Speaking loudly with a foreign accent – defining digital capability


Photo of Alistair McNaught, Jisc subject specialist (accessibility and inclusion)
Alistair McNaught, Jisc subject specialist (accessibility and inclusion)

Thank you to Alistair McNaught, subject expert for accessibility and inclusion, for this guest blog post.  I was struck by Alistair’s comment in a recent training event about the importance of accessibility and inclusion being considered as an integral aspect of digital capability. This really struck a chord as our digital experience insights survey reports for 2018 identified that 18% of staff and students said they considered assistive technologies as vital to their work or studies, or chose to use them optionally.  That’s nearly a fifth of our staff and learners!


So, over to Alistair …

The problem with digital capability is that it makes you think about technology. It shouldn’t.

The real capability isn’t the digital, but what the digital does. Does it allow you to communicate more effectively with more people? Does it allow your students to consume course content on a range of devices? Does it allow them to rapidly scan the ideas in a long document and understand how they relate to each? Does it allow students with widely differing backgrounds and abilities to be independent, self-resourceful, stimulated, challenged? There is no doubt that digital tools and resources, used properly, can enable all these things. Equally, it can exacerbate existing barriers and create new ones if the focus is on the wrong thing.

There is an assumption that if somebody is using technology confidently they are being digitally capable. This is not the case. I once visited Central America with a group of friends. One was an excellent communicator – in English – but knew scarcely a word of Spanish. His solution was simple and elegant. It was also completely ineffective. He spoke loudly and slowly in English with a Spanish accent. It had all the style of communication but none of the substance. Rural Nicaraguans didn’t speak English. Adding a Spanish accent didn’t help.

Common misconceptions

But I come across the same types of misconception on a regular basis. So many college and university marketing departments put their prospectus online as an interactive flip book. Not one of the people who think this is a good idea have ever tried reading it seriously for information.

I see learning platforms stuffed full of PDF documents – or PowerPoints converted to PDF – and I try tweaking them so I can read the more comfortably on screen, but I can’t magnify them without having to scroll left and right. I can’t use bookmarks to skim the content because there are none in the document. I try to listen using text-to-speech but the text can’t be selected.

Too often, our digital capability is a triumph of style over substance, putting information online but retaining the barriers that stop it benefiting students who use assistive technologies, who need to access it on a different device, who need to change colours or magnification or simply need something more than text behind glass. It’s the pedagogical equivalent of speaking loudly in English with Spanish accent.

Getting back to the core of capability

We need to get back to the core of capability, beyond the tools to the task; to the “what digital does”. So here are some starting points.

  • Digital does inclusion. There are well over 8 billion videos on YouTube. It is difficult to imagine that there is something that could supplement a PowerPoint slide or replace a handout. Moving from a monoculture of text to a wider range of media will help include more people from different backgrounds, cultures and literacies.
  • Digital does navigation. Knowing how to properly structure a Word, PDF or web document using heading styles will allow every user to see the “map” of your document and instantly navigate around it without the burden of skim reading.
  • Digital does personalisation. Does the content you create (or provide) allow end users to change the colours? To magnify significantly without having to scroll left and right? To select text for it to be read by assistive technologies? To access on a mobile phone.
  • Digital does alternatives. If I can’t hear the video, can I read the transcript? If I can’t read the document, can I listen to it using text-to-speech? If I can’t write an essay could I produce a poster or video instead?

The nature and form of our digital capability is increasingly important. In September 2018, the UK at adopted new accessibility legislation. It requires that websites, intranets, VLEs and their content should be accessible.

Jisc is heavily invested in helping to shape the guidance our members will need. We have already contributed to a publication by the All Party Parliamentary Group on assistive technology on Accessible VLEs – making the most of new regulations. We help run a Jisc mail group on Digital Accessibility Regulations, and a Digital Accessibility Working Group for FE and HE, working with Government Digital Services to help ensure evolving guidance meets the needs of the sector.

We have a series of online courses on benchmarking your digital accessibility and our Accessiblity Blog is a source of rich guidance – as is the Future Teacher project which we support.

There’s a lot going on and digital capability will continue to evolve. But the digital capability of staff is only one part of the picture. The Open University have been world leaders in the production of accessible online materials but they are increasingly coming against the logjam of student digital capabilities. You can have the most accessible resources in the world but if the end-user isn’t aware of how to benefit from that accessibility, there is still a job to do.

Put accessibility at the heart of your plans

But that’s another story for another time. In the meantime it’s worth checking your plans for developing digital capability have accessibility at the heart of them. If they don’t, you’re just speaking loudly in a foreign accent but

making no difference to the quality of communication.

I can tell you from experience… it doesn’t work.


By Clare Killen

Senior consultant, Jisc data analytics

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