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.

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.