1998 Conference Proceedings

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SPEECH-ENABLED WEB ACCESS: AN INSTRUCTIONAL CASE STUDY

Paul Jones
Department of Educational Psychology
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
4505 Maryland Parkway
Las Vegas, NV 89154-3003
Voice: (702) 895-3937
FAX: (702) 895-1658
Internet: jones@nevada.edu

Janis Riceberg
Durango High School
7100 West Dewey Drive
Las Vegas, NV 89113
Voice: (702) 799-5850 ext. 270
FAX: (702) 799-5855
Internet: hrxr@aol.com

From humble beginnings as a tool for university professors, the Internet/WWW is a pervasive force in contemporary life. In the school setting, the virtues of the information superhighway are extolled at all levels. The slogan, where do you want to go today, becomes the question, what do you want to know today, in classrooms throughout the United States. The publicity easily leads to belief that Internet/WWW access is routine. This paper describes a comprehensive high school setting in which access, instead, only recently became available and the proactive collaboration of a teacher and a university professor to adapt the tool for students with visual disability.

Our objective in this paper, consistent with the model of a qualitative case study, is to provide the reader with a context-rich, detailed view of the steps necessary to initiate the integration of the Internet/WWW with classroom instruction for students with visual disability. The academic prose in the preceding sentence has a more literal translation. What follows is a step by step recounting of a litany of technological glitches. While there is a happy ending, we hope through the sharing of our experience to help the reader avoid some of our trauma. Said most simply: if it could go wrong, it did.

The setting for this case study is Durango High School, a secondary school with enrollment of approximately 3,200 students in the Clark County School District, Las Vegas, Nevada. The school provides a special cohort program for students with visual disability from anywhere in the district. Students take regular high school courses with assistance and some direct instruction provided by the second author of this paper through a resource room. Approximately fifteen students are typically served.

The cohort classroom includes a variety of assistive technology resources for students with visual disability. Two PC-clones and three Macintosh computers are available. Both of the PC computers use the Windows platform. One of the two is speech-enabled with an Ohtzuki Braille printer attached. When the 1997-98 academic year began, there was no Internet/WWW access in the classroom.

THE PLAN:

Our initial plan to bring the Internet/WWW to the students seemed, at the time, simple and straightforward. The first author of this paper had been experimenting with two browsers, each of which facilitated access by persons with visual disability. One of the browsers, Net-Tamer, is a remarkably adaptable DOS-based access program. It is inexpensive, well supported, and provides a number of functions including web browsing. It can both send and receive e-mail with an off-line reader included. Most important the Net-Tamer program is speech friendly; graphical output can, in fact, be simply turned off.

A particularly powerful alternative for the person with visual disability is provided by the pwWebSpeak(TM) browser. It is also inexpensive and was developed by The Productivity works, Inc. in conjunction with De Witt and Associates and Thomas Edison State College. The pwWebSpeak(TM) browser was especially designed for users who wish to access the Internet either without visual cues or through combining visual and auditory output. This Windows-based program functions well with several voice synthesizers and also includes a software option requiring only a Sound Blaster(R) compatible sound card. The program is easy to install and use, and support is readily available. The experience of the first author suggests that it would clearly warrant designation as the "top of the line" for speech-enabled web access.

The plan was simple. The first author would donate and install a modem in one of the PC-compatible computers. The second author would donate access to the web through her commercial account. The first author would download and install trial versions of the two browswer programs, and the instructional experiment would begin.

FIRST-THE MODEM:

Everything appeared to be going as planned. The modem was easily installed. Then, to coin a phrase, we hit the wall. The modem would not work. After carefully going back through the installation steps, we tried again. The modem would not work.

Advice was sought from other teachers who used technology in their classrooms. All agreed the news was not good. A modem would not work with the phone system in the school.

Typical for phone systems in larger schools, the system uses a PBX (or Private Branch eXchange). In effect, the PBX allows a large number of internal phones to share a small number of external telephone lines. Advanced PBX systems offer a variety of advantages in use of a phone, but the Digital PBX systems are not modem friendly. The modem just does not work.

In addition to being somewhat embarrassed about not having checked this out in advance, we had a serious problem. One of the two programs with which we planned to experiment, Net-Tamer, does not work in the context of a network. A phone connection is required. The pwWebSpeak(TM) browser, fortunately, could be implemented with either phone or network, but without a network connection, our project appeared doomed to failure before it could begin.

Then, we received some good news. All classrooms in the building were being immediately networked into the Internet/WWW. The reality, unfortunately, was less than the expectation. The initial phase was to include only a Macintosh computer (neither of the browsers with which we planned to experiment were designed for the Mac). Even more problematic was that the initial phase only empowered use by the teacher of one computer per classroom. Student use of the system within individual classrooms was not to come until a later phase.

An important step, though, had been accomplished. The Internet/WWW was in the classroom. With the persistence which became our most important tool in this process, our need was to just expand the access. What would it take to link our speech-enabled PC to the system now in place?

We ignored early input that it could not be done, and the persistence was rewarded. If a "hub" could be made available, our PC could be linked through the primary system. The first author of this paper volunteered to purchase the hub with the equipment to be installed by computer specialists in the school. Typical for many public school settings, the assigned computer specialists tend to be much more comfortable in the Mac environment. More specifically, in a public high school with more than 3,000 students and a staff of 160, there were only three people who even claimed to be competent with technical aspects of a PC. The second author of this paper is highly capable in computer use but makes no claim to technological expertise. The first author, while comfortable in the environment, had little experience in large-scale networks and also felt a strong need to be cautious in "experimenting" with a system in which he was a volunteer consultant.

We eventually found an effective resource for technical assistance, not from the staff but instead, a student in the junior class at the high school. With helpful assistance from this student, we had every reason to feel success was near. The necessary equipment was available. The classroom had network access. Our optimism was premature.

THEN-THE PLATFORM:

The speech-enabled PC was heavily loaded with software to assist students with visual disability. We were told that the dual access to the Internet/WWW could not be accomplished within the Windows 3.1 platform. Windows 95 would have to be installed in order to have capability for any functional usage on the computer. That information may or may not have been accurate, but it seemed reasonable. The process proposed was to first remove all programs from the computer, install Windows 95, and then re-install all of the assistive programs.

Installation of Windows 95 went smoothly. Using the Netscape navigator we had access to the Internet/WWW. It seemed too good to be true. It was.

VisAbility(TM) and Window-Eyes(TM), our two main assistive programs, would not function. Our versions were apparently not compatible with Windows 95. In addition, the HP scanner used frequently to adapt materials for use by the students would not work, and HP technical support requires a financial guarantee. And, if the above were not enough, the Braille printer was apparently reading the computer in a different language.

Fortunately, our junior student, after a few days, was able to resolve the scanning problem, and new settings were found for the Braille printer. Persistence again prevailed. The DECtalk program was successfully installed. The capabilities present in the computer before the Internet/WWW classroom initiative were again functional. It would be reasonable for the reader to surmise that nothing else could go wrong (at least that was our belief). We were wrong again.

FINALLY-THE VIRUS:

The first clue was peculiar. The computer would not recognize the installed CD player. Attempts to reinstall the software were unsuccessful. While checking the system functions in the control panel, the first author found a message that the machine was operating in MS-DOS mode. That message suggested a virus. The culprit was the AntiCMOS. Somewhere in the process of installing and reinstalling software, the PC had been infected.

The AntiCMOS virus infects master boot sectors on hard disks and boot sectors on diskettes. It will infect a hard disk only if the user tries to boot from an infected diskette. If the hard disk is infected the virus then infects practically all diskettes that are then used in the computer. It was first found in Hong Kong in 1994 and is now common all over the world. Fortunately, it can be removed by most virus protection software. In our case, once the virus was removed, the computer immediately "found" the CD.

THE HAPPY ENDING:

When we originally planned this paper, our intent was to share experiences focused on students and the Internet/WWW. Our goal was to assist others with specific examples regarding how the resource can enhance the instructional experience. We planned to talk about specific assignments, peer assistance, and what we found as strengths and limitations of available software.

Obviously we have taken a different direction in this paper, but it is a direction which we believe is still consistent with our primary intent. Until the technological problems are resolved, there can be no instructional use. We hope the "grocery list" of things to avoid which has been described in this paper can serve as a guide for the reader.

Our subsequent experiences do indicate that the destination was worth the cost of the journey. Just as computer technology significantly eliminated barriers for persons with visual disability many years ago, the Internet/WWW opens broad new avenues with potential for equal access.

In integration of this resource into your classroom, our experience suggests one primary behavior set. When you encounter a barrier, seek an alternate route and refuse to accept the guidance of nay-sayers who insist that it cannot be done. With available technology, there is a way. Even our very first problem, the modem in a PBX phone system, can be overcome. At least one Silicon valley firm proves adapters for under $200 which enable such access, and we would have taken that route if the network access had not become available.

Finally, for any who have already experienced some problems, we would like to validate the reality of periodic frustration. There were certainly times when we felt that the problems were just too much. The impact of such feeling is well illustrated in the following. All of the technological problems had allegedly been solved. The virus was gone.

The first author came to the classroom with intent to finalize the software for use by the students. He sat down at the computer and could not get access to the web. Unvoiced but highly evident was a feeling of despair: "now what's gone wrong?"

The software seemed fine. The other computer was online. Continued attempts to access the web were in vain.

The author is not a novice. He writes programs in Visual Basic and Java and has absolutely no fear of removing a computer cover. But, he could think of nothing else to try. Later that day, he called the second author for discussion about how to solve this new technical problem. She responded: "Did you check to see if the network plug was connected to the wall?"


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