Systems Change Regarding Accessible Information Technology In The K-12 Educational Environment
This article presents a practice used to implement systems change regarding the improvement of electronic and information technology (E&IT) access in the K-12 educational environment. The project is funded by the National Institute on Disability Rehabilitation and Research of the U.S. Department of Education as part of its initiative to promote the acquisition and use of accessible information technology in elementary through postsecondary education institutions. The project engages in simultaneous top-down and bottom-up activities to educate stakeholders and demonstrate accessible E&IT within and between the state government educational agency and public schools. The top-down endeavor includes establishing legislation on accessibility and working with the public education department’s technology staff in creating compliance policy and practices for public schools. The bottom-up approach includes establishing memorandums of understanding with certain districts as demonstration projects where accessibility is assessed and an improvement plan is developed and implemented.
Those who have worked in education over the past 30 years have seen the speedy and monumental impacts of technology upon communication, curriculum, learning, and administration. Some remember education without computers; some have only heard about that reality. Many of today’s educational activities involve electronic information in one form or another. The need for accessibility of technologies for students with disabilities in the classroom is evident when you consider the implications for major functions of communication and information access such as those demonstrated in the following examples: efficient word processing, construction and use of databases, electronic communication techniques, spreadsheet information access, presentation of original thoughts, and insight through electronic simulations.
A variety of informational sources affect current thinking about the value of accessible E&IT for all students in classroom settings, including those with disabilities. Moreover, clear negative implications exist for post-school employment of students who do not possess competitive technology-related skills. Existing research and literature reinforce the necessity for accessible E&IT use within America’s classrooms.
The question remains, “How can we assure that all students, faculty, and staff have access to E&IT?” The practices described in this article were developed in response to this question.
TOP-DOWN PROJECT ACTIVITIES
Several individuals motivated by the value of education, increased use of technology, and the needs of persons with disabilities formed a team to move forward on continually improving electronic and information technology access in the K-12 educational environment in New Mexico. The project began with the Accessible E&IT in Education Project Coordinator at New Mexico’s Technology Assistance Program providing presentations to various professional education organizations asking school administrators, information technology staff, special education directors, and faculty how students with specific impairments received information relevant to their studies. That one question quickly generated an interest beyond expectation. Several districts volunteered to join an exploratory demonstration project aimed at creating an accessible educational environment. Although this article focuses on the outcomes of one project, it also includes results of simultaneous endeavors with a goal of making a progressive impact on the state’s educational system.
Prior to the beginning of our demonstration project, several state agencies, including those with a focus on education and disabilities and the New Mexico state legislature, worked together to establish a law requiring that “Public schools that offer distance learning and computer-based courses of study shall provide accompanying electronic formats that are usable by a person with a disability using assistive technology, and those formats shall be based on the American standard code for information interchange, hypertext markup language and extensible markup language.”
The promulgation of the state law led to questions of compliance. Our Public Education Department’s Council on Technology in Education worked with the Accessible E&IT in Education Project Coordinator to incorporate accessibility language in the state’s public education technology plan.
To complement the language incorporated within the technology plan and to assure compliance in audiences responsible for implementation, the Accessible E&IT in Education Project Coordinator provided accessibility workshops, policy and practices development and technical assistance to various groups of educational professionals around the state. These groups included the State Coalition of School Superintendents; a consortium of web developers employed by public schools, community colleges, and universities; and special education service providers.
BOTTOM-UP PROJECT ACTIVITIES
Project activities in the small, rural district of Animas, New Mexico began with the identification of a team consisting of a project coordinator, an administrator, a technology staff person, and a special education administrator. Later, students and faculty members were added to the team. Accessibility tests performed by the team found the district’s Web site somewhat accessible and conversations with several staff members and teachers identified only one person who had “heard about” issues related to accessible electronic and information technology. The project gained full support of the district superintendent, who initially negotiated the memorandum of understanding with the Accessible E&IT in Education Project Coordinator. A written agreement was instituted with deliverables used to guide each project component: (1) development of procurement policy for technology: adopt accessibility standards, policies, and/or practices in procuring and implementing accessible information technology including appropriate language incorporated into the district’s Information Technology Annual State Plan; (2) Web site accessibility: Modify district Website to ensure Bobby Approved accessibility; (3) computer-based instructional materials and distance learning courses: stored in accessible file formats; and (4) training for faculty, staff and students.
Taxing schedules and demands of most team members made it especially important for the Project Coordinator to keep the group on task. The work was divided: the technology staff looked to on-line assistance for basic web design accessibility attributes and reconstructed the district Web site; the special education staff learned about how to compliment the use of assistive technology with accessible information technology. The administrator developed a procurement policy regarding accessibility to be approved by the district’s school board. The technology staff provided training. All school faculty were given three in-service training sessions on (1) built-in accessibility functions in computers and accessible file formats, (2) accessible Web site development, and (3) accessible information technology for students with disabilities.
As a result of training, teachers instructed their K-12 students on the development of accessible Web sites and the information technology staff has become knowledgeable and skilled in the area of accessible technology so that they may instruct other K-12 school district staff.
EVALUATION OF PRACTICES
Indicators of success in meeting our project goals of increased E&IT accessibility include:
- The school’s Web site (www.animask12.net) is now accessible to all students, staff, parents, and members of the community, including those with disabilities. Specifically, all graphics were complimented with alternate text and schedules were redesigned in table/text format rather than PDF format. Teachers, who were required by administration to develop their own Web sites, now develop the sites to be accessible with the awareness that this is a work in progress and that Web sites will continue to go through testing by the Accessible E&IT in Education Project Coordinator and district technology staff.
- The technology staff became versed in accessible information technology and is prepared to train other district technology staff through a regional technology consortium.
- District technology instructors now include accessibility lessons for students as part of their technology course curriculum.
- In addition to students with sensory and mobility impairments, those with learning disabilities have also benefited from access to information through speech output, speech-to-text and other assistive technology. As documented by the Brenda Richardson, Assistant Technology Coordinator for Animas School District, “Students with specific learning disabilities have discovered that using the narration and dictation of text features to be of assistance. The students can utilize their time more efficiently to accomplish their tasks. These students can effectively record their thoughts in a comprehensible fashion using the dictation of text feature. One student in particular, is able to dictate his original stories for English class into the computer without loosing his train of thought about the storyline. After the dictation process is completed, he is able to return to the written text to edit and format the original stories, listening via text to speech output.”
- The district’s technology plan now includes language on Web accessibility and procurement of accessible technology.
- The district has upgraded three of their four computer labs with current hardware and operating systems that possess built-in accessibility features.
- Yearly training in accessibility for faculty is required.
In this exploratory work, creating a diverse team to champion an information technology accessibility project and develop and implement an organized set of outcome deliverables proved successful in improving accessibility at the district level. Each team member tackled tasks specific to his/her area of expertise and subsequently learned from the others. The team readily realized that they were not involved in overwhelming or costly projects, and showed a great deal of enthusiasm. The team now provides technical assistance to other districts ranging from a phone call or e-mail to a full training session. An ‘expert network’ is being constructed throughout the state. Since accessibility knowledge and practice is now built-in to the curriculum and into administrative procedures and practices, it is gradually becoming a standard for practice. Students in technology courses are also learning about how to improve access to information technology for people with disabilities.
The project benefited from the full support of the superintendent. When asked about the impact of the project on the school district, Mr. Paul Benoit, the Superintendent, said, “The accessibility project has heightened staff awareness of the importance and availability of the wide range of software and hardware and accessibility attributes that have been developed to assist students with disabilities. In fact, all students are benefiting from this increased knowledge and training our staff has received. The development of accessibility policies and training, as part of our overall district technology plan, will ensure continued focus on accessible technology by the district administration and teaching staff.”
A synchronized top-down (legislation, public education agency regulation and policy) and bottom-up (district demonstration projects) approach, that included the provision of professional development workshops and technical assistance, has generated an advancing dynamic toward improving accessible information technology across the State of New Mexico. These dual strategies perpetuated leadership and activities that promote the procurements, development and use of accessible information technology. As summarized by Benoit:
“As more schools become aware of the statutory requirements around accessible technology, the impact around the state will be profound for students with disabilities and for students who simply have struggled with learning. The fundamental goal of this project was to improve student learning through the use of accessible technology, and that is well on its way in Animas and in the State of New Mexico!”
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History: 22-13-27. Laws of New Mexico. (2003). ch. 162 § 2. Distance learning and computer-based courses.
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