by Anna Bratulic
Whether it be posting course
notes on the Internet or putting a video of an entire class lecture online,
more and more Concordia professors are using the Web to enhance their
teaching techniques. By all accounts, Web-based teaching methods will
only increase with the development of more sophisticated and easy-to-use
This increasing reliance on Web technology for use in the classroom is
raising concerns about accessibility issues for disabled students. Theres
a lot of information that Web designers arent thinking about when
they design Web pages, said Leo Bissonnette, Coordinator at Services
for Disabled Students.
For example, Bissonnette, who is visually impaired, needs a screen reader
to use the Net. He has two types of screen readers in his office.
One is a set of speakers through which a good-quality voice (though still
robotic-sounding and rather fast) reads the text on a Web page from top
to bottom. Whenever there is a link, it precedes the title of the link
with the word link. That way, the visually impaired person
knows what it is. The other screen reader is a small, flat box on which
the on-screen text is converted into Braille.
But in addition to text, Web pages are often splashy and full of graphics.
Whenever theres a graphic, the screen reader merely notes that there
is a visual of some kind without going into detail about what it is or
what it looks like. Given the extensive graphic content of the Web, there
is a lot of information that is not conveyed to someone who may be blind.
Also, the more visually cluttered the page is, the more difficult it is
for the screen reader to read.
If youve got an important logo (like the Concordia Stingers
bumblebee, for example), if you can convey something about it, it makes
it more complete, said Bissonnette, adding that including a little
text description of the graphic would allow the screen reader to pick
it up and then tell the user.
If a Web designer would look at international standards, there would
be more chances of doing something from the ground up that gives people
universal access, Bissonnette said.
The Bobby Standards is a computer program that allows people to test the
accessibility of their Web sites. Doing so would point out to the designer
what difficulties might be encountered by the visually, hearing or mobility
impaired person as they are browsing their site.
Concordias Web site is, to Bissonnettes surprise, actually
quite compliant. When, in an experiment, he tried to apply to the university
online, he was able to arrive at the page where the application form had
to be filled out, which he was impressed with, because many sites do not
make it clear for blind people how to get from one page to the next.
However, he was unable to fill out the application form, because the screen
reader could not interpret the fields that had to be filled out (Name,
Last Name, Address, etc.) and to communicate that to Bissonnette in a
In future, Bissonnette wants to work closely with Heather Mackenzie, Assistant
Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning. She is coordinating
the Pedagogy Technology Project, which began last year with the help of
a $1.25-million grant from the McConnell Foundation.
Its a three-year pilot project that will study and implement computer-based
communication technologies into curriculums. She sees it as promoting
a paradigm shift in the way teaching is done. Were dissolving
the classroom walls in a very definitive way, she said.
This term there are 10 courses being offered online; that is, all the
lectures are video-taped and placed on department Web pages including
Dean Martin Singers history course on China and Vice-Rector Marcel
Daniss course, Canadian Public Law.
Andrew McAusland, Director of Academic Technology, produced the online
courses (which now total about 700 hours of video since the initiative
began two years ago) and acknowledges that there are accessibility issues
that need to be addressed. The video model doesnt work well
with blind students, obviously. But others are well-suited to this because
a video can be rewound hundreds of times, he said.