Sunday, December 18, 2005

Final Post

The purpose of this final post is two fold, to show how network theory applies to my IE topic of assistive technologies and accessibility and second, to explain how social software was used in this project. Challenges and successes will be discussed.

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.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Habits and Language

We are usually not aware of our use of phrases in instruction like ... "you will see ...", "look for the Submit button on the lower right of the screen", or "on the graph you will notice ...". A student who is visually impaired will not see or notice. In fact, they will not know what is on the right or left when given those directions, especially towards the middle or end of the screen. Most have the graphics turned off on their browser so any reference to color, shape or geographical location will not have meaning. Consistency on where navigational links are placed on the page becomes significant. Change link locations and one believes they have left one site and are now on another.

After working again with one of our visually impaired students, I walked away again feeling completely inadequate in teaching a skill. Stumbling all over myself, my pat explanation for adding a file to an e-portfolio was not working for me or the student. I realized my instructions were filled with phases that must sound insulting to her and I cursed at myself for not being more aware of what I was saying.

However, one gets the feeling that perhaps in teaching, we assume interpretation more than we should. After all, we as the teacher/instructor, can "see" it. We have explained it many times that same way with success. Why is it not working this time for this particular student? Must be that they are not paying attention or do we assume incorrectly that we were successful all those times in the past. Hummmm....

As I was writing out instructions for adding a file to the eportfolio, I was very much aware of what I was saying, much more so than in the past. After all, what good does it do for a web page to sail through accessibility testing if your instructions were not adequate. Let's face it, no amount of testing will predict whether that student will actually be able to carry out a task on that screen other than user testing.

As we talked about accessibility testing in our staff meeting after my presentation today, I realized that unless you have direct experiences with screen readers or students with visual impairments, you can never appreciate what these students go through just to access the instructional content, not to mention learning the material. Many of the members of my group today during the discussion focused on the coding component of accessibility testing, believing this is where we should put our energies. Because they didn't have the same experiences I had, it was difficult for them to understand that the issue is not only one of coding but, more importantly, how instruction or content is written or explained.

Each student comes into a classroom with unique needs and experiences. Past knowledge and the way they process information will influence how they merge new with old to create new constructs. Perhaps we are not always aware of how much our teaching style, delivery and assumptions determines their success. There is much to be learned from working with students that are challenged. After all, this brings me full-circle to my original thoughts when I started this blog in that we are all disabled in one way or another. We should design better learning environments so that all can participate and learn.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Accessibility Is Not Enough

In this month's Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox on web usability there is an article that caught my attention regarding making content on the web accessible. Check it out at:
http://www.useit.com/alertbox/accessibility.html.

Nielsen's main focus is the concept of accessibility not being a scorecard type item, meaning that content passed the "test". The purpose needs to be whether the user with disabilities can access and navigate the content while accomplishing critical tasks. For example, every web/instructional designer knows to use ALT tags. The emphasis shouldn't be on whether an ALT tag is used but on whether the ALT tag is well written.

Another excellent point concerns accessibility being limited to students with "disabilities". This is an over simplification of the issue. It is really a continuum of users that we need to be concerned with. I can tell you from first hand experience that most students/people over the age of 45 have somewhat reduced vision even if they don't quality under the official definition of "low-vision users". Ask someone who has tried to purchase an red shirt online that is color blind and they will tell you about issues with accessibility.

Lastly, he drives home the fact that web content needs to be tested by actual students who use their own screen readers, magnifers, keyguards or another other assistive technology on a daily basis. While guidelines for testing websites and web content is important, and testing a necessity, the information provided is not enough. Usability studies are essential.

It will be challenging for most institutions, either educational or corporate, to find users with disabilities to test web content, yet I agree with Nielsen. How many instances have we put time into designing a software tool or educational design only discover upon use that our work falls short of its intent. It is easy to fall into the trap that our web content sailed through "Bobby" but unless the interface is used successfully by students with disabilities, tested by the users themselves, our objectives have not been met. We have to start looking at accessibility being a key issue for all users, as we all have "disabilities" of some kind, be they physical, mental or spiritual.

Check out TJ's Blog

TJ's comments regarding accessibility of this blog for students that are visually impaired are below.... just wanted to pass them on. Thanks TJ and Priscilla (see post below) for taking the time to contribute to my blog ....

hey i'll tell you straight away that most l blogs are wonderfully accessible, i infact run 2 of my own
my public one is www.tjolsen.net

Usability of this blog

As we look at issues for students with disabilities in regards to technology found on campus, we asked two of our students that were visually impaired to respond to this blog (see post below). I would like to share her comments with you. Upon reading her thoughts, I think that you will agree that once one is made aware of the difficulties in assessing content for some students, web usability takes on a whole new meaning. ...

This student says:
"I have a few questions concerning the blog
Where do you click on to post the comment I made? What is the link at the botom of the posting titled? Because it says username and pasword and log in. Do you have to have an account on the site in order to post? Can you be a visitor of the site to post any feedback? see, I tried to post a comment but I didn't know what to click on to post it. Other than that,
the site was an interesting experience in terms of technology. it was jfw frendly. i think that this site is grate for every student because they can learn about other people as well."


Think about it ....

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Invitation for Comment

To make sure that students with disabilities can access this blogging tool, we are inviting two of our students, TJ and Pricilla, who have been working with us on assistive technologies, to make comments regarding their first year experiences with technology at Seton Hall under this post for this week. We have been conducting a number of focus groups on campus with Freshmen to collect information regarding the use of Blackboard in their classes, and their experience with the ePortfolio assignment. Also of interest is input regarding special technologies Freshmen use personally and whether they feel Instant Messenger can be used for any educational purpose in the classroom.

TJ and Pricilla, we welcome your thoughts here. Click on the Comment Link to add a reply to the post.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Just Do-It!

Sharing our experiences with the other Instructional Designers, we saw an opportunity to further the relationship that our department had with the Assessibility Office at the University. Meeting with the Director for Disability Support Services at Seton Hall, we obtained resource material in the form of videos, handouts, workbooks and web sites in our efforts to become more knowledgable in the area of assistive technologies.

One of the most exciting opportunities open to us is a special summer program offered each year by the University of Washington in August called Do-It Scholors. Designed for high school students with disabilities, this program offers an opportunity to explore different careers, use adaptive technology, learn about college life on a university campus and gain skills in how to best succeed in college, along with meeting other students with disabilities. Held for two weeks, volunteering to help with this program would give us an opportunity to gain much needed hands-on experience with this type of student and their special needs.

Jaws and Electronic Portfolios - The Connection


For the first time this fall, 1200 Freshmen are creating an electronic portfolio as part of Freshman Studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange. Posting assisnments on topics such as diversity, multiculturalism, career goals and volunteerism, we anticipated challenges. The e-Portfolio tool is part of the Blackboard Course Delivery System. Deeply embedded within the software, content needs to be added to the Blackboard Content System first (a virtual hard drive of sorts) before it can be added to the portfolio. Complicating the issue even further, the Blackboard Content System is unique with it’s own interface, different than the rest of the Blackboard portal.

Early in the semester, we were made aware that we had a number of students in the Freshmen class that were visually impaired. Contacting Blackboard, we had a difficult time assessing if the tool had passed assessibility standards. Not wanting to wait, we scheduled a session with one of our blind students to assist her with this assignment. That 90 minute session was a totally humbling experience that will forever change my perspective on web design and accessibility. I never realized what a visually impaired person goes through when suring the web.

Using a very expensive screen reading tool called “Jaws”, students pick their way through a maize of images, buttons, and text described to them through a synthesized voice. As we listened, we were horrified to discover that often the decription for a button did not accurately describe the text button label thus causing a mismatch between our instructions and actual layout of the page. Listening carefully to the audio, we were amazed that these students could process as quickly as they did, often finding the button they needed to select before we could. This experience proved to us that we needed to become more aware of making course content assessible to all types of students on our campus, changing the way we authored and designed our learning environments.

Current Status of Proposal

Objectives:

  • Investigation of assistive technology that supports the visually impaired student for the fall of 2006 (started, see appropriate blog post above)
  • Creation of a Blog to promote communication and community to focus on emerging accessibility issues (done but needs to be promoted)
  • Use of a wiki to provide a group work space to document resources available to faculty, Disibility office staff, students, Instructional Designers, and administrators (started but more content needs to be added)
  • Discussion concerning the promising benefits of assistive technology
    Observation of a range of assistive technology devices in use (started, see post above)
  • Identification and exploration of key questions … What are the issues around assistive technology? How can assistive technology enable special needs students to be empowered? How can technology promote achievement and increase academic success? What can we do as the Teaching, Learning and Technology Center to further support faculty and students with assistive technology?
  • Presentation of accessibility issues and standards to content developers at Seton Hall
    Identification and examination of effective frameworks and successful assistive technology initiatives at other higher education institutions (scheduled for 3 weeks in December)
  • Hold a Showcase on awareness of accessibility through the Emerging Technology Roundtable and the Office of Student Disabilities (i.e. speakers, presentations by students on use of assistive technology at SHU, legal issues, etc.) (scheduled for Spring of 2006)
  • Development of a partnership between the TLTC and the Student Disability Office on campus (started, two meetings already held, see appropriate blog post above)

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Review of Individual Entrepreneurship Proposal

male teen talking with disability trailer on screen

Assistive technology can be defined as any device that increases, maintains or improves the functional capability of a student with a disability. With 6.5 million students being served through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1997, this relatively new field can be confusing and overwhelming for instructional designers and educators alike. This proposal focuses on educating Seton Hall content developers on accessibility issues and standards outlined in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) along with the investigation of assistive technologies that support course delivery on campus. Since we all have special needs in some shape and form, this study would ultimately benefit all students in the Seton Hall University community, forming a strong and enhanced academic system.

It is important to note that assistive technology is not about creating separate multimedia content or curriculum but making them available to all students. Research has shown that one reason schools and universities are still being challenged is the fact that implementation of mandates traditionally has been the responsibility of a few isolated individuals. Since Seton Hall University endorses the team model in curriculum development to include members from the Teaching, Learning and Technology Center, along with faculty and other members of the academic community, this proposal will be presented to the Emerging Technology Roundtable for adoption during the fall of 2005-2006.

Objectives (include, but are not limited to) :
  • Investigation of assistive technology that supports the visually impaired student for the fall of 2005
  • Creation of a Blog to promote communication and community to focus on emerging accessibility issues
  • Use of a wiki to provide a group work space to document resources available to faculty, Disibility office staff, students, Instructional Designers, and administrators
  • Discussion concerning the promising benefits of assistive technology
  • Observation of a range of assistive technology devices in use
  • Identification and exploration of key questions … What are the issues around assistive technology? How can assistive technology enable special needs students to be empowered? How can technology promote achievement and increase academic success? What can we do as the Teaching, Learning and Technology Center to further support faculty and students with assistive technology?
  • Presentation of accessibility issues and standards to content developers at Seton Hall
  • Identification and examination of effective frameworks and successful assistive technology initiatives at other higher education institutions
  • Hold a Showcase on awareness of accessibility through the Emerging Technology Roundtable and the Office of Student Disabilities (i.e. speakers, presentations by students on use of assistive technology at SHU, legal issues, etc.)
  • Development of a partnership between the TLTC and the Student Disability Office on campus