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ACCESSIBLE ONLINE LEARNING AT THE OPEN UNIVERSITY UK, USING XML AND JAVA

Presenter
Dr. Hazel Kennedy
Accessible Educational Media Group
Institute of Educational Technology
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes
MK7 6AA
United Kingdom
Tel: ++44 (0)1908 659461
Fax: ++44 (0)1908

Dr. Chetz Colwell
Accessible Educational Media Group
Institute of Educational Technology
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes
MK7 6AA
United Kingdom
Tel: ++44 (0)1908 659461
Fax: ++44 (0)1908

The Open University (OU) is a distance learning university with around 202,000 students worldwide; of whom 8,700 are registered as having a disability, making up 4.3% of the total student population. The OU has a long history of supporting disabled students, for example, the recording of course books onto tape; the loan of computers; provision of assistive technologies and human support at tutorials and residential schools. In common with many other universities, the Open University is increasing the use of online learning materials, striving to make these accessible to students with disabilities. The Accessible Educational Media research group at the OU investigates different approaches to making online learning accessible. This paper presents details of two current projects: one focusing on the use of XML to deliver accessible educational content, presenting content in a version suited to the needs of broad categories of disabled students and the other involving the use of accessible Java to control remote laboratory equipment.

The PEARL project is funded by the European Union to investigate remote access to laboratories used in science and engineering university education. A full description of the aims of the project is given in Cooper et al (2000). The project partners include four universities (the Open University (OU, lead partner), University of Porto, University of Dundee, and Trinity College, Dublin) and Zenon SA (Greece). Each university involved in the project has developed a system for controlling experimental apparatus in a remote laboratory via the Internet. Technical details of the network and remote control issues that have been addressed by the project are described in Cooper et al (in press).

There are several potential benefits of this type of approach. For example, expensive apparatus can be shared between courses, departments, and universities. Also it is possible in some contexts for students to access a laboratory from anywhere, and at any time. In addition, students with disabilities who cannot attend a laboratory, or cannot operate apparatus directly due to limited mobility or visual impairment, can access the laboratory and the apparatus via a computer.

At the Open University an optical spectrometer has been adapted (by Zenon SA) with motors and sensors to enable it to be controlled via a computer. It has also been fitted with video cameras, which provide visual feedback of the operation of the spectrometer to the student. While conducting the experiment students use NetMeeting conferencing software to communicate with each other and with a tutor.

In order for students with disabilities to access laboratories and apparatus the user interface for operating the apparatus must be accessible. The user interface for the OU's spectrometer is a Java application, which incorporates the recommendations from resources on Java accessibility, e.g. from IBM (2000) and Dunn (2000). The requirements for the design of the interface also included compatibility with assistive technologies, inheritance of Windows display settings, keyboard operability, and auditory feedback.

The user interface is accessible to blind students as it is compatible with the Jaws for Windows screenreader (version 4.02): the labels on all the controls, and the status field are readable by the screenreader. Also, the user interface can be operated from the keyboard using the tab and enter keys, or using shortcut keys. This feature also supports students with mobility impairments. To further support blind students the user interface also includes auditory (non-speech) feedback of the operation of the apparatus, so that users know when a command has been received and executed at the remote laboratory. In addition, the status field can be read by Jaws at any time using a keyboard shortcut. The interface is accessible to partially sighted students and those with dyslexia who require particular Windows display settings, as it will inherit any such settings. The user interface has been evaluated by students with and without disabilities. The aims of these evaluations were (a) to confirm the compatibility of the interface with a range of assistive technologies, (b) to elicit students' opinions on this approach to supporting students who cannot attend laboratories or operate apparatus, and (c) to examine the educational effectiveness of conducting scientific experiments remotely. The results of these evaluations will be presented at the conference.

The SALT project (Specifications for Accessible Learning technology) is a collaborative effort overseen by the US National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) and in which the Open University is an implementation partner. The central effort is the standardisation of authoring accessible educational content via IMS guidelines and specifications. The present paper describes the implementation of an approach to provide disabled students with content presented in a manner that is arguably better suited to their needs than the commonly-encountered one size fits all version.

A new genre of Open University courses has recently been developed: the "short courses", intended to provide a taster of university-level study. Since the Open University has no formal entrance qualifications the short courses represent an essential link into university study for, among others, those new to study and those out of practice with studying.

As part of the SALT project, the development and implementation of accessible versions of part of one such short course was undertaken with the selected course entitled "Explaining the Emergence of Humans".

Using XML (eXtensible Markup Language) three versions of part of this course were implemented: for visually-impaired, hearing-impaired and those with cognitive impairments. Thus visually-impaired students receive content without images but rich in descriptive text, whilst hearing-impaired students receive highly visual content with enhanced descriptions and captioned videos. Those with cognitive difficulties are presented with content that is visually simplified and chunked to render the content easier to absorb. The challenge presented by this approach is to ensure that students receive an equivalent educational experience and that there is no reduction in pedagogical value with respect to the "full" version.

The present paper illustrates the implementation and discusses the issues surrounding the legitimacy of making choices on behalf of students and presents cases for and against versioning according to the needs of disabled students.

More disabled students choose to study with the Open University than with any other institution in the UK, and it has acquired a significant level of experience in making its teaching materials accessible to a very broadly-based student population. The approach adopted here is therefore, integral to the Open University's commitment to increasing the accessibility of its course material generally and has particular relevance in the light of the recent UK SENDA (Special Educational Needs and Disability Act, 2002)legislation requiring that reasonable adjustment to be made to all educational material to allow access to disabled students.

Thus this work takes an approach to access for all that is effective not only for disabled students but for all students who may access course material from, for example, small handheld devices, or in environments in which sound cannot be discerned, or in low lighting conditions under which images cannot be clearly seen.

This paper has described the work of two projects at the OU which illustrate methods designed to increase the accessibility of online learning materials for students with disabilities. Firstly the PEARL project developed an accessible Java application that enables disabled students to operate a remote optical spectrometer via the Internet. Secondly, as part of the implementation aspect of the SALT project, part of an OU course was developed using XML to provide appropriate content presentation according to the needs of broad categories of disabled students.

References

Cooper, M., Donnelly, A., and Ferreira, J. (in press) Remote controlled experiments for teaching over the internet: a comparison of approaches developed in the PEARL project. Accepted for the ASCILITE conference 2002.

Cooper, M., Scanlon, E., and Freake, S. M. (2000) Remote Controlled Teaching Experiments, in Science and Engineering Subjects, Accessible over the World-Wide-Web - The PEARL project, Proc. ED-MEDIA 2000 Conference, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Dunn, J. (2000) Developing Accessible JFC Applications, 1 June, http://www.sun.com/access/developers/developing-accessible-apps/

IBM Corporation (2000) IBM Guidelines for Writing Accessible Applications Using 100% Pure Java, Version 2.1, 24 August, http://www-3.ibm.com/able/snsjavag.html

IMS Guidelines for Developing Accessible Learning Applications. Whitepaper version 1.0 (2002). http://www.imsglobal.org/accessibility/index.cfm

Acknowledgements

The PEARL project is funded by the European Commission's Information Society Technologies program (Project reference IST-1999-12550). The authors acknowledge the contribution of Mr. Telmo Amaral (University of Porto, Portugal and The Open University, UK) for his development of the accessible user interface for the OU's spectrometer and technical assistance in the OU's contribution to the implementation of the SALT project.


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