Coping with Accessibility and Usability Challenges of Online Technologies by Blind Students in Higher Education

Coping with Accessibility and Usability Challenges of Online Technologies by Blind Students in Higher Education

Samuel Muwanguzi (University of North Texas, USA) and Lin Lin (University of North Texas, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-483-3.ch016
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Abstract

This study examined the usability challenges and emotional reactions blind college students experienced in accessing educational materials and communicating with professors and colleagues through online technologies. A case study approach was adopted. Five students were interviewed regarding their online learning experiences using Blackboard, a popular Course Management System. Analysis of the interviews revealed that the blind students found Blackboard poorly accessible, which affected their academic achievements. However, despite their frustrations and feelings of marginalization, the study also showed that the blind students were motivated and optimistic of their successes. The research suggests that academic administrators and CMS designers work jointly with adaptive software developers to create enhanced user interfaces, ensure universal access and usability of online technologies, and reduce educational inequities and frustrations encountered by blind students.
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Introduction

According to the Sloan Consortium and the Babson Survey Research Group, a total of 5.6 million college students in the United States were taking at least one online class during the 2009 fall semester (Allen & Seaman, 2010; Kaya, 2010). There were one million more online students during the fall 2009 than during the fall 2008, with the number being the highest ever annual increase in online enrollment. This number is astonishing when one looks at the increasing speed of online enrollment in higher education in the past few years. For instance, during the fall of 2007, the Sloan Consortium reported that over 3.9 million college students in the United States, representing over 20% of the total student population were taking at least one online course; a 12 percent increase over the number reported the previous year (Allen & Seaman, 2008).

With the increasing popularity of online or blended courses, course management systems (CMS) such as Blackboard have become the essential platform for communication and learning in higher education. Blackboard, the term used in this chapter to represent the 2008 and 2009 versions of the Blackboard Learning System, WebCT, or Blackboard/WebCT Vista, is one of the most widely-adopted CMSs by the U.S. postsecondary institutions and it “has become the Microsoft of higher-education technology” (Young, 2008, p. A1). While CMSs are vital media used for instruction and communication, information access in these complex and highly visual virtual environments can be problematic for the blind or visually impaired students who are dependent on adaptive software for web navigation.

Adaptive software is a general term used to refer to computer applications used by people with disabilities to access and retrieve electronic information from computers (Lazaro, 2001). Although referred to as adaptive software, they are only adaptive to specific environments for which they are designed. Consequently, their functionality is limited. While research on web-based distance education has found that sighted students persistently endure frustrations in their computing tasks (Hara & Kling, 1999), studies focusing on blind student populations engaged in web-based learning has been largely overlooked.

The purpose of this study, therefore, was to examine the accessibility and usability challenges of online technologies that are experienced by blind college students. Through this examination, we hope to better understand the impact of online technologies on the blind students’ pursuits for their academic goals.

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