2001 Conference Proceedings

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2001 Table of Contents


BUSINESSES BRIDGING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE AN ONLINE COURSE TO ASSIST BUSINESS TO USE UNIVERSAL INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY DESIGN

Steve Jacobs
2809 Bohlen DR.
Hilliard, OH 43026
E-mail: sj1sjacobs2@columbus.rr.com 

Norman Coombs
590 Harvard St.
Rochester NY 14607
E-mail: nrcgsh@rit.edu 

Introduction:

Information technology is the fastest growing industry in America and in the World. The Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) represents the leading U.S. providers of Information Technology products and services. ITI members had worldwide revenues of more than $460 billion in 1999 and employed more than 1.2 million people in the United States. ITI data is often cited as an official measure of the way things are in the IT industry. But, this rapid spread is not happening uniformly across all of society. It has frequently exacerbated the gulf between the haves and the have-nots in what has become known as the digital divide. A democratic society like America is concerned about trends that cause or increase social inequities. Government at all levels from the Federal government to local governments have become involved in a wide variety of ventures to bridge this gap in access to the information age. People who have tended to be left behind have included seniors, women, the poor, people in rural areas, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. Because today's business operates in a global arena, it has had to become aware of the digital divide between advanced, industrial countries and the emerging and underdeveloped nations. In 2000, President Clinton made several trips to highlight this problem and to outline a variety of initiatives aimed at bridging the divide. In a trip to Flint Michigan, where he visited a center for people with disabilities, he outlined ventures that included several government grants, commitments by several major corporations, involvement by major research universities, programs to encourage employment of people with disabilities using technology and several training programs. One of these included this course which is a project involving NCR, IDEAL at NCR and EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information).

The Need for a Business-oriented Course: The target market for information technology businesses is changing. As IT businesses grow and grow, they need an ever-growing consumer base. They need to transcend the digital divide so they have more and new consumers for their products. The Federal government has been concerned that all citizens have access to digital information because government has become a major user of IT to communicate with its citizens. Government has passed laws requiring businesses working with it to provide products designed to be used by everyone including citizens with disabilities. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act is the most recent disability-related legislation. Business cannot afford to ignore government as it is one of its major customers. Previously, business only focussed on groups in society that comprised a significant base of potential buyers, and they frequently overlooked this special population.

Universal Design:

Many of the product design considerations that will enable businesses to bridge the digital divide for people with disabilities will have a positive impact for many others. This means business costs aimed at reaching one group will cost less than expected because it will have extra benefits enhancing the product's usefulness. For that reason this online course will aim businesses at the benefits of universal design for the business as well as its benefits for society. Many of the web page modifications to provide better access for users who are blind will make those same pages more useful for people using small, hand-held, wireless devices. By 2003, there will be 25 million people receiving data over wireless Net devices. Currently, there are about 1.7 million such users. Wireless devices communicate at slow speeds. They lend themselves to accessible interfaces for all to use. This, in turn, makes it easier for persons who are blind and low-vision to access the device. This can also enable the device to use text to speech synthesis.

While web designers are concerned about having the latest web applications on their pages, this can actually limit the number of repeat visitors to their pages rather than increasing it. Almost half of today's designers have connection speeds of 1,000KBAUD or more and may not really appreciate how long visitors wait for pages to load. More web users report being frustrated over the difficulty of finding things on the web than they are over receiving spam mail. Some 53% of web users searching for products to buy reported leaving a web site because they got tired waiting. It has been estimated that people wasted 2.5 billion hours last year waiting for pages to load. Forester Research lists the factors that bring people back to web sites and cutting-edge design is low on the list:

75% High-quality content
66% Ease of use
58% Quick to download
54% Updated frequently
14% Coupons and incentives
13% Favorite brands
12% Cutting-edge technology
12% Games
11% Purchasing capabilities
10% Customizable content
13% Chat and BBS
6% Other

Other modifications that will make pages clearer for people with learning disabilities will make the site better for ethnic minorities and people from underdeveloped countries for whom English is not their first language. At present, English is the dominant language on the Internet, but it is believed that this will change in only 3 years. By 2005, English documents will only comprise 30% of the documents on the Internet. Simple pages in clear language is helpful for a wide variety of populations. In short, universal design maximizes the present uses and the future potential of information technologies.

Conclusion:

The Internet is changing our everyday lives and changing them very rapidly. The Internet is no longer just a tool connecting people, businesses, governments and information together. It is driving the creation of new economies that are altering the way people live, learn, work, play and interact with each other. Unfortunately, the Internet is also alienating and isolating people... people with disabilities... people living within low and no-bandwidth infrastructures... people who have never learned to read... people who speak languages different than our own... people who only use English as a Second Language... and older populations. Everyone is different from everyone else. Everyone's informational wants, needs and preferences are also different. In fact, this was the catalyst that sparked the evolution of the one-to-one marketing philosophy... the ability to customize products and services to the wants needs and preferences of individual consumers. This is the foundation upon which our future information infrastructures will have to be built in order for our businesses to succeed in a technically, economically and culturally diverse world.

This course was designed, over a period of two years, in support of providing the knowledge, direction and resources necessary to prepare the student to both understand and address many of these important business success factors. Technology is changing rapidly; world markets are changing similarly; people's needs and expectations are shifting faster than ever. This course teaches that using universal design in creating products and in providing information is the best way for businesses to prepare for tomorrow today.

Information on this course is at http://www.rit.edu/~easi/workshop.htm 

More information on the President's digital divide initiative announced in 2000 at Flint Michigan is at http://www.rit.edu/~easi/pubs/divide01.htm


Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2001 Table of Contents 
Return to Table of Proceedings


Reprinted with author(s) permission. Author(s) retain copyright.