Categories
Accessibility AI

The Real Impact of AI on Education will be Accessibility

I have a confession to make: My university degree sits atop a mountain of lies I told to mask my dyslexia. Now AI is positioned to make education more accessible so future students don’t have to lie to get where they need to go.

I read maybe a quarter of the required materials for my university studies. My term papers are filled with quotes from books I never even opened. I became a master at convincing my fellow students to give me summaries, quick explainers, and relevant quotes from materials I knew I’d never be able to finish in time to meet the inaccessible demands of academia. And after 5 years and a degree, I abandoned my hopes for a graduate degree in philosophy to pursue other avenues where my reading disability was not a constant blocker.

Today, as we stand at the beginning of a new era of computing, one shining beacon in the infinite possibility space of AI is making education more accessible.

AI can make education more accessible today

Here are a few ideas for how we can implement existing AI tools in education right now to dramatically improve accessibility:

  • AI audiobooks on demand: AI can generate natural sounding audiobooks from any written text. Audiobooks of academic texts are hard to come by and prohibitively expensive. AI can solve that problem and allow the reader to choose their preferred reading modality. This tech already exists (Apple has shipped it).
  • AI translations to any language: AI models are very good at translating text from one language to another. This means academic texts written in one language can now be accessible in any language. Again, the technology already exists in the form of Google Translate etc.
  • AI reading level adjustment: You know that “explain it to me like I’m five” meme? AI language models like ChatGPT can do that, and ensure the salient points and meaning of the text is preserved. Academic texts are often superfluously arcane and turgid. I predict in the near future we’ll have browser plugins and other AI-powered services where you can set the reading level and writing style of any text to your preference and preserve its meaning.
  • AI summaries on demand: Using summaries of long texts to enforce learning has a long tradition in academia. There’s a lucrative industry and pop culture mythology around services like Coles Notes and CliffsNotes. AI can be used to generate custom summaries from any text, large or small to make it more accessible to people like me who can’t read the whole thing.
  • AI assessments, flashcards, and other learning tools: Dump any text into an AI and ask it to generate assessments, flashcards, questions, examples, or other things. The possibilities here are limitless.
  • AI auto-captions and transcripts of audio, video, and in-person events: 5 years ago captions were an expensive nice-to-have very few could afford or cared about. Today, auto-captions are available on every LinkedIn and YouTube video, and most platforms also provide verbose transcripts on the fly. These same technologies are used for live captioning in video chat apps like Teams, and can be used at live events including in classrooms. The technology is available, and quite frankly I can’t think of any good reason this tech is not immediately implemented across all educational campuses world wide to provide improved accessibility. Imagine knowing you will have a transcript at the end of every lecture so you can focus on understanding what is being taught instead of just writing it down!
  • The possibility space here is infinite!

Let me guess: You have concerns. About the accuracy of AI summaries and transcripts and translations. About whether leaving AIs to do this work will take jobs away from humans. About whether students relying on AIs will result in the students not learning anything.

Here’s my reality check to you: The alternative is students not learning at all. The alternative is students like me lying through their teeth to pass arbitrary tests of reading speed (that’s what mandatory minimum page counts are). The alternative is large numbers of people being excluded from education because we’ve chosen to tie access to education to reading ability and speed rather than literally anything that has to do with actual learning.

As we build our future with AI, our conversations about AI in education should be about how these technologies can lower barriers and make education accessible and possible for everyone.

Reading ? Learning

Much handwringing and professional dread has been published in the past months around the risks of AI models like #ChatGPT being used by students to plagiarize materials and generally cheat on their papers and exams. Headlines like “ChatGPT passes exams for MBA courses and medical licences” are addictive clickbait in an environment of economic uncertainty and pandemic fatigue. But look beyond the immediate “the graphing calculator / internet / smartphones / YouTube / chat apps / smart watches / AI will destroy education and plunge us back into the dark ages” response and you see the potential of this technology to make education not only better, but more available and accessible to more people. If we build the tools to make that future happen.

I have moderate dyslexia meaning I read at about speaking pace and when I read the cognitive load of just getting the words right and keeping track of where I am is exhausting. Reading a regular length novel cover to cover can take me 6 months. Reading a densely worded academic textbook is a multi-year project. But in university, the expectation was for me to consume up to 5,000 pages of material each semester. So while I never wanted to lie to my fellow students, my professors, and my academic advisors about my reading, I was forced to. Academia, and education in general, is built on a core assumption that people’s ability to read and read fast is tied to their ability to learn, grow, innovate, and build the future. I am walking proof this is not the case, and I’m also a prime example of how reading speed is a permanent blocker for many educational paths and the careers that follow.

Which is absurd because it is not the reading that matters, it’s understanding the ideas captured in the reading materials.

Enter AI

Last week I was trying to explain the ethics of Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach to a friend. One of the core ideas of Capability Approach is that people should have the capabilities and functionings to be and do what they value and have reason to value in their lives and environments. Which begs the question: What is the difference between what we value and what we have reason to value?

This is not something Sen answers directly. Instead it is something you glean from reading several of his published works. As with much of academic philosophy, this distinction is at the same time essential to understanding and lacking in common sense explanation.

So I asked ChatGPT: “What is the difference between what we value and what we have reason to value?”

Here’s what the AI answered:

“What we value refers to the things that we personally consider important or desirable, such as material possessions, relationships, or personal achievements.

What we have reason to value, as described by Amartya Sen in the capability approach, refers to the things that we have the capability to achieve and that are consistent with our personal values and goals. In other words, it refers to the things that we would value if we had the opportunity to achieve them.

For example, one might value owning a house, but may not have the capability to buy one due to financial constraints. In this case, having a safe and affordable place to live would be something they have reason to value. In this way, the distinction between what we value and what we have reason to value is one of actual opportunity or capability. The capability approach takes into account the real opportunities for people to achieve the things they would value if they had the capability to do so.”

Screenshot of the ChatGPT output quoted above.

This is extraordinary. Notice how the system not only provides an understandable and plain language explanation of the subject, but also manages to pick up on the obscure origins of my question without the prompt providing what I consider sufficient context?

This explanation of the difference between what we value and what we have reason to value is so good it should be used in introductory textbooks on Sen’s work. And it serves as an example of what AI can do for education if we build AI-powered systems for education.

And Sen’s distinction between what we value and what we have reason to value is salient to this issue: We as a society value education, and we have reason to value education for all. Even so there are millions of people around the world whose real opportunities to access education are limited for a an endless list of reasons. AI can grant us all the capabilities to access education in new and better ways, allowing more of us to do and be what we have reason to value in our lives, our schools, and our work!

Our future with AI is the future we build

We are at the beginning of the beginning of our future with AI. Ahead of us is an infinite possibility space. And more now than at any time in human history we have the capabilities and agency and communal connection and global wealth and power to build positive and meaningful futures for ourselves and those around us together.

It starts with looking beyond the perpetual shock of disruption every new technology brings to what those new technologies can do for us as we integrate them into our lives and our work. It starts with talking about the futures we want to build for ourselves and how we make them real. It starts with seeing the world, thinking about how to make it better, and then making it happen.


Cross-posted to LinkedIn.

Header image: Screenshot of the Dyslexia Simulator from Harvard University.

Categories
Accessibility WordCamp

I challenge all WordCamp US and WordCamp NYC speakers to caption their talks

Last week I put out a community challenge for WordCamp speakers to caption their talks and help make WordPress.tv more accessible. Now I’m issuing a personal challenge to the speakers at WordCamp NYC and WordCamp US to start the ball rolling by captioning their own talks.

Why these two WordCamps in particular? Because they both had CART captioning, which means text transcripts of their talks already exist. And those captions have been made available for everyone to download!

So here’s the challenge:

If you spoke at WordCamp NYC or WordCamp US in 2015, go to the spreadsheet, click the tab for the appropriate event (WordCamp NYC text or WordCamp US text), grab the text file, sign up for an Amara.org account, and caption your own talk.

Almost all the work has been done for you, so if you want to get the most out of the least amount of work, this would be a great task to start with.

You can help make WordPress learning more accessible, and it all starts with captioning your WordCamp NYC or WordCamp US talk!

Categories
Accessibility WordPress

Community Challenge: Let’s Caption All WordCamp Videos

2015 was the year the WordPress community started taking web accessibility seriously, and both in WordPress Core and in themes, plugins, WordCamp talks, even WordCamps and WordPress Meetups, accessibility is becoming a first-level citizen.

As we start writing “2016”, let’s use this momentum to make information about WordPress more accessible to all.I challenge all WordCamp speakers to caption their WordCamp videos on WordPress.tv.

The information contained in the thousands of videos on WordPress.tv, from WordCamps, Meetups, and elsewhere, is invaluable to anyone wanting to learn about WordPress or wanting to expand their existing knowledge. Unfortunately, only a few of these videos have captioning because captioning takes time and effort.

If every community member who has had the privilege of speaking at an event and had their talk recorded and uploaded to WordPress.tv invested the time to caption their videos, either by doing it themselves or getting (paying?) someone else to do it, we would dramatically increase the accessibility of WordPress training materials.

In the process, we would also reap other benefits:

First of all, captioning is not just for the hard of hearing: Studies show a vast majority of TV and video viewers use closed captioning for increased comprehension. If you’ve watched a lot of WordPress.tv talks you’ll also know that the audio quality isn’t always the best, so captioning will help everyone.

Secondly, captioning your videos means others can translate them into other languages making them accessible to people who don’t speak the original language the video was recorded in.

Thirdly, I will put forward a proposal to publish the full transcripts of all WordPress.tv videos with the videos. This will allow visitors to make their own decisions about how to consume the content, and will allow search engines and other tools to index the contents of the videos properly.

Practicing What I Preach

To make sure I’m not making an impossible request, I have already started captioning my own WordPress.tv videos, and my goal is to have all of them captioned by the end of February (I’m realistic about my time).

The actual process of captioning a WordPress.tv video is relatively straight forward thanks to Amara.org. The full process is explained in the video below (a full rundown is also provided when you click the “Subtitle this video” link on each video page):

Captioning a 10 minute video took me about 60 minutes (mostly due to getting used to the interface and my severe dyslexia) and I expect once I get used to the tool it should take me about 2 hours to caption a 45 minute talk. In the grand scheme of things this is a minute investment to ensure more people can access (and possibly translate?) my talks, and it’s one I think all speakers should commit to.

Build Better Accessibility Together

If every one of us commits to captioning our own videos, the burden of what would otherwise be an insurmountable task becomes one that is shared in a fair and achievable way. If other community members pitch in, that task becomes even simpler.

By working together, we can make WordPress accessible, and part of this job is captioning each and every WordPress.tv video. We can do this, and we can do it well, so let’s get crackin’!

Categories
Accessibility

My New Year’s Wish for 2015: Make WordPress Accessible to All

You see, the web was created with a very specific purpose in mind. And that was to separate content from the presentation of that content. You have HTML and CSS. And this is all done because of Accessibility. People forget this but the web was specifically designed to make content accessible so that when someone visits a site they’ll be able to pull the content out in the way they want to. 

So, if someone visits my site, she can read it using a screen reader and get it read back to her. Or she can use a Braille display and read it with her fingertips (…) Some people might use one of those phones or tablets or laptops or PCs or TVs or movie theatre screens or whatever, but that’s just one way of accessing the content.

I spent a lot of time talking about and writing about web accessibility in 2014. The piece above was from my WordCamp San Francisco 2014 talk on the CSS Box Model. I wrote about web accessibility as a rights issue, about the accessibility-ready tag being required in WordPress themes, and about why web accessibility is the next big thing that was always there. Accessibility had a place in all the big lynda.com courses I released this year, and at WordCamp San Francisco I made it my mission to put accessibility on the agenda.

To me web accessibility matters now more than ever before and it is my wish that in 2015 it will matter to you and to all of the WordPress community too.

This is for Everyone

The reason I started my CSS Box Model talk with a sidenote about accessibility as one of the core features of the web is that we, the web building community, seem to have forgotten our original mandate. In our chase for the quickest, sleekest, most well designed, interactive, and eye catching visual solutions we have all but forgotten that the entire point of the web was to make content accessible. To all. All the designing and pixel pushing and tweaking we painstakingly perfect to make our content visually appealing is just veneer, coats of paint, make-up*. And like veneer, coats of paint, and make-up, if we spend too much time applying it we end up obscuring the content underneath.

During the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Summer Games in London Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web) told the crowd that “this is for everyone“. The philosophy of the WordPress project is to “democratize publishing“. At the core of both these ideals lies the simple premise that we work to include everyone, not just those who use screens to access our content.

Accessibility for Everyone

To see why web accessibility matters you probably don’t have to go further than your own friends and immediate family. Let me serve as an example:

A dear friend of mine is in the midst of a fierce battle with ALS. As the disease progresses he relies more and more on voice control software like Dragon. If I want him to read my site I need to ensure it can be navigated by voice. And if I want him to be able to keep publishing his stellar content I have to ensure the tool he uses is accessible.

One of my family members is hard of hearing, though you wouldn’t know it because of his uncanny ability to read lips – in multiple languages. To him a web video without closed captioning or at the very least a transcript is like watching a movie while listening to white noise. He can watch my lynda.com videos because of the interactive transcript, but my WordPress.tv videos would be without value to him.

This year I had the pleasure of meeting in real life a person I’ve previously only interacted with online. She is blind and gave me a whole new appreciation of what my writing sounds like to someone who can’t see the text (hint: it usually has a computerized voice and speaks at a ridiculously high pace – almost as fast as me!) To ensure she can get her screen reader to race though my articles I have to make sure they are accessible in every way.

And then there’s me. I tell people often enough but few believe me: I have dyslexia. Not the most severe kind, but a very frustrating kind. The kind that puts my reading pace at about speaking pace. The kind that makes me see made up words, jumbles the order of words in sentences, and generally makes reading a chore. Bizarrely I can write fast, but reading back what I just wrote is a laborious endeavour. To compensate I tend to read most things on my phone because it has fewer words per line and I can quickly switch it to inverted mode and get white text on a black background. And inspired by my blind friend I am now trying to learn how to use a text-to-speech browser so I can get content read back to me. To me it is more efficient than reading.

But web accessibility isn’t just for people with motor, hearing, visual, or cognitive challenges. Accessibility is for everyone. All those wearable devices the technology companies want us to buy rely on web accessibility. Same with the computerized cars that are rolling off lots as we speak. Same with our phones, our tablets, and our computers. All these technologies are being held back by lack of accessibility on the web. And that means if we invest in accessibility, all the content we publish will become more accessible to us.

2015: The Year of WordPress Accessibility

It is my wish that 2015 be the year the WordPress community embraces web accessibility as a first rate citizen. Amazing work has already been done on WordPress core by the WordPress Accessibility Team and I am part of the group that is currently working on bringing accessibility standards to the WordPress Theme Directory. The latter project has seen a surprising amount of push-back but I think this is mainly due to misunderstanding and a lack of knowledge about what accessibility is and what accessibility can do to improve WordPress and the WordPress community.

It is my belief that if we, every one of us, as a community, take the time in 2015 to learn what web accessibility is, why it matters, and how we can make it part of our process whether we are content creators, designers, developers, or just surf the web for information, we can take a leadership role in the larger web community and make web accessibility an expected rather than a sometimes added feature.

We can be the leaders and the change. We can democratize publishing by making WordPress and everything that runs on WordPress accessible.

This is my new year’s wish.

 

Categories
Accessibility My Opinion WordPress

The accessibility-ready Tag Should Be Required for All WordPress Themes

When was the last time you tried navigating your WordPress site using only the keyboard? Chances are you never have, and if you do you are likely to have a sub-optimal experience at best. The alarming reality is only a handful of WordPress themes (and thus WordPress-powered sites) meet basic accessibility guidelines. This is not OK. I’m issuing a challenge to the WordPress community:

Accessibility should be a requirement for all WordPress themes.