2004 Conference Proceedings

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E.A. Draffan
TechDis, University of Sussex
School of Education, The Sussex Institute
Brighton, East Sussex BN1 9QQ United Kingdom
Email: e.a.draffan@sussex.ac.uk

At one time technology was considered marginal to learning and teaching practice, now most institutions talk about eLearning, which ranges the virtual learning environment (VLE) with course information and blended learning to distance learning where entire courses are online.

To some making these types of curricula content accessible for all students is a complex issue but in fact the most often used medium for teaching and learning - that of printed textbooks - could be considered the most inaccessible. It is hard for those with print difficulties such as low vision or specific learning difficulties like dyslexia to access paper based text without the use of other technologies such as magnification, coloured overlays or scanning optical character recognition programs to enlarge the text or have it read by a computer. By digitising content, teaching resources can become interactive and accessible to many more students.

Computer based text separates the content from the display element allowing for increased flexibility. What is seen can be embellished with audio files or text to speech. Learning support components with summaries and keyword highlights can be embedded and hypermedia can lead to further interaction.

However, there is little training available that covers the diversity of accessibility issues related to the development of digitised instructional materials. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, web based quiz tools and basic HTML or Adobe Acrobat PDF format, are all on offer, sometimes within VLEs such as WebCt and Blackboard. These programs are being used in very exciting ways but there are times when a student with print difficulties will need a variety of assistive technologies to aid accessibility. Taking one developer's range of software, for example TextHelp, the issue is obvious. Read and Write will offer text to speech support within some parts of an interactive Word or Excel worksheet but the screen reader mode is needed for others and BrowseAloud will cope with HTML elements but PDFAloud is required for Adobe Acrobat documents.

Students and staff have differing levels of expertise when using learning technologies and this is also true when considering the use of assistive technologies with learning materials. It may be helpful to create a 'Statement of Technology' addressing the issues of computer skill levels for students and faculty, with guidelines related to each learning object as well as equipment standards (hardware and software) and even a 'Proficiency Test' for students, in order to determine their skill levels. It is important to appreciate that modifications to any learning experience must endeavour to maintain the learning outcome whilst also sustaining the student's interest.

Elements to consider

Many students with dyslexia experience difficulties related to the processing of written language information. These problems are sometimes compounded by short term memory difficulties, a lack of organisational skills and time management issues which all impact on learning within an on-line system. The clear presentation of materials is vital, with good navigational assistance and a variety of multimedia options to tap into both visual and auditory skills and support developing coping strategies but if possible they must not be seen to be changing the learning outcome.

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