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Project PINNACLE: The Web as an Accessible Collaborative Learning Environment

Karl F. Hebenstreit, Jr.
US General Services Administration
Center for Information Technology Accommodation
18th & F Streets NW,  Room 1234
Washington, DC  20405
Email: karl.hebenstreit@gsa.gov
Susan Turnbull
Email: susan.turnbull@gsa.gov 

This paper provides a high-level overview of Project PINNACLE as a broad conceptual framework for including the needs of people with disabilities in our discussion of web site evolution, then concludes with some observations about the strategic directions needed for incorporating accessibility into the future web infrastructure.

Project PINNACLE  an initiative of the US General Services Administration’s Center for Information Technology Accommodation, has evolved over the past year to address development of the technological infrastructure needed for the emerging Knowledge Age.   Project PINNACLE provides the encompassing framework needed for a systems engineering approach to address the component issues:

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Project PINNACLE has been greatly influenced by the seminal work of Douglas Engelbart, whose 1962 study provided a broad framework for viewing the computer as the most sophisticated tool mankind has developed as a means to augment a person’s basic capabilities  .  His research identified four classes of these augmentation means -- artifacts, language, methodology, and training -- which he recognized as being organized as a hierarchical system:  the Human, using Artifacts, Language, and Methodology, in which they are Trained (the H/LAM-T system).   Within this system, humans and artifacts (software and hardware tools) "omprise the only physical components of the H/LAM-T system.  It is upon their combined capabilities that the ultimate capability of the system will depend... Exchange across this ‘interface’ occurs when an explicit-human process is coupled to an explicit-artifact process."   The implications of this H/LAM-T system for accessibility stems from the realization that accessibility issues are essentially contained within the realm of  user interface design.  The major barrier that has arisen for people with disabilities with currently implemented technologies is that the predominant (but implicit) assumption guiding design has been that there is a uniform set of explicitly-human capabilities -- no disabilities, or that everyone has full visual, auditory, motor, and cognitive capabilities -- for which software and hardware tools can be developed.  To correct this inaccurate assumption, universal design principles have been developed which essentially state that no function should require the exclusive use of a particular (sensory or motor dexterity) capability. In other words, human interface should be designed to take full advantage of each person’s capabilities while extending the tool’s capabilities as necessary.  For software developers, the overarching principle is to implement a multimodal design whereby all major features can be performed in a variety of ways.

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Web Accessibility

The first two PINNACLE components are being addressed extensively through the work of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) .  This effort has developed a five-part strategy:  1) ensuring that Web technologies support accessibility; 2) developing guidelines for accessibility; 3) developing tools to evaluate & facilitate accessibility; 4) conducting education and outreach; and 5) coordinating with research and development. Our office also participated in the first international workshop on Web Site Evolution, which was held October 5, 1999 in Atlanta, where we submitted a postion paper addressing accessibility issues to the systems engineering community.

Other activities in the accessibility area include the IEEE Internet Best Practice standards working group,  ANSI/HFES 200 standard,  and the NCITS Information Technology Accommodation Study Group. This study group is determining the feasibility of an Alternative Interface Interaction Protocol (AIIP) that would enable communication among multiple technologies working together to provide human-computer interfaces.   One of the driving factors influencing this dynamic area is the passage of the Rehablitation Act Amendents of 1998 (PL 105-220, Section 508), which mandates that electronic and information technology acquired by the federal government must be accessible for people with disabilities, with standards integrated into the Federal Acquistion Regulations and enforcement by August 7, 2000 (more information is available on our website).  Our office also co-chairs the Federal Information Services and Applications Council's Universal Access Working Group, which is comprised of assistive technology specialists from numerous federal agencies.

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Collaborative Environments

While the development of personal environments that can enhance each person’s information-handling capabilities are important, the ability to leverage these enhanced capabilities for groups of people working together is the logical extension.  The increasing importance of groupware cannot be overemphasized.  While there are many definitions of groupware, the best groupware environments -- whether real-time (synchronous) or anytime (asynchronous) -- provide a shared virtual environment that facilitates team communication and working together.
These shared environments add another level of complexity to the human-computer interface, because the groupware interface must also provide support for human-human collaboration. Each member in a group has their own personal interface with a computer, plus interface considerations for fostering interpersonal interactions.  Properly implemented, groupware builds a bridge between humans by making the networked computer to networked computer interactions as transparent as possible.  The goal for collaborative environments is that an organization with all members having a disability should be completely indistinguishable from one with no disabled employees from the customer perspective.

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Learning Environments

Early attempts at computer-based education too often automated traditional practices such as fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice quizzes.  These attempts did not take advantage of the computer as a new medium, which Roger Schank expresses as:  “[making] exciting learning environments.   And you can do that very well without a computer, but computers offer the possibility for revolutionary change...   Is this possible? Absolutely, but computers are part of the fix.   They're part of the fix because right now it's really not possible to have individualized, one-on-one, learn-by-doing situations.  The kind that we who have studied the mind know is the right way.  ”  In addition to individual learning environments, computers also offer the capability of supporting collaborative learning.  As articulated by the Lotus Institute, “The Learning Team Centered approach creates an environment in which knowledge emerges and is shared through the collaboration of individuals within learning teams.   An assumption of this model is that changes in mental models and behaviors occur most successfully through a Learning Team Centered approach.   In a learning team, expertise and prior knowledge are explicitly incorporated into the knowledge transfer process with the creation of new knowledge as the result.   The Learning Team Centered approach is most effective in problem solving or research-oriented contexts where the articulated learning objective is to create new knowledge or to synthesize existing knowledge and apply it creatively to resolve new challenges.   This approach has also been used extensively in learning intended to bring about not only individual change, but also changes in group behavior (e.g. changing the culture of an organization).”

In developing online learning environments, it is critical that the education and software engineering communities work together to not only consider requirements for pedagogically soundness, but also address the needs of people with disabilities.  Too many of our current courseware environments require exclusive use of visual and/or high degrees of manual dexterity that at best leave people with these disabilities at a disadvantage, or at worst preclude their participation is these educational opportunities.

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[Organizational] Environments

The key to successful implementation of these groupware and learning environments is often the alignment and coordination of human resource policies and technological infrastructures to mutually support each other.   Working in these environments is quite different, leading to widespread changes in the organizational culture.  While somewhat out of the original scope of focusing on web accessibility, the PINNACLE efforts (particularly Douglas Engelbart’s Bootstrap Alliance and accessibility) has identified the need to explicitly focus on human-centered computing.
Too much of our discussions are focused solely on the technology, rather than on using technology to enable and improve communication among people.  While the goal to enable each person to be independent to the greatest degree possible is desirable, our discussions also focus almost exclusively on individuals, although the increasing complexity we are faced with in addressing societal issues is demanding greater collaboration among people.

Another area that needs more focus is encouraging and enabling communications among people with disabilities.   For example, identifying four disabilities -- visual, hearing, cognitive, and motor -- would lead to 15 (2 raised to the 4th power, minus 1) possible combinations. Venn Diagram with four overlapping circles representing the visual, auditory, motor, and cognitive disability groupsBy the way, this would best be presented to visually-oriented people in a Venn diagram with four overlapping circles (Figure 1).   These 15 combinations would include the 4 disability groups by themselves, 6 pairs, 4 groups of three, and one of all four (which is "Universal Design").   Given the predominant reductionist perspective, most of our attention  has been focused on each of the four disability areas, with recent attention given to addressing all four areas simultaneously (Universal Design), although many advocates within the cognitive disability area would argue that their needs have not been adequately addressed to date.


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Implementing PINNACLE

To date, PINNACLE implementation has employed the bootstrapping techniques advocated by Engelbart to actively using collaborative and learning technologies to address the accessibility issues of these technologies.  An integral part of the design has been to incorporate feedback mechanisms for addressing both accessibility issues and general performance or usability issues, establishing interactive dialogue with the technology developers.

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Strategic Directions

WAI Guidelines Framework:  Employing a systems engineering perspective would lead to a framework for depicting the relationships among the Web Content, Authoring Tools, and User Agent guidelines and how they work together to provide the overall web experience for each person.

Organizational Development:  Two ideas that warrant further attention in guiding web site evolution are COncurrent Development, Integration and Application of Knowledge (CoDIAK), as articulated by Douglas Engelbart, will be a core strategic capability for Knowledge-based organizations, and the Appreciation, Influence and Control process model developed by William E. Smith.

Enabling direct communication among people with disabilities:  This would be one of the most strategic ways to address accessibility issues.  Assistive technology has progressed to the point where we can enable a blind person and deaf person to communicate directly (a blind person using a TTY software package with a screen reader).   To what degree can the other pairs be addressed -- visual and cognitive, visual and motor, hearing and motor, hearing and cognitive, cognitive and motor?

Connectivity Models:   To date, there has been a widespread (but implicit) assumption that there will be constant, always reliable connectivity with the Internet - the “Always Connected” model.  While this might eventually be achieved, more (explicit) attention needs to be given to the alternative “Connect as Necessary” model which would extend the 3-tier client/server architecture developed for corporate internal LANs to the Web.  The result would be that a person could be self-reliant within their local environment to the greatest extent possible, only connecting to distributed resources over the web when necessary.

Ubiquitous Distributed Learning Environments: In a keynote speech at Lotusphere ‘99, Nobel Laureate Gary S. Becker discussed the economic implications of extending the United States postsecondary education model to other countries, noting that this would require building 14,000 new universities in India and 20,000 new universities in China!  His conclusion was that the emerging Knowledge Age would require widespread use of distributed [web-based] education.  It is imperative that these distributed learning environments be accessible for people with disabilities.

Near-Term Federal Initiatives:  A major purpose for PINNACLE is to provide the communications infrastructure needed to implement two newly funded initiatives.  First, the Office of Governmentwide Policy (OGP) has assembled teams of multi-agency experts to transfer best practices and establish common IT accommodation service standards across government, which is referred to as the Rapid Service and Valuation Preparation (RSVP Access Program).  Second, OGP is developing an IT accessibility certification program referred to as IT Testing for Accessibility Governmentwide(IT-TAG).  This initiative would establish access performance validation capability within independent testing labs, enabling agencies to be informed and act on this new Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) procurement criteria (Section 508).   In addition, OGP is continuing its pilot research with the Bureau of the Census, Social Security Administration and Stanford University on a new paradigm for interface interaction protocols that would improve the effectiveness of all IT development efforts to meet accessibility requirements, which would be extended even further through the work on the Alternative Interface Interaction Protocol (AIIP) mentioned earlier.

Long-Range R&D:    Two prominent government reports that are guiding the long-range research and development efforts to address the concerns raised in this paper are the National Research Council’s More Than Screen Deep:  Toward Every-Citizen Interfaces to the Nation’s Information Infrastructure and the recent President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) report to the President, Information Technology Research:  Investing in Our Future.

For more information on any of these projects, please visit our website or contact

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