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Disability Practice in the Spotlight

Callum Corkill

 Photo of Callum Corkill

Callum Corkill

Covid-19 has upturned everyone’s plans for 2020, creating a climate of uncertainty and a sense that nothing will be as it was before.  It’s enough to unsettle even the most seasoned academic team or dedicated student.

But with the disruption has come opportunities, according to Callum Corkill, Accessibility Technologist for UniAccess at the University of Western Australia (UWA).

UWA began the year as a largely on-campus institution, but halfway through the semester made the pivot to fully online learning for its students. Of course, that meant staff had to make the switch along with their charges.

“This move has led to some challenging issues UniAccess has had to work through,” Callum admits.  A significant impact for Callum was in providing captioned content.

After the initial move there was an increase in the number of students who required captioned lectures, tutorials, labs, prelabs and meeting videos. For the first few weeks after the transition, much of his time was spent organising and scheduling the captioning of content of all kinds with the help of the UniAccess team. “The move to entirely online delivery impeded many students who had previously been coping while classes were in person,” he explains.

Even before staff and students began working and learning from home, UWA had begun offering appointments via phone or video chat – which came with their own teething issues. But what they did do was help the support team become comfortable in working in that sort of environment. “I also found video appointments quite tricky when trying to teach new students how to use accessible software and the latest technology, although screen sharing did help, it's not as easy as when you're there in person,” Callum says.

There have been other exciting developments at UWA in recent years.

Prior to 2019 there were two adjustments that could be made to students’ lectures, depending on their accessibility requirements: captions from a service that Callum describes as “costly and prone to delays”, or the provision of lecture notes that came from a UniAccess casual note taker.

“Captioning lecture content is obviously preferable as captions created for UniAccess students are able to be viewed by all students in a unit, and it's been shown that students taking their own notes retain much more information than those who are simply given notes,” Callum says.

“But because of the high cost, as well as delays in the service, it was not feasible except in a very targeted manner.”

So, in 2019, the UWA Education Enhancement Unit (the EEU) approached UniAccess to talk about their pilot of a new technology: automatic speech recognition, or ASR.

This technology was already part of the Echo360 platform that UWA uses to host its lectures and using computer AI could create a transcript in just a few hours.

Another benefit to the new technology, according to Callum, was that ASR cost only a few dollars per hour, compared to the several hundred dollars per hour that captioning could cost.

“Although the accuracy of ASR was only around 70-80 percent, we believed it would be beneficial and provided units that the EEU could target. In the end, the pilot comprised of 48 units, 6400 students, and used roughly 1000 hours of video,” Callum says.

Before the pilot began, UWA surveyed students to see how they felt about ASR: the majority, across all student groups, including international students, students identifying with a disability or chronic medical condition, domestic, and mature age, indicated that they felt positive about it.

During the pilot, halfway through semester one, a student engaged with the service who required a note-taker.  Through chance, the student’s unit had also been part of the pilot.

Callum’s manager, Liz Sullivan, hit on the idea of offering the student a cleaned-up version of the ASR transcript rather than providing a note-taker for the unit. “The plan was that after the initial ASR, an editor would download and edit the transcript, correcting the 30-20 percent of errors, and reupload the transcript to the lecture on Echo360,” Callum explains. 

“So for the rest of the semester, I spent my Wednesday nights editing first-year economic lecture transcripts, and to my surprise, I found it took roughly the same time creating lecture notes did.

“When I told my manager about this, she had the idea that in semester one of 2020 we would do no lecture notes and no captions, and all students who required accessible lectures would have an ASR transcript made when the lecture was released and a cleaned-up version within 48 hours edited by UniAccess editors,” he continues.

“This way, students would receive the educational benefits of making their own notes, as well as being quicker than the captioning services and UniAccess would be able to provide more students with a better service at a lower cost per student.”

The trial has run well during the first semester of 2020, with UniAccess transcript editors uploading edited transcripts within one or two days of a lecture’s release and very few instances requiring intervention by Callum.

The service has been much in demand since the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“The Covid-19 situation brought out quite a few students from the woodwork who had previously been coping by themselves, for example by lip-reading, but due to the move online now required accessible captioned lectures.

“Due to our small team of ASR editors and the difficulty of finding new editors while working from a home office we had to begin using our previous captioning service again,” Callum explains.

“However, with the lessons we've learned and continual improvement of the technology I believe the service we are implementing will only improve.”

And despite the difficulties, there have been other positives to come out of Covid-19’s havoc, including realisations on how to improve access for students who need it.

“I think I'll continue to offer online appointments now that we've worked out most of the issues, I believe it's a great way to provide our service to students who may have trouble accessing appointments in person,” Callum says.

Written by: Danielle Kutchel

June 2020