2003 Conference Proceedings

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Enhancing Distance Learning with Online Interactive Voice Conferencing

George Buys
Talking Classrooms
1441. S. Doren
Mesa, AZ 85204
Phone: (480) 503-2659
Email: Buys@audio-tips.com 

Elizabeth Coombs
EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information)
P.O. Box 818
Lake Forest, CA 92609
Phone: (949) 916-2837
Email: beth@easi.cc 

Norman Coombs, Ph.D.
EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information)
22196 Caminito Tasquillo
Laguna Hills CA 92653
Phone: (949) 922-5992
Email: nrcgsh@rit.edu 


The presentation is a live online voice chat connecting the conference with distance learners demonstrating document sharing and the software accessibility of Talking Classrooms.


Distance learning is expanding rapidly in schools, universities and in business. The number of students taking e-learning courses is increasing ever year, and the number of institutions providing courses online is growing as well. This is an expanding market for software vendors who design commercial software, and they are turning out a steady stream of new course delivery systems for this dynamic market. While making these systems accessible for learners with disabilities was originally not even considered, most of the major courseware providers are now taking the issue of accessibility for users with disabilities seriously. These products have achieved varying levels of success in redesigning to include learners with disabilities.

Originally, distance learning systems were all exclusively text-based. They combined e-mail and some kind of bulletin board that facilitated both posting of course content and online group discussion. Sometimes, they also included a synchronous text chat facility. The emergence of graphical interfaces on computers was soon integrated into this courseware and added pictures and other graphics to the text content. These systems also were expanded to permit document and program exchanges. Chat rooms were revised to fit in the graphical interface as well. Other interactive features were frequently included such as a polling or survey mechanism. Audio and video content was next to be added. One of the more recent additions to some of these systems is synchronous, interactive voice chat. These new features are much more bandwidth intensive which seriously limits their use. Two-way audio or video is by far the heaviest in its demands on network connections.

Talking Classrooms is the two-way synchronous, interactive voice chat being discussed in this presentation. It is a very useful tool for education and for business conferencing. Talking Classrooms is a platform available for educational institutions to lease a chat room space on an on-demand basis. Some institutions prefer to purchase their own server which is dedicated solely to their use. EASI, (Equal Access to Software and Information), has a server and integrates its use into its online courses which train institutions on how to make their information technology systems accessible to users with disabilities.

The presentation will:

  1. demonstrate Talking Classroom and its accessibility,
  2. describe Talking Classrooms and its online events
  3. conduct a live discussion with some Talking Classroom users and
  4. will describe EASI's uses of this software in its online courses.

Talking Classroom and its accessibility

Talking Classroom has two components: the server software and the client module. The server can contain several "rooms" each enabled for several simultaneous users. The total number of users depends on the particular license. The moderator can define the number of "rooms" and how many people it can accommodate. When a user links to the server, the client software, a small program, is downloaded to the user's computer. The user is requested to input a screen name and then is placed in the "room". The moderator will have defined a web page to act as the background to the room. The "room" also contains a list of people in the "room" and a text input box where a text chat can take place. Anyone in the "room" can hold down the left control key and speak into the PC mic and everyone in the "room" hears it. No one else can talk till that person lets up on the control key permitting others to talk. Actually, limiting interaction to one person at a time is simplex, but the system can be set up to permit people to speak simultaneously as well. This kind of connection is called duplex. This can be confusing, and it significantly increases bandwidth demands. With only one person speaking at a time, the system functions very well both with broadband connections and with phone modem access.

The user's client window has three main features: a text chat, a voice chat and a browser window. When users send either voice or text messages, they can be directed to everyone or to a selected user. Users can also exchange files and web pages.

The moderator features permit configuring the room in various ways many of which are useful in a teaching context. The moderator can use the "follow me" feature to have everyone follow as the moderator changes web pages. This means everyone can be looking at the same content while the teacher and students discuss it. The instructor could send a file to everyone in the class for them to work on in an application like Word while the teacher instructed them what to do. When students finish the project, they can share it with the instructor or with everyone in the class. Normally, one person speaks at a time. If others hold the control key wanting to speak, they are placed in a queue with a number next to their name in the list of members. If someone rambles on and on and on, the moderator can clear the queue terminating the person who is speaking and then everyone starts fresh. While it is not likely to happen in an actual class, in public chats, sometimes some person becomes disruptive. Such a person can be put on "mute" or even "banned" from the room. All of these features can be activated either by keystrokes or by accessible menus. The system is simple to use for people with disabilities and who are using special adaptive software. If a screen reader user has a single channel sound card, then the voice chat will seize control of the card disabling the screen reader synthetic speech software. With multiple channel cards, both work well together.

Talking Classroom public events

Besides leasing rooms on a daily or longer term to businesses and schools for conferencing and for online course delivery, Talking Classroom schedules a number of public service events of interest to various Internet groups. Some events are regular weekly events, and others are special, one-time, happenings. Many of these events are also archived for interested people who could not fit the event into their schedule.

As one example of a special event, in September of 2002, Talking Classrooms hosted an e-government event for the US Small Business administration which included the Chief Information Officers of two federal agencies, The Office of Management and Budget and the National Institute of Standards and Technology both coming in live from Washington DC and Albany NY. Besides addressing an onsite audience, the online chat brought in a remote audience tuning into the webcast from throughout the US, Canada, Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia. The Internet permits using Talking Classrooms to connect a group of people in one region or straddle the globe in the outreach of the event. Events can be public or closed to a specific group. For example, an online course would be passworded so that only registered students could access it.

One group that uses Talking Classrooms for conducting courses online is the Access Technology Institute: (ATI) http://www.accesstechnologyinstitute.com. ATI specializes in high-quality, readily available, on-line training for blind and visually impaired computer users. ATI is using cutting edge, live, voice-chat, technology that allows Access Technology Trainers from around the world to participate in the classes and seminars offered in its virtual classrooms. Courses are designed both for technology trainers and technology users. Its goal is to provide students with more than personal computing skills. It is designed to provide the proficiency needed to prepare them for employment.

EASI's use of online, live voice chat

EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information) has been teaching online courses for a decade to over 4,000 people in more than 40 countries. EASI provides eight courses on various aspects of accessible information technology. Anyone taking five of these courses will earn the Certificate in Accessible Information Technology. Over the years, these courses have been delivered using asynchronous delivery systems such as the web and e-mail. This any time, anywhere learning has many advantages. With students spread across several time zones and most having full-time employment, the flexible format has many advantages. People can study the content and conduct asynchronous interaction at times that best fits individual needs. For some learning styles and for some students with disabilities, asynchronous formats permit an individual to work at faster or slower pace as is convenient. It also means, content and group discussion can be downloaded, and the participant can work off line without tying up a phone connection. This also enables students who travel a lot to work from airports or while they are in the air.

In spite of the many unique features of this asynchronous format, real time interactions has other advantages, and real time interactions with voice adds a richness to the interaction not possible in a text-only exchange. EASI has found that voice chat helps a warm, personal rapport between instructor and students and among students. EASI consciously strives to build a bond in a class. When learning occurs in a positive nurturing context, it is both more pleasant and more effective. Communication, whether face-to-face or mediated through computers, is prone to misunderstandings. Synchronous communication provides an immediacy that helps in expressing confusion about some item and working with the person to achieve clarification.

EASI provides an array of eight online courses. These can earn continuing education units or five of the courses will earn the Certificate in Accessible Information Technology. The courses are:

These courses are primarily designed for school, university, library and business administrators and staff to facilitate their creating an institution-wide accessible information technology system for their students, employees and for the public. EASI is a non-profit organization, which, since 1988, has had the mission to provide state-of-the-art information on accessible information technology to schools, universities, libraries and business. Information on EASI's courses is on the web at http://easi.cc/workshop.htm where there are links to all course syllabi and to online registration. EASI provides scholarships to students, to overseas participants and also has a limited number of internships.


E-learning is perhaps the hottest item in education today. Software designers are creating a growing number of applications to facilitate online learning. At last, more and more of these are including the needs of students with disabilities in their design. As computers become faster and as bandwidth becomes better and more available, new applications are designed that take advantage of these advances. Audio and video are moving into the center of online education. Now tools like Talking Classrooms use the increased power to provide real time voice interactions. Teaching online is not identical to classroom teaching, and it takes time to learn how best to maximize the features of new technologies. Talking Classrooms is in the forefront of exploring the ability of interactive voice interaction to improve the personalization of online learning.

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