June 30, 2010

Accessibility and the e-reader

A brief note about the federal government's warning on college distribute of e-readers and students with disabilities: the concern is warranted, and it's much better for the warning to come now than to come after colleges and universities spend millions of dollars (or require students to spend millions of dollars) without the due diligence needed. Every time I use a piece of technology in teaching, I worry about accessibility for students with visual or hearing impairments. A few years ago, I spent considerable time preparing Flash-based presentations for the first part of an online course, to discover that a student with hearing impairments then had to contact my university's disability-service office for transcriptions, and I decided to switch to written "lectures" for the rest of the semester. I think the communication was better for all students, not just him.

Sometimes you learn through experience, but as Ben Franklin said as Poor Richard, fools will learn in no other school. There are now thousands upon thousands of sites built upon technology with limited accessibility, notably Flash. So, for example, Sandra Day O'Connor has spent untold hours helping develop several solid online games to teach civics, which you can find at icivics.org. But they're Flash-based. That limits accessibility. Yes, I know Flash has developed accessibility tools, but at least one of the games requires quick responses, and ... well, it's a great concept, and I hope that there's a paper version of it available for teachers who decide their students need a paper version to slow things down and make that game more accessible.

The safest technology wrapper for texts or other course materials is a plain-text file, which people can put into all sorts of programs to help them. Following that is a standards-compliant website. There are now tools to make websites touch-accessible for mobile phones, and focusing on websites will probably be a much wiser use of resources for most education technology outfits than creating Android or iPhone/iPad apps.

There is a possibility, as noted in the article, that this is a way for federal officials to use universities to push the publishing industry into allowing accessibility tools in all e-reader devices and programs. If so, it's no more an abuse of leverage than the use of colleges and universities to advertise e-readers (which is part of the role of these early-adopter "give an iPad to a frosh" programs).

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Posted in Higher education on June 30, 2010 8:07 AM | Submit