This is just what I think and only what I think. I am going to keep it easy and simple. Don't be surprised to see one post about food and the next about stuff. I don't categorize anything. I look forward to your comments and more importantly calls and e-mail.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Making online classes for everyone

Today’s fastest-growing trend in education is online teaching. As instructors want to reach out to wider and wider audiences, they are finding that online education makes their classrooms virtually limitless. Academics everywhere are turning to the Internet as their new classroom. Students around the world are now able to take classes at the university of their choice without having to travel. However, for students with disabilities there are perils in online education which may almost outweigh the benefits. Students with disabilities may be excluded from this online experience when universal design principles are not followed.

First I’d like to examine what an online class offers and then talk about how students with disabilities may be blocked from accessing this modern educational opportunity. The structure of online classes is much more flexible than the traditional lecture or seminar classes held in brick-and-mortar institutions. Instructors of online classes often do not require students to attend fixed-in-time lectures. An online class may have prerecorded lectures that students can watch whenever and as often as they want. Students can play back the lecture at their leisure and convenience.

To compensate for the interactive process of asking questions while in class, students can email instructors or post questions on in-class bulletin boards and forms. Questions may be answered by the instructor, teaching assistants, or even other students in the class. Many instructors encourage students to help each other  the quality of student responses informs the instructor about how well students understand course content.

 Online courses allow students to absorb the content of the class at their own pace. The student can interact with the teaching module in a variety of different ways until they understand the material and are ready to move on. If there’s difficulty understanding a particular concept, the student can approach the subject matter from multiple angles before moving on to the next topic. Many online classes dynamically generate content such as problem sets for students, until the student demonstrates a successful understanding of the principle. Only then are the students given the opportunity to move to the next level. This dynamic generation of content means that instructors do not need to spend as much one-on-one time with students as in the past, and yet students are actually learning more, especially students with different learning styles. Instructors are now freer to give focused specialized instruction tailored to the specific problems of the students they spend time with.

Due to the interactive nature of modern Internet technologies, students today participating in online classes can virtually experience many of the same things they would in a physical classroom. Modern technology can simulate everything from mixing chemicals for an experiment to building structures to learn about stability. Students can play virtual instruments to learn about music or manipulate virtual devices to perform tasks. When instructors “virtualize” classes, the cost of instruction significantly decreases. Instead of having to purchase an expensive chemical for each and every student taking the class, theoretically an unlimited number of students can manipulate the online experiment an infinite number of times. The possibilities of the course design are limited only by creativity and expertise.

Unfortunately, unless attention is paid to ensuring that all students can participate, these expanding innovations will not be available to everyone. As wonderful as these technological advances are, each has access challenges. When communicating information to their students, instructors must identify effective methods of reaching different types of users, including those with sensory and learning disabilities.

If an instructor shows a video of a chemical experiment and neglects to describe the action, including all the visual elements, a blind student is precluded from acquiring most of the key information the demonstration is meant to convey. A video should have a good narrative describing the key points the instructor wants the viewer to understand, so that students with visual impairments have access to the same educational opportunities as the sighted viewer.

For students with hearing impairments, the video should also be captioned and provide a standalone transcript. In keeping with the “curb cut” phenomenon, increasing the accessibility of course content results in everyone having an enriched experience, e.g., word-searchable captioning enables everyone to quickly find a desired point in the video.  Captioning is helpful for not just those with hearing impairments, but also can be a valuable resource for those with other disabilities, like color-blindness or learning disabilities. And I can’t tell you the many times I’ve heard from non-disabled viewers, after a video has been captioned, how much more usable and effective the newly captioned video is.

There are so many different technologies being used today to create online forums and chats. Every time you turn around, a different chat client is being created. Many of these chats are very difficult for a screen reader to use at the same speed as other users. The screen reader may not find incoming chat messages from other class participants, or may not identify the participants who are speaking. If the screen reader is focused on the content being generated, the student with a disability is missing simultaneous portions of the chat essential to following the conversation. When choosing a chat client, an instructor should be sure that it works well with a screen reader and that students with multiple disabilities can engage in the classroom conversations.

If the client chosen for the class is accessible only through manual keyboarding, students who input by speaking (and have no use of their hands) may not be able to participate in the conversation. It is vital that instructors be sure the client selected offers multiple methods for inputting, so that online class participation is accessible to all students. The interactive process, so named long before the internet took center stage, needs to be even more interactive now that it is so easy to by-pass direct interaction between instructor and student. We don’t want students with disabilities to fall off the Cloud!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Gotcha or captcha

In 1997, the Internet was starting to  show signs of what it would become. More people were logging on every  day and with that, others were starting to find ways to make money off  of this information highway. Today, over 80% of the e-mails sent are  spam, but fortunately, more ways to fight spam are being developed. In  1997, Alta Vista was the first company to create the CAPTCHA to fight  this flood of unwanted Internet traffic. This first block was to help  prevent hijacking of search results that made it impossible to search  accurately.

Perhaps  I should first describe what a CAPTCHA is. Here is the definition as  found on “An online test that humans but not computers  are able to pass, used as a security measure and usually involving a  visual-perception task.” However, many sites have alternatives for  people who can’t use the visual method to continue past the image that  features alphabetical or numerical cues. Websites also use an audio  CAPTCHA as an alternative to the image. One of the most popular spam  control feature is reCAPTCHA. This is a free service that provides the  image and the audio files for a site. reCAPTCHA then uses the results of  the inputs to help identify the images of text while digitizing them.  Earlier, they also provided clips of movie sound bites to help caption  older titles. However, today the sound bites are synthesized speech,  with distorted speech overlaying the synthesized words.

The  CAPTCHA strategy has resulted in problems for many people with  disabilities. Obviously the images cannot be read by a screen reader. If  they could, it would defeat the purpose of the CAPTCHA’s property of  being readable by people but not by computers. This is why audio CAPTCHA  was implemented. People often can’t solve CAPTCHA for a growing variety  of reasons. For example, I have not been able to solve a reCAPTCHA  audio-CAPTCHA for two months now because they have made the audio harder  to hear and added a lot more words to solve. I can’t understand half  the words in the sound clip and my spelling is so bad that I can’t spell  the other half. It’s interesting how an audio CAPTCHA is automatically  harder to solve than a visual one. For example, reCAPTCHA gives an image  of two units, like words, but the audio version has many more words,  sometimes up to ten or more.

A  sighted person can compare and contrast what they’re typing to the  letters shown on the screen, but an audio user must try to distinguish  between unintelligible words, such as “there” or “their” or “they’re”.  There is no memory needed for the sighted user in solving the CAPTCHA,  but the listener must remember as much as they can of the audio file to  be sure they get it all.

I  tend to type and listen to the words every time I hit the space bar, but  as a blind user, if I’m trying to solve a CAPTCHA, I run the words  together so that the screen reader doesn’t speak at the same time as the  synthesized voice I’m trying to hear from the CAPTCHA. I don’t know how  many times I’ve had to try over and over again because I missed one  word and don’t remember what it was. And if I submit it and it’s  incorrect, then I start all over again. The only thing that is more  frustrating is a site that doesn’t provide me with an alternative.

Many  people with cognitive disabilities can’t use the visual CAPTCHA either.  If they have a reading disability and the image of the text is  distorted, they may never be able to read the CAPTCHA at all. Many of  the students I worked with, who have learning disabilities could not use  the best synthesized voices on the market. They were not able to  understand words spoken in a computerized voice. Some of these students  would not be able to use either image CAPTCHA or audio CAPTCHA.

Over  the past few years, people have been trying various ways to change how  CAPTCHA behaves. Some people have switched to challenge-questions  instead. The problem is that the questions must be so generic as to be  solvable by people from other cultures. For example, if a  challenge-question asks,  “What comes first: dinner or  supper?”, some people may not know the word supper at all. Others may  think the two words mean the same thing. Very few people recognize that dinner is another word for lunch in some parts of the world.

I  understand the necessity of CAPTCHA in most cases, but we really need  to find other ways to get past the money and down to work. I would never  want the Internet to get more disrupted by the traffic that CAPTCHA is  blocking today, but I do want to use the tools and applications that  CAPTCHA prevents me from accessing.

I  remember working on the problem with a few years  ago. When we found a way to make the reports accessible, we then needed  to find a way to get to them. The only way we could come up with was to  use an extra form of communication. The person who was unable to read  the image to solve the CAPTCHA would have to click an additional link  that would then bring up a phone number to call and a code to give the  computer on the other end. The computer would then give you the  appropriate answer to allow you to respond to the challenge. This is  problematic, since it relies on a having access to a phone. But the  system worked for most people.

The  real answer is that we need to stop the effectiveness of spam. We get  so much of it that we need ways to block spammers’ access to the web,  because somehow and somewhere people are falling prey to it. Spammers  will keep trying to send ads if we all keep clicking on the links. If  you find a link that looks somewhat legitimate, it’s hard to say, “Well,  maybe it’s not worth checking.” I know I often do it myself. The  sender’s name is one I think I know and I am interested in the subject,  so I check. I get a message saying I will get a free iPad, so I fall for  it. I know better, but the spammers also know we all want something and  they offer it and we take it.

The  only other thing that can help us tackle this issue is international  consensus on not letting people get away with it. With electronic  borders that don’t really exist, phones and the Internet, spammers just  need to simulate an address off-shore to bypass laws created to stop  them. Also, we need to teach people how to identify the fakes and how to  be smarter about what they open or click online. We need to make sure  we know the sender of an email and how to tell what the consequences of  replying to spam are. Education is the only way we can cut back on this  hostile takeover of our information highway. When it comes to the  Internet, we really are a global village, so let’s start keeping our  village clean and inviting to all.

Monday, May 14, 2012

So where does the blame lie

Screen readers have been on the market for over 25 years now.  I remember using my first screen reader in the 80s.  Access to software has always been problematic.  My first computer was an Apple 2E with an echo PC synthesizer.  This computer ran with proprietary software that allowed the blind person to use a special customized word processor that worked with the synthesizer.  Today we would call it a self-voicing application.  At the time word processing had begun to have some of the same easy-to-use features that we are all familiar with and expect today.  However my system "braille edit" did not have a spellchecker.  In fact for formatting I needed to know special symbols and codes to embedded my text.

Today much of the mainstream market is accessible or at least to a degree.  Blind people using assistive technologies can expect that their assistive technology will work within the same applications that their peers are using.  A blind person can use a word processor, spreadsheet or database applications most of the time with little or low difficulty.  However you will note that I said little or no difficulty.  The less common an application is the less likely a blind user will not be able to access it.

More and more often I hear people ask “so why is there inaccessible software when we've known for so long how screen readers work” and we know of ways to make things work”.  The more I think about this particular question the more I realize that in many ways we are to blame.  My own office relies and depends on a database for our internal use that we would never expect our students to use.  The screen reader I'm using to write this the most popular screen reader to date has its own administrative tools for the networking version that the screen reader can't read.  Yes a screen reader cannot read its own utilities.  A blind administrator such as myself needs to work within the networking tools using workarounds and jury rigging.  In fact with Microsoft Windows eight to be released in the next year or less it will still be the only operating system I am aware of that does not have an accessible installer.  I've had to put off a major upgrade for a couple weeks now while I waited for assistance to do a Windows install.

With all the things I've mentioned above I bet you're wondering why do I use this screen reader or why do I use Windows.  The answer is to compete in this market what choice do I have.  However those choices put me in a situation where I myself have caused more inaccessible products to be released.  If I only had the ability to say to my screen reader manufacturer “I won't buy any more of your products until your administrative tools are accessible“ and then also have all the thousands and thousands of other users say the same thing you could bet that this problem would be solved.  But if I were to say it and nobody else would back me what good would it do.  The database that our office uses internally is a very popular product.  Several departments on campus have different flavors or iterations of the same product.  The product is somewhat affordable and somewhat easier for non-technical people to use.  Can I tell every single department on campus stop using this database and if I did tell them that would they listen?  I can't say statements like that putting my needs over the needs of many non-technical staff that need to track students as much as I need to.  And if I did speak up and make some people stop using the product how would this affect the non-technical people.  I need to be much more important to affect the market as a person with a disability more than impact as the many thousands of non-technical administrative assistants perhaps we would have fewer inaccessible products then we already do.  But the sheer numbers just don't work.  I look again at my campus and from what I know that there are only six blind staff members on campus in a staff of 20 to 30,000.  How can six people affect that many, Instead we are given readers and other tools that end up costing more for us to cope in the inaccessible environment.

I was speaking with one of my colleagues at another university that has a much stronger assistive technology policy.  They are very open and strict about products they purchase being extraordinarily accessible. from the outside I watch this University and think of them as a leader in accessibility.  However my colleague tells me that even their university makes decisions to often to by the inaccessible.

Recently our campus had a difficult decision about what to do when outsourcing some of our primary campus tools.  We needed to find a more effective e-mail and calendaring system to modernize our capacity.  Like many other campuses we were looking at the choices between Google and Microsoft.  I praise our campus administration for making it through such a difficult process as well as they did.  I appreciated the difficulty they had in making sure that everyone had a say in the process.  I respect our administration even more because they specifically came to me as a known advocate for assistive technology to ask how I felt they should go.  Ultimately I did not give them a yes or no in either direction.  What I did was provide them the information that I know about how the two companies treat accessibility.  I was very proud when I read through the very public decision matrix to see that accessibility was actually a line within the project.  Even if they did not include my words in that matrix what the matrix showed was a picture of how the two companies deal differently with accessibility.  Ultimately the campus went with Google not because it was the better product and if you look at the scoring Google actually did score lower but we went with Google because there is a visible trend of improvement overall.  When it comes to accessibility Google declared openness and continued development to accessibility.  However, Microsoft did not take any stance towards where accessibility would be in the future.

How can we as advocates for accessibility and technology help fix these problems in the future?  In the open market the only way we can do this is through our buying power.  My campus is a massive buying power and ultimately they said that what they want is improvement and change.  The status quo although it may be accessible does have its little inaccessible gremlins that have never been addressed or changed.  Apple has had an accessible installer since 2006 or earlier.  Many UNIX versions or flavors have had accessible installers shortly thereafter.  I seem to recall seeing a demonstration of how to install Solaris accessibly in 2007 or so.  Two versions of Windows later and soon to be three were just not there yet.

How do we make sure that other institutions start to make the same kind of statement?  People with disabilities need to speak up continually and eloquently.  I'm a firm believer in winning people over to your side and not fighting to bring them over.  I have worked for many years to demonstrate and educate this campus in what it means to be accessible.  I had a small impact but more importantly the people I worked with have also had an impact.  By teaching others about accessibility and access issues they themselves became advocates for the cause.  I have never been aggressive or hostile to any program or person about accessibility instead I've always worked with them as a team member and always try to find a positive with every negative.  Ultimately the people I work with become better advocates for accessibility than I could ever be independently.  This work is how I feel I made a difference in some of our campuses decisions.  I have recently been asked to join two national coalitions working on issues of adoption of technology.  One of these coalitions is a group of universities working on a pilot for electronic text.  This group is people from both IT and assistive technology organizations within the different universities.  All of the people in this group want to find a way to make the products used in this pilot more accessible.  I'm excited to be a part of such an organization but I know that we cannot be effective if the administrators at our campuses don't take note of what we say.  I feel especially lucky to know that when I do come out with an evaluation of how accessible a product is or not.  That my campus will listen and take what I say into account.  They may not follow my suggestions but I do know that at least part of what I say is important.  Those of us in the field need to speak up often and loudly.  We need to be sure that we have enough content and noise going to the administrators that some of it will sink in.

But now I want to speak to those administrators.  Ultimately you the CIOs and the educational technology administrators and you the faculty are responsible for the future.  If you decide to purchase a product or use a tool or utility that may not be ultimately accessible for everyone you're sending a message to the manufacturers and vendors of products.  Your message is loud and clear and has the force of the dollars or Euro or Yan or any other currency even open source behind it.  When you buy a product that you don't know it's accessible you're telling the world its okay to be inaccessible.  You need to educate yourself about what makes a product accessible and be sure that what you're buying or using is accessible.  If you don't know find one of us in the industry of assistive technology to help you check the item for accessibility.  Don't believe the vendor when they tell you it's accessible.  You wouldn't buy a car that the salesman told you was fuel-efficient if it didn't have an actual fuel efficiency rating.  Why would you buy a product that the vendor tells you is accessible.  Also be aware when you use open source products.  The open source market tends to be more accessible by design but also has those inaccessible pitfalls and barriers.  The reason for this is that making things work accessibly takes a few more steps that sometimes get missed.  Open source products also suffer from the problem of too many cooks in the kitchen.  An open source project may have all the commitment in the world to accessibility but the team that worked on one module may be all it takes to break that particular product.  The plus to open-source technology though is if you find something that's broken you're more than welcome to fix it.  So contributing back to the community and making a more accessible product is actually the best decision an administrator could make.

To answer the question in the title who is responsible for all the inaccessible technology in this world?  I have to look extraordinarily close to home.  After all I bought Windows I bought my screen reader I made the choice to use the tools I use and work around those problems in the products I need to deal with.  I'm not saying the people that have disabilities should stop working within accessible products I'm just saying that we have some responsibility in this process to.  Ultimately the finger can be pointed precisely at consumers of products.  If those consumers are individuals universities or government agencies we all share the blame.  However I feel that the more money used to purchase a product that is inaccessible the more culpability when that product is inaccessible.  I may not have a choice in what database my office uses but I do have a choice in the screen reader I use.  I'm not completely blameless but I share the blame with much more important people than I'll ever be.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Can We Give Too Much

This month's topic is extraordinarily sensitive and delicate. I want to start by saying that I'm only expressing my opinion in this piece and not the opinion of anyone I am affiliated with.

I graduated from university in 1997. Then the ADA was only six years old and assistive technologies were nowhere near as good as they are today. Graduating from university seemed to be an extraordinarily elusive target at the time. Every semester I was only able to take three classes. Two or three times I enrolled in a fourth but was never able to complete all four. I was an extraordinarily independent student according to the disabled students programs at the various schools I attended. They said this because I rarely went to them to find readers or for exams. I look at the services offered to students today from various universities and realize if I had had those types of services while in university I could've finished much quicker and possibly even gone on to a second or third degree.

Students in postsecondary education in the United States have fantastic opportunities that nobody would've imagined 20 years ago. Almost every private and public school has staffing to support these disabled students throughout their entire education. Some schools have additional resources to support students even beyond legally mandated services. Students with disabilities have basic rights now protected by law. A student with a reading disability is guaranteed access to their texts in a format that works for them. Students with mobility impairments are guaranteed the right to classrooms and other facilities at a school that they need to use. Students with psychiatric disabilities can receive accommodations that will allow them to complete their education. I am proud to work at an institution that has always embraced it students with disabilities and help them to achieve what they wanted. The institution I work for receives additional funding from the Department of Education to provide non-mandated services for our students. Many of the services provided by this funding I would argue should be mandated. However, as they currently am not I appreciating our ability to provide the services.

Colleges the opportunity for young students to change from children to adults. Many incoming freshman are shocked and overwhelmed by the level of independence college brings. Few students adapt easily to the change. By graduation most college students have not only adjusted to the independence and freedom but have become extraordinarily effective independent adults. However, students with disabilities are at a higher risk of not achieving the same independence as their peers. Students with disabilities can become as dependent on a disability services program as they were to their parents and support network they had through grade school. Disabled students programs help their students negotiate their accommodations such as accessing course materials or facilities. Disabled student services are there to guarantee the students access. In my opinion sometimes these programs may cause students to miss out on some of life's valuable lessons.

My philosophy when working with my students is that students should be served as effectively as possible. But the students should be deeply involved in every step of the process. This is known as the interactive accommodation process. The interactive process fails when students are not given the ability to contribute as much as they can to the process. For example if a disabled student services office automatically distributes accommodation letters to faculty students can very easily avoid communicating their needs. By being able to effectively communicate with their faculty students can learn how to then effectively communicate in other life situations. A student that has never had to explain what accommodations they need may not even know. I'm not saying that students instructor should not be automatically informed with an accommodation letter but disabled students also have the responsibility to work with their instructor to see that their needs are met. If an accommodation letter says that a student needs a room alone I believe the student should be responsible for working with the instructor. At some point in time well in advance the student should at least sit down with the instructor and explain what a room alone can consist of in their situation. Can a room alone be in an office? Can the room alone have a window? Both of these factors are very important. If the room alone may be an office with a ringing phone that may be okay for some students but not for others. Some students may be highly distracted visually so a window may cause problems.

Students receiving their course materials in a specialized format should also be extraordinarily involved in the process. A disability service provider can only really determine, by using students documentation, what types of accommodation may be effective. However, the disability service provider needs to engage with the student to be sure how that accommodation is realized. A student with a learning disability that affects their reading may benefit from one of several assistive technologies. Only by closely working with the student to try the variety of products can the best fit be found. For example, does the student need to hear the text, or do pictures distract from the content, how should mathematical formulas be represented, does the student want the footnotes in-line or somewhere else. If an alternative media Center creates all their alternative media exactly the same they can't serve all the students who require alternative media. Even to students with the same disability may have extremely diverse needs. Students should never step out of this process. Students should also learn how to create their own alternative media. Students should be provided the opportunity to experiment with the tools used by alternative media to create the material. If the student is not provided this opportunity I feel they are cheated later in life. If someone has always scanned your books for you and you graduate there is no one left to scan your books for you. The most valuable skill I learned as a student was to create my own electronic texts from hard copies. I admit I prefer using a human reader for most of my work because I find it quicker and better for me. But knowing how to scan something quickly when no one else is around that can read I wouldn't give up for the world. Some schools allow students use of assistive technology that the school owns. Our campus helps students find what's best and then acquire their own. Any student I work with is offered assistance in acquiring their own personal assistive technology. Students then have the opportunity to use and learn as much about the technology that they can. They also are able to take what they used in college to their job and nonacademic life.

Sadly many students are not offered these opportunities. And others that are offer these opportunities do not take it vantage of them. The students who do not take advantage of these opportunities when they are presented are dependent on the system to receive their accommodation. By learning what is required to receive an accommodation students are better able to work live and play independently.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Is it fun or is it frustration

As long as I remember I've always liked trying out new things. A new “toy” would keep me in thrilled for hours. Over the past two months I've had a lot of new toys to play with. I've been doing a little bit more work with inkling on the iPod they gave me and testing out chrome OS for Google. Technology is expanding at a much faster rate than ever before and I'm starting to feel it's leaving me behind. So being able to jump in the pool and start testing things again is lots of fun.

I've seen many of my friends use IOS extraordinarily well. Some of them just fly across that touchscreen. However, every time I sit down to trying using one of these devices I feel completely inept. Half the time I touch the screen nothing happens or the wrong thing happens. Just trying to pick an application from the home screen is a chore. I swear I must have something wrong with my fingers that I can't get these devices to work for me. Yesterday I sat down with someone admittedly that was cited and described a few of the gestures needed to work through the application and he was able to get it to work as well as all those other blind friends of mine. When I tried myself after he was able to do it I tossed the iPad down and discussed and went for dinner. My friend said well I can see what's on the screen which does help me a bit. However I don't think it's the case in this situation. Almost every blind person I know is using an iPhone and loving it. So why am I so different? Yesterday afternoon I tried another touchscreen device that was supposed to be accessible but also failed with it quite astoundingly. Maybe some people just aren't meant to use a touchscreen.

While playing with the chrome book and chrome OS I've had a somewhat more successful experience. After all it's not a touchscreen. I really enjoyed working with the system and trying to learn how to do it. I've only cheated once or twice and asked Googlers how to do one or two things. Otherwise I started to learn my way around the system. It's been a very interesting experiment for me. I've seen one or two improvements that have come in just in the short time that I've been using the system. When I first got the unit one or two of the buttons that were pretty key to the interface were not labeled. But I've seen these fixed very quickly. My overall impression of the system is that it's still very new and it still very beta but if they keep working at it this might be a very useful product. I really enjoy using docs in an interactive way. It's kind of cool to know that somebody can add something to my document from wherever they are in the world while the document is open for me. And then being able to chat about the document at the same time accessibly was pretty neat. I'm really interested to see how this goes in the future. I must say at this point in time I'm still not considering it as a web browser but more as a productivity tool. Yes I can browse the web with it but the time it takes is still too long. Perhaps as the product matures or I learn more about how to use it I will start browsing more.

I've also had to start testing a few devices for work. I've been asked to evaluate different devices for scanning. It's been a long time since I've actually had to play with multiple devices and compare them. I was rather chagrined to learn that some of these devices are still not being released anymore accessibly than in the past. One of the devices had a completely inaccessible installer splash screen. Thank God for the new OCR feature of jaws I was able to get the thing installed long enough to realize that the product itself wasn't worth using. At one point in time my boss sat down to work with one of the devices with me. And I explained to him that I really enjoy doing this kind of testing. However at times it does get frustrating. He said it was something that would drive him crazy. This is a very legitimate response. However, that's why I'm the tester, I actually focus on how to fix it and not what the problem is.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

To click or not to click

Postsecondary educational institutions have larger classes than in any other educational environment. It's not unusual for a first-year chemistry class or history class to have 3 to 600 students enrolled. First-year classes required for all degrees are so impacted some schools are even taking to having three or four locations for one class including the web. I will talk about the impact of web classes in another post. Several years ago clickers started hitting the scene in these types of classrooms. Originally these devices were used for instructors to check in with the students and evaluate how effective their content was. Instructors would survey the class and if the students were responding incorrectly they would communicate ideas differently until more students than less were responding correctly. Needless to say these devices have accessibility issues.

Most of the vendors for clickers very quickly realize the limitation when it came to students with visual impairments. Clickers are small handheld devices that can easily be oriented incorrectly causing a visually impaired or blind student to enter the incorrect answer. The two models I've seen have addressed visual accessibility very similarly. The devices have some form of tactile markings to identify how to hold the device right way up and vibrate when turned on and when your answer has been received. Without the tactile markings students often entered incorrect answers just because they did not have the device oriented correctly.

I am currently researching ways for students with physical disabilities to use clickers. A student with limited or no use of their hands may not be able to hold the device and/or push the buttons. I'm hopeful that the web versions of clickers vendors are coming up with will simplify this problem for my students that are facing this challenge. At the writing of this article I have not yet seen the web interfaces so there accessibility or usefulness as a tool for a person with dexterity problems is unknown.

The impact of clickers on students with learning disabilities is turning out to be a very complex debate. Students with learning disabilities often need more time to comprehend the question or even simply read the question that the instructor has posted. A very common accommodation for students with learning disabilities is time and a half or some other variants of more time on quizzes or exams. Click or quizzes in the classroom are rapid short surveys of material requiring quick responsiveness. Typically an instructor will post the question and give students 30 seconds to respond to that question. Newer clickers even allow for answers in full words or numbers and symbols. The student with a reading disability may need more than these 30 seconds to read through the question and process what the question is asking. Extended time for quizzes has been a well-recognized and effective accommodation. There is no technical way for an instructor to offer some students more time. This brings up some pedagogical questions; does the instructor increase the time for all the students in the class? Should the students with learning disabilities who need extra time take the quiz in a different location and/or time than the rest of the class? Neither of these solutions is possible. Instructors have a great deal of material to cover in a class and extending the time for some students is not possible. If the instructor quizzes the students at a different time or location and the quiz is relevant to what is discussed in the lecture at the moment the student may not be able to relate the answers to the lecture material. Overall students with learning disabilities are constantly being challenged to answer these types of quizzes without changing the nature of the material.

Now that I discussed the problems with the technology itself I'd like to look at the policy issues. When clickers were first introduced it was only a tool that would enhance lectures for instructors. Today more and more instructors are using clickers to grade their students and/or monitor student attendance. As we've already discussed if some students are unable to use them effectively they may be penalized just because they are not able to use the clicker. Inevitably the student’s grade is affected by their disability. One of the other policy issues is availability of the accessible versions. The vendor my campus uses does not make these units available like all the other units. An able body student is able to go to the bookstore and purchase the clicker separately or bundled with their textbook. When I asked the vendor if our bookstore would be able to carry a few of the accessible clickers I was told that they were only available through special request. This leads to students not even being aware that they can't use the clicker they have until the first day in class. Instructors are also not aware that the accessible versions exist. Even the support staff to assist instructors on how to use the technology often does not know that there are different versions and if they are they are not sure how to get them. It is often said within the accessibility world separate access is not equal access. If vendors have thought about the issues and problems why they have not integrated these accessibility features into the default unit. And why are they still releasing units today that are even more inaccessible than ever before?
Educational institutions all study the issue of these technologies closely when they decide if to adopt them or not. However unless somebody on the research team is aware of some of the problems above it is very easy to leave out students with disabilities by adopting these devices.

We must continue researching and investigating these types of technologies to feed the hungry minds of our students. But we must always consider that are student bodies include disabilities and factors that we might not be aware of.

A brief history of e-text

Technology has always been said to be a game changer. From the Industrial Revolution to the iPhone and Kindle, whenever a new technology is introduced society has changed significantly. Some of the best examples are how factories have replaced cottage industries such as weaving and how meals are now mass-produced. Electronic texts have also had a major social logical impact. This time the impact was most significant for individuals with disabilities.
In the early 20th century recording technology allowed blind individuals independent access to books. The Library of Congress uses the ability to record audio as a way to provide books to blind individuals. As the technology became better the library increased its offerings to hundreds of thousands of titles. Federal government policy legislated that this part of the mandate to the Library of Congress a braille and talking book national lending library be established. Throughout the 20th century various new technology platforms were adopted that improved access to written materials such as books and magazines through the 20th century the technology allowed text to become more and more accessible. By the end of the 1990s patrons of the braille and talking book Library would only be a few months behind their peers in receiving copies of the latest additions of many many titles. As the new century began many international agencies formed a consortium to standardize ways to digitize text. This consortium today is known as the DAISY Consortium

So what is all this meant for people with reading disabilities? Throughout the 20th century this technology meant that blind and low vision individuals had an expanding opportunity and access to information. In the early part of the 20th century it was unusual for individuals who are blind or visually impaired to attend universities. An individual such as Helen Keller was seen as an unusual oddity.
People with disabilities did not go to school and if they did it wasn't University. Disabled individuals were more likely to be institutionalized. by the end of the 20th century there were more print disabled students receiving educations than ever before. The students used tape recorders and cassette tapes harder than that technology was ever meant to be used. Today with the advancements in technologies a person can carry hundreds of times more material in a netbook or an iPad. Today blind and reading disabled individuals can go into libraries virtually or in person and access a massive collection of information.

The better technology was for producing electronic texts can be directly correlated to participation of students with disabilities within the educational system. Once educators were able to start providing accessible textbooks to students fewer and fewer students were barred from receiving educations. Up to the last third of the 20th century many individuals with disabilities were completely left out of the educational system. In 1974 4 million children with disabilities were found to be barred from education due to disabilities. As the US government began to form new policies about equal access to education for the disabled students the percentage of students in the educational systems went from 2% in 1976 to 11% today. It's not difficult to correlate the difference technology has made when looking at these numbers. In the late 1970s is when electronic magnifiers in the form of closed circuit TVs provided low vision students easier access to printed text. Right around the same time a revolutionary device the Opticon, gave totally blind individuals the ability to read a printed book. Schools began to provide textbooks on tape and in braille to students. As the technology improved the margin for accessing these texts became smaller and smaller. Teachers of the blind in the early 1980s needed to provide copies of books for brailing to transcription services one or two years in advance. Today most transcription services only require 6 to 8 weeks. Students using electronic texts are becoming more and more of a norm and not a special circumstance. Many educational systems are experimenting with various different platforms of electronic texts to reduce the significant cost of textbooks to both the educational systems and students.

Unfortunately, this century has brought setbacks to accessibility. Electronic texts often include copyright protection that also interferes with assistive technologies. It is not unusual for an individual using a screen reader to be blocked from accessing content by whatever digital rights management or copy protection is keeping the material from being copied. While all the publishers have been rushing to find better ways and faster ways to release electronic texts one of their top priorities has always been copyright protection. It is very frustrating for a person with a reading disability to acquire an electronic file only to discover that their assistive technology is completely blocked from using that file. Students with reading disabilities cannot take advantage of many of the lower-priced E texts specifically because of this problem. It is very important to consider the rights of content owners but we need to be sure that the rights of people with reading disabilities are also respected.

Strangely enough early efforts to digitize texts never thought about copyrights. Project Gutenberg was one of the first efforts to provide a digital archive of some of the world’s most important writings. The modern equivalent of Project Gutenberg is the Google books project. Unlike Project Gutenberg the Google books project is endeavoring to digitize copyrighted material as well as public domain texts. Because of this Google and its partner libraries faced a great deal of resistance from the publishing industry. Although this problem is mostly settled, some of the concessions within the settlement block the accessibility of the content.

As we move forward with electronic materials we must take a stand for accessibility. We cannot in the future permit individual copyrights to be more important than the larger rights of everyone to access information. We cannot permit information that should be available freely to be withheld from people with disabilities because of the fear of inappropriate use. If we must protect material from being copied inappropriately we must find ways to do so that does not violate the rights of individuals with disabilities from using the same information.

A new commitment

Hello: I just wanted to let everyone know that I made a commitment to write a blog post on issues that face students faculty and administrators in post secondary education. I'm copying all my posts to this blog for those of you that follow me.