Issues in Digital Technology in Education/Accessibility and Usability

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What is Web Accessibility?

Web accessibility in an extension of the inclusion movement whereby all components within society and the environment in which we live are available and readily accessible to everyone, including people with a disability. “It is essential that the Web be accessible in order to provide equal access and equal opportunity to people with disabilities.” (WAI, p.2)

"The potential of the Internet is access for anyone to anything from anywhere at anytime." (Wall & Sarver, 2003, p. 1) In the age of technology, the internet has opened up the world to everyone, in particular for those individuals with a disability. The internet has provided unprecedented opportunities for individuals to access information, make life choices and improve the quality of life. According to Berry (1998) “the Web is becoming an everyday part of life for many people” (p.1).

Magnitude of the Issue

According to Statistics Canada (2006) there are 4.4 millions Canadians (1 in 7) with a disability. Disability is multi-faceted and can include a visual or auditory impairment, physical limitations, cognitive issues, speech impairment, a neurological issue and/or multiple diagnoses. Not all individuals with a disability encounter issues when using the internet or other forms of technology, however a significant number require some type of assistance.

World Wide Web Consortium

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was established in the 1990s to serve as the governing body for the web. The Web Accessibility Initiative, stemming from the W3C, was established in 1997 for the purpose of promoting web functionality for people with disabilities and establishing accessibility guidelines for use by web developers. (Introduction to Web Accessibility (n.d.))

Students with a Disability and Postsecondary Education

For students with a disability the issue of access to education has become very important, in particular access in relation “to the environment of the Internet” (Rowland, 2000, p.1). According to Rowland (2000), “the web is a fundamental tool in postsecondary education” (p.3). Rowland (2000) further adds that “the intent of postsecondary education is to help prepare an educated citizenry to become participatory, productive members of our country’s workforce and society” (p.3). If the internet is not accessible to students with a disability then it limits the student experience and the capacity to learn and succeed.

Wall and Sarver (2003) stated that “a postsecondary education is no longer a luxury of the wealth but a necessity for anyone who wants to enjoy a decent lifestyle” (p.282). In 2005, the Government of Ontario implemented the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Within this legislation, all businesses and organizations, including institutions of higher learning will be required to eliminate all barriers which limit accessibility. (Government of Ontario, 2005)

Educational administrators need to be aware of the legal, economic and social ramifications for not providing access to barrier-free educational opportunities. Administrators and students alike must work together to ensure that an accessible education includes appropriate access to the internet. As stated by Wall and Sarver (2003) “Use of the internet means access to a world of information. Thus, it is important that students with disabilities have the same access to the internet as other students.” (p.278)


Berry, Jonathan (n.d.). Apart or a part? Access to the internet by visually impaired and blind people, with particular emphasis on assistive technology and use perceptions. Retrieved May 28, 2008, from Rochester Institute of Technology Web site,

Government of Ontario (2008). About the accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act, 2005. Toronto: Ministry of Community and Social Services.

Introduction to Web Accessibility (n.d.). Retrieved June 6, 2008, from http://www.w3org.WAI/intro/accissibility.php.

Introduction to Web Accessibility (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2008, from

Rowland, Cyndi (2000). Accessibility of the internet in postsecondary education: Meeting the challenge. Retrieved June 1, 2008, from WebAIM Web site,

Statistics Canada (2007). Participation and activity limitation survey. The Daily. Retrieved May 26, 2008, from

Wall, P.S. and Sarver, Lee (2003). Disabled student access in an era of technology. Internet and Higher Education, 6, 277-284.

Tools and Parameters for the Design of Accessible Web Sites

“The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” Tim Berners-Lee

In this Web 2.0 environment, attention (and criticism) has turned to how design of online environment must be aware of the diverse needs of the segment of users with disabilities. Of late, there has been a deluge of academic papers on this subject offering many solutions to this social and technological challenge. “Technological” because it is often that assistive technology is required to overcome the lack of access for disabled users.

““Technical accessibility is not enough to make a website easy to use. The real question is whether users can get what they want from a website in a reasonable amount of time and whether the visit is pleasant for them. Users with disabilities are human and need easy and simple user interfaces just like anybody else.” Jakob Nielsen

When considering the creating and designing of accessible website, the designer(s) must consider the following criteria in order to evaluate and finally measure, the approachability and usability of the site:

• Content • Organization and Navigation • Performance • Compatibility • Interaction • Visual Design

To define the word design, one must be aware that in the online environment, design needs to be considered from the following points of view:

• Graphic design: Visual communication of information • Information design: Identifying groups of related content; structuring info into a coherent whole • Navigation design: Designing methods of finding one’s way around the info structure • User interface design/Info Architecture: Primarily, the design of navigation systems; combination of info design and navigation design

And in some cases,

• User experience design: More esoteric design based on the psychology of online consumer behaviour and buying habits

Examples of sites who have employees responsible for this burgeoning area of design include: Amazon, EBay, Apple, Nike, Mercedes-Benz, Mac Cosmetics, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and other category leaders that rely on a personal relationship sell and corresponding user loyalty.

Tools of Web Design

The majority of web deign is conducted using a small cadre of the actual software available. They include, but are not limited to:

• Macromedia Director, Flash • Adobe IllustratorPhotoshop • Dreamweaver • Visio • BBEdit

Further, the range of products that can be used for specific needs and areas of customization is almost limitless and includes many other nascent digital tools.

Assistive technologies to permit a range of disabled persons to interact with websites are now available and have revolutionized the impact with the disabled segment. Visually impaired, hearing impaired and many other users who have up until now, been marginalized because of a lack of creative and technological vision, are expecting to be able to use most major web sites who have seized the opportunity to attract and retain new customers/users.

“In most projects, accessibility has fairly low priority because project managers underestimate the number of people who are impacted by design problems…” Jakob Nielsen

The revenue generated by this group of people, by online participation, is estimated in the billions (See Danielle Chateau’s posted presentation on accessibility for citation.). Partly due to this progress is being made on a number of fronts when analyzing online communications for disabled users. However, of concern to note anecdotally, in the 2nd edition of the very popular series “Web Design For Dummies”, there is absolutely no mention of accessibility and/or usability in the entire 316-page book. This indicates a significant disconnect between what many governments have mandated (President Clinton’s online accessibility bill, for example) and the marketplace in general. In time, I have confidence that this will change. The most powerful force in today’s society–the consumer– will demand it.

Citations & Sources

Lopuck, L., Web Design For Dummies, Hungry Minds, Inc. New York, 2001.

Newman, M. W., and Landay, J. A., Sitemaps, Storyboards, and Specifications: A Sketch of Web Site Design Practice, Group For User Interface Research, 2000, (263 – 274)

Nielsen, J., Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity. Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing, 2000.

Taylor, M. T., Salces, F. S., Duffy, A. P., Teaching web site design: science or art? Journal of Further and Higher Education, Vol. 29, No. 4, Nov. 2005 (331 – 340)

Walker, K., Theoretical Foundations for Website Design Courses, Technical Communication Quarterly, Winter 2002, Vol. 11 No. 1 (61 – 83)

Wang, F., Hannafin, M. J., Design-based research and technology-enhanced learning environments, Educational Technology Research and Development, Volume 53, Number 4 / December, 2005, (5-23)

The Reality of Internet Filtering/Blocking

By G. Chabrol.

While every educator will agree that the value of the computer and the Internet as an educational aid to learning is no longer debatable, there remain grave concerns about how much inappropriate material is on the Internet and how best to avoid it reaching students. As students become more computer savvy, this situation becomes more acute as they soon find ways to access it anyway. Besides the social (communication) and political (freedom of speech) ramifications of this issue, an additional problem is that digital technology is not static. It is constantly evolving, changing and expanding. As soon as a solution protocol is found, the technology improves and the issue of filtering is exacerbated. But is Internet filtering/blocking desirable? The overwhelming point of view in the literature suggests that it is not desireable.

The issue is succinctly stated by T. A. Callister Jr. et el. In, Just Give It To Me Straight: A Case Against Filtering The Internet:

“One of the most controversial and contentious issues surrounding the use of new information and communication technologies, especially in schools and libraries, is whether or not authorities should filter students’ access to the Internet. Like other kinds of “filter”, Internet filters keep out “bad” content while allowing “good” content to pass through (Callister et el.2004).

Callaister et el. Agrees that every parent has a right to monitor what their children are exposed to on the Internet and television. But “Schools and libraries, on the other hand, have a wider educational responsibility to expose students to a broader rang of ideas, experiences and point of views” (Callister et el.). More schools than ever are being equipped with computers with access to the internet. This is both a good thing and a problematic in other ways. It is good for the purpose of education and learning as students are hooked up to the world and there is no limit to research potential. Conversely, they can and will in all likelihood be exposed to inappropriate material, often unsolicited. It then must fall on the teacher/school to ensure a secure screening method is used. They must screen for content and be aware of the Board’s policies on this matter. Many Boards for instance have policies prohibiting the use of inappropriate language, hate material, racist comments, sexism, etc.

There are any numbers of ways to do this. For instance, computers in the lab/class could be blocked by the teacher to certain sites which are deemed inappropriate. Or, the computer could be loaded only with specific material peculiar to the curriculum thus excluding the need to use the internet. Some schools use site licenses to load DVD’s and run all programmes from it. Alternatively, where Boards of education may have their own servers, as many of them do today, access to certain sites are blocked centrally. What level of access is desired is determined by such things as grade level and Board policy. However, the practice of denial of access is a controversial issue. For instance, as noted in her book, “Access Denied”, Lynn Sutton (2006), from as far back as 2000, “the Commission On Online Child Protection presented its final report (COPA, 200) to the congress” (Sutton, p.11). Essentially, “The report stated that the best internet filtering technologies can be highly effective in directly blocking access to content that is harmful to minors, but noted that there are significant concerns about first amendment issues when filters are used in libraries and schools” (Sutton, p.11). By and large, “the vast majority of content is blocked because it is sexually explicit, though chat rooms, email and software downloads are also formats that are commonly blocked” (Sutton, p.11).

In 2004, L.B Ayre conducted a study that also looked at the status of filtering technology (Sutton, p.11). He noted that filters used several methods for blocking data: word blocking…and site blocking, which matches URLs against a list of predetermined sites (Rosenburg, 2001) (Sutton, p.11). Another commission to study the use of Internet filtering technology was the Committee to Study Tools and Strategies for Protecting Kids from Pornography and Their Applicability to Other Inappropriate Internet Content” of the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Resource Council” (Sutton, p.11). They found that “due to the nature of filters, ‘underblocking’ and ‘overblocking’ errors are inevitable” (Sutton, p.11). Based on this study, one of their findings was that “while the issue of underblocking and overblocking should not, in and of in itself, rule out filters as a useful tool, the extent of underblocking and overblocking is a significant factor in understanding and deciding the use of filter” (Sutton, p.12) (Thornburg ). They further noted legal challenges to government – mandated filters focused primarily on underblocking and overblocking problems” (Sutton, p.12). But perhaps their more telling conclusion is that “social and educational strategies”, more than technologies are most useful. (Sutton, p.12)

At the same time, schools, perhaps motivated among other things, by the fear of liable suites, are increasingly installing filtering technology ostensibly for the protection of students. For instance, “since 2001, the children internet protection act requires schools receiving the federal communication commissions universal service e-rate discount to install “technology protection measures” (i.e. filters) on computers with internet access” (Sutton, p.12). Because of this action, “according to Cattague and Farris (2001), the e-rate program has been largely responsible for the increase in internet access in public schools” (Sutton, p.12). This notwithstanding, Sutton argues, the individual rights to free speech remains important and would be challenged if the government should impose limits. The advantages of filters in school libraries was studied by Josh (2001), Powell and Bailey (1999). They found that the reduced chances of a student accessing “inappropriate material must be balanced against the knowledge that any kind of commercial filter will almost certainly block appropriate material, with a corresponding risk of violating students’ “first amendment right” (Sutton, p.13). This position is not unanimous however. According to some speech advocates such as Callister and Burbules, (2003); Knanich (2004) and Willard, (2003), they are quite open in their assertion that using filters are over-protective and “damaging in the long run” (Sutton, p.12).

All of this is not lost on the students. As more students become technologically savvy, they are becoming increasingly more frustrated with limitations on their Internet access in schools” (Sutton, p.13). Levin and Arafeh (2000) conducted studies that looked at the attitudes and behaviours of students using the Internet in schools. In their work, they used qualitative methods to describe these students’ reactions. They summarize the frustration by students this way: “while many students recognize the need and or desire to shelter teenagers from inappropriate material and adult-orientated commercial ads, they complain that blocking and filtering software raise significant barriers to their legitimate, educational use of the internet” (p.19) (Sutton, p.13).

In her book, “Access Denied”, Lynn Sutton (2006), noted “[B]ecause of the legal controversies surrounding the Children’s Internet Protection Act in recent years, the literature has been filled with various kinds of studies and opinion pieces on the effectiveness of filters” (p.13). She noted that the Kaiser study that is reported in Richardson, et el., 2002, looked at the differences that filters made in removing a large amount of harmless material (p.13). The authors of this study focussed their attention on adolescents’ use of the Internet for health reasons. “The objective of the study was to measure how much pornography-blocking software used in schools and libraries limits access to health information Web sites” (p.13). They found that:

“The use of filtering software in public schools is of special concern, because adolescents’ health concerns often focus on issues related to sexuality, and because those who do not have computers at home rely on schools and libraries for Internet access (p. 2888) (p.15).

The author (of this study) also stated that there is a “surprising lack of empirical studies on blocking errors” (p.15). As a methodology, they used simulations of searching of health information questions. What they found was surprising. “The results showed only minimal overblocking of litigitimate health sites at the “least restrictive” level, but significantly more overblocking at the “most restrictive” level”. (Sutton, p.14). They also noted that the amount of overblocking varied according to the topic, but such topics as “safe sex’ was blocked much more extensively than others such as breast cancer, for instance. These findings prompted the authors of the study to put forth the following warning: There may be principled reasons why some schools or libraries choose to block more than pornography, including some kinds of health information. These decisions, however, should be viewed as important policy decisions and not mere technical configuration issues to be left to network administrators” (p. 2893).

The importance of this argument is emblematic of the discourse in this field. For instance, as Sutton (2006) points out, “in a statement to the Kaiser Study, noted free speech activist Nancy Williard (2002) emphasized the dangers of oveblocking at the most restrictive level and states “this study clearly demonstrates the concerns about placing reliance on filtering software” (p.3). Countering this position, H. Auld, author of the article “Filters work: Get over it” in American Libraries (2003) believes that he study’s findings indicated that filters, when operated at their least restricted setting, posed only a minor impediment to searching for health information (for instance)” (Sutton, p.15) Another impediment to access is that schools that implement internet blocking software will block at a minimum tens of thousands of sites inappropriately because the Web pages are miscategorised (p.15). So in effect, “the level of filter settings can be identified as a key element in the overall effectiveness of a filtering program”(Sutton, p.15).

So in conclusion, although Internet filtering/blocking software has been subjected to some intellectual scrutiny in recent years, it is fair to say that, given that there is no clear consensus on its usability, and given that the proliferation of inappropriate material is not likely to end any time soon, a good deal more needs to be done if a viable solution is to be found. In all likelihood, total agreement on this issue will not be found as the issue is too complex. But whatever is developed, a crucial caveat must be adhered to according to Kaiser. He warns “Any complete discussion of the literature on filtering technology must include an accounting of legal challenges to government-ordered restrictions on Internet speech” (p.16). As is agreed by all, protection of our children is crucial. How we go about doing this remains the challenge.

Bibliography. Auld, H. (2003). Filters work: Get over it. American Libraries, 34(2)

Callister Jr. T. A., Burbules, Nicholas C. Phi Delta Kappan, Bloominton, (May 2004), Vol 85.

Kaiser, W. A. (2000, Fall). The use of Internet filters in public schools: Double click on the Constitution. Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, 34(1).

Sutton, Lynn, (2006), Access Denied: How Internet filters Impact Student Learning in High Schools. Cambria Press.