilities – a topic we don’t hear enough about. He points out that his team is working towards universal accessible documents that can later be customized, rather than wait students to request accommodations and then scramble to make it happen.


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Nic: Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. You’re listening to episode 59. I’m Nic Steenhout and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. If you’re interested in accessibility, hey, this show’s for you.

To get today’s show notes or transcript, head out to https://a11yrules.com.

Thanks to Twilio for sponsoring the transcript for this episode. Twilio, connect the world with the leading platform for voice, SMS and video at Twilio.com.

So today I’m speaking with John Tubbs. John, thanks for joining me for this conversation around web accessibility.

John: My pleasure.

Nic: So, as you may know by now I like to let guests introduce themselves. So, in a brief intro, whose John Tubbs?

John: Well, John Tubbs is an educator working for about thirty years in the area of high tech, digital education, online learning. It has a variety of names depending on what area you’re talking from but I did start pre-internet so I have some different insights than the people who are working more in today.

I’m at the University of Illinois for the last twenty years. Working first in the agriculture school for fourteen years. Then I worked in central IT in the online learning unit there. And then for the last years, I’ve been in the Gies College of Business and where we have been a big focus on large MOOC programmes that lead into graduate degree programmes. And those two degree programmes are MBA programme and our MSA. Masters of Science and Accountancy.

Nic: Right

John: Both of those are collaborations with Coursera for part of the course and then the high engagement part, the high touch part is done on a different platform here on campus.

Nic: Right. So that seems to be keeping you busy. Twenty years at the University of Illinois. Has there been a lot of change to how things are done? Obviously going from pre-internet, pre-high tech to today. What kind of massive changes have you seen?

John: Well if we want to look specifically at, sort of, accessibility topics within that … in 1987 there was no such thing, really as software that was accessible, for the most part. Or was there an internet or any communication short of very crude BBS systems. Bulletin board systems. But going back there, there’s a funny story. The first thing that exposed me to dealing with assistive technology. I was at a CESA office. That’s Cooperative Ed Service Agency and those are dotted all around Wisconsin where I was working at that point. And this dairy farmer came up and he was blind. And he came up and said, “I’m going to demonstrate today how I do my books”. And he was working on an Apple 2e running VisiCalc. The first spreadsheet to run on personal computers. And he had the orange speech synthesis card in that Apple 2e and he ran down his numbers for his dairy operation and he said, “Tell me what month you want to hear final statistics on and final sales on” and he let that orange speech synthesizer run and I could not and nor could anyone else in the room understand a darn thing it was saying. And yet with the tap of an arrow key, he landed exactly on November of 1986 and told us exactly what he sold that month. And my jaw was on the floor. I was amazed. And that stuck with me for the next thirty years or so, of, wow, there are things that we can do when it comes to accessibility. So I’ve carried that through all the way and as the ability to provide accessible content online has expanded, both the technical capabilities but also the needs. I’ve tried to follow suit as well as I could through the years. And that starts back in Illinois. I was one of the first people on campus to do a lot of streaming media. So, in the places where we could provide accessible video productions, live streaming or whatever. We did what we could. I was doing a lot of work early on with SMIL. Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language. And that was sort of a hybrid of captioning, motion … time display of images along with an audio track. And so that provided us some options and I worked for a couple of sessions with John Gunderson here from our Illinois campus whose a…

Nic: Oh yeah?

John: … a disability rockstar.  And he was, again, one of those people that kind of gave me a nudge saying, “Hey, you’ve got the right tools. Now take them further”. And so that’s… Was a big push. About nineteen years ago and then as of late, as we’ve grown into, really what I think of as a campus level YouTube using the [kelterer? 05:04] platform we’ve been working extensively on getting our captioning working and that. One of the shortfalls that we don’t like to see is that we don’t have description in there and that is a big part of what we do. And so that’s led me down the path of the last two years of pursuing audio description and more specifically extended audio description based on content we have to really deliver to these online graduate degree programmes. And things that have some, often rather technical diagrams and information.

Nic: Yeah. I’d like to talk a little bit more about that but before going much into depth about the technical aspect. I’d love for you to tell us something that most people would not know about you.

John: Something that most people would not know about me? Hmm. Well likely that would be that along with doing my work in education I’ve also been a professional bassist for more years than that even than education. I still play three or four times a month around the area. But that was part of the studio side that got me into all of this. Which is, I spent a lot of time making records and such in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. And that exposed me to the recording aspect of the … what we do with online media. And so that gave me, again, a different little insight into this. Anything else that’s unique… I love to ride bikes. I’ve got a kid who loves to Ballet dance. And I have a lovely wife who is an English Professor here on campus.

Nic: That’s a … that’s a good rounded approach to life. Having good family. Having music and culture and then working in tech at University.

So, John every people I speak to seems to have a variation on the definition of web accessibility. How would you define that?

John: Since I work in an instructional environment the need to provide equal access to instruction materials is the crucial part. What am I going to be able to provide with my team with the platforms that we have to work within. Sometimes we don’t get to choose those platforms. What can we do to make the students success equal across the board for anybody abled or disabled? Where do we have to adapt? What do we have to adapt? Methods we have to use. The intersection of the technologies that may help or hinder. The development of these assistive technologies or alternative content. The interesting part about where I’ve been going in the past couple of years because I said I was in MOOCs. The Massive Open Online Courses, we have over half a million learners. In our MOOCs at Illinois right now through the Coursera platform. And because of that, we don’t have any idea who those learners are. We don’t know what they bring to the table for any assistive needs or any alternative format needs. So we have to provide things that are … I don’t want to say generic but I think the better term is truly universal design. We don’t have the ability or the knowledge of how to make a specific accommodation. And that makes it … there’s some difficulty to that but at the same time, we’ve sort of looked at that as an advantage because it forces us to make universal content that we know will work in as many places as possible. So, unlike, I guess what has been traditionally done in the higher education environment which is a student comes in with a letter of accommodation and we provide what we need to provide to make that student successful. Now we don’t get that letter of accommodation from, probably fifty thousand learners in our MOOC’s that have some sort of disability. So we have to rely upon good universal content as well as the good qualities of that learner to be able to consume that content. So they have to bring their own skills, their own needs, their own methods to the table.

Nic: Yeah. That would be a challenge to ensure that but I think that’s probably, ultimately the only approach. It’s not sustainable to make arrangements for one student at a time when we’re starting to look at scaling to five hundred thousand users at large, that as you say, maybe fifty thousand have accessibility needs. I think developing a course that is universally accessible is probably a better answer.

John: Well the thing that’s interesting about what we do… we talk about that fifty thousand learner audience that we’re likely having to serve, but at the same time we take that same learning materials back in and we use them in our undergraduate environments. Where we do have that known. One student in this particular class has a need. Well, if have universal content, when we do have to target the application of that content as we provide it… if we start from universal to really put it into that unique need is much easier than starting from scratch. So, we look as sort of an ability to go from a broad audience to a more narrow audience as quickly and as easily as possible. A perfect example was we have a course in marketing that just launched, we are in our fourth week of classes here for the regular semester for our on-campus undergraduate student’s and in week three, at the end of week three, we received a letter of accommodation about captioning. And so we are all of a sudden two and a half weeks at least behind the eight ball in terms of delivering caption videos and everything like that. This is a situation where it’s not coming … it’s not an adaptation of any of our MOOC programmes so we were starting from zero but we have the mechanisms in place that we can move very quickly and we had captions available within forty-eight hours for that student. Once we knew that we needed to have that. So, it’s nice to be prepared. It’s nice to have the universal documents sort of, you know, on the shelf that we can pull down and adapt but also like everybody else we have to have some ‘just in time’ strategies in place and that’s one of the things we make sure we do have.

Nic: Yeah. One of the things that I encountered when I was working in higher ed was that students with disabilities … some students with disabilities would come in and expect to have all the accommodations there before they even had to request it and that was a bit of a headache sometimes because if you don’t know that somebody needs something specific that is not really necessarily covered with universal accessibility, universal design of coursework it can be a bit of a problem. Do you find that by and large student’s expect to have things accessible for their own particular needs or are they generally pretty good at talking to you about saying, “Hey this is what I need how can we make it happen?”.

John: Well the tricky part about that, of course, and how that actually legally things happen… the letter for accommodation from that individual student comes to our disability resource unit on campus. That then goes through the person whose advocating for that student on campus. That letter then goes to the instructor. Legally I can’t see that letter. So I have to work with that instructor to get them sort of translating the need from the student. Sometimes, now I will be honest, it sneaks through what specifically they have, what they need. We don’t necessarily know the students name but we get a lot of information which is extremely helpful. In a practical way. The reality is the instructor is not a disability person. He or She has no real knowledge or skills in this area. We hope to give them those knowledge and skills but we are the folks, with our team putting those things together. So the difference in terms of the student having that expectation of ‘it’s got to be for me, its got to be for me’ I have to say, and I can’t put any real qualitative data on this but over time in my twenty years here at Illinois, I’ve seen that change though. And I think a change probably for the practical pragmatic good. And that the students today, given the type of technology that they have with them. Their phones, their tablets, their whatever. Their assistive devices are not so darn specialised and unique anymore. You know? A tablet, a mobile phone, do so much that would’ve been a backpack full of specialised fancy touch boards, speech synthesizers, whatever it might’ve been. That would’ve been very unique. Very finicky and require very custom content built for them. Now universal design has a much better chance of meeting the student’s needs right out of the gate rather than a lot of adaptation. So that’s really powerful. I mean, I look back in… I was working in a K12 district in 1991 and I was the technology coordinator, computer coordinator, whatever they wanted to call me… sometimes I thought of myself as the digital janitor. But in doing all of that, I walked into a special ed classroom one day and the instructor is in there and she says, “I can’t get my speech synthesizer to work”. And it was, you know, a big touch board with a speech synthesizer attached to it so you could tap on something for communication. Well, this was a cryptic system to get set up on the back end. On an Apple 2gs at the time. So running off floppy discs, all of this. And hours of calls to support and stuff. And we would get it running and then it would fall apart again. It was such a fragile piece of technology. And now, you know, that would be a touch thing on an iPad and it would be an app you bought at the app store and it would be done. So, this is the great part of the evolution that I’ve personally seen. [unintelligible 15:49] let’s me rely upon more on the universally designed stuff rather than uniquely designed stuff.

Nic: John, you strike me as someone who will do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do and provide access to students with disabilities because well, bottom line is they need access to education. What would you comment in terms of the impact in terms of the legalities on the legal requirement to accessibility as opposed to doing the right thing?

John: Well doing the right thing is definitely what I like to think of as proactive. It’s building into the workflow, into your instructional materials build that you’re just doing the right thing from the get-go. Right from the time that you get content from an instructor that it starts being tailored for a Mooc for a learning management system that’s on your local campus. Is it for digital materials that are going to go out such as handouts and videos and all that kind of stuff. You start with those workflows right then. That’s the right thing. But when you do have a student who comes in and has very very specific needs and are strongly advocating for getting those needs met then you do get more into the concern of legal if we don’t hit those exact needs we do have some potential legal liability in that situation. And that requires, as it always has, a significant amount of attention to that one particular case. And I think we will always have those situation arise. But, again, I think… like I just mentioned about the transition to less specialised assistive technologies whereas there are assistive technologies built into consumer good. iPads, iPhones, Android phones etc laptops. We have a better chance and that hardcore legal problem of providing the access for a particular use case starts to diminish a little bit. None the less you have to have… you know, be ready to handle a legal situation like this and deal with the proper documentation of the efforts that you’ve been working on so you know what’s going on, having audits of your materials so you can say, “We’ve done what we could and we have had other people vet our materials. We know that they’re good. We know that they’re hitting wcag 2.1 AA, we tried to go for AAA for a lot of our stuff especially descriptive video” and those sorts of things. So we get all those things documented and that’s the only way then if that difficult situation arises where you do have some legal questions, concerns, challenges. You as a content creator can put forth the evidence I guess to give it a better word, to say, “yeah, we are doing the right thing”. Once that’s out there you discuss what the right thing and this request are and how you can intersect that so everybody can be successful.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah I like that approach. There’s a lot about lawsuits that that are happening over and over and over in our community right now and most of the people in the accessibility community aren’t too happy about that. But I think your approach would probably save a lot of people from being sued. You do the right thing and you document that and you just…you’re ready to roll with the punches and make modifications if you need to.

John: Right. It’s like you say, two fold. It’s having core materials that can adapt quickly to a very targeted situation rather than starting from scratch and having the things behind you that can support what you’re doing. And I’ll be frank. It doesn’t come free. You know? To get a properly laid out and quality audit does require money to throw at that process but we audit so many other things in higher education whether it be building safety or we audit our curriculum to make sure it meets accreditation standards to provide degrees. So the idea of an audit in higher ed is not new. This is just a different kind of audit that we have to account for in our cost of doing business as a higher education institution. And I’m extremely grateful to our college. The Gies college of business for stepping up and providing the support for my group to do that sort of auditing. It’s been very crucial in our success going forward. I unfortunately to have to say not every unit on our campus and I would say it’s probably true on many many campuses if not all campuses… there are have-not’s in terms of units and colleges and such that probably couldn’t financially do the kind of things we are doing but hopefully our example of what we are doing and we team up with our local DRS – Disability and Resource and Services unit, again, John Gunderson is one of the lead people there that I’ve always worked with. That we can spread that need, that message, that urgency to other units on campus. And so I feel fortunate to be sort of  in a lead role as a college to help spread this across the rest of our campus. To show that it can be done.

Nic: But, John, ultimately isn’t it cheaper to spend the money on an audit than spend the money on a lawsuit?

John: Uh, hopefully. Yes. The better you’re audited the better you have true documentation that you’re doing the right thing… hopefully, yes that does avoid lawsuits. I guess I couldn’t say a hundred percent that we’ll always avoid a lawsuit but you can make sure that you as a content provider can quantify that you have done the right stuff. And that, again, so you can come to a good agreement as to what might subtely be changes that we need to do. But if it’s passed the guidelines. If it’s being verified. If it’s being used successfully by other users you have to look on that individual persons means of consuming the content and maybe come through and maybe give them some new strategies. I can never dictate one…what somebody else is going to do to consume the content that our group creates but I can certainly be as helpful as possible to try and assist.

Nic: Yeah. What kind of barriers did you face or are you currently facing in terms of implementing accessibility and how are you getting over them?

John: Well, the biggest barrier, and especially when we look at what we are doing with the MOOCs… currently we have around sixty MOOCs on the Coursera platform and those are usually four to eight module type courses. So in a sense think of them as a half a semester to a…well, quarter a semester to a half a semester worth of content. So, that’s a lot of content out there. And, by no means are we done with all sixty but we… to eliminate the barriers we try to make a sensible workflow out of what we do. And we pick up things like captioning in one stage of our production. We pick up the description of our charts, graphs, other visual kind of content in another part of our process. So we are constantly merging things coming from a variety of places. We rely upon automatic sync as an outside vendor to provide some of our captions and some of our description work that…One when we just can’t get to it. So there’s a barrier of time. How we overcome the barrier of time is we have to outsource things and certain moments in our production cycle because we just have too much at that time to get through with our existing staff. So, time… we have straight labour issues. Moving through that amount of content and we have… we’re about ready to wrap up a search for a new ADA compliance lead in our unit that will be taking the ownership of managing our work right now. We have been sharing the leadership between myself and Jinhee Choo whose an instructional designer but has a very strong interest and working knowledge in accessible documents. So, we’re expanding our human side to reduce barriers and we also have just an amazing stable of grad students that we use. I think we probably have seven or eight grad students that work very consistently on adapting our materials into HTML formats. Everything we try to do is HTML we don’t go to proprietary formats like PDF, Word etc We take all our documents to HTML so they’re ultimately flexible so these… this crew of seven / eight grad students are working on these things constantly whether that be adapting the slides, from a live session course. So, you know, live teaching synchronous or from our asynchronous content on demand content. They’re adapting the individual documents. The readings, the handouts, that sort of thing. Adapting and arranging our transcripts in a way. So, I don’t think we have insurmountable barriers at this point but it’s a matter again of providing the right resources to jump over those barriers. But, again, I think we have a pretty consistent workflow so it’s easier for us to deal with barriers and deal with maybe crunch times and meeting the demand. So, it’s putting the right things in place. In the old days the barriers would be just, who can do the captioning. Anybody can do it whether it be an outsource vendor or something. I’ve been working with automatic sync and other outside vendors for fifteen years so I know that that’s just something I have in my budget ready to go in case I need to use it. And send it down and get it captioned by them if we can’t do it internally with our, you know, either the unit I’m personally in or our disability resource unit on campus. Other barriers, again, from a technical standpoint are getting better and better. From a technical standpoint I don’t see too many barriers right now with the exception of the learning management systems. And this is not to gripe or complain but Coursera still has difficulty with accessibility with the platform itself. Getting in, navigating, moving through a lesson, moving through module to module. That sort of thing. It’s a new platform. They’re, like any new platform they’re having some growing pains. And we are working extensively with them. We have team of four people on our campus that meet weekly to discuss platform concerns and identify those to Coursera and they have a GitHub repository and a priority sheet that’s working on undoing those things. So it’s always progress it’s never going to be perfection at any moment. So the Learning Management System is probably the biggest hoop and unfortunately it’s not something that’s not directly under the control of my team. It is something we have to rely upon from an outside party. So there’s that whole sort of relationship that we have to maintain.

Nic: Would you say that’s your greatest frustration in terms of accessibility and if not what would it be?

John: The greatest frustration? Hmmm. I guess the greatest frustration is meeting the need of an individual’s expectations. That just is probably the most difficult thing to do when you’re out there and you’re doing all the right things and yet it never quite seems enough. And that’s an unfortunate thing. I’m not meaning anybody with a disability at this moment because we are all disabled and abled at different times in our life. I can’t identify with the situation that other people might be facing and that are going through my content. I try to be as empathetic as possible and understand the needs but if someone’s been running up into a brick wall for the last ten years of trying to get a degree I can fully understand the frustrations that they might be facing. And we are here to make success. But at the same time there is a reality that we are facing. And so when we don’t have a sort of an equal give and take between us as content creators and a learner as a content consumer that has to be a solid relationship when it is a one to one kind of thing. So that’s very difficult. It can just take communications and really, partnership. And it has to be realized that it is a partnership. Universal design is not really a partnership in the sense that we just make something that meets the standards and we put it out there for anybody to use. Like I said, the MOOCs, we get fifty thousand disabled users most likely. I’m never going to know who they are. I’m never going to have that partnership. So I just have to know as a programme that we are providing the best we can as an anonymous partner so to speak. We are doing due diligence. But when we have that known targeted accommodation that’s where it’s tough. And if we don’t have that give and take, don’t have that relationship, it can be a very touchy situation.

Nic: So, we spoke about a bit of frustrating things… on a more positive spin, what’s your greatest achievement do you think in terms of web accessibility?

John: I think that the greatest achievement that I’ve had is developing a way to discuss accessibility, to look at accessibility as not a bolt on but a core part of what we do and then getting the administrative body to buy into that. And that’s what I have right now at the Gies College of business. I mean it’s…

Nic: That’s massive.

John: It truly is. Because, I think, as you see, even in our local disability resource unit on campus there are campus wide support but they don’t get the buy in… the true buy in, administratively. From either central campus or individual units that might be having to engage their services. They just are always never resourced enough. And I’d have to say I have an amazing blessing to have that at this point. Whether that’s outside services of audits and captioning description kind of services and products we’re purchasing and using. To know that the internal tea, we have working specifically on disability in our individual Gies College of Business, probably ten people at this point.

Nic: Right

John: And that’s pretty awesome. And they’re not a hundred percent 1.0 full time employees but they’re all people that are having some sort of contribution to it. Brining it in and making it a core part of how we operate is probably the biggest achievement I guess I would have to say that I have seen. If I said one individual project I think that would be short-sighted. So for me right now it’s all about the process and the workflow. If there’s one thing in terms of more of a tangible thing would be the HTML extended transcript document kind of thing that we have evolved over the last year and a half. Thinking of what can be a universally designed piece of content that we can put out to a MOOC scale audience. That fifty thousand unknown accommodations. And that is a ….I wouldn’t say trial and error but it was a mixing and blending and knowing what we can keep, what we don’t need to keep. Fine tuning it to eliminate redundancies based on, if I come in as a visually disabled user versus I come in as a audible … audibly disabled user versus a physically disabled user. What are we putting in that extended transcript document which what we try to do is be as most inclusive of ways that consume our content in terms of looking at a video, hearing a video, reading through the support content of a video, putting that in one easy deliverable. It’s as you know, as you build universal content on the web you sometimes have to break rules. The normal rules of what you would learn in accessibility 101 may not apply itself. ‘Coz I’m right now on accessibility 701. In terms of the way, the how, the content that we’re building is going to. So working with others to get that input. To get that audit saying, “Hey this works but it’s a little clumsy for this group”.

Nic: Yeah

John: Those are the things that I think are fascinating. I think we are getting significantly closer with this format. I’m jazzed because we’re going to be very shortly releasing our first run of these extended transcript type documents as .epubs.

Nic: Nice

John: And this will easily aid in the delivery of a single document into the MOOC audience where they can download, get all the extended transcripts. Get versions of the video inside of a single document. Rather than a website that has to be sifted or sorted and downloaded as a zip archive etc. Just that single deliverable will be very, very, very efficient. Easier for us in the end run to support. Easier for the learner to download and consume again in their own way. And frankly, I’m preaching to the choir here but a beautifully universally created set of materials helps everybody. And we are an MBA programme. We have business people that are taking our programme and they’re flying four days a week. They’re up in a plane, but they’ve got to go to class. They’ve got to use the materials. If we can give that in a single downloadable epub rather than having to have them always relient on being in learning management system. That’s a huge win. For everybody.

Nic: Yeah. Definitely

John: And that’s an ask we get all the time. From our students. It’s that, “Well, I want to do this in the plane” or “I want to do this in my hotel room with a crappy wifi connection”. Wherever. “I want to listen to this while I’m driving”. These are the things that having universal content allows us to support.

Nic: Yeah. Hey to wrap this up. John. What would you say is the one thing people should remember about accessibility?

John: The one thing I would say about accessibility is it never ends. We… every time you move forward you’re going to have a new audience potentially to deliver to. You’re going to have a new technology that you might need to throw into your mixer to figure out – are we best supporting delivery to that sort of technology? And know that my user base is always going to be changing out there. We’re going to have more places to deliver, through different channels, different ages… all of that. It’s a never ending process and I try to…or I would say as a suggestion, try to back up. All of your process, all of your workflow and all of your document strategy. To be as open and reroutable as possible. When I was working with some digital textbook stuff a few years ago, a project called EText Illinois. Which is a fully accessible digital textbook platform where we adapted textbooks from publishers as well as locally grown textbooks. Beautiful accessible interface and the NFB loved the interface in terms of its support for blind students as well as any…every other disability. But I learned there and I thought it kind of came up with this term, it’s not necessarily original but, the uber format. What is my uber format that I can at the end of the day put on the shelf and know tomorrow if somebody screams at me “I need a PDF” I can deliver that PDF without jumping through any hoops. So very strategic workflow and document strategies is crucial in my mind.

Nic: Mmm. Yeah I think I couldn’t agree more with that. John, thank you so much for your wisdom and sharing your experiences in higher ed. I have not had anyone on the show talking about this quite important aspect of accessibility. So this was really wonderful for me and I think that our audience is going to enjoy it as well.

John: Well I’m happy always to share. And again, I don’t even have really any disability, accessibility training per se from a degree standpoint. All I’m sharing right now is experience and survival, I guess you could say, over the years. But I think that’s probably the case for all of us. Whether we’re truly PHDs in disability studies or someone who’s just a educator concerned with content creation. It’s, you know, keep our head above water and keep moving forward.

Nic: Very good. John. Thank you and I’ll catch you around I’m sure.

John: I will be at Accessing Higher Ground in November. Stop by and say hi.

Nic: Cheers

John: Alright, take care.

Nic: Everyone out there, thank you for listening to the show. I hope you enjoyed it and if you do, please do tell your friends about it.
You can get the transcript for this, and all other shows at https://a11yrules.com and a quick reminder, you can get yourselves some neat accessibility rules branded swag at a11y.store

Catch you next time!