CC and Accessibility of OER

Creative Commons: some rights reserved

Image by Tyler Stefanich used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

An angle of Open Education Resources (OER) that is often overlooked is how Creative Commons (CC) licensing enables accessibility of these materials. This is similar to the application of public domain for the purpose of rendering materials in multiple formats, such as digital text, audio, large print, and Braille.

Let’s start with a brief and basic explanation, which is a dangerous proposition when it comes to copyright law, but here goes: U.S. Copyright Law limits the rendering of a copyrighted material in another format. For example, it’s against the law to convert a standard print copyrighted textbook to digital text (e.g., scanning the book). The exception is if the recipient of the rendered material is a student with a print disability that qualifies for copyright exemption. A print disability is a condition that interferes with a person’s ability to access printed text, such blindness, low vision, and certain physical and specific learning disabilities (see Maine’s AIM web site for a formal definition). Dealing with copyright and eligibility for exemption gets messy and, to do it right, requires expertise on behalf of at least one person in every school.

Public domain materials, however, are “render friendly.” I won’t venture into the definition of public domain as there are many interpretations and caveats associated with it. But suffice it to say that a copyrighted material becomes public domain once the author(s) has been deceased for a certain period of time. All of the classics fall into this category, such as works by Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Jack London, Charles Darwin, etc. These works are freely usable by everyone. So historically, public domain has offered a treasure trove of material that can be rendered into multiple formats for all students, not solely for students with qualifying print disabilities.

But public domain works make up a finite category of render-friendy materials. Enter CC, a relatively new way of licensing materials. Using CC licensing, creators of content have the flexibility to give their works loosely restricted rights, from allowing users to fully derive their materials in other formats to placing tightly defined limits. Six CC licenses currently exist. What all CC licenses have in common is the goal of making contemporary content more open for everyone’s use.

OER are CC-licensed materials that are targeted (or selected) for use in curriculum by educators and students. OER is the 21st-Century treasure trove of “render-friendly” instructional materials for all students. Be careful, however, to abide by the specific CC license, as there are multiple in use.

With OER and CC licensing, we have another tool for accomplishing universal design in our curriculum and instruction. The need for converting a material to another format, whether it’s audio transcribed to text or a video to which audio description has been added, can now be defined by the student rather than copyright law. No accommodation or modification necessary.

The next intriguing question is, “How do we share OER that we’ve converted so that we’re not all reinventing the wheel?”

Here are some popular sources of OER:


Although awareness of the Mac built-in text to speech feature has grown, I think it’s important to keep disseminating information and technical assistance. Where I work in Maine, all of our middle schools and many high schools are 1:1 with MacBooks through the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI). In these schools, students have immediate and timely access to “Alex,” Apple’s most recent and highest quality voice for the Mac. Alex is an impressively  human-sounding voice with natural intonation. And it’s easy to use: simply select the text that you want Alex to read aloud, and then press a self-selected key combination.

Imagine the possibilities, particularly in content area classrooms:

  • Students with specific learning disabilities benefit from seeing and hearing the text as it’s spoken aloud
  • English language learners benefit from having content area instructional materials spoken aloud
  • Novice and master writers alike benefit from employing Alex as their proofreader

Alex will read aloud any digital text: Web sites, text files, email, data in spreadsheets…any digital text.

If you have a Mac, you gotta listen to Alex. Here’s how:

  1. Open the System Preferences panel
  2. Choose the Speech pane
  3. Choose the Text to Speech tab
  4. Alex will appear by default in the System Voice dropdown menu. Adjust the Speaking Rate slider and choose the Play button to test your settings. Adjust as necessary.
  5. Select the box next to Speak selected text when the key is pressed. A dropdown box should appear. If not, select the Set Key… button.
  6. In the dropdown box, you’ll be instructed to Set a key combination to speak selected text. Your key combination should start with a modifier key (Command, Shift, Option, or Control) and at least one other key. Keep in mind that whatever combination you choose, it won’t be available to you for any other purpose on your computer. For example, I recommend that you not choose “Command-S” if you typically use this shortcut to save files. You may be tempted to click inside the key combination field, but you’ll soon realize that your key combination will appear as you press keys on your keyboard.
  7. Choose the OK button.
  8. Quit System Preferences.

Now you’re ready to have Alex read aloud to you. Select any digital text on your computer by highlighting it. Press your key combination. To stop Alex from speaking, press the key combination again.

Here’s a short video Quick Tip of the process.

English Language Learners with Disabilities

There is a growing number of English language learners (ELLs) in Maine’s schools. For example, I recently learned that Westbrook has experienced an increase of over 200% of students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, in just the past year. Portland and Lewiston are also known for their services to high populations of ELLs. And, of course, schools in communities across the state are working to meet the needs of newcomers from all regions of the world.

While a good deal of research is available on best practices for teaching ELLs in the content areas (with more needed and being conducted), less has been produced for ELLs with disabilities. This is an area of need. For ELLs who are academically underachieving, it is often difficult to determine the cause. In some cases, students are prematurely placed in special education. This can be the result of the absence of best practices for teaching ELLs. In some other cases, the cause of failure for an ELL is mis-identified as language acquisition difficulty. That is, in the latter case, the student actually has a strong grasp of English, but a disability (e.g., a specific learning disability) is going undetected.

What if the delivery of instruction (both classroom and ESL)  is appropriate and grounded in best practices for ELLs, and yet the student is still experiencing difficulties in meeting learning objectives? What is the best process for determining that a pre-referral for special education is appropriate? And for ELLs who receive special education services, what are the indicators of an effective implementation plan for supporting the student’s IEP goals while at the same time ensuring that progress is being made with ESL programming?

These are important questions that are being considered nationally and here in Maine. This morning I found a synthesis of research on ELLs with disabilities that I thought I’d share (see link below “ells_disabilities). It’s a 2004 report, but it’s written in a usable form for educators who are looking for a summary of best practices, as well as the issues related to the complexity of teaching ELLs with disabilities. It’s titled, “Synthesis Brief: English Language Learners with Disabilities” and was prepared by Project Forum at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE)


Bookshare Webinar

For those of you who have introduced Bookshare to teachers and students, look for an upcoming webinar, “Ready, Set, Read.” According to Bookshare, “You will learn how to search, find books your students need, and how to read books using our free reader software.”

And, participants have an opportunity to enter a raffle to win one of three prizes: 2 digital audio book players and a software program for students with learning disabilities.

Thursday, October 1, 4 PM EST

Wednesday, October 7, 4 PM EST

Inclusive Design of Open Education Resources (OERs)

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the implications of Open Education Resources (OERs). If you’re  not yet familiar with OERs, the best definition that I’ve uncovered is from a bill by the California Senate Committee on Education, authorizing a pilot program to provide a coordinated statewide network of OERs. As you may be aware, Gov Schwarzenegger tasked the state with the California Open Source Textbook Project with the intent of alleviating some education costs. In the bill, OERs are defined “as learning materials or resources that are available for free use or repurposing by others without the permission of the original authors or creators of the learning materials or resources.” The “repurposing” term is particularly intriguing because it means that OER can be adapted and customized for students’ own needs and preferences. And that means all of our students, not just those who have qualifying print disabilities (and thereby eligible for copyright exemption).

The formats of OER materials go beyond the traditional textbook to include items such as courses, course materials, streaming video of classroom lectures, tests, and software. Browsing and searching OER Commons is a good way to become familiar with the types of materials.

Like California, states around the country are looking at OERs as both cost-sensible and educationally innovative. This includes Maine, which, unlike California, has lots of teachers and students with immediate and continuous access to laptop computers through the MLTI and Open 1-to-1. That is, in order for OERs to be usable and effective instructional materials, teachers and students need timely and ample access to computers. The New York Times published a relevant article last month, titled In a Digital Future, Textbooks are History.

Another way to consider OERs is through Creative Commons (CC), which provides free licenses to creators who want to share their work under a range of “some rights reserved” copyright options. This means that many materials under CC can be remixed, reused, revised, and redistributed. All kinds of works can be given CC licenses, such as videos, photos, articles, comic books, and podcasts.

OER and Creative Commons are exciting and meaningful educational initiatives in the digital age. They support the participatory culture in which all of us, including our students, are content creators, shapers, editors, and owners. But do they lead us to a UDL paradise?

Last month, at the Open Education Conference in Vancouver, Jutta Treviranus of the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre at the University of Toronto delivered a presentation titled, One Size Does Not Fit All: Supporting Diversity through Inclusive Design. I’ve attended Jutta’s presentations at conferences and, even though her expertise is highly technical, she speaks eloquently to the concepts of accessibility in teaching and learning. I didn’t attend the Open Education Conference, but her presentation was recorded. It’s the best explanation of the accessibility of OERs that I’ve uncovered to date, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to summarize what she said.

She opened with comments meant to convince the audience on why inclusive design of OERs makes sense educationally, economically, technically, and pedagogically:

  • “Accessibility” is relative. There is no such thing as a fully accessible open education resource, environment, or system. We cannot and should not make every OER accessible. There’s no need to re-create or re-tool what has been developed.
  • A disability is experienced when there is a mismatch between the OER (resource, environment, or system) and what the student needs. In this context, the disability is not a personal trait. In any given situation, any of us can experience disability. Consider an audio lecture; if you are blind, you could experience the least disability in the class.
  • What is needed is flexibility in the resource, environment, or system because accessibility is the ability of the learning environment to adjust to the needs of the learners.
  • Accessibility in design is a good business decision. It’s not charity and it’s not about accommodating a group. Inclusive designs have been shown to save time and money. Accessibility makes reusing, revising, remixing, and redistributing content more efficient because it embeds flexibility. And OERs created upon an inclusive design can be updated more easily because they’re structured for navigation and searching.
  • Inclusive design models good pedagogy by trying to meet the needs of diverse learners. It focuses the creator on the question, “What is it I’m trying to achieve?” as opposed to attention to presentation, which can distract from pedagogy.

She then addressed the question, “How do we do it? How do we implement inclusive design in open education resources, environments, and systems?”

  • An international standard has been created for inclusive design of OER, known as Access for All or ISO 24751 Parts 1-5 (link to PDF document of ISO Update:
  • The Access for All standard consists of 2 parts designed to support the matching of an OER to the needs of an individual student: (1) The first way to match student needs with an OER is by a common language for learners to express personal needs and preferences through a private learning profile. This is a way that students can functionally define the characteristics of the OER they need/want. For example, a student can define how she wants the content displayed (e.g., color contrast), how she wants to control the resource (e.g., keyboard rather than mouse), the language (e.g., Spanish), or the types of scaffolds needed (e.g., built-in dictionary). These features are for all learners, not just students who qualify for accommodations or modifications. To expand on this, Jutta explained that students declare what they need and want, not what their disability may be. (2) The second way to match student needs with an OER is by a common language for labeling tools and learner resources. For example, the original creator can label the resource with tags such as “Spanish” or “video.” But because it’s OER, someone else in the community can add to the labels (e.g. “a good resource for English language learners”). Someone else can even caption the original video and add the label, “captioned video.” And yet someone else can translate that Spanish resource to French.
  • Given the above 2 parts of the Access for All standard (ability of the learner to define what they want/need and the ability of the creator/community to label resources),  there’s no need to create an OER that fits all. The system supported by the Access for All standard is truly open because it allows for “crowd sourcing” and peer support. The onus for making sure that the resource meets diverse needs doesn’t sit solely with the original creator.
  • She concluded by referencing a set of Web services, known as TransformAble, that provides tools for accomplishing inclusive design in OER. She also brought the audience’s attention to The Inclusive Learning Exchange (TILE), ATutor, and the Fluid Project.

If you’re still reading this, then you may have the same question as I have, which is, “What does all of this mean for teachers and students who want, need, and should take advantage of high quality, effective, and meaningful OERs?” As consumers of OERs, what influence can we have on their design? As creators of OERs, how can we adopt a model for accomplishing inclusive design?

Read:OutLoud for Mac DAISY Reader is here for Bookshare members!

It’s finally arrived! Spread the word, particularly to students who use MLTI laptops or other Mac devices.

Bookshare members can download Read:OutLoud for Mac at the Reading Tools section of Bookshare’s Web site:

Mac DAISY Reader for Bookshare

I saw the Bookshare folks earlier this evening at a conference that I’m attending in DC, and they delivered good news. By the beginning of the school year, Bookshare will announce not one, but two DAISY Reader options for Mac users. The first is a Mac version of the READ:OutLoud Bookshare Edition that has been in development for some time. The second is DAISY Extension for Firefox, which will allow users to read Bookshare DAISY files in their Firefox browsers.

Not many details were shared, but I was assured that an announcement is forthcoming on their Web site. I’ll continue to follow Bookshare on Twitter so that I don’t miss the notice!

Accessible Twitter

My most frequent answer when asked how I learned something new is “Twitter.” Let me rephrase that. I should say that I follow on Twitter many smart people and I benefit from their willingness to share what they know…24/7. For example, most recently I’ve been scouring my Tweet Roll for updates on the accessibility of the new iPhone 3G S for users who are blind. It’s not difficult because I follow people who are dedicated to the topic, many of whom are blind and iPhone users, such as Shelly Brisbin and Josh de Lioncourt . How else would I know that there are 84 (and counting) accessible apps for the iPhone? Another case-in-point: I just now checked my Tweet Roll and was alerted to soundAMP, the “first assistive application that turns your iPhone and iPod touch into an interactive hearing device.”

But that’s just me. I’m confident that you too would find individuals and organizations that will keep you up to date on what interests you. Of course, family and friends can be followed on Twitter so you can always know what they had for breakfast or what they’re doing this weekend. But all of us in education would do well to learn about the relevant and engaging uses of Twitter for teaching and learning. We can simultaneously leverage the social network that our students are already participating in AND model how to use this and related tools (and the next hot technology) for academic and career advancement.

And we don’t have to make modifications or even accommodations for students with disabilities because of Accessible Twitter. I signed on some months ago and my favorite feature is the audio cue when I’m about to exceed the 140 character limit for my Tweet. Twitter provides this information in text-only format and I sometimes inadvertently ignore it, meaning that only part of my update gets posted. I also like the larger default text size and the color contrast. And all links can be accessed through the keyboard, so a user doesn’t have to be able to use a mouse.

So go ahead, Twitter is for everyone. To learn more about how to use Twitter for teaching and learning, visit the following:

Twitter for Academia
Nine Great Reasons why Teachers Should Use Twitter

Accessible Video at NFB.CA

So I followed a Tweet from Ruben Puentedura today. Ruben suggested visiting the National Film Board of Canada for a break from work. I’m always game for a distraction when working from home, so I clicked on that tinyurl.

NFB hosts intriguing short films from a wide range of genres, languages, titles, and decades. But what caught my eye immediately was the Accessibility link front and center at the top of every page. What’s more, the NFB Web site is fully accessible, to the extent of explaining how to access the site using a number of alternative methods, such as keyboard only and other “mouse-less” moves.

I grinned from ear to ear as I browsed the selection of videos that are closed captioned and/or video described. Of course, I would have been jumping for joy had the entire collection been accessible, but it’s always encouraging to discover even semi repositories of multimedia that meet the needs and preferences of diverse learners.

Although a collection of Canadian productions, and therefore most typically relevant to the history and events of our northern neighbors, the films are multiple and varied and have application across the content areas. According to the site, the films are free of charge only for individual home use. A one-year subscription for a teacher is $19.95 (~$17.72 USD if my converter is right).

Here’s a sample from It’s a clever animated short film titled, “The Girl Who Hated Books,” and might serve as a lure for reluctant readers. To turn on closed captions, choose the CC icon in the control bar (it looks like an ear).

Let Your Laptop Do the Talking

I delivered my presentation for the 2009 Spring Teacher Institute last Wednesday evening – from my kitchen table. The technology for delivering sessions across the Internet was Adobe Connect, and although initially a bit intimidating for the novice online deliverer, all of the presentations I’ve had a chance to view were interactive and engaging. Most of all, it was an inspirational experience to be involved in such an endeavor with educators from all over Maine.

My session was titled, Let Your Laptop Do the Talking. This is a spin-off of my MLTI Accessible Instructional Materials content meeting (AIM for All Kids), with the focus on text to speech and conversion of text files to audio, such as mp3.

These tools, which are available for both Mac and Windows users, enable access to all content areas for all students. Printed text alone can be a barrier for many learners, including those who have specific learning disabilities, physical disabilities that impact ability to turn pages, and blindness or low vision. Audio alone presents barriers to learners who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as students who are not strong audio processors. Either format in isolation is also problematic for English Language Learners.

Ideally, content is delivered in multiple formats, such as both text and audio. When curriculum and instructional materials are provided in accessible digital text format (e.g., text editor docs, Web pages in HTML), the content can be rendered in any format, including audio and Braille.

A very simple tool that’s available on every Mac laptop with OS X is Speech. With Speech, you can have any digital text that appears on your screen read aloud by your computer’s built-in speech synthesizer. All you need to do is select the text and then press a self-assigned sequence of keys. Here’s how you activate Speech on your computer:

1. Choose Apple menu > System Preferences > Speech

2. In the Speech panel, choose the Text to Speech tab

3. Choose a System Voice and a Speaking Rate. The Play button allows you to test your settings.

4. Select the box next to “Speak selected text when the key is pressed”

5. To set the command key sequence to activate speech, type one or more modifier keys (Command, Shift, Option, or Control) plus at least one other key. Note that the command key sequence that you choose will no longer be available for other computing purposes. That is, if you choose Option-Command-Esc as your command key sequence, it will no longer be available for Force Quitting out of an app! My sequence of choice is Option-~ (Option + the “tilde” key, which appears in the upper left corner of your keyboard, below the esc key).

6. Click OK when the key combination you selected appears in the field.

When you want to have text on your screen read aloud, highlight the selection, and then press your key sequence set in step 5. To stop the speech, press the sequence again.

A few tips regarding the System Voices: First, when introducing kids to the available built-in choices, choose text that is interesting and engaging to them. Suggest that they go to their favorite Web sites and select text to have read aloud (Facebook updates are nifty snippets to start with!). Second, encourage them to use the voice for at least a couple of days before abandoning it. Third, if the built-in options aren’t working for the student, consider downloading a voice for 30-or-so bucks. Cepstral and Assistiveware both have voices that you can demo before downloading.

Here’s a short video from my desktop of how to activate Speech on your Mac