2001 Conference Proceedings

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Greg Gay and Laurie Harrison
Adaptive Technology Resource Centre, University of Toronto
130 St. George Street
Toronto, Ontario,
M5S 3H1
Project URL: http://snow.utoronto.ca/initiatives/inclusion.html


With the recent increase in the popularity of Web based instruction and computer accessed information in general, it is becoming increasingly important for the electronic community to become aware of the barriers people with disabilities face in these virtual environments. As technologies emerge to deliver Web based instruction, it is also important to educate both courseware developers and educators of solutions they can apply to insure that persons with disabilities are not excluded from participating in this new and quickly developing form of education.

The partners of this project are experts in the field of disability, education, assistive technology, and Web based instruction. Partners include the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre (ATRC), The Centre for Academic Technology (CAT), and the Special Needs Opportunity Windows Project (SNOW), each affiliated with the University of Toronto. Partners also include the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario (LDAO), and Bruce Landon, educator and researcher in the field of distance education and Web based delivered instruction.

The project is an extension of the work Bruce Landon conducted in 1998, which looked at the pedagogical aspects of Web Based courseware tools. Admittedly missing from his research is an assessment of the accessibility of these tools for learners with disabilities who might use them. To accomplish this assessment through the current study, two participants from each of four disability groups were trained on appropriate assistive technologies and asked to participate in mock online courses created in a number Web based courseware tools.

Participants in the study represented the following disability groups: Blind, Vision Impaired, Mobility Impaired, and Learning Disabled. The technologies with which individuals of these groups accessed the courseware tools depended on the nature of their disabilities. Assistive technologies used to access the course included screen reading, screen enhancement, onscreen keyboards, a head operated pointing system, and a text-to-speech systems.

The results of this study have implications for the future development of courseware, for training of educators who work in a Web setting with persons who have disabilities, and will raise awareness in the general public and governing bodies of issues associated with access to information by persons with disabilities.

Project Background

Networks such as the Web, Intranets or dedicated broad band networks are being used to teach, to conduct research, to hold tutorials, to submit assignments and to act as libraries. The primary users of Web based instruction include universities, professional upgrading, employment training and lifelong learning. Those that can benefit most from this trend are learners with disabilities. Web based instruction is easily adapted to varying learning styles, rates, and communication formats. Issues of distance, transportation and physical access are 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.

Unfortunately, Web delivered education is not barrier free. A preliminary study conducted at the Centre for Academic Technology at the University of Toronto (1998) revealed that none of the currently available Web based courseware tools address accessibility. Given the rising popularity of online courses, this represents a serious threat to inclusion that must be corrected before courseware tools develop further.

Fortunately courseware tools or applications used to teach at a distance are in the early stages of development. If proactive steps are taken now, more inclusive design conventions can be established. A consortium of partners representing consumers, experts in the field, developers and leading providers of distance education will address these barriers. This project will be an extension of the research started by Dr. Bruce Landon, who assessed the pedagogical effectiveness of online educational delivery applications (see http://www.ctt.bc.ca/landonline/). The tools that were previously assessed will be further assessed for their support of accessible design, from the perspective of administrator, designer or instructor, and student.

Project Description Objectives The purpose of this project was to make it possible for learners with disabilities to participate fully in Web based educational opportunities.

The objectives of the project were to: Evaluate the accessibility of courseware tools to those who might be expected to administer, design or instruct, or take a course over the Web. Evaluate the accessibility of courseware related communication tools to those who might be expected to administer, design or instruct, or take a course over the Web. Create a set of guidelines for courseware developers, to assist in promoting accessibility issues through Web-based educational design tools. Create a set of guidelines for Web based course designers and instructors, to assist in developing their knowledge of accessibility issues and accessible curriculum design.

Contributions to Knowledge

In order to meet the needs and demands for accessible Web delivered education in all sectors of society, it is essential that we address the authoring tools used to create curriculum. It is unrealistic and inefficient to attempt to retrofit inaccessible content. It is also impossible to create assistive technologies that can communicate with all file formats to extract and translate inaccessible content. Through the authoring tools we can reach the majority of educators producing Web based educational material, whether they have the knowledge or the motivation to produce accessible content. The project took a proactive approach by addressing the emerging technologies, and introducing guidelines that advance the field of distance education as a whole, for learners with and without disabilities.

Inclusive educational tools are prerequisites to an inclusive education system. In the current educational climate teachers are faced with less preparation time, and classes which are much more diverse than they were only a decade ago. Realistically, with these constraints, accommodations for students with disabilities must require little or no additional effort on the part of the instructor. The guidelines resulting from this project will insure that these accommodations are a byproduct of developing courseware and effective instructional design.

In order to promote an inclusive social environment, there must be no compromises made to the education of the class as a whole while accommodating the needs of students with special needs. This project will insure that state of the art technology can be used in on-line instruction without excluding students with disabilities. In addition, the guidelines will influence the design of courseware in such a way that instructors and learners will be educated on access issues in the process of preparing and using the courseware. This in and of itself should lead to a more inclusive educational environment.

The guidelines developed by this project will be required by educational institutions at all levels from elementary school, through secondary schools, to universities, colleges, continuing education programs, professional upgrading programs, adult education programs, communities of practice and lifelong learning programs. Most of these educational programs in Ontario, Canada, the USA and around the world are legally mandated to accommodate students with disabilities. The guidelines will also be in demand by any corporation or institution conducting professional development, employee training or upgrading. Insurance companies, vocational rehabilitation programs, and other institutions responsible for retraining workers will require the guidelines and methodologies developed.

In Ontario, the largest effort of this kind is the SNOW or Special Needs Opportunity Windows project, lead by the ATRC. The goal of the SNOW project is to provide professional development and innovative teaching resources to educators who teach students with special needs. Outcomes include development and moderation of on-line courses and discussion forums, dissemination of information and resource materials related to the education of students with special needs, and electronic delivery of innovative curriculum resources in accessible formats. This site has become the leading Web based resource on teaching students with special needs in Canada and around the world. All online programs are hosted on the SNOW server, located at the ATRC. (see http://snow.utoronto.ca/)

The NODE Learning Technologies Network, based in London, Ontario, is a not-for-profit electronic network, facilitating information and resource-sharing, collaboration and research in the field of learning technologies for post-secondary education and training. The NODE's Web site is a focal point for information and discussion forums on issues related to teaching, learning and technological development. ATRC staff have contributed to the activities of NODE through online forum moderation, participation in interviews, and submissions to their online journal. (see http://node.on.ca/)http://node.on.ca/ DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology), based at the University of Washington, is an organization which assists people with disabilities in successfully pursuing academics and careers, and offers workshops and educational outreach to promote the use of technology to maximize the independence, productivity and participation of people with disabilities. The ATRC has had ongoing consultation and resource sharing with DO-IT, in particular in relation to their projects concerning electronic access. (see http://weber.u.washington.edu/~doit/)

EASI, based in Rochester New York, is a virtual organization that serves the education community by providing information and guidance in the area of access-to-information technologies by individuals with disabilities. Outreach programs include both on-site and on-line workshops, and use of web casting to research and disseminate information to colleges, universities, K-12 schools, libraries and into the workplace. The CNIB, ATRC and the Provincial Schools Branch have collaborated and consulted on a number of projects with EASI. (see http://www.isc.rit/edu/~easi/)

The internationally recognized Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is the W3C group responsible for ensuring that access provisions are integrated into new standards of Web technology. Jutta Treviranus, Manager of the ATRC, is also the chair of the W3C WAI Authoring Tools Guidelines Working Group. Staff at the ATRC have contributed to the development of various guidelines related to accessible authoring and interface design, and conducted research contributing to the work of the WAI. (see http://www.w3.org/WAI/)

Dr. Campbell McBurney in his "Report on the Operational Feasibility Study for Post-secondary Transcription Services," outlines the problems faced by post-secondary students with print impairments who wish to access educational material whether in print or electronic form. "In a period of shrinking and limited financial resource allocations, restructuring and new directions, creativity is needed in responding to this service delivery problem." The Web Accessibility Initiative launched by the World Wide Web Consortium recognizes accessibility of education delivered over the Web as a primary area of concern.

Computer mediated distance education can be preferable to traditional instruction for students with sensory, physical or learning disabilities for the following reasons:

the student can adjust the pacing of the learning session to meet their needs, the material can easily be presented in redundant, reinforcing or alternative formats e.g., speech, print, graphics, the material can be adapted to various learning styles, the student can clarify, rehearse and review supporting materials without interrupting the flow of the learning session for classmates, issues of distance, transportation and physical accessibility are reduced, by eliminating the need to travel, time and energy are conserved, for students who use augmentative or alternative communication methods, the method and rate of communication is transparent to fellow classmates, allowing more equal participation. asynchronous instruction can offer greater opportunities for peer interaction and collaboration, and student-instructor interaction and assistance. At present, electronically delivered education may be a preferred mode of learning for people with disabilities, in the near future it may become the only mode of delivery for certain critical educational opportunities. There are a growing number of college courses, university electives, professional upgrading courses, and vocational training courses that are delivered only over the Web. As a result of this growing trend it is important to insure that at the beginning of such new educational practice, accessibility is addressed as an integral part of curriculum. The tools used to develop electronic curriculum are a logical place to start. The results of this study will help us move toward that end, influencing the development of courseware tools, and as a result of curriculum developed through these tools, educating teachers regarding accessibility issues in electronic education.

Target Audience

The audiences directly targeted for interest in the outcomes of this project are courseware developers, and educators who plan to offer, or are already offering instruction over the Web.

Participants in the study included 8 educated individuals with a visual, learning, or mobility impairments, selected from the clientele of the CNIB, LDAO, and ATRC. These individuals might be expected to administer, design, teach, or take a Web-based course.

The beneficiaries of this project will ultimately be all learners with disabilities. The partners participating in this project represent and serve a broad spectrum of disabled users. The users directly served by partners are briefly outlined below.

Students with Disabilities Learners who are presently excluded from using Web Based educational environments due to access barriers include individuals of all ages:

who are blind and depend upon screen reading or refreshable Braille technology, who are visually impaired and require screen magnification tools (this includes a rapidly growing population of aging learners), who are physically disabled and require alternative keyboards and mice, who have learning disabilities and require text-to-speech and/or voice recognition tools.

Seniors With a growing population of seniors, who quite often develop mobility, cognitive, and sensory disabilities, online communities can play an important part in maintaining their health by reducing isolation and connecting them with others. The SNOW project, the ATRC, and the CNIB offer seniors a place to develop their understanding of technologies that can improve the quality of their lives. It allows seniors to interact with experts in the field and with others experiencing similar life changes. It also provides Web-based access to instruction that previously required physically attending an educational institution.

Ontarians with Print Impairments

The Ontario branch of the CNIB provides educational material in accessible formats to all Ontarians with print impairments (people who are blind, vision impaired, learning disabled, and people who cannot manipulate books due to physical disabilities). The CNIB is moving toward electronic delivery of publications and requires the products of this project to insure their materials are accessible to all disability groups. The Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario also provides educational materials and advocacy for inclusion of those with print related and other types of learning disabilities.

Implementation Setup: Courseware demonstration server and software installation was created to provide a platform for testing various courseware packages by students with disabilities. The courseware packages studied included: BlackBoard Courseinfo WebCT Virtual-U TopClass Mallard Web Course in a Box Additionally, three workstations were set up at the lab for user training and testing. Each machine had installed one or more of the popular assistive technologies from the following categories: 1) Screen Readers (Jaws 3.2), 2) Screen Enhancers (ZoomText Extra), 3) Voice Recognition (Dragon Dictate), 4) On Screen Keyboards (Wivik), and 5) Text-to-Speech (TextHelp).

Subject Selection:

The project administrators at each of the partner sites collaborated on the selection of individuals to participate in the study. Criteria for selection included those with disabilities that might be expected to administer, design or instruct, or take an online course. Ages will spanned from 18 through 55. Individuals selected were either be enrolled or teaching at the college or university level and had a visual, mobility, or learning impairment. It was assumed that participants at this level were of average or superior intelligence.

User Training:

The 8 participants received, in addition to basic Internet skills, training from ATRC staff on their respective assistive technologies, and training from the CAT staff on basic web based instructional design. Training occurred over a period of five to eight 3-hour sessions depending on the severity and type of disability, the type of assistive technology being used, and the participants experience with computers and the Internet. It was expected that most of the participants would be novice users requiring instruction in technologies and the Internet.

Instrument development:

The instrument used to assess the accessibility of courseware tools was based on the WAI Accessibility Guidelines, which outlines recommendations for creating accessible Web based documents (Treviranus et al , 1999).

Observer Training: an independent observer was trained to identify and distinguish between difficulties associated with the use of assistive technologies, and those associated with access to courseware tools.

User Testing:

Each of the participants, after being trained on their respective assistive technologies, were observed to record their ease or difficulty in accessing each of the tools outlined by Landon (1998). In five to ten three hour sessions (depending on the rate at which the participant progresses), the trained observer guided each participant through participation in a Web based course module using each of the courseware tools being assessed. A module is synonymous with a weekly class meeting in the traditional educational setting, providing course notes, discussions, resources, exercises, and testing.


For each of the courseware tools assessed, quantitative data was collected as an accessibility score, or the extent to which each of the courseware features supported (or failed to support) access by individuals using assistive technologies.

Qualitative data was collected by tape record and transcribing all sessions. Data is being compiled from two perspectives: Accessibility of each courseware product, and Accessibility by each disability group.

Results of this study will be presented at CSUN 2001.

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