News & Blog

Accessibility for Everyone

By Lauren Tran

Everywhere we look, it seems that designers are thinking about accessibility — and that’s a good thing for everyone. On campus, we witness how automatic doors help not only those with crutches, but also those who are carrying heavy loads. Sidewalk ramps help those pulling carts and walking bicycles as well as those in wheelchairs.

Just as for physical accommodations, accessible designs in media technology and online environments have improved the experiences of all users. Artificially intelligent agents, like Siri on the Apple iPhone, make it possible for people to perform many useful functions simply by speaking. Computers, too, have improved accessibility with screen reading and alternative controls already built in to Windows and Macintosh operating systems. For all this progress, however, much work remains. As Northwestern’s Director of Assistive Technology, Jim Stachowiak, recently shared with The Daily Northwestern, “For people without disabilities, technology makes things easy. For people with disabilities, technology makes things possible.”

an iPhone showing Siri's listening capabilities

Using Apple’s Siri for voice commands

Furthermore, participating in the educational experience requires navigating a variety of spaces, physical and digital. How accessible are these online interfaces today? And how accessible do they need to be? What can we do to make course material accessible to as many people as possible?

Canvas is the center of online learning at Northwestern. Fortunately, it is designed for accessibility, containing many useful features such as support for screen readers, keyboard shortcuts, and quizzes that can be set for time-and-a-half.  Yet, while Canvas, itself, might be accessible, what about the course content that is uploaded to Canvas?

Myth: Digital = Accessible

One of the biggest misconceptions about online accessibility is that all electronic formats, such as PDFs and Microsoft Word documents, are automatically accessible. However, that is not the case.

Consider the steadfast PDF:

PDF (or, “portable document format”) documents are among the most common course materials uploaded to Canvas. Despite being digital, many PDF documents are not immediately accessible to those with vision disabilities, especially if those PDFs were made from scanners or photocopiers. Furthermore, while many can still read the documents, the documents can be frustrating because they are not searchable, nor can they be highlighted. Bad PDF.

What would it take to make these “bad” PDFs better? A huge and easy first step toward accessibility only takes a few minutes.

Adobe Acrobat offers the ability to pass these PDFs through a process called OCR, or optical character recognition. In this process, individual letters and words are deciphered by the software and stored as searchable and selectable content. This allows everyone to more easily find information in the document through search functions. Better PDF.

2 PDfS; the words in the first PDF can not be individually highlighted because the PDF has not gone through OCR processing. The second one allows individual highlighting because it has gone through OCR processing and is therefore, more accessible.

PDFs before and after OCR processing

OCR processing makes PDFs readable but not 100% accessible. According to Jim Stachowiak, further steps including “tagging, adding headings, adding alternative text to pictures and graphs, and making sure that the reading order is correct” are all required to make a document fully accessible. Great PDF.

Making content accessible can have benefits for everyone. But it is also the law!

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) makes clear in Title II that communication with people with disabilities need be as effective as communication with people without disabilities. Title III mandates that there be public accommodations of people with disabilities which includes making digital spaces accessible.

At Northwestern University, it is imperative that digital spaces are accessible to everyone. In 2017, the New York Times reported on several colleges in New York that faced lawsuits due to inaccessible web content. These proceedings have been a wakeup call to higher education institutions to consider the accessibility of all websites and digital interfaces.

Accessibility: A Team Effort

Making the campus physically and virtually accessible requires a team effort. AccessibleNU works to ensure that all students have “full participation, equal access, and reasonable accommodation.” AccessibleNU works with partners such as Facilities Management to make sure that students can easily maneuver Northwestern’s buildings and with Northwestern’s Student Affairs IT to ensure that students can easily use the digital facilities that Northwestern provides.

AccessibleNU also provides guidance to campus technology units like the Media and Design Studio and Northwestern Information Technology when designing web interfaces and purchasing technology platforms. One such recommendation is to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, developed by the W3C.

AccessibleNU sets standards for faculty who are required to provide or arrange  accommodations for registered students. Usually, this means making sure course materials are accessible and working with AccessibleNU to make course and content modifications as needed. Together, AccessibleNU and faculty ensure that students with or without specific disabilities are treated equally.

Improving Course Materials

Beyond the need to respond to specific cases, Northwestern faculty can improve accessibility of materials in broadly applicable ways to benefit all students. Here are some examples:

PDFs: As previously mentioned, faculty can improve PDFs that are scanned documents through optical character recognition (OCR) in Adobe Acrobat.Through the “Recognize Text” tool, documents become searchable and selectable. While the results are not always as good as a “born digital” PDF that came from Microsoft Word, the extra effort leads to a significant improvement in usability.

Microsoft Documents: Authors can take advantage of Microsoft Word “styles” to distinguish between headings, body paragraphs, emphasized information, and other categories of text to make it easier to navigate documents. The “styles” tool allows screen readers and other accessibility tools to better process the structure of information contained in the document. As a side benefit, the consistent use of styles makes it very easy to elegantly change the look and formatting of documents.

Canvas Pages: Similar to Microsoft Word, heading and paragraph styles can help establish the structure of Canvas pages, making them easier to navigate. The rich content editor also offers faculty the option of providing “Alternative Text” that works as a supplement or replacement for images.

Screenshots of where Canvas users can write alternative text for images and choose text styles for pages

“Alternative Text” and “Styles” tools on Canvas

Video: Sites like YouTube offer closed-captioning functions for videos and the ability to narrow search results to only videos that include captions; however it is important to keep in mind that YouTube’s automatic closed captioning is far from perfect —accuracy can be as low as 60-70%. Faculty should make sure to check that the captions are correct. Both YouTube and Northwestern’s Panopto video tool support uploading transcript content with videos to make videos accessible without sound, and searchable for certain words or phrases.

Taking the Next Step: Workshops

Making accessible materials is easier than one might think, but sometimes the difficulty is in knowing how to take the first step. The Media and Design Studio has partnered with AccessibleNU and Information Technology Teaching and Learning Technologies to develop and offer a series of workshops offered throughout the academic year. These workshops focus on the challenges that students face while using digital interfaces and walk through some of the solutions that faculty can offer for PDFs, Microsoft Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and videos.

Introduction to Accessibility

Thursday, October 18, 3:00-4:30 pm in Kresge 2524
Monday, October 22, 3:00-4:30 pm in Kresge 2524
Tuesday. April 16, 3:30-4:30 pm in Kresge 2524 Register here

Enhancing PDF Accessibility

Thursday, November 8, 3:00-4:30 pm in Kresge 2524 Register here

Improving Microsoft Word and PowerPoint Documents

Thursday, January 24. 3:30-4:30 pm in Kresge 2524 Register here

Accessible Video Captioning

Thursday, April 25, 3:30-5:00 pm in Kresge 2530 Register here


Telling Refugee Stories

By Matthew Taylor

Project Profile: Notunterkunft

Last spring a group of twelve Weinberg students traveled to a refugee shelter in Berlin to conduct research at the Notunterkunft Wilmersdorf, a World War II-era government building repurposed to accommodate the influx of displaced families from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. The students were enrolled in an advanced German course taught by Franziska Lys, who challenged them to inquire into lives almost unimaginably different than their own.

“Students need to know about diversity all over the world,” Lys said. “They need to understand their own backyard, but they need to contribute to that diversity in a more global sense.” Students interviewed refugees in German, English and Arabic. They also volunteered at the shelter, assisting with childcare and custodial chores.

One compelling outcome of that experience is Notunterkunft, a bilingual collection of digital stories, which Lys and her students assembled in collaboration with the Media and Design Studio. These stories are derived from a combination of interviews and immersion research, and take multiple forms that go beyond the page. Students crafted essays enhanced with sound and image, short documentaries, even a collection of plays.

What these stories depict is, at times, harrowing.

In a graphic memoir by Courtney Chatterton, a Syrian child regards a sturdy structure made of Legos as something invariably ruined, with lives cut short. Yet the Notunterkunft project is not without some room for hope. In a podcast produced by Maya Daiter, entitled “A New Life,” we meet Hayat, a Syrian woman expecting her first child. As she receives prenatal care at the shelter, there is no mistaking her determination to build a better life.

To realize this multiform digital project, the Media and Design Studio supplied equipment for students to document their experiences, including field recorders, lights, cameras and other gear. We also sent our instructional technologist, Cecile-Anne Sison, to Berlin, to provide project-specific training and logistical support. Cecile shot and produced this video, which, in addition to serving as a mosaic of student experiences at the Notunterkunft, rather wonderfully complicates one’s definition of the word refugee. Lastly, MAD Studio developer Sergei Kalugin conceived and developed the Notunterkunft website with assistance from Lys and her students, ultimately delivering a sensory-rich and intellectually rewarding record of this era-defining story.

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Write-On Surfaces in the MAD Studio

By Matthew Taylor

Many of you know that both you and your students can reserve small meeting spaces in the Studio for tutoring, group study, or team meetings. But did you know that you can now write on most of the wall surfaces?  Over break, we painted several walls with “Activity Paint.” These vast writing surfaces allow for highly creative and collaborative diagrams, think maps, grammar explanations, or any other impromptu drawing. For those who don’t have dry erase markers handy, we offer them for check-out at the front desk.

Game, Set…Learn?

By Madhurya Manohar

What do classrooms and workplaces today now have in common?


While the lure of games has been around forever, its use as a tool of engagement only began to gain traction seven years ago. Since then, it has transformed into a buzzword for the classrooms and workplaces of the future. But how much do we really know about gamification and how important is it for educators today?

So keen is the interest in the topic that last month, Cecile-Anne Sison from the Media and Design Studio, Susanna Calkins from the Searle Center, and Kelly Roark of Northwestern IT held a workshop for interested faculty on how to engage students through gamification. Participants were invited to create their own fun avatar and award stars based on different parameters as introducing themselves to others or asking insightful questions. The workshop spoke to the benefits of gamification, design processes and strategies, and examples of successful gamification in education.

Gamification, a term coined by British computer programmer Nick Pelling in 2003, is the process of integrating game-like elements in a non-game setting so as to encourage participation. It can include a variety of elements common to gaming psyche such as:

  • Achievement through points, badges, leveling and leaderboards.
  • Rewards through collectibles, bonuses or power-ups.
  • Time through a countdown to create a sense of urgency.
  • Personalization via avatar selection and customization.
  • Micro-interactions (toggles, special effects and animated rollovers to round out the experience.

Gamification has had some interesting applications in recent times. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, digital agency, Mother, partnered with video game developer, Zynga, to create Repair the Rockaways. Players could purchase virtual bricks and watch how shattered houses in Rockaway, New York were reconstructed through their donations. To encourage active content engagement, digital media website, Mashable, created the gamified platform, Mashable Follow, that allows readers to customize their news consumption and earn badges for sustained participation. In another example, a nonprofit collective, Live58, launched Survive125, a poverty simulation where users virtually experience a day in the life of a 26-year-old bricklayer from India who lives on $1.25 a day.

The versatility and applicability of the technique is perhaps what has drawn educators towards gamification as well. Today, school and university classrooms are filled with students from the so-called Generation Z – or iGeneration – the first generation to be born into the digital world. With their 8-second attention spans, sustained engagement is crucial for a productive learning experience. How can teachers and faculty gamify classrooms in an ever-changing landscape?

Wendy Hsin-Yuan and Dilip Soman, of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, outline several considerations in  A Practitioner’s Guide to Gamification of Education.  Educators must establish the context in which students are being taught, whether pertaining to group size, time period or similar factors, in order to diagnose pain points in the learning process. Next, instructors should define objectives and structure the learning experience into stages. This blueprint should help identify what kind of elements will be integrated, such as:

  • A tracking mechanism where a student’s progress can be measured
  • A currency that illustrates what the student achieves by completing a stage.
  • A level which defines each stage and how much currency is needed to get there.
  • A rule set because the games need to be structured.
  • A feedback mechanism.

In approaching the final gamification of the course, educators can focus on self-elements that encourage students to focus on their own learning or social elements where students are engaged with the classroom community. It is important to note that gamification does not only imply teaching through the use of games. Rather, to gamify a class or a course can also include adapting the entire class format to a game, where the elements mentioned above come in.

A graph illustrating online search patterns for the term ‘gamification’ over the years, via Google Trends.

On the Northwestern campus, gamification has had an interesting history. In 2013, Max Dawson, a former professor of the Radio, Television and Film department, designed a gamified class to explore the impact of reality television on the American television industry. Titled The Tribe Has Spoken – Surviving TV’s New Reality, the class included elements such as student ‘tribes’ who could win immunity challenges and scavenger hunts mediated by the class Twitter feed. In fact, Dawson himself went on to be a participant on Survivor in 2015.

Today, gamification has adopted another familiar avatar on campus: YellowDig, the online social learning network Northwestern adopted last year. The platform essentially enables students to engage with course material outside of the classroom, through posting articles, text, photos, videos, etc. CEO and founder Shaunak Roy built the system on the belief that ‘colleges and students would be interested in a platform that combines academically relevant content with features they are familiar with from Facebook and Twitter.’ It uses a points/ vote system as a gamified element to incentivize students to participate. Since the 2015-2016 pilot spearheaded by Medill School of Journalism professor, Dr. Dan Gruber,

More than 100 courses/learning communities comprising of over 2500 professors and students from across the university have used Yellowdig, who collectively have shared more than 8,300 learning stories and 26,000 comments & votes on the platform”

Gamification has certainly cemented itself in mainstream consciousness with its application in fields such as education, health and even community service. With the increased emphasis on hybrid learning penetrating classrooms today—and, not to mention, an urgent push to keep our digital natives involved and interested– it seems like it is here to stay for a while.


The International Reel

By Madhurya Manohar

The Oscars are upon us—the culmination of the glitzy awards season that ultimately crowns the best films of the year. Among the various contenders, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selects one film that is produced abroad to win Best Foreign Language Film. With notable films such as La Strada, 8½, and Life is BeautifulItaly has fared well in this category, with 14 winning films and 31 nominations over the years. This year, films from Iran, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Australia have received nominations.

Watching these films can not only expose you to the creative cultures of other countries, but they can also be great media for gradually picking up nuances of a language. While we await the grand winner on Sunday, here are some pieces of creative brilliance that you can start with: Full post

Another Resolution? Learning a Language in the New Year!

By Madhurya Manohar

Hello, blog readers! I am an international graduate student at the School of Communication. Through writing for the MMLC, I get to explore the different shades of digital humanities and language learning. Learning something new is always at the top of my list—and if you know me, you know my love for checklists, bucket lists, and resolutions. Learning a language, however, is the one that keeps getting away. So, with a renewed energy for 2017 comes a revamped resolution to get back on the horse.

We are moving swiftly into the New Year and if you continue to cling onto those resolutions, then kudos to you! If you are looking for a change in track, here is one you may have heard before: Learn a new language! Full post

Voice Over Recording Suites for Productivity and Creativity

By Audrey Valbuena

Academia often upholds its roots in paper and pen with more traditional forms of scholarship. Yet, to prepare students for the working world beyond college might mean to further embrace video and media, not only as something to be consumed, but as something to be produced.

In moments of reflection, I find myself pondering the possibility of doing more than writing an essay – maybe creating a video or podcast instead. Perhaps, instead of watching videos, I could be creating them. If other Northwestern students also feel this way, perhaps authoring a video essay or an informational podcast could be enough to end academic nonchalance in students and bring them into the exciting world of digital media. This sort creation through digital learning could have the capabilities to not only deepen understanding of content through creative synthesis, but serve to combine traditional education with technological learning, leaving students with additional skills needed to be successful in the increasingly technological future. Full post

MMLC’s New Student Employees

By Audrey Valbuena

The MMLC’s student employees currently occupy positions from lab aide to developer. Some have a knowledge of the equipment and how it runs, while others use their knowledge of coding to develop projects going on within the MMLC. Cecile-Anne Sison, who hires most of the MMLC student employees, explains how the center integrates this youth in the workplace. Full post

MMLC Welcomes Visitors to Open House

By Audrey Valbuena

With the start of a new year comes the advent of new technology, or in the case of the MMLC, new facilities. The MMLC recently held an open house, debuting its range of technology and new collaborative spaces. With nearly 100 people in attendance, the MMLC staff welcomed faculty from varying departments, some MMLC student alumni and the Dean of Weinberg himself, Adrian Randolph, to explore its new space in Kresge Hall. Full post

Excitement About our Move

By Matthew Taylor

As the Spring 2016 term closes, we celebrate another great year of creative and scholarly pursuits by our team, the faculty who call upon us, and, most of all, the students whose classes and projects often take shape in our labs and studios, including:

  • Developing a virtual walking tour of Ancient Rome in Chicagoincluding in-depth video explorations of various sites
  • Learning how to research and author online maps to chart Shakespeare’s Circuits around the globe
  • Honing skills to ‘write’ audio essays, including one on Tom Dooley which won the History Department’s annual Joseph Barton Essay Award
  • Adding 84 new entries to the WildWords dictionary
  • Taking one of the 1,965 online language placement tests processed this year
  • Being in a group of 597 fellow students who perfected and evaluated their language pronunciation using DiLL in our computer classrooms

Full post