[Athen] Update on my Spanish course (long)

Deborah Armstrong armstrongdeborah at fhda.edu
Wed Oct 7 10:34:08 PDT 2020

*** It is fine to forward this, no need to ask for permission.

I've been keeping this list updated on my adventures learning Spanish as a screen reader user. This long post is part of the continuing saga.

My original goal was to determine why so many of our students failed foreign language courses. But as we began to focus on equity I discovered learning Spanish helped me communicate with the parents of my students, and helped me better understand Chicano/A and Latinix culture. It also helps me proofread alternate media in Spanish and prepare Spanish exams accurately in alternate media.

I survived Spanish 1, 2 and 3, getting an A in each course. Though the Pearson Mylab content wasn't always accessible, I had long-standing friendships with the two Spanish instructors at my college who were quite happy to give me alternate assignments when necessary. For the first two quarters we were in a classroom, where there were lots of opportunities to get clarification from other classmates as well as practice Spanish with them. There was also plenty of chances to practice Spanish on the bus with the mostly Latina passengers I shared my daily commute with.

Covid changed all that. In Spanish 3, the instructor was also someone I had known for 18 years, so even though we met on Zoom, I felt comfortable getting in touch when I got stuck. She learned that if she was posting something on a shared screen to send it to me ahead of time so I could pull it up in a separate window. She learned to use Microsoft Word as her Whiteboard, so the content could be shared with me after each class meeting. If I was expected to speak in class, she learned to email me the textbook pages ahead of time so I could have the ebook open and ready to go. Pearson's accessibility support was still awful; though I kept a log of all inaccessible assignments, they did not appear to be interested. The textbook continued to be wonderfully accessible.

Spanish 4 is a different story. Our college doesn't go past Spanish 3 so I had to take the course elsewhere. The instructor is an adjunct who mostly works and lives in San Diego while I am taking a class at a sister college here in the bay area. She is very rigid and has an online course that has already been structured and in use for at least several quarters, perhaps even years before I enrolled. Her office hours are on Skype, one hour a week and so far she has not answered my attempts to call during that time. She does not permit us to use English in the course.

The McGraw-Hill Connect lab assignments are mostly accessible with a few exceptions that require you drag and drop words to put them in order, or arrange lines of conversation so they make sense. There are also assignments with pictures you have to click on in order to match them up with definitions. The pictures often have the word they display in Spanish beneath them, but you still have to click on them; pressing Enter doesn't work. My long-suffering husband who doesn't know Spanish has to drag, drop and click for me and he's really not interested in doing it.

After many attempts to contact McGraw-Hill Connect's tech support about these and one conversation on the phone with their support, I was advised to contact my university's ADA coordinator. This is really a cop-out and these publishers need to have a way you can submit a log of inaccessible content to them.

At this college the accommodations coordinator is a temporary employee who does access technology and alternate media both. She's also responsible for all other accommodations students need. She's wonderfully supportive and a native speaker of Spanish to boot. But I don't want to be constantly nagging her for assistance because she has so many responsibilities.

The textbook is accessible in that all the text is there. But there are no language codes to switch the synthesizer between English and Spanish and there are no headings or other html elements like lists. It includes a lot of interactive audio with play buttons interspersed throughout which does make it easier to cope with. Without a Braille display and the occasional use of my Braille printer though, I couldn't read it if I just depended on speech.

Besides the multiplicity of little lab assignments, the course has twice weekly online discussions in Spanish. I really enjoy writing in Spanish but the problem is we often discuss videos or photos or some other visual content which again I have to hunt down someone to describe. The Spanish in the videos is too fast for me and I believe the visual clues make it easier for others to understand. Plus I'm not riding the bus, so I'm not hearing Spanish daily as I used to.

The instructor also requires us to post a screen shot if we don't understand an assignment. Others, who got the assignment correct are able to post screen shots of their work. You can check your work for correctness 70 times but only submit each completed assignment once. In this way we help each other, and if someone gets all the answers correct, then as she says, everyone can get an A. Everyone, that is except me. I've tried using OCR on these screen shots and it just doesn't work. Because I have to struggle with the advanced grammar to get these assignments right, I'm likely learning more Spanish than people who can freely copy others work, but it takes a lot more time and the course is moving fast. Last week in frustration I posted "La captura de la pantalla no me ayuda" (the screen capture doesn't help me) and included a description of the problem I was having, and the instructor did explain why I was getting that question wrong, but she again reminded me to post a screen shot next time. I have been very up front with my disability (soy ciega) but she doesn't seem to get it.
One bright spot is the requirement we meet with a partner and record a video conversation each week. I had a buddy from my previous Spanish class who was happy to be my partner, and we each support the other person with different strengths. We each have to talk for at least four minutes in our videos and that's less stressful for me than it is for many others. Many of the other students are having trouble connecting with a partner simply because it's a completely online class.

Another subtle inaccessibility factor is the way the course is structured. Each assignment is locked until you complete the previous assignment. From what I've read about learning science, if you get stuck on one assignment it is best to move on to something you find easier and then return to the one giving you trouble. This course doesn't allow that, so in order this week to even continue with the assignments for week 3, I must first complete the discussion regarding a video she's posted. I've got the accommodations coordinator tasked with describing it to me tomorrow, but I feel a little guilty about asking her to watch this long video with me.

The way things are going, I am not even sure if I will pass this course. I love learning languages and I have the self-discipline to work on it every day. But so many times, courses are structured with no regard to whether they will be accessible to every learner.

I see us professionals spending time teaching professors how to craft accessible Word documents, how to make their web pages WCAG compliant and meanwhile many of them are posting camera-phone pictures of textbook pages, or requiring that you must complete assignment A before moving on to assignment B. They are pulling up PowerPoints on shared screens instead of posting them to the course site for students to examine at their own pace and with their own accessibility tools. They are including pictures in their quizzes with no descriptions. They are posting homemade videos without captions and often including them in a quiz. They are asking students to post uncaptioned videos or screen shots for purposes of peer review. And yet we are teaching them how to tag a PDF!

We really need to teach them how to determine when something is not accessible before we worry about whether they are using headings in their content!


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