Online learning can be an enabling experience for disabled students, giving opportunities for learning and participation that they might not otherwise have had (Pearson, 2006). However, this can only happen if the learning activities and resources are designed to be accessible. While there are legal, moral and ethical reasons for making learning materials including online resources accessible to disabled students, teaching staff may not be aware of these requirements, may not consider making learning materials accessible to be part of their remit, and cannot always appreciate the difficulties experienced by disabled students. This project set out to examine the potential of accessibility simulations to raise awareness, to help staff appreciate these barriers and to encourage them to adopt inclusive online practices, which as a consequence could offer an improved learning experience for disabled students.
Although a number of web accessibility simulations are available, feedback indicates that simulations designed specifically to reflect the educational context are required. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) the most prevalent disability types that may affect a student’s interactions with the computer are: dyslexia; sensory impairments; mental health difficulties and mobility difficulties (HESA Statistics, 2004-2005). A number of simulations, based on typical online learning activities and representing cognitive, physical and sensory impairments, are being developed by the Accessibility Research Centre at the University of Teesside. The purpose of our research is to explore the motivational aspects of simulations in supporting professional development activities for staff involved in teaching disabled students. The simulations will be trialed in the context of a series of staff development workshops on creating accessible online learning resources.
Simulations as a learning tool
Simulations are increasingly being used in education to support learning and increase learners’ motivation. Colella (2000) suggests that the use of simulations, particularly in the field of game play and business management, is effective as a motivational strategy that promotes learning. Simulations encourage interactivity and through it, learners develop rules which they apply in real world situations. Fun simulations create memorable experiences that stimulate the mind. People play and learn from them without being compelled to, while they encourage a more playful approach to a topic. Without realizing it, they develop and internalise rules for success that they can intuitively apply in the real-world (Glass-Husain, 2005). Simulations are potentially more valuable when learners can interact with the system, rather than simply observing the simulations in action.
Simulations used as educational tools can be categorized as inanimate (offline) simulations which are developed offline and the results input to a system, or live (online) simulations where the user interacts with the system, and it can be modified and affects the behaviour of the model in the same way they would with a real system (Nahvi, 1997). The disability simulations developed in this study fall into the latter category.
Motivational aspect of simulations and their effectiveness on learning
Motivation is the internal process that gives behaviour its energy and direction (Deci & Ryan, 1985) and can be seen as the learners’ desire to participate in the learning process. Motivation plays a major role in any learning activity and, as a result, it is the key for effective learning (Dweck, 1986). A number of studies have reported the motivational aspects of simulations and their impact on learning, for example Colella (2000), Choi and Johnson (2005), Howell (2005) and Lee and Lee (2005).
Simulations for accessibility awareness
Accessibility simulations can give an understanding of the effect a disability may have on the way people access web sites. It is important to note that these activities do not simulate the disability itself, rather they simulate the effect that it may have on a person’s interactions with the computer. They can be seen as a disability awareness tool, which could promote better understanding of barriers to access and help participants develop self confidence in supporting people with disabilities. Empirical evidence suggests that while activities simulating particular disabilities do not always facilitate the development of positive attitudes towards disabled people, when simulation is combined with other learning methods it can result in positive perceptions towards disabled people (Herbert, 2000).
A number of simulations that simulate the experience of people with different disabilities have when accessing the web have been developed, for example, by WebAIM (Figure 1) and the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) (Figure 2). However, the availability of simulations specifically designed to reflect the academic online learning environment is limited. The WebAIM and DRC simulations have been used in accessibility workshops and courses at the University of Teesside as part of a suite of activities designed to raise awareness of disability issues, create an empathy with the disabled student experience and motivate staff to adopt accessible practices. Engaging staff with the learner experience provides motivation for engagement in making their own web materials accessible, as the following quotation illustrates:
“Having hands on experience simulating different scenarios gave very good insights.”
(Anonymous participant evaluation)
WebAIM offers four simulations: Screen Reader; Low Vision; Dyslexia and Distractibility. For example, the distractibility simulation (Figure 1) demonstrates how difficult it can be to navigate even a simple site when operating under an intense cognitive load as someone with a cognitive disability might experience. The confusion, disorientation, and slow site navigation are the effects that WebAIM is trying to achieve. In this activity, the user is required to use the keyboard to move the character found in the lower right corner to catch the falling bombs while simultaneously performing tasks with the Website found at the left.
Figure 1:WebAim distractibility simulation to illustrate the experience of cognitive disability on web accessThe DRC simulation (Figure 2) takes the form of a mock website that represents the effects of visual impairment, a screen reader and the difficulties that some people may have using a mouse. The screenshot below is taken from the low vision simulation. This simulation provides an opportunity for users to experience a web page as someone with a visual disability might experience it. There is a very low contrast between the colours, which can make it difficult for visually impaired users, the text is very small, it is in italics and cannot be resized. In this activity the user is asked to find the link to sign up to an email newsletter.
Figure 2: Disability Rights Commission cataract simulation to illustrate the experience of visual impairment on web accessIn addition to the WebAIM and DRC resources, simulations of interactive computer activities as well as video clips of an expert blind user accessing learning activities through a virtual learning environment (VLE) are used to help academics to empathise with the disabled student experience, to help them to understand the problem of access, to motivate them to adopt new practices and to persuade them that it is worth the effort. The video was developed as part of a related project by ourselves and the Educational Development and Technology Centre at the University of New South Wales.
Viewing the student who is blind, (in a recorded video) navigating through WebCT, while he comments on the difficulties encountered or designs that are helpful, proved a powerful and meaningful learning experiences for participants:
“The videos of the blind student and the practical work with assistive software are moving experiences for me personally.”
(Anonymous participant feedback)
Through careful selection of appropriate interactive simulations that give the participant a perception of the disabled users' experience of accessing the web, together with bespoke videos that reflect the authentic experience of disabled students the conditions are created that enable staff to empathise with the disabled student. This new understanding motivates participants to seek solutions that will make their courses more inclusive. While these activities have been effective in the workshops and courses we have held, we identified a need to produce simulations that more closely mirrored the typical activities that students would interact with in an online learning environment.
The intention of this study is to explore whether the use of accessibility simulations can be utilised as part of a method for academics’ professional development and whether simulations can help academic staff understand the problem of access and motivate them to adopt new teaching techniques as well as promote online inclusive practices. Outcomes will include the design and development of a website, comprising a range of appropriate simulations based on interactions with a VLE (Blackboard), which can help staff appreciate the issues relevant to various types of disability. A prototype has already been developed simulating a number of impairments. The disabilities simulated have been chosen according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and they include the most common disabilities in UK's Higher Education. Each simulation comprises a task typical of those students are expected to face in an online course and the time taken to complete each task is displayed upon completion. Feedback can also be provided at this stage (i.e. problems encountered and suggestions for improving the simulation).
Effect of vision impairment simulation
This simulation provides an opportunity for users to experience how a person with visual difficulties may interact with a VLE. Two types of visual impairments are incorporated at this stage: cataract and glaucoma. In the cataract simulation, the user is required to download a module guide from Blackboard. In the glaucoma simulation, the task is to download the module leader’s contact details. The text appears blurry and very hard to read and no resize or contrast changing options are available (see Figures 3 and 4).
Figure 3: Effect of vision impairment simulation – cataract simulation
Figure 4: Effect of vision impairment simulation – glaucoma simulationMouse control difficulty simulation
This simulation highlights the difficulties that people with motor disabilities face and more specifically people with difficulties using a mouse when performing online learning tasks. The task is very similar to the first one, the user is required to download lecture notes from Blackboard. The cursor is very hard to control and thus trying to locate and select hyperlinks is a difficult task (see Figure 5).
Figure 5: Mouse control simulation – the cursor is constantly moving, making it difficult to point and select a link
This simulation will provide an opportunity to experience the difficulties that a person with cognitive disabilities may face when engaged in online learning activities. The user is required to write and send an email to fellow students on Blackboard, while simultaneously playing the pong game, which is located at the top of the screen without letting the ball touch the ground. The point of this is to simulate the cognitive demands of being required to perform multiple tasks and the confusion caused (see Figure 6).
Figure 6: Distractibility simulation – The pong game is located at the top left side of the page
Research shows that simulations can increase motivation and engagement in a wide range of educational and business activities. There are a number of high quality simulations representing the effects of disability on users’ interactions with the computer, but we identified a need for a suite of simulations that would more closely reflect the student experience of online learning activities and would enable us to evaluate their effectiveness in encouraging staff to empathise with the disabled student experience.
The simulations are in an early stage of development and more research is required in order to produce authentic activities that more accurately represent the effects of the disability on the user experience in an online learning environment. A suite of simulations will be developed to include dyslexia, colour blindness and hearing impairment.
On completion, the prototypes will be used in the context of workshops and courses on creating accessible online learning resources for academic staff. Their effectiveness as a motivational and awareness raising tool will be tested through evaluations with the workshop participants. The simulations will also be made available on the Accessibility Research Centre’s web site for download and evaluation by the academic community.
Accessibility Research Centre,
University of Teesside
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