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
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
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 Dictionary.com: “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 Annualcreditreport.com 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.