Towards Accessible e-Book Platforms – New TechDis Publication

E-book accessibility has just moved up a notch as a result of work funded by TechDis to make good practice recommendations for the publishing industry. This work was done in conjunction with e-book publishers and has been described in a recent News Release from JISC.

The News Release describes some of the key messages, such as:

* The experience of the ‘keyboard-only’ user can be significantly improved through a feature known as skip links;
* Buttons or unique ‘link text’ descriptions, which allow a user with little or no sight to be able to use the menus, can easily enhance accessibility;
* It is important to maintain a consistent layout between the main page and sub pages. This is also a feature that is welcomed by people with low literacy levels or those who don’t have English as their first language.

Also, that a statement from the publisher describing the accessibility options (such as how to magnify the screen to fully personalising the e-book) can be helpful.

A practical guide Towards accessible e-book platforms (PDF format) has been produced, which can be downloaded from TechDis.

Accessible Twitter

If you’d love to inhabit the Twitosphere but find it somewhat inaccessible, then you might want to try Accessible Twitter. Among other features, it provides keyboard accessible links, a larger default text size, and audio cues which let you know when you’re reaching your character limit.

The application is still at alpha stage with more features at the task list and wish list stage. There’s also an interview with its creator, Dennis Lembree, over on the Accessify blog, which will give you a good insight into how the design came about.

Whilst most Web 2.0 apps are initially inaccessible, once they become mainstream, there does seem to be a drive by independent developers to try make them accessible (providing they can hook into the relevant bits of the backend code). So is this almost collaborative approach to producing accessible, usable apps the way forward rather than trying to do everything in-house?

Technological Literacy: Kit-Kats Strapped to the Back of iPods

As I write, the online JISC Innovating e-Learning 2008 Conference “Learning in a Digital Age – Are We Prepared?” is in full swing.  I’ve been tracking the discussions in the “Listening to Learners” theme, which involved two presentations – one by E.A. Draffen on the issues arising from the LexDIS project and one by Malcolm Ryan giving selected findings from SEEL (Student Experience of e-Learning Laboratory) project.

The presentations arrived at the following conclusions:
* Not all students are digital natives (age is not necessarily a barrier, often it is the technology itself or the learning curve/time required);
* Using technology for its own sake (or because it’s “cool”) does not necessarily enhance the learning experience;
* Not all students want their learning to take place online – face-to-face interaction may be more suitable for some students and/or learning situations, and traditional (i.e. not electronic) resources are still preferred by many students;
* Students generally expect their tutors to be competent technology users and may have a negative experience if this is not the case;
* Not all tutors are motivated or able to use the technology (even if students expect them to be experts in this area);
* Technology used in the classroom, online, and socially is growing so quickly that it is often difficult for staff (and students) to keep up;
* Whilst some disabled students are more technologically adept and willing to experiment to get the technology to work in the way they need, there is often a time or financial cost, which can produce barriers.

The discussions which followed on from these presentations confirmed many of these findings and my favourite quote of the day came from E.A. Draffen, when she talked about the difficulties in cascading technology information to teaching staff: “Kit-Kats strapped to the back of iPods just don’t do it with staff sometimes”. E.A. was referring to the difficulty in getting staff to attend CPD (Continuing Professional Development) workshops on using technology.  Many staff just can’t afford the time to attend such workshops or may not even be technologically engaged.  Like students, teaching staff need to know what technologies are available to them, how they can be used (officially and unofficially), and have the time and motivation to explore those technologies. One counter-argument which came out of the discussions was that tutors should concentrate on helping students to understand their particular subject area, be it art or zoology, rather than have to be learning technologists as well.  However, if educational institutions generally expect their students (and staff) to be literate (i.e. be able to read and write), perhaps it is not unfeasible to expect them to be technologically literate as well?

The unpopularity of VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) was also discussed and one delegate (a postgraduate student) suggested that if VLEs were designed by students that they might look more like PLEs (Personal Learning Environments). The importance of personalisation of the learning experience and flexibility in course design and delivery looks likely to become even higher as students (or “customers”) demand more value as fees increase. E-learning is not the be all and end all, and in any case, not all students want, or even are able, to engage with the technology.

So, although the discussions in this strand did not really throw up anything new, perhaps the fact that the same old issues and barriers to e-learning still exist is rather worrying. Online and learning technology is moving at a much faster rate than most of us can keep up with. For many students (not just those with disabilities) and even staff, this can be a real barrier to effective learning (and teaching).  Is there a solution? We can’t slow down the rate of technological innovation and there are only so many hours in a day. Perhaps all we can do is muddle through as best we can, being more tolerant of those staff and students who have difficulties with using technology, and to continue to help each other to find innovative solutions to problems. Talking about the same old issues acknowledges that they are still there, but it also gives people the chance to discuss and disseminate the many different workarounds they have found. Whilst these issues are frustrating and challenging, perhaps they also make us more inventive.

Personalisation – Many Things to Many People?

I finally got around to reading Designing for Learning: The Proceedings of Theme 1 of the JISC Online Conference – Innovating e-Learning 2006 (PDF Format, 788Kb) after several aborted attempts.  The paper I found most interesting was Diana Laurillard’s keynote, which got me thinking about personalisation of e-learning systems and resources. 

Laurillard talks about several different levels of personalisation:

* “…a pre-test to determine the level at which a learner might begin a learning design, or the chance to select the vocabulary set with which a language learner would like to work, or the opportunity to choose the order in which topics are confronted…”

* “…a negotiated learning contract that specifies the content topics, the prior learning and intended acheivement levels…”

* “…[an] adaptive system vision, in which opportunities are personalised for the learning, based on a diagnosis of their [learners’] needs.” (From Laurillard, D. Keynote: Learning Design Futures – What are our Ambitions? in Minsull, G. & Mole J (eds) (2007), Designing for Learning, The Proceedings of Theme 1 of the JISC Online Conference: Innovating e-Learning 2006, p10. JISC. Accessed 12/09/07).

There are no doubt other levels, but what struck me was that the idea that personalisation can mean different things to different people, depending on their requirements and viewpoint.  So, when two people talk about the personalisation of e-learning resources and systems, they may be envisaging completely different processes and interactions from each other.

To me, personalisation means accessible e-learning systems and resources that adapt themselves based on the learner’s learning needs and preferences.  So, for example, a visually impaired learner is offered alternative learning resources that have little or no visual element.  Or the e-learning system automatically changes the font colour and background colour based on a the preferences already set up by a dyslexic learner. However, these preferences and requirements for alternative resources are not just beneficial for learners with disabilities.  They are beneficial for all learners who may have learning, technology, or environmental requirements which differ from the norm (if indeed such a thing exists).  For example, a learner without access to an mobile audio device, such as an MP3 player, may prefer to print off the transcript of a podcast in order to read it on the bus.

The course designer may well have a completely different view of personalisation, whereby the e-learning system automatically presents the apropriate starting point on a course based on the learner’s level of competency and prior knowledge.  This could be established by online (or offline) pre-tests, tutor-entered proof of competency, such as certificated evidence of experience or skills, or other means of verification.  A learner who exceeds the initial competency requirements could be started a higher level of the course with options to view and/or take part in previous lower levels.

Both of these views of personalisation relate to Laurillard’s “adaptive system” approach, whereby the e-learning system “pushes” out resources or automatically places the learner at a particular level of a course, based on the learner’s needs and preferences.

However, there is another less formal approach to personalisation, which I’ve termed the “active approach” (although I’m sure there must be an official term for this out there), whereby the learner chooses what tools they want to use and/or the level at which they want to start the course.  In this approach, information and learning is “pulled” from the content managing system using the tools and approach that the learner prefers.  For example, a student may prefer to input all her assignment dates into a mobile device which she carries with her at all times, rather than input them onto the institution’s approved calendaring system, which she only accesses when she is on site. 

Although there does not seem to be much difference between the “adaptive” and “active” approaches, the details are quite subtle.  For example, in an adaptive approach, an institution’s system could offer a specific text-to-speech reader for all students to choose, should they wish, which is supported by institution’s IT (Information Technology) department.  However, in the active approach, the learner uses the text-to-speech reader they prefer to use.  Also, the active approach allows a learner to choose where they want to start learning based on their interests or prior learning. For example, a biology student with an interest in or prior knowledge of plants may want to start with a module on plant biology before moving to animal biology in order to orientate himself and gain confidence.  Laurillard’s idea of a “negotiated learning contract that specifies the content topics, the prior learning and intended acheivement levels” will help the learner to identify where they want to start learning.

Although there is a need for an adaptive approach to personalisation, there is also a complementary need for an active approach, which can empower learners, help hone their learning, and help them to gain confidence by consolidating any prior knowledge.

Personalisation does mean different things to different people – from a system which adapts itself to present content in the way the learner requires to learners actively choosing where they want to begin their learning.  Perhaps personalisation is all these things at the same time and it’s only that actual viewpoint that makes the difference.