2001 Conference Proceedings

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MAKING EDUCATIONAL MULTIMEDIA ACCESSIBLE

Jan Richards
jan.richards@utoronto.ca 
TEL: (416) 946-7060
FAX: (416) 971-2629
Research Group, Adaptive Technology Resource Centre
University of Toronto
7th floor, 130 St. George St.
Toronto, Ont.
M5S 3H1

Wendy Porch
wendy.porch@utoronto.ca 
TEL: (416) 946-5722
FAX: (416) 971-2629
Research Group, Adaptive Technology Resource Centre
University of Toronto
7th floor, 130 St. George St.
Toronto, Ont.
M5S 3H1

Abstract:

This paper describes a project undertaken by the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre to show how commercial educational multimedia products can be adapted to be made inclusive of people with disabilities. The project illustrated two approaches: active accessibility and passive accessibility. Active accessibility was applied to Digital Frog International’s "Digital Field Trip to the Rainforest". This included adding audio output, custom keyboard navigation and a complete set of multimedia captions and descriptions. Passive accessibility was applied to Snowbird Software’s "Electric Chemistry Building". This included ensuring that all graphical information was displayed in redundant textual form and that standard Windows controls were utilized in order to facilitate keyboard navigation and screen reader access.

Imagine a pair of high school students sitting at a computer at the back of their science classroom. On the screen is an engaging visual experience, a virtual field trip to a faraway rainforest, running from a multimedia CD-ROM. The first student uses the mouse to navigate along the path through the forest. At each post, he clicks and drags to operate a panoramic viewer that provides a breathtaking 360º view of the lush vegetation and foreign animals in the surrounding forest. Now, imagine that the second student reaches forward, but instead of taking the mouse, places her hands on the keyboard. With a few keystrokes she takes control and begins to pan the panoramic viewer. Surprisingly, the computer speaks; detailed descriptions of the scene as well feedback of her actions enable her to become as completely absorbed in the rainforest as her sighted companion.

Now, stop imagining. This scenario is a reality. The Adaptive Technology Resource Centre at the University of Toronto, funded by Network Ontario's Telecommunication Access Partnerships, has recently completed a project aimed at increasing the accessibility of multimedia educational software products.

In recent years, the use of interactive multimedia learning simulations has increasingly become an important part of engaging and effective instruction for elementary and high school students, especially in the sciences. Through this technology, students can engage in learning activities that would otherwise prove too expensive, dangerous or impractical. For example, students can explore foreign lands, mix volatile chemicals or perform repeated dissections of the same animal. Unfortunately, current interactive multimedia educational software products employ media types, such as sound, video, and panoramas, and interface designs that are inaccessible to students with disabilities who are blind or cannot use a mouse. This is especially problematic for students with disabilities, as approved educational curriculum is becoming increasingly reliant on educational software simulations for teaching core content.

Ironically, the benefit of computer mediated education can be higher for students with disabilities than other learners. Electronic learning materials can be relatively easily adapted to varying learning styles, rates, and communication formats. Issues of distance, transportation and physical access can also be reduced. Electronic text, unlike printed text, can be read by individuals who are blind, vision impaired, dyslexic and by individuals who cannot hold a book or turn pages.

For these reasons, the ATRC undertook development of a project intended to address the accessibility of multimedia educational software as part of a larger initiative, the Network for Inclusive Distance Education (NIDE), to increase the accessibility of distance education to learners with disabilities.

We began by consulting with educators at the W. Ross MacDonald school for students with visual disabilities (WRM) in Brantford, Ontario, one of our project partners. The educators indicated that there was a pressing need for accessible science education tools, particularly in light of Ontario’s recent initiatives to increase the number of science and engineering graduates. It was decided that it would be easier to adapt an existing product than to create tools from scratch. Therefore, two Ontario produced educational software applications were selected from a list approved by the Ontario Ministry of Education: the "Digital Field Trip to the Rainforest" by Digital Frog International and the "Electric Chemistry Building" by Snowbird Software. In the case of the "Electric Chemistry Building" (ECB), a chemistry laboratory simulation, a teacher at WRM was already using the product in the classroom. However, accessibility barriers in the interface meant that the students could not operate the software themselves and instead had to rely on the teacher to describe the results aloud. The "Digital Fieldtrip to the Rainforest" (DFTR) was also available to the students. However, its visually-oriented interface also prevented independent access.

The next step was to approach the developers of the identified products with the aim of making them partners in the project. Neither company had considered the issue of accessibility, but both were enthusiastic about the potential to reach a larger audience and signed on.

Digital Fieldtrip to the Rainforest

The "Digital Field Trip to the Rainforest" CD-ROM is part of a larger series of "virtual field trips" developed by Digital Frog International. Following a footpath through the Blue Creek Rainforest Reserve in Belize, the DFTR incorporates panoramic video, images, sound and interactive exercises to teach learners about the biodiversity of the rainforest. The field trip itself consists of a series of posts along the footpath, for which panoramic views are available. Supplementing the field trip is a large amount of supporting content concerned with the flora and fauna of the rainforest.

Prior to this project, the iShell-implemented DFTR possessed a primarily mouse-driven, image-intensive interface that was intended for use on Mac and Windows platforms. The reliance on images and the non-standard nature of the interface meant that it would be very difficult to optimize the product for use with screen readers. Therefore, the decision was made to add active accessibility in the form of voice output. This effort included adding an entire keyboard navigation system that would allow students to access any function in the program without the mouse. In addition, hundreds of descriptions and captions were written to ensure that anything represented visually had an audio counter-part. This even included descriptions of maps showing animal ranges, magnified photos of algae, and close-ups of bark texture.

The most interesting problem we encountered was providing access to the information offered by the twenty-nine panoramic field trip viewers. We solved this problem by defining six fixed directions for each viewer: north, south, east, west, up and down. By using the number pad as a compass (i.e. 8 = north, 4 = west, 2 = south, 6 = east, 7 = up, 1 = down), the student can quickly pan the viewer and hear a detailed description of the scene in any of these directions. In addition, the DFTR includes a number of other interactive activities, each of which required customized, yet consistent, keyboard operation to be added. Throughout, the process of designing the access mechanisms and writing the descriptions, user testing with student volunteers was found to be extremely useful.

Electric Chemistry Building

Snowbird Software’s "Electric Chemistry Building" provides a virtual chemistry lab experience, suitable for high school students. The program is centered on a workbench, upon which various apparatus and chemicals can be placed. Students can choose from over 150 chemicals and, as in a real chemistry lab, can combine each in varying amounts, and heat or cool them as necessary. Reactions can be monitored for changes in state, temperature, and reactants produced. As well, the ECB includes tutorials intended to assist students with the balancing of chemical equations and basic chemical arithmetic.

In the ECB, much of the information about the chemicals, apparatus contents, and reactions was only available by observing the visual characteristics of the program’s graphics. In addition, as non-standard interface elements were being used, even textual information was not accessible to screen readers. Most of the ECB’s operations were mouse driven, with no keyboard equivalents in place.

In making the ECB accessible, we decided to take a different approach from that taken for the DFTR. Since ECB was already implemented in C++ for Windows, we determined that making the software passively accessible, that is removing barriers to use with screen readers and other adaptive technologies, was the best solution. To achieve this, we encouraged Snowbird to move to Microsoft Foundation Classes to ensure that standard Microsoft interface components were used. Once this was complete, the main tasks were ensuring that all information conveyed visually was also conveyed in a redundant textual form and that the interface itself was easy keyboard navigable.

To this end, an iterative process was undertaken in which the ATRC and Snowbird collaborated on interface design improvements. Issues addressed included layout, TAB order, accelerator keys, group box use, appropriate labels, and ToolTips. This process relied heavily on feedback from user-testing involving student volunteers.

An interesting problem encountered during this process was the method by which the ECB displayed chemical formulas. In order to have an accurate visual representation, the ECB used uncommon characters (i.e. ¢, £, ¤) to denote different subscripts and a custom font to display them properly. This caused problems for screen readers, as did the pronunciation of chemical symbols. For example, Helium represented by the symbol He on the screen would be read as "He" instead of "H E". To solve this problem we defined a custom Jaws dictionary that took into account the chemical symbols and the subscript characters and produced a comprehensible audio output. Unfortunately, we came close to filling the Jaws dictionary to capacity, so this solution might not work with more chemicals.

Conclusion

This project illustrated two different approaches to making commercially available educational multimedia software accessible to students with disabilities. The first approach, active accessibility, was applied to Digital Frog International’s "Digital Field Trip to the Rainforest", and included adding audio output, custom keyboard navigation and a complete set of multimedia captions and descriptions. The second approach, passive accessibility, was applied to Snowbird Software’s "Electric Chemistry Building". This approach included ensuring that all graphical information was displayed in redundant textual form and that standard Windows controls were utilized in order to facilitate keyboard navigation and screen reader access.

It is hoped that this project will serve as an example of how educational multimedia products can be designed to be inclusive of students with disabilities without excessive cost or compromise of their commercial appeal.


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