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New Learning Media: Listening To The Internet - An Interactive Tutorial For The Blind And The Visually Impaired, And A Tool For Instructors

Patrick CHASSÉ, Catherine GEOFFROY, Philippe MABILLEAU,
Judith PROULX, Marie-Josée THIBAULT
1717 René-Lévesque blvd. East, 2nd floor
Montréal, Québec
Canada H2L 4T3
Phone: (514)590-4218
FAX: (514)590-4228
Email: info@tecso.qc.ca
Website: http://www.tecso.qc.ca/

The ever growing popularity of the Internet has resulted in an indisputable communication and information medium that needs to be accessed by everyone. It has become an important part of our professional and personal life; exchanging information with collegues, partners, friends and families. The Internet is also an excellent source of information on different subjects such as: healthcare, technologies, arts and culture, etc. Transactions on bank accounts: paying bills and transfering money from one account to another are now part of our everyday life such as the purchase of goods and services on-line via electronic-commerce (e-commerce). The world seems to become smaller and smaller since we can easily exchange information and chat with people disregarding of their location in the world.

This mass of information and services seem sometimes out of reach when one is blind or has a visual impairement. The World Wide Web is generally highly composed of graphical and dynamic elements. As much as possible, a screen reader provides the user access to the textual and graphical content that makes the Internet, but it does not teach how to browse the Web, how to fill forms, how to download files, how to subscribe to newsgroups, etc. This is the problem that "Listening to the Internet" adresses and the reason why it was developed.

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TECSO is a Montreal-based research and development company specializing in New Information and Communication Technologies (NICT), particularly in the New Learning Media environment, for individuals with disabilities and seniors. TECSO's goal is to develop technologically advanced solutions to improve the quality of life and increase social integration of persons with special needs.

In the past three years, TECSO has developped a series of high quality interactive tutorials to address a lack of satisfactory training tools for the blind and the visually impaired. These training kits all feature a computer-based tutorial, which is available on CD-ROM, as well as a series of complementary training tools: a tactile guide illustrating the Windows/Internet screens in relief, in braille formats and in large print, as well as a reference manual in large print, braille, audio cassette, and electronic formats. These tutorials can be used with assistive technology equipments such as screen readers, large print programs, or braille displays.

The series of interactive tutorials includes: "Listening to Windows(R) 95", "Listening to Windows(R) 98", and "Listening to the Internet". The focus of this article will be based on TECSO's interactive tutorial: "Listening to the Internet".

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"Listening to the Internet" is an interactive tutorial on CD-ROM. It guides the user step-by-step through several real-world experiences on the Internet, using Windows 98, Internet Explorer, and Outlook Express. Users may work through most of the exercises using Windows 95 as well. It can be used with adaptive equipment such as screen readers, large print programs, or braille displays.

Structured in units and lessons, "Listening to the Internet" teaches basic as well as the most advanced functions necessary to freely and easily browse and utilize the Internet such as: The Internet basic concepts, Connecting to the Internet, Web basics, Surfing the Web, Using search tools, Downloading files, Electronic mail, Mailing lists and Newsgroups.

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FEATURES OF THE "Listening to the Internet" CD-ROM

The tutorial consists of a narrative voice that teaches the user with an alternance of theorical content and exercises in the real Internet environment using keyboard commands. MP3 technology permits the adjustment of the playback rate (speed of the voice) as preferred, and provides a high quality narration. From a main menu, the user selects a unit on a general topic. Then, another menu is presented to the user in order to select a specific lesson. After completion of a unit, a questions-and-answers lesson is presented to consolidate the user's new learnings. While the first two units are executed off-line with some on-disk Web content that comes with the tutorial, the last four units require an Internet connection which provides experience in the real Internet environment.

The user may easily navigate through the tutorial with simple keyboard commands such as: go to the main menu, go to the previous menu, listen to the previous paragraph, listen to the current paragraph, listen to the next paragraph, and pause/resume the narration. The tutorial also offers a set of utility functions such as: change screen colors, get context sensitive help, get lesson accomplishment level, and adjust the speed of the narration.

Screen readers frequently offer key functions to work efficiently in the Internet. Functions such as: grouping links in a dialog box, accessing the address bar, reading graphics descriptions, reading the current Web page are all essential for the user to comprehend in order to navigate on the Web as easily as possible. That is why TECSO's "Listening to the Internet" combines these elements and comes with a new and innovative functionality which is the "Screen Reader Help Supplement". This supplement provides the user with explanations on commands that are specific to his or her screen reader. For exemple, if the narrator asks the user to explore the different links on a specific Web page, the tutorial will first invite the user to access the "Screen Reader Help Supplement" in order to learn how to do this exercise more efficiently with his or her screen reader. For this example, the user might learn how to use one of his or her screen reader command to group all the links of the current Web page in a dialog box, navigating through them more efficiently.

The first "Screen Reader Help Supplement" that was developed by TECSO for "Listening to the Internet" is the "Jfw32 Help Supplement" for, obviously, the Jaws Screen Reader users. It results in a learning process that is even more in depth and focused, hence efficacious.

The software industry is changing very rapidly and training tools quickly become obsolete. To respond to this problem, TECSO has developed a "Software Version Supplement" that provides a way to address a larger span of users with different versions of a specific software. "Listening to the Internet's" basic contents is based on Internet Explorer 4 and Outlook Express 4 and it comes with an "Internet Explorer 5 Supplement". With this supplement installed, the tutorial utomatically detects what version of Internet Explorer is installed and it plays the corresponding content. This way, TECSO's tutorial content is therefore suitable for users who have Internet Explorer 4 and for those who have Internet Explorer 5. Users may also upgrade from Internet Explorer 4 to 5 even if they have not finished with the tutorial.

Finally, the tutorial is simple to install. TECSO was the first software development company to introduce the Talking Setup Program with its popular tutorial "Listening to Windows(R) 95", and it is also implemented with "Listening to the Internet". To install the tutorial, the user simply inserts the CD in his or her CD-ROM drive. The setup program will start automatically and the user simply has to follow the instructions of the Talking Setup Wizard.

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In earlier projects, TECSO has conducted a series of studies that demonstrate the importance, for a great majority of blind users, to build a mental image in order to be efficient in GUI (Graphical User Interface) environments and to understand changes that appear on the screen. It facilitates communication with sighted collegues as the "same language" is spoken. Also, it is extremely helpful when one experiences an unknown situation or new software.

To reinforce the visual concepts of the Internet, the tutorial refers to the tactile guide. The tactile guide provides "touch and feel" representations of eleven different Internet screens such as: the Yahoo! search engine page, the Outlook Express page, an example of a form, etc. >From these, the blind user builds a mental image of what the Internet environment looks like. The tactile guide also comes in large print format for users who can use their vision or to support the sighted instructors.

Finally, "Listening to the Internet" as all of TECSO's interactive tutorials, include a user’s manual available in various formats such as: braille, large print, electronic and audio cassette. The user’s manual explains how to use the tutorial and it includes a list of the different keyboard shortcuts found in applications over the Internet. It is an excellent and practical reference tool that may be used while and after working with the tutorial.

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TECSO's new learning media tools will provide users with: greater familiarity with graphical environments over the Internet, access to a larger segment of the labour market as a lot of jobs are related to the Web, better sharing of on-screen information with sighted colleagues who use the same graphical applications, and enhanced capability for training and self-training. Consequently, TECSO's quality training tools offer the significant advantages of a reduced learning curve, reduced costs, motivation and satisfaction, consistency of quality training, efficaciousness in learning, easy access, training in opportune time, training at a distance, increased assimilation, full knowledge of learning material and respect of one's private life. Most of our users and instructors say that: "we suggest that TECSO's tutorials be included systematically in all computers sold to the blind and visually impaired users in order to ensure an effective and competent utilization of the GUI environments and enjoy its upmost advantages."

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Jonsson, K., Larsson, U. (1996) Multimedia’s Potential for Visually Impaired and Blind Young People, Ed. D. Burger, Colloque INSERM, Vol 237, pp. 147-151.

Chassé, P., Mabilleau, P., Proulx, J., Carignan, J. & Jarry, A. (1998) Innovative Training Tools Help People with Visual Impairments Learn Windows 95, CSUN 1998, California State University Northridge, Center on Disabilities, March 1998.

Mabilleau, P., Proulx, J., Chassé, P. et Carignan, J. (1998) AuDidact: Training Software for Internet's Browsing for the Visually Handicapped, Telematics in the Education of the Visually Handicapped, INSERM (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale), Paris, June

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