E-Learning | Feature

Is Ed Tech Accessible Enough?

Technology opens doors for college students and teachers, but it's not always adequate for non-traditional learners, despite meeting existing accessibility standards.

Helen Lee knows what it's like to get excited about a new piece of classroom technology. But as assistant professor for Western Michigan University's Department of Blindness & Low Vision Studies in Kalamazoo, Lee also is familiar with the bitter disappointment that comes when her students can't use some or all of the technology.

The fact that hardware and software vendors are required by legislation to incorporate access technology into their products doesn't make Lee's job any easier. "These programs meet the letter of the law," said Lee, who specializes in low vision, rehabilitation teaching, orientation, and mobility, "but the products themselves aren't always completely accessible for my students."

Access technology doesn't always keep up with the times, said Lee, who often finds herself trailing behind mainstream technology trends. "We're pretty much always a step behind because we don't know what's going to be available on the shelves tomorrow," said Lee. "As soon as we pull a computer out of its box, the equipment is outdated."

iPads and E-Readers
The iPad, which is growing in popularity in the higher education space, is a bright spot for Lee. The fact that the product is bundled with a voice program makes it attractive for visually impaired students. "This is the first piece of mainstream technology that's come out in a long time that's accessible for our students," said Lee. "Also working in the iPad's favor is that fact that it's not specialized technology, which often costs four to five times the price of mainstream products."

Lee, who has served on numerous technology committees both on and off campus, said sometimes the challenge lies in getting all interested parties on board and making informed decisions about both mainstream and accessible technologies.

"Sometimes the real fight comes down to agreeing on the product that we're all going to use," said Lee, who has seen one too many committees select a cheaper product just to save a few hundred dollars, not realizing that the less expensive choice included fewer accessibility options. "The process can be pretty frustrating."

James A. Leja, professor and chair for the school's Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies, concurred and said it's always a good idea for schools investing in new technologies to consider hardware and software solutions for people with disabilities. "Including AT users in testing is crucial," said Leja. "I do know this consideration is not often at the top of the CIO's list of things to do, but it really should be."

Leja pointed to the e-reader trend as being particularly onerous for students who need AT, namely because some popular products lack fully functional voice capabilities. And while multiple colleges have begun requiring such products for incoming freshmen and other students, Leja said, the fact that the products lack that basic function makes them completely inaccessible for vision-impaired and blind students.

"We all like the marketing glitz and the pretty pictures that these products boast," said Leja, "but when it comes right down to it, a lot of users are eliminated because there are no alternatives offered to the student who can't actually read the words on the digital pages."

Inaccessible Software
Leja said the biggest frustrations with AT come when the institution reviews, purchases and buys a promising piece of software, only to find out that some of its functions don't work properly when accessed by vision-impaired students. Take the statistical package whose drop-down menus were incompatible with the school's screen-reading program, for example.

"When there were four or five drop-down menus to choose from, students could only pick the first item," said Leja. "The screen-reader would not advance down through the remaining items. These are important issues that the software designers must keep in mind if they want their technology to be completely accessible."

Video streaming also presents challenges, according to Lee, who ran into and obstacle recently while uploading distance courses to the Web. "We thought video streaming afforded our students both visual and auditory information," said Lee. "However, because stopping, pausing, and replaying required pointing and clicking on symbols, our students lacked an efficient way to start and stop the videos."

To solve the problem, the department began using MP3 format audio files (for distance learning lectures, for example) for students to download to their own players for review. Such workarounds are commonplace, said Leja, who envisions a day when all off-the-shelf software incorporates more than just the basic levels of AT.

Acknowledging the fact that the total number of physically disabled students is much smaller than the general population, Leja said the best AT decisions usually occur when universal design access takes precedence over product cost and what everyone else is using. "When schools buy new technology, they really need to look beyond the vendor's bells and whistles," said Leja, "and remember that everyone deserves access."

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