The subject of assistive technologies and accessibility of web instructional content is complex and multidimensional. Support of the special needs student from a technology standpoint and making web content accessible to all students proved to be more political and challenging than anticipated. Just like other issues at the university that involve time and resources, the connections between old nodes and the formation of new ones (departments and people) were influenced by history, personalities and accountability. However, support for the special needs student was highly dependent on this “scale-free, small world”, complex network. Similar to other networks, essential services for this group of students were linked by key people who had similar interests, common goals and commitments.
On a larger scale, at the national level, the field of accessibility forms its own intricate web of interactions as seen in the interconnectiveness of various administrative agencies such as governmental and industry based groups, businesses, university/school administrators, instructional designers and technology based groups that deal with the many issues of insuring the availability of educational content to all learners. “Hubs” and “power laws” certainly apply here. Examples include university disability offices, major research institutions such the University of Washington, and W3C. However, there is another, more important node that completes this web and is directly linked to the student’s ability to grow and thrive. This small clustering includes parents, aids, faculty, counselors, other students and instructional designers. All together, a decentralized network is formed.
Understanding the “ecology” of this network and its protocols was essential in navigating though its specialized topography. Sensitivity to the issues and challenges forced a narrowing of focus in this project to “awareness” of assistive technology and accessibility for the instructional design staff. However, new connections between our group, the student body and the disability office were strengthened and reinforced.
Which leads us the discussion on how social software was used in this project. Connections supplied an overwhelming array of evolving information. It became impossible to read and assimilate the content of each resource. Being a scavenger, scanner and aggregator became important and this is there social bookmarking and RSS feeds were successfully used. Forming a community of practice to connect to each other on campus and the documentation of resources became an objective with the use of a wiki as a possible collaborative tool. Awareness of accessibility was recorded and published publicly through the use of a blog and through face-2-face meetings of the Instructional Design staff.
What could have been gone better? Constructive and collaborative dialogue between the different groups was tough to organize regardless of social software. This was not a result of a missing link between various “nodes” in the network but more of a complexity in group dynamics. The advantages of the network to exchange ideas, experiences and opportunities happened only on a small scale internally. However, we must keep in mind that a complex network takes time to form especially in a diverse culture dependent on common goals and commitments.