Alina and Dragos' presentation at the Text Access event (13 June, 2013 - University of Leeds)

How to make sure an oversubscribed accessibility conference is also a successful one

Last Thursday (the 13th of June; and no, I have never been superstitious, thanks for asking :)) I co-organised together with my lovely colleagues in the University of Leeds Equality Service a Text Access conference for both the education and commercial sectors. The event was supported by the University of Leeds Student Education Fellowship scheme, as well as the Consortium of Higher Education Support Services with Deaf Students (CHESS) – warm thanks to both of them.

The conference was oversubscribed pretty much within 48 hours after being announced back in April and we were really looking forward to sharing what we do in the area of providing access to lectures and seminars for our Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing students – the short version is that, in the Centre for Translation Studies, we offered subtitled intro videos for all lectures in a core Translation Studies module (the famous “flipped classroom” that lots of  folks are buzzing about), and we also recorded all our lectures in several modules together with live captions. The student and colleague feedback we had had had been very good indeed for these subtitled/captioned resources, and we were also looking forward to seeing what other educational institutions, as well as companies, were doing about that so that we could keep improving our practice and our students’ experience.

The event turned out brilliantly (as already very eloquently summarised by one of our excellent presenters Beth on her blog), all the presenters and participants said they had a fantastic time, and I am pretty sure everyone went home with a few things to think about and even implement. As well as being a lively showcase of inspirational presenters and very engaged participants, the event was also an extravaganza of technology and assistive services (I am only going to mention here what went on in the conference room and will talk about our exhibitors in another blog post). Throughout the day we had:

  • smart pens (the Livescribe variety) being demonstrated on a visualiser;
  • presentations and subtitled videos running from laptops and the main room computer;
  • live in-session speech-to-text reporting (STTR) done by a professional palantypist and projected on one half of the dual screen alongside anything that the presenters were displaying during their own presentations (that was awesome! Truly!);
  • remote live captioning done by a professional in the US by re-speaking whatever we were talking about in the session using her own voice recognition system; this was a demo of an alternative to in-session STTR, it also needed to be displayed on a screen, and it relied on crystal-clear sound from our four wireless mics going to the US via Skype. So no pressure there 😉 It worked very well, though, and it was amazing to watch and think of all the tech behind it.
  • both the in-session STTR and the remote live captioning needed to be displayed on an additional monitor for a partially deaf and blind presenter and participant who could not have had access to the full event otherwise;
  • human sign language interpreters were also working for our deaf participants (that was also awesome!!)
  • one person (me) casually checking that all the tech behaved throughout the day (except for 20 min of intense problem-solving after lunch when a change of plan meant that some of the tech set-up had to be re-thought; nothing beyond human control, though).

On top of all this and as an easy life does not seem to figure on my bucket list, I thought it would be nice to record everything (presentations, live STTR and live captioning, and all the discussions) as follow-up materials for all our participants, as well as interested individuals who could not make it to Leeds (maybe you will be interested, too).

To do that I chose Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro because I still think it is the most flexible and powerful online conferencing tool out there, and it all worked very well indeed. The set-up was the following:

  • one presenter machine running Adobe Connect with a screen share made Connect invisible to all my presenters who did not have to learn how to operate it at short notice and could just get on with their presentations/video playing as normal;
  • the sound from the four wireless microphones went through the presenter machine to the speakers in the room and the sound loop. What was also extremely cool was that Adobe Connect did not fight with Skype over which one should have sole access to the audio stream: they both used it happily;
  • one laptop with a webcam (£50 Microsoft HD webcam connected to a Mac Book for added geeky amusement) pointing to the STTR/remote live captioning screen shared the webcam and checked that the recording was progressing well (no problems on our University’s wireless network). I had to use this set-up because the STTR laptop was not wireless-enabled and I could not therefore share its screen via Adobe Connect.

This is what one recording looks like (we will release them in the next few days after we have had the go-ahead from all our presenters).

Alina and Dragos' presentation at the Text Access event (13 June, 2013 - University of Leeds)

Alina and Dragos' presentation at the Text Access event (13 June, 2013 - University of Leeds)

In the screenshot above, from left to right, you can see the following:

  • Navigation menu on a dark background with bookmarks to the important bits in the presentation (I did this in about 3 minutes of post-processing in Adobe Connect. All you need to do is scroll through the presentation and press the bookmark button whenever you need, type the title of that bookmark and you’re done.)
  • Presentation share within Adobe Connect. We were a bit different to our other presenters, because we wanted to control the presentation remotely, too – I was standing about 4m away from the presentation screen and had an Android tablet running Adobe Connect and my Android mobile as back-up running Adobe Connect, too. We also wanted to keep the filesize as low as possible, and that’s greatly helped if you share documents rather than your entire desktop in Adobe Connect. Another bonus is that bookmarks are created automatically in the navigation menu when you change slides and they are called the same as your slide title (so beware of slides with no titles; you can have a title outside the slide if your visual design forces you to, but you can still have a slide title ;))
  • Top right: webcam pointing at the live STTR: 34-point or larger yellow text on a black background was best for projecting in a 300+ seat room (we also experimented with black text on a white background in one session and the webcam recording was not as good). If I could change anything, I would go for a webcam that zooms in, although the cost may be a bit excessive.
  • Bottom right: two chat boxes to engage with our audience and demonstrate our approach to making our lectures both interactive and accessible: in our lectures, the first chat box has been used by our note-takers to produce live captions; the second chat box has been used by both hard-of-hearing and hearing students to interact and collaborate live in the lecture. The beauty of using these chat boxes is that their text is searchable in the recording and it acts as bookmarks, too, because it is recorded and stored in sync with the audio and screen share of the presenter.

Useful lessons for making an oversubscribed conference a successful one:

  1. Pick an interesting topic which you are personally excited about (ideally you will have done some work in the field, too, not just shown interest – participants feel if this is a box-ticking conference or an event organised by genuinely interested people).
  2. Plan in lots of breaks, order lovely food, keep presentations short, recruit firm but fair and funny session chairs.
  3. Sound is key! Although they are likely to be more expensive, do invest in good wireless microphones. The four Sennheiser ew 100 G3 we had in the room were brilliant and both our session recordings and our US re-speaker did not have any issues picking up our presenters or the audience’s questions! Otherwise, the Plantronics Voyager Pro bluetooth microphone headset has never let me down when dictating on my computer using Dragon Naturally Speaking (and it also works as a hands-free for my mobile).
  4. Technology is lovely and works only if you treat it right. Turning up to a room and expecting everything to magically work is likely to lead to disappointment, not in the least because you will have no idea what is going on. This is a symptom of the iPad culture I find: no understanding of (and worse: no curiosity for) what happens in the background and an expectation that technology will get it right 100% of the time (and sometimes even read your mind). So for our participants and presenters to love being with us on the day and not feel all the tech in the background, we spent a solid week learning the room, anticipating a rage of presentation scenarios, and problem-solving.

2 potentially interesting lessons about lecture capture and Adobe Connect:

  1. People never tire to hear stats and figures regarding lecture capture. If you talk about captioned lecture capture, this is even more obvious because setting one up seems even scarier. As soon as we touched on the subject of how lecture capture did not affect our attendance and how our captioned lecture captures cost us about £3/view all-in but started to cost less (£2/view and dropping) as the tech and expertise we built was used in other modules, too, the audience got even more interested. I hope you are, too, as that will be the subject of a future blog post.
  2. While Adobe Connect has a very useful Pause functionality which you can click on during the recording, if you are recording several presentations, it is much better to record them individually. This way you can easily post-edit them, release them as individual links, and not subject your audience to hours and hours of presentations they need to wade through to get to the bits they are really interested in. Adobe Connect’s current online editing environment allows the trimming of the beginning and end of a recording, but does not allow the splitting of a recording into sub-segments, so if you find out that this is what you actually need, you are getting into messy download-as-it-plays, converting, splitting, and uploading territory which I don’t even want to think about 😉

What next?

Watch the #uol_textaccess discussions for news about the release of the recordings and watch this space about more reflections on the conference, especially how I think lots of us have been temporarily brainwashed by the lecture capture companies – that one is a biggie!