IDRC - Celebrating 25 Years

1993 - 2018

Continuing Our Work During COVID-19

Read the letter regarding COVID-19 by IDRC Director, Jutta Treviranus.

Jutta Treviranus, University of Toronto


Incentives for Computer-Mediated Information Exchange
What information exchange has become computer mediated?
What are the access issues with computer mediated information exchange?
Electronic Text
Video Conferencing, Shared Computer Workspaces and 3D Virtual Reality Interfaces
New Accommodations in Higher Education

"Electronic Communications have the marvelous capacity to democratize human communications and to facilitate equal participation regardless of gender, race, or disability" Katherine Durack


The primary activity conducted at any University is information exchange. Traditional methods of exchanging information are highly dependent on both the sender\'s and receiver\'s ability to hear, see, manipulate objects and get about campuses. An ever increasing amount of information exchange on campus is computer mediated. Because many accomodations for students with print impairments or other disabilities are computer based, this trend can make the educational process more accessible.

Some computer mediated exchanges, by their very nature, are more accessible. For example, tutorials using an electronic bulletin board can provide equal access to students who are deaf or students who are non-speaking. Some information exchange is more accessible because compatible alternative-computer-access systems have been developed. Thus class reference materials on disk can be read by a student who is blind using a screen reader, without the need for a scanner and optical character recognition program.

Unfortunately the development of alternative access systems frequently lags far behind mainstream technology innovations. For this reason the latest trends in computer mediated education, (e.g., transmission of multimedia, video conferencing, and shared computer workspace) may be just as inaccessible as traditional teaching methods. However, because the computer offers flexibility in terms of input, output and processing of information it can be argued that putting the information in computer readable form is one step to making it accessible to students who require alternative input methods, translated or reprocessed information or alternative output modes.

Whether positive or negative from an equal access perspective, the shift in teaching tools and methods of information exchange demands a profound shift in the types of accommodations required by students with disabilities. Opinions, preferences, policies and guidelines on computer mediated communication in higher education are largely unformed. This is a good time to advocate for integrated accommodations for all users. In order to effectively contribute to the reshaping of the campus those interested in accessible higher education must be well informed about the range of new technologies, as well as any barriers to participation and possible methods of overcoming the barriers.

One area yet to be negotiated is the extent to which accommodations or access features will be incorporated in the information technology itself rather than in the student\'s personal access system. Frequently accommodations for students with disabilities have benefits for students and faculty as a whole. Displaying information in more than one mode constitutes good teaching practice, not just special accommodation. Captioning can serve as a method of record-keeping. Choosing a multiple window video-conferencing system which can display text as well as video has advantages for more than the student with a hearing impairment.

Universities are centers of research and development. Strong advocacy for inclusion will heighten the awareness of the university community to the challenges faced by students with disabilities. This is bound to result in the dedication of greater expertise and resources to meeting the challenges.

Incentives for Computer-Mediated Information Exchange

Although computer mediated education is unlikely to take over traditional teaching, there are a number of incentives, quite apart from the access benefits, which make it attractive to institutions of higher learning. These include: Pedagogy:These is a shift in learning theory which encourages cooperative learning coupled with learner directed education. A networked computer environment is conducive to these processes. Through computer mediated instruction it is also easier to address the different learning styles of the students. Students are given the flexibility to learn at their own pace.Economics:A larger amount of information can be transmitted over a computer network, to a larger group of learners, and with a smaller time investment, than through traditional means.Convenience:On-line interaction need not be dictated by time and location.Speed:It is far faster to send e-mail to a colleague than to print out a memo and send it via campus mail, or to send an assignment to the entire class via e-mail than to photocopy and handout multiple copies during class. Related to all of the above is the issue of distance education. Universities are recognizing their responsibility to accommodate the " new majority" student which includes students in remote areas or mature students who may be employed (not to mention the economic benefits). Computer mediated education is a natural media.


No transition escapes negative repercussions or disincentives. Computer mediated information exchange requires physical, economic and cultural access to a computer system. Those without any one of these may be excluded. As computers become less expensive, easier to use and a more customary part of our culture, these effects will lessen.

It can also be argued that computer mediated communication lessens human contact and increases isolation. Others would argue that it opens additional channels of interaction thereby decreasing isolation.

Some students have difficulty communicating and learning through writing. Use of multimedia may accommodate the needs of this group of students.

Students with disabilities may feel compelled to enroll in classes which offer computer mediated instruction rather than pursuing their personal interests. The prevalence of computer mediated instruction and information exchange may also reduce pressure to provide other accommodations. Both of these risks highlight the need to offer all students a range of feasible choices.

What information exchange has become computer mediated?

Many Universities provide the option of performing administrative tasks over a computer network or modem. These tasks include obtaining information about course availability, registering for courses, changing courses or updating university records. This is much more convenient for all students than standing in line and running from one office to another during prescribed office hours. It has obvious advantages for a student with a mobility, visual or hearing impairment.

Many libraries are now offering a large range of titles in electronic text form, whether over a network or on CD ROM. Electronically searching for information in a reference publication can be far faster than manually searching. Libraries are also assisting researchers in learning to use the Internet and remote databases to obtain information.

Some text book stores are using document on demand systems to produce both custom course packs and standard texts. The documents are produced by scanning in hardcopy from various sources, combining it with electronic files provided by the instructor, organizing the material and printing it on a DocuTech printer when requested by a customer. The documents are in TIFF format before being printed. Processing these files using an optical character recognition program would require minimal additional effort and provide e-text files for students with print impairments and faculty who wish to further edit their course paks.

A larger number of instructors are experimenting with fully networked, virtual or on-line classes. Students log into the class either from a computer at home, a remote satellite class, or a public terminal site at the university. These classes or seminars may be conducted in real time or as topic specific electronic conferences where messages are exchanged within a much larger time frame. Edward Barret describes these classes as " a \'virtual\' space that exists not only within four walls during scheduled class time but also outside those limits, to be invoked anytime, anywhere, by any class member, to suit his or her educational needs." Lectures or seminars are delivered, class discussion is conducted, assignments are given and handed in and readings and course materials are handed out over the network. Frequently these classes are used to share and critique student compositions or to cooperatively produce student work. The classes can tap into the vast resources of the Internet, resourcing experts from around the world and hosting " guest speakers" who would not be available to talk to traditional classes. Studies have found that these classes encourage much more democratic interchange. A much larger proportion of students participate. Because time constraints are de-emphasized many more communicative turns are taken and topics are explored more thoroughly. Outside resources or information necessary to the discussion can be accessed during the class. Class members who are shy or unassertive are more likely to participate. Frequently tutorials are conducted in the same manner. If all information exchanged is in electronic-text form students who are hearing impaired or speech impaired can usually participate on an equal basis. Classes are also easier to " get to" for students with mobility impairments.

Extra-curricular campus activities are also occurring over networks or bulletin boards. Thus chess clubs, political lobby groups, student councils, or debate clubs frequently conduct their business over a computer network.

What are the access issues with computer mediated information exchange?

Computer-mediated information exchange can be very roughly divided into three categories: 1) electronic text; 2) multi-media and graphical user interfaces; and 3) the loose grouping of realtime, video conferencing, shared computer workspaces and 3D virtual reality interfaces. Each category presents a different set of access issues and requires a different set of accommodations.

Electronic Text

Presently exchanges of electronic text are the most accessible. Alternative methods of entering, manipulating and translating text to audio or large print are well worked out and readily available. Three issues remain: file format compatibility, compatibility of alternative access systems with the information technology used and copyright issues. Numerous papers and resources address the issues of accessible computer labs or public terminals and software/hardware compatibility. The issue of copyright needs to be addressed by the entire e-text market. The perspective of consumers with print impairments needs to be included in the negotiations. The intricacies of copyright issues related to e-text are beyond the scope of this paper.

Efforts are underway to address the issue of compatible file formats. Each platform (MacIntosh vs. IBM vs. UNIX) or application program (Word Perfect vs. Microsoft Word) produces and reads it\'s own file format. When files are taken to their lowest common denominator, namely ASCII, they can be imported to most application programs but all of the structural information is stripped out. Several groups are pushing for standardized methods of specifying the non-text information in a file. One popular standard is SGML or Standard Generalized Markup Language. SGML prescribes a standard set of markup tags to specify the structure versus the content of a document. ICADD or the International Committee on Accessible Document Design has designed a set of markup tags which provide additional information required by people who are print impaired. SGML and the ICADD DTD (Data tag template) are yet to be widely used by electronic information providers or interpreted by alternative access systems. If this standard is adopted it will address issues of file format incompatibility.


Graphical user interfaces, while making the computer interface more natural and accessible for the general user, make it less accessible for students who cannot use visual information and students who cannot control pointing devices or who access the computer using indirect access methods (scanning, Morse code). Multimedia introduces sounds and images inaccessible to students with visual or hearing impairments.

A larger proportion of communications and educational software uses a graphical user interface and includes multimedia. Access barriers presented by this type of interface include the following.

  • A large amount of information is graphically or visually presented.
  • There is no consistent screen architecture or logical sequencing of items on a screen, making it difficult to predict where to direct attention.
  • Information is presented simultaneously making it difficult to interpret using Braille or speech or access using scanning, which are all highly serial.
  • GUI\'s require emulation of the mouse as well as the keyboard.
  • Tones, sounds and speech are used to convey critical information.
Work is underway by several groups who are investigating access to graphical user interfaces and multimedia. These include the Trace Centre in Wisconsin, the European Project on Access to Graphical User Interfaces by Blind People, in Europe and the Hugh MacMillan Rehabilitation Centre, among others. The International Committee on Accessible Document Design has taken on the task of producing standards for multimedia.

The message to software/hardware designers, instructors and those making purchasing decisions is:

  • All information should be presented in several modes. Thus all audio should be captioned or duplicated visually. All visually displayed information such as video, graphics or icons should be duplicated or described using speech or text.
  • There should be keyboard equivalents for all pointing device inputs.
  • Interface standards should be adhered to to insure that alternative access systems are compatible.
Interfaces are presently under development which will give students who are blind access to spatial and essentially pictographic information. These include 2D audio displays, haptic displays and tactile displays.

Video Conferencing, Shared Computer Workspaces and 3D Virtual Reality Interfaces

The access challenges presented by the third type of computer mediated information exchange require the most creative solutions. Access to this type of interface is made difficult by the fact that information is transmitted in real time, depends upon all senses and is largely unpredictable. Thus accommodations must be provided in real time. At present this means real-time audio captioning and video description. Accommodations which can be provided by the system rather than a human intervener include:
  • The capability to use replacement gestures for all gestural inputs.
  • Modal redundancy for all computer generated feedback (e.g., 2D or 3D tones to duplicate lines drawn on a electronic blackboard, tactile feedback as well as visual feedback in VR systems).
  • Multiple windows to display predictable text such as outlines, or agendas as well as video and real-time captioning.
Two technologies which are still in the experimental or even conceptual stage may offer greater access in the future. The first is speaker independent, continuous speech recognition and transcription. Numerous market forces which have nothing to do with equal access are motivating this development.

Computer based interpretation of video is the second. Video processing technology has been used for feature detection and gesture recognition in other applications. This same technology could be used to make visual information transmitted through video conferencing available to people who are blind or sight impaired. Thus the system can be trained to recognize when someone walks into the room, raises their hand, smiles, frowns, makes nervous movements with their hands, nods or shakes their head, looks away etc. A protocol could be set up whereby at the beginning of each session participants raise their hand and say their name. Participants would then be " tagged" by the system. A digital tablet could be used to selectively " look" at each participant by moving a hand over their location. Feedback could be spoken or communicated through various user specified sounds, tones or music. This may be preferable to spoken feedback as it demands or prompts a lower level of awareness and therefore more closely mimics the non-linguistic communicative signals it is translating.

New Accommodations in Higher Education

In order to make the electronic campus more accessible a number of services and tasks must be performed. These include the following. Current Information Directory:Students, staff and faculty require assistance in finding, keeping current and navigating through information related to access. This information would include listings of texts or course materials available in accessible formats, media used in courses, available alternative access systems, accessible computer labs or public terminals, extra-curricular bulletin boards or listserves, and available resources or accessible information sources.Policy and Guidelines for Purchasing:The university must be assisted in making decisions which do not adversely affect staff, students and faculty who have disabilities. To this end clear information and guidelines must be made available and presented to the decision makers.Education:Courses should be available to faculty on how to provide course material in e-text form and how to provide accessible instruction. Computer users with disabilities should be given instruction in how to access computer mediated information exchange, including e-text, the Internet and computer mediated instruction. Wherever possible these services should be integrated with related services provided to the general university population.


More and more tasks on the university campus are becoming computer mediated. This shift significantly effects students who use alternative formats and students with mobility or speech impairments. Individuals concerned with equal access must be prepared for the changing needs so that can we insure that accessibility is considered in the electronic reconstruction of the university campus?


Barrett, Edward, 1993. Collaboration in the Electronic Classroom. Technology Review. Vol. 96, pp 50-55.

Coombs, Norman, 1992. Online Education Means Equal Access. Proceedings of the 1992 Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, Los Angeles, CA.

Hiltz, Starr Roxanne, 1988. Collaberative Learning in a Virtual Classroom: Highlights of Findings. Proceedings of ACM CSCW\'88 Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, 282-290.

Holden, M., Mitchell, W., 1993. The future of computer-mediated communication in higher-education. Educom Review. Vol. 28, 2.

Kershner, George, 1992. International Standards Committee on Computer Based Documents for Persons with Print Disabilities. Proceedings of the 1992 Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, Los Angeles, CA.

Shein, F., Treviranus, J., Hamann, G., Galvin, R., Milner, M. (1992). "New direction in visual keyboards for graphical user interfaces. " Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Conference, Technology and Persons with Disabilities, Los Angelos.

Vanderheiden, Gregg, 1992. Full visual annotation of auditorially presented information for users who are deaf: ShowSounds. Proceedings of the RESNA International \'92 Conference, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Vanderheiden, G., Anderson, T., Mendenhall, J., Ford, K., 1992. A Two-Class Information Model for Access to Computers and Information Systems by People Who Are Blind. Proceedings of the RESNA International \'92 Conference, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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