The Design Of Accessible Distance Education Environments That Use Collaborative Learning
The use of information technology in education is proliferating throughout the world, both in traditional classroom environments and in distance education using the World Wide Web. It is assumed that new technology enhances opportunities for disabled students in higher education. Adequate research data are, however, needed to assess the effectiveness of technology for enhancing learning and to demonstrate how people who have been marginalized by social, economic, and physical situations best use the technology.
Even though educational opportunities for disabled students continue to expand, many students who have disabilities do not enter higher education even when they have both the motivation and the requisite intellectual capability. This situation is similar in Sweden (National Agency for Higher Education, 2000) and the United States (Horn & Berktold, 1999).
Malm� University in Sweden is conducting a project entitled "Accessibility and Learning in Higher Education, Learning and New Media." This integrated research, development and training project, located in the School of Teacher Education at Malm� University, is supported by funding from the Knowledge and Competence Development Foundation of Stockholm. A multidisciplinary team representing the Center for Teacher Education, the Department of Information Technology, and the University Library Services is conducting the project. Private companies in the region interested in computer-supported educational products are also participating. This article reports the goals and efforts of the pilot project designed to study the development and testing of optimal methods for facilitating learning through the use of information technology by all students, including those with disabilities.
It is relatively easy to see the effects of technology on accessibility to education for disabled students. It is much harder to gauge the impact of educational design and methods on this population. The fact that research and related literature concerned with educational accessibility focus mainly on technological issues may be a consequence of this difference. Examples of this perspective are offered below.
Schmetzke (2001) investigated the degree to which distance education sites were accessible. Using Bobby, a web-site accessibility evaluation tool , Schmetzke checked 219 sites. Only 15 % of the beginning pages were free from severe accessibility errors. Schmetzke's article studied the technology used for web access. His findings showed that the technology affects the accessibility of a web-based course.
Schmetzke (2001) also reviewed the literature that examines the obstacles that people with disabilities encounter in an online distance education environment. Only a few articles treated the issue, and they had a primarily technological perspective. None of the reviewed articles dealt with how educational design and pedagogical approach affect the accessibility of a web-based course: Stewart (1999) stated that accessibility must be built into the offered product. Harrison (1999) asserted that web-based educational resources must have a universal and barrier-free design. Kessler and Keefe (1999) discussed the impact that newer distance education technology has on students with disabilities.
CERTEC, Center for Rehabilitation Engineering Technology in Sweden , has conducted research since 1995 on development of a distance education concept that is accessible to disabled people. Anderberg (1999) described the efforts to make distance education courses accessible. (For more information, also see Anderberg, 1998; Anderberg & Magnusson, 1998; Anderberg & J�nsson, 1997; Anderberg et al., 1997.) Anderberg described CERTEC's educational philosophy and concept, but his discussion primarily presented a technological perspective of accessibility issues.
In contrast, the present article focuses on the impact of pedagogy, educational design, and teaching method on accessibility. These components also affect the accessibility of a web-based distance education course. The Malm� project staff believes that the optimal online learning environment can be provided only when the course is designed to be pedagogically sound, the information technology used is appropriate, and course materials and activities are fully accessible. This article describes the process used to ensure that each component of pilot courses under development achieves these goals. Assessment criteria have been formulated and are being used in research and evaluation conducted at each milestone in course development and after the initial course offering.
Course accessibility is the result of a combination of educational and technological design. The pedagogical method determines the technological media to be used in the course. When collaborative learning is the educational method to be used, the technological media must support students in their collaborative work. Just as the pedagogical method determines the use of technological media, the technological media determines the number of options available in the collaborative environment.
Web-based discussions permit students to take part without a voice and without a face. For some, this degree of anonymity allows them to express themselves more openly. A written contribution to a discussion can reduce pressure and afford the student time for thinking and formulating ideas without interruption.
The need to develop written contributions, however, can also present problems that must be addressed. For some students, written contributions might be more demanding than oral interaction. Research indicates that students benefit differently in learning situations (e.g., Anderberg, 1999). This fact must be taken into consideration when selecting or constructing educational platforms and media that are to be used in a course, if the course is to be fully accessible to disabled students. For example, the most popular platform for synchronous online group discussions is the "chat room." These, however, may present a barrier to a person with a disability. To be active in such discussions, students must be able to express their thoughts without delay. This is a demand that cannot be met equally well for all students. A visually impaired student, for instance, might have difficulty reading and writing fast enough to participate in the chat room discussion. A dyslexic student might feel timid about expressing ideas in written form. An asynchronous medium might be an appropriate accommodation for some students.
A brief discussion of the theoretical basis for the project is needed to put the project activities into perspective. The project design is grounded in recent theory on collaborative learning combined with knowledge of advances in information technology. The conceptual framework for the research encompasses the development of instruction methods that use the advantages of collaborative learning without being dependent on a set time and place.
An educational technology paradigm can lead to a new definition of what learning is about. Earlier in history, a change in the technology used in learning sometimes led to a change in what was considered important to be learned. Plato considered written language a threat to learning because students did not need to memorize texts. According to Plato, students learned less if they only read a text (S�lj� 2000, Yates 1966/1992). Other smaller but debated technology paradigms that have been claimed to reduce students' knowledge and skills include the writing slate, the abacus, the calculator and the computer (S�lj�, 1999). The question is, how will different technologies influence the learning situation. Will a new teaching culture be developed?
For many generations, the typical school culture had a teacher lecturing while the students listened quietly. The media society -- comprised of television, computers, and access to the Internet -- has generated so much easily reached information that there is difficulty managing all of it. The teacher is no longer the single information source within a classroom; rather, she or he helps students to acquire strategies to select and to evaluate information. In the modern information society, learning is not as much about acquiring static knowledge as it is about knowing how and where to get specific and valid information and to be able to identify a problem. Students need to learn by reflecting on information and by transforming the selected material into something that fits in the context they are working in. A lecturer is not as important as having a teacher supporting and encouraging students in their personal learning processes, and helping them to understand how they learn and about their learning needs (Bruner 1996).
In a social cultural oriented learning theory, the context for learning is important. The existing situation drives the learning process (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Vygotsky, 1978). Flexibility and variations in the instructional techniques available to students are important to ensure that students� learning needs are addressed. Students should be able to choose how to participate in the learning environment in order to match the learning situation to his or her individual learning preferences.
According to learning theory, building on Vygotsky�s writings (1978), the process of communication with others is of utmost importance to learning. ("Communication" in this context is understood to be direct, between two or more people, but it also can be indirect in the form of text, music, drama, or other cultural artifacts.) By formulating understanding, knowledge and the learning process are made visible to the student. Sharing one's understanding with others provides the opportunity for developing knowledge further. Confrontation between one's own understanding with that of others provides these same opportunities. According to Vygotsky�s, the process of sharing understanding with others, and thereby expanding knowledge, will form a �zone of proximal development.�
People learn through dialogue, where the response is central and important. According to Bakhtin (1981), a criterion for the dialogue is an existing confrontation between voices. If each person tells his or her own story and does not engage in the other person�s story, the confrontation and the dialogue do not take place, and the situation then is not conducive to the learning process. Meaning is constructed as an ideological bridge between the people having the dialogue. During the dialogue, the construction of meaning is ongoing and changing. If people do not meet in dialogue, the bridge of meaning between the participants is not constructed, and confrontation will not take place.
Dysthe (1996 a,b), inspired by Bakhtin, explored what happened if teachers systematically used oral and written discourse as tools for learning. She showed that writing should not be an isolated activity, instead written texts can be used as oral discourse initiators. Talking collaboratively about a student�s writing can help clarify the student's thoughts. Through the method of collaboration, students obtain insight into the thoughts of other students; and, as a consequence, they gain a broader perspective and deeper understanding. Dysthe also demonstrated that feedback is essential. In order to use the whole learning potential in a dialogue environment, it is important to combine talking and writing and to have an interaction between them, not just use one or the other. Meaning is negotiated through the use of both writing and talking.
People have different meanings for the word "collaboration." For instance, collaboration can involve working individually with a group task and finally putting the individually constructed contributions together to form a single product. In this project, however, collaboration is built on dialogue among students. Students support each other in the learning process; understanding is built through confrontation with other students, and meaning continues to evolve. The theoretical base for this project, then, states that learning is not an individual undertaking; rather, learning takes place in a process of communication among people. This concept must be an important principle guiding the construction of the educational platform to be used in courses.
Physical and perceptual disabilities may make it difficult to take part in written communication, especially when it is to take place in a synchronous environment. Synchronous communication presents opportunities for spontaneous interaction, but it requires linguistic agility and fast reaction, which may make it difficult for individuals who have disabilities, those with language deficiencies, and those with limited computer experience. For these individuals, an asynchronous form of communication may provide better access to discussions.
Given that learning is constructed in a process of communication with others, students must be willing and able to engage in such communication.
Selection of this theoretical foundation for the project resulted in important questions: What kind of communication do different students prefer? Will students with a specific disability prefer certain forms of communication? To what extent is this true for different students? Is there a relationship between specific kinds of course content and preferred forms of communication, and between the form of preferred communication and the form that assessment should take? Some students are likely to find the idea of collaboration with others fruitless because they feel that they can learn more easily on their own. Others may not trust the abilities of their fellow students. For these reasons, student-controlled flexibility over the acquisition of educational materials and in the mode of participation must be provided so that students can choose the most efficient learning approach for themselves.
ACCESSIBILITY IN DISTANCE EDUCATION
Criteria have been formulated for use in assessing the efforts to design an accessible web-based distance education course. These criteria are presented below, following a description of the implications of disabilities on the use of computers and the Internet.
Students with visual disabilities may be totally blind or partially sighted. Those who are totally blind use synthetic speech or Braille displays to read material presented on computer screens. Specialized adaptive software (screen readers) allow the user to read text and to navigate freely through documents and the Internet. People who are partially sighted magnify text on the screen in order to read it. Selection of colors and contrast of images and background also help many of these individuals. Specialized adaptive software provides this capability, as long as the documents or web pages provide flexibility for customizing the display to meet personal needs and preferences.
People with hearing disabilities may be hard of hearing or profoundly deaf. Those who are hard of hearing normally can use their own hearing aids or assistive listening devices to amplify audio presented by a computer, including speech and other audio signals. Those who are profoundly deaf require alternative formats for material presented in audio. For example, the audio track of a web-based video must be accompanied by a text transcript of the speech or a version with sign language images that are accessible on demand.
People with learning disabilities (such as dyslexia) may have difficulty processing materials or discussions presented by a computer. Use of a screen reader (similar to that used by blind people) often can remedy these difficulties. Customizing the visual display by using personal style sheets and by modifying line length can also help the user significantly.
Criteria for accessibility
The degree of accessibility of a web-based course, where collaboration and dialogue are central, for a specific student is a function of several factors: (1) how the students are expected to work with the course, (2) how the course contents are presented, (3) the courseware system used for course presentations, maintaining student materials and contributions, and student group interactions, (4) the approach used by course providers, (5) the capacity of the student's computer hardware, browser, and adaptive technology, and (6) the student's disability and the degree of functional limitation. Each of these factors is discussed below and criteria for assessing course accessibility are presented.
1. Course assignments
Learning processes vary from person to person. When students are aware of their learning preferences, learning should be more effective. According to Kolb (1984), learning preferences affect the amount of time people spend in experiencing, reflecting, abstract thinking, and exploring. The physical learning environment also affects the learning process. Light, temperature, and the physical work environment can affect an individual's learning in a positive or negative way (Dunn & Dunn 1978). An effective way of learning in one situation, then, is not necessarily the most effective way in another situation. The circumstances and the surrounding physical environment should be considered when a student chooses a way of learning.
Criterion 1A: Course assignments support students' personal learning preferences.
A commonly stated advantage of online distance education relates to the ability of students to work with course content at any time from any place. The use of collaborative learning will affect this flexibility when a decision is made to employ real-time, or synchronous, communication among a group of collaborating students. For example, blind students using synthetic speech or Braille displays cannot participate equitably in the typical online "chat room" because screen readers do not permit users to monitor the rapidly changing screens that are refreshed constantly. Asynchronous communication through the common electronic mail approach provides equity in participation, but it lacks the spontaneity of real-time, live discussions. (Synchronous Internet-based speech communication between two individuals works well now, and the prospect for multiple person discussions is rapidly evolving.) Today's options for collaborative learning activities should include live meetings of some groups and telephone discussions. All students must have the flexibility of selecting the preferred mode of participation, but those with disabilities may not have multiple options that provide them a suitable learning opportunity.
Criterion 1B: Flexibility in the conduct of course assignments and activities is provided to ensure that students can select the most appropriate learning environment and style.
2. Presentation of course content
Primary responsibilities of course developers and providers for accessibility relate to the design of course content and its presentation in formats that allow students to select the most appropriate and preferred mode to meet their learning needs and preferences. If additional software is needed to access, for example, a video, then the video should not be required as obligatory course material. When mastery of the video content is essential for the students, a transcript of the video content must be available to the students as alternative course material.
Criterion 2A: Course materials that are obligatory are accessible for all students.
Criterion 2B: The design of the course content and its presentation in a variety of formats allow students to select the most appropriate and preferred mode to meet their learning needs and preferences.
Course developers must ensure that instructional materials and media are designed so that they will be accessible to students with disabilities. For example, print materials must be available in Braille, large-print, or audio formats for those who need them. Similarly, audio and visual materials presented on the World Wide Web must have the necessary text or signed alternatives for deaf students and text or audio descriptions for blind students.
Criterion 2C: The guidelines for the design of educational software developed by the CPB/WGBH National Center on Accessible Media  are followed.
3. The Courseware System
Students sometimes must use different computers. For example, they must use a computer in a library, but users often are not permitted to install additional software on public computers. Thus, students should be able to take a distance education course without the need to install additional software beyond that normally needed to use and communicate via the Internet. For a non-disabled student, this typically means a browser, a word processor and an Internet connection.
Criterion 3A: It is possible to enroll in the course without installing additional software beyond that which is normally needed to use and communicate via the Internet.
People with different disabilities, knowledge of technology, and different computer hardware and software should be able to participate in a course. The design of the courseware system should, therefore, follow guidelines for accessible web content that are developed by professionals and approved officially for the course.
Criterion 3B: The courseware system is built using guidelines for accessible web content developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) .
4. The approach used by the course providers
The approach used by the course providers is essential for course accessibility. Some students may need more support than other students to manage the technology, the course assignments, or the course content. Students may need individualized support - a FAQ (Frequently asked questions) on the web cannot be expected to answer all possible questions that may arise, and all the kinds of support that may be needed cannot be pre-programmed into a courseware system.
Criterion 4A: The course providers are service-minded and give individual support when it is needed.
Course providers sometimes have to deal with unexpected questions. What happens, for example, when a student cannot keep the same pace of study as his or her course mates? Can the student continue the course at his or her own pace or must the student temporarily interrupt the course and wait until the course is given again? With students� learning processes in mind, the course providers should be prepared to take a position that promotes course accessibility.
Criterion 4B: The course providers are flexible and prepared to make decisions that promote course accessibility.
5. The capacity of the student�s hardware, browser, and adaptive technology
Customizing a person�s computer setup can take place at several places. For example, adaptive software and hardware, including use of a personalized style sheet for controlling row length and height, will aid students with various disabilities. Similarly, Internet Explorer's Tools Option menu allows the user to select settings that improve the presentation by meeting individual needs including selection of a personal style sheet.
Criterion 5A: Students with disabilities have current computer hardware, modems with speed adequate to handle the kind of presentations required in the course, and the most appropriate adaptive technology and display parameters.
Although students have the responsibility for maximizing the accessibility of course content and presentation through optimal use of their own hardware and software, course providers can assist the students by providing guidance and hints on accessibility. These can be published in course catalogs and on the institution's web page.
Criterion 5B: Course providers assist students by providing guidance and hints on improving accessibility through optimal use of students� hardware and software.
6. The student�s disability and degree of functional limitation
People with different disabilities - such as blindness, visual impairments, hearing impairments, motor impairments, and learning disabilities - should be able to participate in the course.
Criterion 6A: No student is disconnected from any part of the course due to his or her functional impairment.
FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE: A COURSE ON SUSTAINABLE ENVIRONMENTS
A course on Sustainable Environments serves as the pilot course in this project. Its construction, built on the educational theory presented earlier, is described in the following paragraphs. The basic principles of educational theory that determine technology to be used are followed. The description includes examples on how the course design meets the basics of the theoretical foundation and how the course meets the formulated criteria for accessibility.
Individual Student Learning Processes
The fundamental learning theory used in this project states that students must be encourage and supported in the use of their personal learning processes and in meeting their individual learning needs. To achieve this goal, it is essential that students understand how they learn and what their personal learning needs are (Bruner, 1996).
The course supports students� metacognition (criterion 1A). Materials and activities are designed to help students become conscious of their own learning processes. Students work collaboratively and are asked to focus on their own learning preferences. Students support each other on the web-based courseware system. To help students focus on their learning processes, they are provided a personal portfolio on the courseware system for reflection and for recording their thoughts. To develop their thoughts further, students then engage in a discussion forum. Students can choose how to participate in the learning environment and how to conduct course assignments and other activities. This option should result in use of the most appropriate learning environment and style. Course materials can be obtained in different media formats, a service that is necessary to ensure that obligatory course material is accessible to all students (criterion 2A, 2B).
Situated Learning, Identifying Problems, and Information Processing
In the information society, students must be able to identify a problem and know how and where to get specific and validated information. It is also important to know how to transform the selected material so that it fits the given context. The learning, then, is "situated," and the specific context for the learning is important to consider (Lave & Wenger, 1991).
Working with authentic problems requires students to sort and validate information and to identify key issues. Authentic problems also are based in a specific context. An example from the course on Sustainable Environments relates to the "City-Tunnel Case": The government has decided to build a train tunnel beneath Malm� city. Even after the decision is made, people in Malm� can still affect major issues that concern their living standard. Groups of students identify problems, collect and validate information about how the city tunnel will affect people living in a specific house, and how the people can take action to increase positive effects and to minimize negative effects. The task is to plan an information evening for the concerned residents of the house. The student groups freely choose how to present their plan for the evening.
As stated earlier, people learn through dialogue. The course promotes dialogue among students. An example can be drawn from the "Food in a Global Perspective" module. Students work collaboratively within a role-play activity about the use of land in Costa Rica. More and more rainforest land is being transformed into banana plantations leading to a conflict on how land should be used. Groups of students represent plantation owners, the government, the agricultural corporation, and the tourist industry. The groups try to find an acceptable solution to the problem following collection of information, group deliberations, and a debate of the various interests.
Course Providers� Approach
Students need to feel secure and self-confident if they are to ask course providers for help and to have a fruitful dialogue with them and with the other students. Course providers should have the ability to interact with students on their individual situations and learning processes so they can provide students individualized support (criterion 4A). As mentioned earlier, unexpected questions can be expected to arise during the course. The course providers must be flexible and prepared to make new decisions about how to improve students' learning situations (criterion 4B).
Student performance in the course is evaluated in three different ways.
First, student knowledge building is assessed both quantitatively and qualitatively. Quantitative information includes the number of notes posted on the courseware system by the student, the proportion of those that refer to notes posted by other students, and the total number of notes that the student opens. Qualitative information used in the assessment process includes analysis of a student's contributions posted to the courseware system. This analysis uses the four knowledge building principles created by Scardamaila (2000) and adapted by van Aalst and Chan (2001). They are:
- "Working at the cutting edge" refers to formulating problems that are not just of personal interest. The formulated problems should be of interest to the other group members and should advance the knowledge base of the group discussions.
- "Progressive problem solving" refers to the students� need to provide evidence for the times when their contributions have developed group ideas or thoughts to a deeper level.
- "Collaborative effort" refers to how often and in what way a student has supported other group members in their learning process. An example of this kind of support is reflected by queries of other students that lead to a better understanding of how to work with the problem.
- "Identifying highpoints in the discourse" is an analytical method where students are asked to identify their best contributions to the discourse while keeping their own learning process in mind.
The second assessment method relates to evaluation of the students� understanding of natural science. Students complete a pre- and post-test related to the course content. Their use of relevant scientific concepts during the work with the course are analyzed. This assessment process is based on the assumption that the use of concepts and the results from pre-test and post-test reflect the development of student understanding of natural science.
The third assessment process is comprised of analysis of the contributions made by the students to the collaborative activities.
Development of a Specific Courseware System
Project personnel are designing a specific courseware system for the pilot course on Sustainable Environments. Initially, project staff planned to acquire an existing courseware system to manage the delivery and communications for two pilot courses. Unfortunately, no system was found that met the requirements for the pilot courses. Several issues arose that led to the decision to design a new courseware system. First, no system that was evaluated met the level of accessibility required by the criteria previously established for the project. According to Harrison, Richards and Treviranus (2000), the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre at the University of Toronto encountered a similar problem when evaluating existing courseware systems. In their evaluation of courseware systems, Malm� staff found that some did not incorporate alternative text tags, and others had interface options that were unsatisfactory, and did not allow changes or modifications to be made.
A second issue that contributed to the decision to create a new courseware system related to the need to meet the theoretical foundation and the pedagogical methods planned for the first pilot course. The source code for courseware systems are seldom open, making it problematic to adapt a system for a specific course with its unique constellation of content, course providers, and individual and groups of students. Third, attention also had to be paid to language issues in both the courseware system and plug-in software. A courseware system designed for English, for example, would cause blind students to encounter problems with their screen reader software that would be set for the Swedish language used in the course. To avoid this problem, the courseware system should use the same language as the course content.
The courseware system is built on the basis of W3C�s guidelines for accessible web content  (criterion 3B) and it is possible to enroll in the course with out installing extra software except those which are normally needed to use and communicate via Internet (criterion 3A). Guidelines for the design of educational software developed by the CPB/WGBH National Center on Accessible Media  also is followed (criterion 2C). Excellent communication among staff programmers and individuals who have pedagogical responsibilities must exist during the process of designing the courseware system and the educational content. The pilot course uses different types of media (text, visual images, and audio) and various online tools (e-mail, discussion forums, synchronous chats, face-to-face meetings, and telephone communication). Project policy requires that all obligatory course content and activities are accessible to these students in at least one appropriate and accepted format (criterion 6A). Further, the course web site is to provide guidance on improving accessibility through optimal use of the students� software and hardware (criterion 5B).
The new courseware system has most of the features found in other popular systems: a log in system to ensure the students� identity and privacy, discussion forums, chat rooms, file upload opportunities, link galleries, and normal web pages with course-related content. The system's features support the social and cultural theory discussed earlier. Specifically, reflection, meta-cognition, collaboration and dialogue are supported in different ways. Students� individual contributions as well as contributions of groups are stored for subsequent reflections by both the contributor and course mates.
Course material is maintained in the system and distributed to specific students. Depending on the course activities, users may not receive the same material--during role-play activities, for instance. Access to the URLs in the link gallery also depends on who the user is and what the user is working on. Groups of students have the opportunity to create their own secure link gallery.
Design of a Virtual Library
Two librarians are developing a virtual library for students who participate in online distance studies. The primary purpose of the virtual library is to provide students enrolled in distance education courses the same support from the library in their education as students on campus receive. The virtual library provides the students with the following services:
- Information desk: Students have the opportunity to talk to a librarian and to obtain help on using a web-based information desk. The students can either chat with the librarian when the disk is open, or they can communicate with the librarian via e-mail.
- Support in information searches: The students can try to find information in different databases related to their interests on their own. The students also have the opportunity to take a course on information searches.
- Caf�; The University library in Malm� also serves a social function. In the web caf�, students can meet for social relationships.
- Course materials: Students can obtain course materials and references to other related materials.
The project is exploring the use of new technological media to support learning in higher education. Special attention is being given to facilitating the learning by students with disabilities through ensuring that all instructional materials, educational presentations, and collaborative learning experiences are designed from the outset to be fully accessible and usable. Criteria for accessibility were formulated and are being followed throughout the design and implementation processes.
Instructional materials and media that are considered to be accessible to students who have disabilities are not necessarily adequately usable in a learning context. For example, accessing instructional material using a courseware system might take much longer for a person with a disability than for someone without one. Students with disabilities are likely to drop out of a course when it is complicated or difficult too make contact with other students or with the course administrator.
The courseware system accessibility will be validated in several ways before the pilot course starts. A reference group comprised of people with different disabilities will test the functions in the courseware system. The validation procedures will include evaluation of the pre-defined methods students are expected to follow when working with the course.
The reference group will not only test the accessibility of the pre-defined way that students are expected to work with the course content, but they will also analyze how the courseware system is working for people with functional disabilities. They will simulate working with the course and test the functions of the system including the logging in procedure, discussion forums, and the link gallery. This analysis will aid the reference group in making suggestions on how to improve the course accessibility. The web designer, the programmers, and the developers of the educational content are instructed to consult with the reference group when they have questions about accessibility during the design phase of the course and the courseware system.
In the research, special attention is being given to how to ensure that students with different disabilities can participate fully in online collaborative learning activities. The process of enrolling in a course and handling its content raises issues that touch both technological and pedagogical perspectives.
Some of the research to be conducted in the project is based on the theory that learning is a social activity that is facilitated by the dialogue among students and their collaboration in problem solving work. This research will investigate how students use different tools (e.g., web-based newsgroups, chat rooms, voting systems, and the like); and how the students communicate with each other and with the course providers. The number of messages, those that enclose responses to other messages, support of other messages, and messages that the student has read, are subjects that will be studied in the project (Malmberg, 2001). The goals are to gain insight in how students take part in the course work, how they communicate, how they collaborate, and how they develop their understanding.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Malm� University is conducting a pilot project designed to study the development and testing of optimal methods for facilitating learning through the use of information technology by all students, including those with disabilities. The project is based on learning theory that promotes dialogue among students. The collaborative learning process may present barriers to full access by some students with disabilities. To address these issues, criteria for assessing course accessibility have been developed and will be used to assess the course content, access to course materials, collaborative activities, and the courseware used to present and store course materials.
Issues of accessibility must be addressed at all points of course development and presentation: development of course content and materials, construction of the computer courseware system, media used for student collaboration, course assessment instruments, and the design of an online virtual library. Accessibility of online education is the responsibility of course developers, course providers, and the students themselves.
Data from a post-course assessment will be used to refine the process of designing accessible courses. The pre-established assessment criteria will be used in the analysis. Course providers and students will be asked to rate the accuracy of each criterion on a one-to-five point scale.
Project personnel are convinced that the design of pedagogically strong and fully accessible online distance education courses is both essential and feasible. Research of this type should be applied to other pedagogic approaches so that the future use of educational technology online and in classrooms will provide all students optimal learning environments.
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