2011 Campus Technology Innovators | Student Systems and Services
University of Toledo
The Access Adaptive Technology Virtualization project marks the first-ever effort to create a statewide virtual lab with assistive software for disabled students.
Virtual computer laboratories have grown increasingly common on university campuses, freeing up classroom space and allowing students to access specialized software from anywhere with an internet connection.
The University of Toledo (OH) has gone one step further, by extending that capability to disabled students who require assistive technology. According to the UT team, the Access Adaptive Technology Virtualization project marks the first-ever effort to create a statewide virtual lab with assistive software for disabled students.
Hearing- and sight-impaired students and individuals with learning disabilities often can't afford assistive software, so they have to use specific computers in labs on campus to get their work done. "When we became aware of virtual lab technology on the UT campus, we thought, wouldn't it be great if our disabled students had the same opportunity as other students to go sit in Starbucks with their laptop and access the tools they need to do their work?" says Angela Paprocki, division director of student success and retention and director of the Office of Accessibility.
In early 2010, Paprocki and Toni Howard, student service coordinator/manager, applied to the state for funding to implement various adaptive software titles in a virtual lab environment. After determining that most assistive software titles could run in a virtual environment, the UT development team received a grant from the state to develop, test, and expand the project. So far, the Access project has received $320,000 in state funding.
Ten test users on the UT campus are working with the Access system. Users access the virtual lab via VMware's View client, simply authenticating from a browser window into a virtual desktop. The project team is also designing USB keys that will automatically access the lab when plugged into a PC.
The software tested includes Cambium Learning's Kurzweil 3000 Pro and Texthelp Systems' Read&Write Gold solutions for individuals with learning difficulties, such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. For users who are blind or have low vision, the project is also testing Freedom Scientific's JAWS and MAGic and GW Micro's Window-Eyes screen-reader software, as well as Nuance Communications' Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech-recognition software.
A web-based project dashboard, hosted by Bluehost, provides bug reporting via an integrated help desk application; social media features such as Facebook integration; and information regarding the project itself. Interactive software training from Atomic Learning helps new users get up to speed.
The Access team holds regular meetings with the user group to gather feedback and ideas for new features. At these meetings, the value of the project becomes obvious, says Paprocki. "The students' feedback has been driving the changes, and they are thrilled about it," she says. "They recognize this is a huge improvement for them."
The team also recently opened up access to the dashboard to the vendor community. "They expressed interest in the project," explains software developer Andrew Gates, "so we put a system in place where they can upload official training materials and they can see our help desk tickets to get a better idea of issues that arise."
While the original project vision involved only the UT campus, the Access team soon realized that disabled students at other universities around the state could also benefit from the system. So UT has partnered with students at Ohio University in Athens to test remote access. Once that phase of the project wraps up in September, the next step is to address financial sustainability, including the possibility of a consortium of Ohio's universities each paying a percentage of the costs on a monthly or annual basis. Another option is to include the state's K-12 school system.
Besides the increased convenience for students, one potential benefit to universities involves cost savings from software licensing. Instead of each university purchasing its own copies of assistive software, the virtual lab could license as many as needed by the statewide community. "We've had lots of conversations with vendors about licensing," Paprocki says. "We moved to server-based licensing with a limit of 40 concurrent users." This means that campuses in a consortium could eliminate their own copies of the licensed software, and access the up-to-date versions in UT's virtual lab instead. (Some campuses are four or five releases behind because they can't afford to upgrade, Paprocki points out.)
Paprocki notes that the virtual offering could also help smaller schools comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. "Many do work-arounds and provide only the bare minimum of support," she says. "This would ensure broader availability and access even on small campuses."
David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Informatics and Government Technology.