2006 Conference General Sessions

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ACCESSIBILITY OF ONLINE SYNCHRONOUS LEARNING SPACE:  CHALLENGES AND STRATEGIES

Presenter #1
Saroj Primlani
NC State University
2620 Hillsborough Street
Raleigh NC 27695-7109
Day Phone: 919 513 4087
Email: saroj_primlani@ncsu.edu

Presenter #2
Jason Morningstar
UNC Chapel Hill
406 Hanes Hall
Chapel Hill NC 27599-3420
Day Phone: 919 843 5192
Email: mornings@email.ncsu.edu

Overview of the accessibility challenges presented by new online synchronous learning technologies, and a discussion of guidelines and strategies needed to accommodate students with a disability in this environment.

Over the last few years, the explosion of web-enabled communication, collaboration and presentation technologies has enhanced the ability to integrate different teaching and learning styles within an online learning environment.

Web conferencing technologies integrate applications for online communication collaboration and presentation, making it easier and more affordable to use them to provide a synchronous online learning space. While products differ in their feature sets, these technologies generally encompass the following tools:

Communication
• Audio conferencing using VoIP
• Real-time text chat or instant messaging
• Video conferencing
• Presenter and participant signaling and moderating controls  
Collaboration
• Whiteboards
• Annotations
• Application Sharing
• Desktop Sharing
• Co-browsing
• Remote keyboard and mouse access
Presentation
• Information viewing (PowerPoint, documents and application)
File Sharing
• Real-time download
Response
• Survey and polling tools
Session recording
• Sessions can be recorded for future publishing

The University of North Carolina (UNC) System is considering the use of web conferencing applications to provide instructor-led, synchronous online learning environments for the 16 UNC campuses.  UNC has created a task force to evaluate web conferencing applications like Centra, Elluminate, Horizon Wimba and Macromedia Breeze.

In order to develop a prioritized accessibility check list to evaluate the different products, it was important to understand the accessibility challenges and identify accommodation strategies this space.

Accessibility Issues with Synchronous Systems

The current state of web conferencing technology presents accessibility challenges for a range of people with disabilities. Since these technologies emulate and combine tools and strategies used in brick and mortar classrooms with tools available for online instruction, they often compound interaction, visual/verbal accessibility challenges that are inherent in both environments. For a learning environment to be accessible to people with a disability, the workspace, navigation, interaction and content must all be accessible.
Challenges:
Workspace
Web conferencing products are client – server applications, where the clients are the interface to the applications tool set and feature.   The user interface (UI) is divided into multiple windows called panels or modules, and each window is designated for a specific service or feature, including content presentation. Additionally, these products are heavily dependent on mouse driven activities.  Workspace accessibility issues include:
• Depending on how they are developed, the UI itself, including menus and dialog boxes, can be virtually inaccessible to screen readers..
• While some products provide keyboard access to menus, there is no keyboard navigation to move between various service windows, which makes them inaccessible to people who are unable to use a mouse.
• This environment demands user attention to multiple areas, which can be limiting for people with learning disabilities who have trouble simultaneously focusing and tracking multiple activities

Communication
• Verbal/Audio Communication:  This is inherently inaccessible for people with hearing impairments.  Online verbal communication may also be a barrier for those who talk slowly or use an assistive device for communication.
• Synchronous Text Chat:  While text-based, both the content display and edit fields need to be accessible to screen readers.   Display and edit fields are often proprietary Java Applets and may not be designed for keyboard access, thus limiting or blocking text communication by blind or slow communicators.  
• Video Communication:  These are inherently inaccessible to screen readers and thus to the visual impaired

Collaboration
• Remote desktop, application and web sharing.  This includes both remote desktop viewing and sharing
o Screen sharing, where the host computer’s display is dynamically mirrored on the remote clients: Effectively it is a captured and compressed image of the host system’s display that is being pushed to client machines, and therefore it is inherently inaccessible to screen readers.
o Remote desktop control, where keyboard and mouse events are transmitted allowing host or client to control applications:   Since local keyboard and mouse events are passed to the remote computer, these can be configured to work with keyboard and mouse accessibility features and with most alternative input devices used by people with motor impairments.  Speech recognition, however, still presents problems, as voiced keystrokes need to be processed on the local machine before being transmitted.
• Interactive Whiteboards.  Electronic whiteboards are synchronous collaboration tools that are used for real-time drawing/writing activities. They include functionality to import and display graphic files.  
o The whiteboard is essentially a graphics application and inherently inaccessible to screen readers.  In addition, raster-based images can conflict with screen magnification assistive technologies causing the information to degrade or disappear with frame changes or screen refresh.
o Annotation tools often exclusively involve mouse-driven activities which exclude people who cannot use a mouse.
• Co-browsing.  Collaborative or synchronized browsing allows participants and presenters view web content using the browser on their computer.  The browser usually opens in another window and is inaccessible to screen readers if the browser is non standard and if focus cannot be moved or maintained while switching between tools

Content
The collaboration tools used to share and present content include all the accessibility challenges that are inherent with these tools.
• Text and other content created on whiteboards are converted into graphic images, which are inaccessible to screen readers.
• PowerPoint presentations are usually converted into graphic images and displayed on the whiteboards
• Screen share tools used for desktop and application sharing are often used to view documents within their native applications. This makes the content inaccessible to screen readers.
• Real-time text chat tools create a threaded conversation.  This conversation can be fast paced and disjointed, becoming a challenge for people with processing deficits or slow communicators, and thereby limiting their participation.

Accommodation Strategies
Online synchronous learning environments combine all the audio/visual demands of a face-to-face classroom with the accessibility challenges of information technology resources and delivery systems. However, accommodation strategies used in the brick and mortar classroom cannot be easily replicated for this space.  In order to facilitate participation of students with a disability in this new learning space, it is important to develop guidelines and accommodation strategies to meet the limitations and demands of this new environment.

Strategies:

• All Disabilities (physical, sensory or learning disabilities):
o When possible, use accessible chat products available in the market
o Include moderate or limited use of chat and other interactive collaboration tools in the pedagogy.
o Allow time for input from people using assistive technologies
o Post-class publication of recorded sessions with attached descriptions, transcription and chat logs
• Learning Disabilities:
Limit the use to chat-tools for pushing transcripts, text descriptions or content other then the chat-thread.  Chat room threads can be confusing enough for people with processing deficits without adding other content.
• Hearing Impaired(Access to verbal/audio content)
At this time real-time captioning of all verbal communication and audio content is the only viable option.  The intermittent quality of live video feeds from within the web conferencing applications precludes the use of real-time sign language interpretation.
• Vision Impaired:
o Use of accessible co-browsing combined with accessible content as a modality for presentation
o Pre-class distribution of classroom and whiteboard presentations in an accessible format to facilitate access to content on their own system
o If possible, provide links to web content to be used during web-sharing
o Provide real-time access to applications and data files used during application sharing
o Provide post-class or real-time textual/audio description of all session-based visual activities. (Whiteboard drawings, annotations and application interactions)  

Beyond Evaluation: The Next Step

Synchronous online learning space is a new paradigm for instruction delivery, leveraging technology-based communication, collaboration and presentation tools to emulate the instructor-led classroom experience.   The absence of physical proximity requires adjustments in pedagogy, teaching and learning modalities.  In addition, absence of a human person to facilitate access to audio, visual content and perform physical tasks demands technological solutions.  
The next to step to accessibility is to research, evaluate and test emerging technology that can be integrated and leveraged to provide real-time or alternative access, especially for students with hearing and vision impairment.   Some of the options we are exploring:
• Remote signing is now being made available for live presentations; they normally use ICDN based remote conferencing systems.  The next step is to evaluate using streaming video to provide similar service on the web.
• Digitized pens, annotation tools and handwriting recognition technology to capture and convert graphic text into electronic text.
• Audio output of SVG based whiteboard and drawing surfaces
• Remote access to computer systems for application sharing
• Accessible co-browsing for delivery of presentation, documents and web-application sharing


SECTION B
Length of Session: 60
Desired Length for Extended Computer Lab Sessions:  
Topic: Postsecondary
Style: LEC
Vendor: NO
Level: Intermediate
Group: ALL
Equipment: WINDOW PC INTERNET EPM
Other Equipment:

SECTION C
Signature: Saroj Primlani
Date: 30 Sep 2005
Email: saroj_primlani@ncsu.edu

ADDITIONAL PRESENTERS
Presenter #3
First Name: Hal
Last Name: Meeks
Organization: NC State University
Street Address: 2620 Hillsborough Street
City: Raleigh
State/Province/Region: NC
Zip/Postal Code: 27695-7109
Country: USA
Day Phone: 919 515 1525
Fax:
Email: hal_meeks@ncsu.edu


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