ATU381 – Making MOOCs Accessible with John Tubbs


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Show Notes:
John Tubbs – Director of Digital Media-eLearning Gies College of Business, University of Illinois

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JOHN TUBBS: Hello, this is John Tubbs, director of digital media for e-learning at the Gise College of Business at the University of Illinois, and this is your Assistive Technology Update.
JOSH ANDERSON: Hello and welcome to your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up-to-date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist individuals with disabilities and special needs. I’m your host, Josh Anderson, with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to episode 381 of Assistive Technology Update. It’s scheduled to be released on September 14, 2017.
Thank you very much for joining us today. We are very excited to have John Tubbs on the program. John is the director of digital media and e-learning at the Gise College of Business at the University of Illinois. John is going to come on and talk about some of the challenges with making MOOCs accessible. We will get into what MOOCs actually are and how they work, and we will have John talked with a little bit about what they’ve been doing at the University of Illinois in order to make these accessible learning environments more accessible for individuals with disabilities.
Don’t forget, if you have a comment on discussed or any of our other guests, you can always give us a call on our listener line at 317-721-7124. Or drop us a note on Twitter@INDATA Project. Or hop on over to Facebook and let us know what you think about the show. Let’s go I get on with the interview.

JOSH ANDERSON: It’s really hard to look at technology or education news without saying something about MOOCs. These are Massive Open Online Courses that are available to anyone with computer access. Some classes can have hundreds or even thousands of participants, so I can only imagine the accessibility concerns that would come up with such a large and varied learning environment. Likely there are people out there like our guest today who are working to make MOOCs available to all users. John Tubbs is the director of digital media and e-learning at the Gise College of Business at the University of Illinois. He’s working to make schools’ Massive Open Online Courses accessible to all learners. Welcome to the show.
JOHN TUBBS: It’s good to be here, thank you.
JOSH ANDERSON: Let’s start off, just tell our listeners a little bit about yourself.
JOHN TUBBS: I started in higher education 20 years ago although my starting in education as a whole was K-12 back 30 years ago before the Internet. Apple II E days.
JOSH ANDERSON: I remember those.
JOHN TUBBS: Yes you do. I’ve been involved in the evolution of digital learning, as I like to call it, for those three years. The culmination in the MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, is the cherry on top of the sundae that I’ve been working towards for those years. It allows us to bring together all of the digital learning technologies, techniques, into one sort of course delivery. That’s pretty exciting for me.
JOSH ANDERSON: That’s very exciting. For folks who don’t know much about it, can you describe what is a MOOC?
JOHN TUBBS: A MOOC, as you said in your intro, is a massive open online course. It’s different than what we would think of if you were in a K-12 or higher education environment where you have a learning management system, which has a lot of tools to manage students and deal with course calendars and course schedules and all those details. This massive open online course is more like a loosefitting garment. It comprises the core basics of learning. It has an instructor, assessments, the means for communication amongst learners, and sometimes culminate in some sort of certificate or verification of completion.
Some of the main providers in this area are Coursera. Coursera is the partner we have at Gise College of business to do our MOOC’s. There is also Ed X and also Udacity. Those are sort of the three big players. But there are a number of other MOOC providers in other countries as well. If you just take a peek at Wikipedia and look up MOOC, you will find a roster of those.
Loosely, you can think of things like the Kahn Academy and those more tutorial services as MOOC as well, but they don’t have the same interpersonal communication as we do with the large MOOC’s. You don’t have the more rigorous assessments and completion happening in the same way. Sure, you get to the algebra course, but there is not that get to a certificate at the end. Sometimes MOOC’s are there for the enjoyment of learning and sometimes for the curiosity. But other times there is that target of a certification or completion certificate. Commonplaces where that might be is in the professional world where you want to do some professional development. You take a course on digital marketing, you take that completion certificate to your boss and say put this in my portfolio when it comes time to look at raises the next time around.
What’s interesting about what we do and a few other institutions around the country — but not too many, definitely under 10 — are using MOOC’s to provide an entrée into our other degree programs. At Illinois, we also have a Masters in science and data science, and some of our peer institutions, Georgia Tech, have computer science degrees and other engineering types degrees. This is probably the interesting twist in MOOC’s we seen in the last two and half to three years of a gateway into most the graduate degree programs. When we look at the MOOC’s inside those graduate degree programs — and again this part of that change — is that we use the MOOC’s as a digital textbook. It’s the core content that we are going to use with these right degree programs. We add a layer on top of that which we are calling high engagement at Gies. That gives us the ability to add more personalized interaction. This is not a smaller group of students. We are running courses in the 4-500 range. We have face-to-face live sessions and a video mediated way like through the Zoom, as well as we have more peer to peer interaction, team projects. It’s a much tighter knit group. It’s not that massive open online.
For example, we have this digital marketing course I mentioned just a second ago. We have 250 million active students in that course as we speak right now. That same course, when it is taught here, will probably have 700 to 800 students that are doing it for degree credit. You see that sort of siphoned down those users. The folks that come into our degree programs go through the same rigorous admissions process if they were taking it residentially on our campus or taking it as night school, which often people do with an MBA. They call it the professional MBA or executive MBA program. The graduate program aligned with the MOOC’s is not a lightweight degree. It’s a structured, the same content, the same rigor. That’s kind of an interesting evolution of the MOOC’s. The MOOC providers are excited by that because they get higher level content into their platform.
JOSH ANDERSON: Why are MOOC’s important?
JOHN TUBBS: One of the things we adopted at Gies that we feel very strongly about — it’s in the taglines of some of our branding. We think that MOOC’s are here to democratize education. We look at learning for change — and you may think that’s an odd think about a business school. I’ll tell you some stories here in a bit. Learning for change can empower people that may not have access to or may not be appropriate for them to get a full college degree. Maybe they just need that certificate to help lift their small business up in the second world developing economy. That is a very important part. The online MBA program that I was just talking about that we are offering, the iMBA, as we call it, has an entry fee — the cost of that degree is $22,000. Because we’re combining it with MOOC, you’re doing it at scale, providing innovative solutions that provide access to people that have audit work schedules, have to take classes in the evening or traveling a lot. Maybe they have a disability. We provide a very accessible program for a very reasonable price. That leads into that idea of the democratization of education.
Coming back to that empowerment, some of these MOOC’s can reach anywhere with an Internet connection. We are using some of our MOOC’s to collaborate with the UN High Commission on Refugees. Our subsistent marketplace MOOC’s which were constantly economic development and emerging economies use our MOOC’s to train their field workers who are you going out and working with these people in these small communities to empower their economic development. A regular college course can to do that because, one, the UNHCR people would not be taking a college course. They need to have sort of an adjusted time and training. They can go work on this eight module course on subsistence market places, become ready, be on their feet and going and work with people. That some of that democratizing we feel is very powerful and something that is in our DNA. The last thing is that, because we have this evolution from a MOOC into a graduate degree program, we can allow a learner to dip their toe in the pool, get a feel of what is does content like? What are these faculty members like that I may be studying with? How hard is it? Can I look at that statistics course and pass it? It’s a great way to feel your way out without spending any money prior to getting of the program. We even allow the idea of a student going in, taking a MOOC, completing it, getting the completion certificate, and then applying to the graduate program. That’s an innovative way to do it. When you look at somebody who might need some sort of assistive technologies in their education path, this is a way to go in and check out the content that they would be working with as it would become a paying, accepted student. They are not going to come in and get surprises.
JOSH ANDERSON: You mentioned this a little bit, but how are these classes taught?
JOHN TUBBS: As I was saying, we have this evolution of the MOOC into the degree program. That changes a little bit about what we teach at those very stages. The core MOOC if you went to Coursero or Ed X or Udacity right now and signed up for a course of your choosing and an interest area of your choosing, you are going to get recorded lectures. These are going to be a faculty member in video — I don’t like to say this often — but in Power Points. We like to move them out to the field. They will interview people, go to a factory floor if you’re talking about value chain management. If you’re talking about finance, go to a bank. We try to get people out to give it a variety of looks and feels and experiences. While we do those videos, we need to have certain things for media accommodation. They have to be captioned. And we have a very strong commitment to extended, not just regular, but extended audio description. We are talking WCAG level three audio description where we only sneak some stuff in the gaps but actually can pause the player to provide a full description. We have the recorded lectures that need to be handled.
We have free reading. Because it is a MOOC and is open and we want to open the door to as many people as possible, the readings we put into a MOOC are always going to be free access. In some circles, we call that OER, open education resources. Often there is OER readings.
We do assignments. We do the reviews. We do discussion boards. These are all going to be places where the students are going to be sometimes interacting with their fellow students but sometimes working solo on their own with their assignments and quizzes. They will take multiple choice, machine graded quizzes. Beginning with that 250,000 person digital marketing course, you are not going to hand a great an essay. If anything, that is probably one of the drawbacks of the MOOC. Again, what they do is they work with peer review. Your peers become your greater of those reflection papers, those 250, 300 word papers. By providing a good grading rubric, those students that are doing the peer review actually have good guidelines to know how to do a job of assessing their peers’ work. That works quite well since we can’t have a teaching assistant or full faculty member grading those things..
With all those things, assignments, peer reviews, discussion, quizzes, one of the important things from an accessibility standpoint is how is that learning platform providing the facilities for someone to come in with a screen reader, to come in with some sort of assisted touch device to be able to navigate through those things can provide their input? As we will talk about later, there is a degree of having to consider the platform, the Coursera, the Udacity, etc.; platform’s accessibility as well as the content that the Gies College of business or any other institution is creating for these MOOC’s.
Because of that sort of situation of the platforms themselves may not have all of the accessibility features and accommodations we need now, we are releasing – we’ve done this internally with our high engagement courses. These other courses that have a high touch, if you want to use a term more targeted content with students. We’ve been using our extended transcripts there. What is an extended transcript? It’s the transcript that would come out of one of these videos. It includes a block of descriptive text of any visual, graphic chart, whatever might be on a particular slide in that presentation. Or it might be the description of the factory floor I talked about. Or it might be a description of that bank lobby. Anything you would do it audio description, we are putting it into a transcript, and then we treat it as a piece of text directly below the image. All of these are being delivered in HTML. So you say, John, why wouldn’t you just use alt text? Because alt text doesn’t support the length of text we might need for those descriptions. If you are describing a bell curve in a statistics course with a long tailed distribution, I challenge you to do that in 125 characters of alt text. This is where we approach this differently. Sometimes we actually get flack because we don’t provide alt text on a lot of our images, because it is in the actual transcript, it’s in the other descriptions that we provide. And then we provide the full text of the slide done in HTML so it is semantically structured, so the slide reads properly like it should in HTML so people working with JAWS or NVDA or something like that are going to go right through that with their screen reader and be able to read the slides just like someone who is seeing the slide. And then we have the full transcript. Surprisingly, we see visually disabled students listening to the audio of the lectures and going right to the transcript and consuming that whole document with JAWS or NVDA or voiceover. It’s more efficient. It’s a faster way for them. They can kick JAWS up to 8x speed and fly through that document, still getting everything they need. Pause it when they need to slow down. Do whatever they need. They are in control. We will talk a little bit later about control at the user and rather than us at the content creators end.
That extended transcript, in the next couple of weeks, we are going to be releasing that as EPUB files that will go along with the MOOC’s. They were much easier to manage. It will be a single download and they’ll get all the content for a learning module in one package.
JOSH ANDERSON: There are a lot of challenges with making the MOOC’s fully accessible, aren’t there?
JOHN TUBBS: Yes. Those challenges are there is just not the right pigeonhole in the learning platform to provide all the accessible needs that we know we need to provide. But the big challenge is that we don’t know who our learners are. We have 250,000 users out there in the digital marketing course. Let’s run the numbers. If we have a quarter million users. 10 percent are going to have some sort of need for an accommodation. That’s 25,000 accommodations. That is not a reality for us to deal with 25,000 individual accommodations. So we move what has been traditionally in higher education, and K-12 as well, where we have the student files for a letter of accommodation with the disability resource group on the campus. That letter of the commission goes to the faculty members are saying, you need to provide accessible materials for the student using these accommodations to make success for that student. We don’t have that one to one relationship. That’s why we step up. We are looking at that extended transcript document. In that document, I can build that a format that’s going to work with someone who has motor disabilities who has to have some sort of touch/blow device to get through our document and navigate it. Our visually disabled users are going to be able to just use JAWS or NVDA to read through the document. Our students who are deaf are going to come in and have the written transcript. That one document, by playing our cards right and doing it with beautiful HTML, with ARIA, with proper JavaScript words, appropriates, grace ESS, we can make that experience as good as it can be for that breaths of 25,000 needs for an accommodation.
That idea of not knowing who they are and the vast numbers drove my team to coming up with this sort of approach. To make this happen, some of the challenges you might have is just finding the broad talent to pull this off.
JOSH ANDERSON: I can imagine.
JOHN TUBBS: Like I said, we have to have amazing videographers. We have to have great people on-screen delivering the content. We had to have quality transcription and captioning services. That’s sometimes a challenge to get accurate captions. We need then to have the people that can — it’s not basic HTML. It’s a notch up. There is the need for significant abilities in CSS to hide something from the sighted user that we need to have for the screen reader to read. Those sorts of things. We have to realize this, that we don’t have all those skills internally. We want to get them, but this is a very broad set of skills. We’ve had the great support by our admission at Gies to be able to engage some people to help us. We worked extensively with Nobility down from Austin, Texas, who’ve done an amazing work with accessibility; and Automatic Sync, we use them for our audio description and captioning services as well. We work with them on fine-tuning the use of their smart player to optimally deliver these extended audio description player documents. It’s having these relationships, we can get the ability to do what we want to do. And as we grow. We have a job search open right now. So if there is anybody looking for an accessibility job, look up University of Illinois.
JOSH ANDERSON: That’s great. Every one of our listeners is that right person to get in.
JOHN TUBBS: Exactly.
JOSH ANDERSON: I love the way you guys are thinking of accessibility first. Make everything accessible for everyone. Then you don’t have to worry about the one on one, finding that one piece that will work with individual. That’s very cool and for thinking. If everybody would do that, I might be out of a job but it would be pretty darn nice. I read an article, you called it accommodations anonymous. I thought that was a very great way to describe what it is you guys are doing.
JOHN TUBBS: That was a play on words in that article that I wanted to do. The anonymous part of that accommodations anonymous is drawing from some of the ideas of a 12 step program, where there are some basic tools, universally applicable tools, that the person would need to take responsibility for to have success in whatever path their life is needing to take. In the MOOC, that’s going to be your learning content, the tools, the content of my team is going to be putting out there for the students. But the thing that is important — with 25,000 accommodations in this digital marketing course, the individual who needs that accommodation has to pick up the tools and connect those tools that are written and as universally design a way as possible, and then apply their specific accommodation needs, whether it be speech to text, some sort of assisted touch device, pointing device. They pick up our universal document. They need to push it into their way of consuming content. There is that individual responsibility to pick it up and work with it on their own terms. We create the environment but the responsibility has to be shared.
In a business college, as I say about adapting to the responsibility, these are working professionals. The average users coming into our iMBA has a minimum of seven years of experience in the professional world. These people, if they are going to have some sort of disability, they’ve already had seven years of surviving probably very inaccessible situations throughout their career. It may not be in their own office, but interacting with on of the vendor, on of the provider, a client, whatever, they run into roadblocks. It’s unfortunate but that’s the reality. When they are working with Nobility and other people we’ve asked, can we say to the disabled user that might be coming into our courses, you have some responsibility? The resounding answer I get when I present the question to anybody is yes. The scale we work at requires us to put something out there universally. The hope is that through people’s own means, they can figure out how to consume it.
JOSH ANDERSON: What does the future hold for accessibility in MOOC’s? What are you guys working on?
JOHN TUBBS: The future is pretty interesting. Right now, we are in a big push with Coursera to get to enhance their learning platform. The learning platform has the ability not only to be a better accessible means for the students to just navigate through the content that we are providing. They have to go from module one to module two, navigate to the quiz, that sort of thing. They have that part continuing to improve just like we are improving our documents. I work with John Gunderson from our disability resource ed services group here at the Illinois campus who is — many people have probably heard of John. He is an amazing resource. What John does so well, and he explains that we need to have the learning management system not only be accessible but drive people to create things that are accessible. You can’t publish a photo without the alt text being filled in. It put some of the requirements that we know we need to do to make an accessible document into the develop and process. So the learning management system provides the impetus behind creating accessible stuff.
The last thing is I want to see MOOC’s continue to be the gateway for more people to gain access to learning. I what we’ve done is scratched the surface right now about what we can do as we support all of our learners, rather than just the able to learners.
JOSH ANDERSON: Tell me a story. Everybody has a reason they get into this line of work. What’s yours?
JOHN TUBBS: I had never thought of going into this line of work. My undergraduate degree is in elementary education and my Masters degree is in classroom technology and education reform with an emphasis in digital learning. In the 30 years I’ve been doing this, the drive to pursue accessibility has just been there. It’s part of what my job responsibility has been. I’ve kind of grown my career and kept ADA work on the side. But there is one thing, one instance in my early career that I think sparked my interest in accessibility and kept alive. I was sitting in a CESA office. In Wisconsin where I come from, CESA is the Cooperative Educational Service Agency. This is where K-12 educators from all over a region come in and see demonstrations and do training. One day, I’m in there working on an event with Apple. They had an Apple to sitting up there, and they had this funny thing called a voice synthesis card and it. This dairy farmer came in, and he was blind. He was using VisiCalc, the very first spread sheet on a personal computer. He was keeping track of his dairy records. He went in there with the orange voice card that was in those II E’s, and he says ask me what my milk sales were in any month that you would like to ask me in. Someone yells out November. He ran down that column, and it sounded like an old 56k modem. No one in the room could understand anything that was going on. He holds his hand above the arrow key, and he hits the arrow key and says 482 gallons or some response like that. It was that awe-inspiring moment that someone dealing with an assistive technology that was doing something that was completely undecipherable by the rest of the audience. This guy was a success being a dairy farmer because of that, because he had the ability to be competitive. Not very many dairy farmers were using spreadsheets in 1988.
JOHN TUBBS: Here is a blind dairy farmer doing it. That just blew me away.
JOSH ANDERSON: Very cool. We are all very glad that you did get into this business because what you are doing is awesome stuff, making MOOC’s more accessible to the world, which MOOC’s in themselves make education more accessible. That’s an awesome thing.
If somebody would want to reach out to you and get to know more about you, is there any kind of contact information we can pass on?
JOHN TUBBS: You can send me an email directly at You can also find me on LinkedIn, John Tubbs. You know you got there because it says Illinois all of the place. If you ever want to come visit Illinois and see some of our studios and such where we begin the content creation process, I would be more than happy to provide a tour. Please be in touch.
JOSH ANDERSON: Thank you so much. John Tubbs is the director of digital media and e-learning at the Gise College of business at the University of Illinois. Thank you again.
JOHN TUBBS: Thank you. Take care.
JOSH ANDERSON: Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on Assistive Technology Update? Call our listener line at 317-721-7124, shoot us a note on Twitter @INDATAProject, or check us out on Facebook. Are you looking for a transcript or show notes? Head on over to our website at Assistive Technology Update is a proud member of the Accessibility Channel. For more shows like this, plus so much more, head over to The opinions expressed by our guests are their own and may or may not reflect those of the INDATA Project, Easter Seals Crossroads, or any of our supporting partners. That was your Assistance Technology Update. I’m Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in Indiana. Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you next time.
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