The accessibility team within Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) Operations is made up of three full-time and one part-time staff. This is the first in a series profiling each team member. Alexa Schriempf, accessibility technology specialist, holds a position jointly funded by TLT and the Office for Disability Services (ODS) within the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity. Recently, we discussed her role.
How long have you been on the TLT accessibility team and what are highlights of your professional background?
“I started October 1st of 2013. I came to Penn State as a grad student in 2001for philosophy and women’s studies, and my plan was to get an academic, tenure-track job. I did get offers, but none of them were partner hire offers.
“We actually spent some time trying to find a farm because we wanted to be farmers. That didn’t work out, because we couldn’t find a farm in the school district that we wanted to be in.
“So I started looking for regular jobs after graduating in 2010, and I thought, I have a lot of teaching experience in online education; why not get something in instructional design, since part of being a really good teacher is designing your courses online in instructionally sound ways? So I got involved with that community and I got a position with the Justice and Safety Institute in Outreach.
“At the time, I was on a Learning Design Summer Camp panel regarding access issues. And on that panel was me and Christian [Vinten-Johansen of TLT] on the other end. I hadn’t met him prior, but I just loved what he was talking about. I said, ‘Christian, I don’t know you, but if your office is ever hiring, because you’re dedicated to access issues, I would love to be working full-time on access issues, instead of just on the side.’ He said, ‘Actually, we currently have a position open,’ so I sent in an application, and I was like, ‘Oh, God. Please let me get this job!'”
What are your primary areas of focus within the team?
“I’m like tech support for assistive technology. I’m a specialist, but I wear a million different hats. I’m advising students, talking to them about learning styles, reviewing with them what technologies they know about and how they use them. Behind the scenes, I’m working with Susan Hayya over at the Library. She does a lot of the taking something and turning it into an accessible format and alternative media, and I was brought on board to help her with that, especially as regards materials coming out of the sciences, technologies, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), because that’s the big challenge.
“One of the things I do with my job right now is, there are deaf students who come and we have FM systems in ODS and we loan them out. An FM system is basically like a one-way walkie-talkie. It allows a hearing aid user or cochlear implant user to hear very clearly in the classroom. I help them figure out which system is the best one to use. This is just one kind of assistive technology.
“Another is the Livescribe pen. We hand them out to students who meet the conditions. What this pen will do is, it’s got ink, a camera, and an audio recorder in it. You use it with special paper that has little dots in it called a DPS, a dot positioning system. As you write on the paper, the camera will record your handwriting, and then when you synch your pen to the computer, it will upload your handwritten notes to the computer so you have a digital copy. It will also record audio, so you could turn on the pen and take notes and wherever you are writing, whatever audio’s existing will synch to that moment on the paper. You can then take your pen and tap on that, say, diagram that you copied of a cell in biology and the pen will play back the audio from that moment in time.
“In the area of alternative media, a blind student will have a physics textbook and it’s print; how is he supposed to read that? Several different file format options are available. Which one does he like best? Here in ODS, we’ll either work with the publisher or we’ll outsource it to a high-end production company that will convert the book into braille. More and more, you have e-books, and they can be read out loud to blind students using screen readers, and depending on the file format, the screen reader, and the student’s skill set, you may have some success, you may have no success; that’s where I come in and try to meet with the student.”
What is an initiative you are working on right now?
“We have a blind student who is new to math.
“Most math majors eventually learn HTML or something called LaTeX, and if they know LaTeX, then getting math to them that they can read using screen readers really isn’t a problem. But if they don’t know LaTeX, how is the screen reader going to read math that’s typed on a computer? Because most times, math that’s typed on a computer appears as a graphic image, and screen readers can’t read graphics. I have a student who doesn’t have that sort of technical background. So how do we get the math to him? That’s the problem I’m solving right now.
“It involves finding the right tools and then training the professor how to produce content using those tools, and teaching the student how to read that content. Most of the content is worksheets, so the student needs to be able to read the math and then type in math. I’m trying to do it in a way that’s cost-effective, and I don’t want the professor to have to create the same document twice, one for the sighted student and one for the blind student. I’m trying to figure out a universally-designed solution.”
What is a unique skill you bring to the job?
“Growing up with a disability and using assistive tech all the time, I figured out how to make it work, and figured out how to teach other people to interact with it. Every semester, I’d walk up to the professor and say, ‘This is an FM system. Would you please use it?’
“There was one FM system that I owned where the switch on it was a bad user designthe switch on it stuck out a lot, and it was very easy to move. It would inadvertently get bumped when the professor would put it on. So I duct taped the switch permanently on. So I think of myself as a duct tape hacker in some ways. If it takes duct tape to fix it, that’s what we’ll do.”
What is your favorite aspect of your job?
“It’s figuring out stuff. There’s a student who needs help doing X. Wherever I can say ‘there’s an app for that,’ I love being able to say, ‘Here’s an app. Go for it.’ But I also like figuring out stuff that hasn’t been figured out before, and that happens a lot in this job.”
What is one accessibility issue you wish everyone was more aware of?
“One thing I’d like everybody to know is that we can make access universal, if we would just collaborate a little bit more, if the right hand would know what the left hand is doing. The professors I’ve worked with have been very accommodating. But it’s departments and colleges that I would like to have buy-in from in more systematic ways to establish pedagogical policies that insist all content in the classroom is shared in universally-designed ways. That requires rethinking how we believe students learn. That requires rethinking what we believe to be important about teaching.
“Technology is only half the fix. It’s how the professor decides what to teach, why they’re teaching it, and how they’re going to share it with the students. It’s easy enough to change the way you do that in the humanities, because essentially, it’s textbooks and talk and exams. You use technology to get the books into alternative file format. You give more time on tests. No problem.
“But how do you make a biology lab accessible? How does a blind person do dissection? Instead of asking that question, the professors need to start asking, what is the learning objective to cutting up a frog? It’s to understand how all the pieces fit together. Well, can’t you do that with a plastic 3-D model and save the frogs?
“I can’t come up with these solutions. I need our institution to do that. The institution can think about universally-designed learning.”