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Web Posted on: December 21, 1998

Computer Mediated Communication and Assistive Technology

Mrs E.A.B. Draffan
Assistive Technology Centre
Health Centre Building
University of Sussex
Brighton, BN1 9RW United Kingdom


Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) can provide a variety of 'telematic-based learning experiences' [Jennings, 1997] where participants are able to share information and exchange ideas. These forums should be accessible to all and with the guidance of 'universal design' and assistive technology this is often possible. This paper describes the process of setting up such a forum (called the Cyber Café and describes the difficulties that arose for those with sensory and physical disabilities when using this technology and discusses some of the solutions that were implemented, and those issues that remain problematic.


Teaching methods at universities have not significantly changed over the past fifty years. "While some instructors have instituted innovative techniques in the classroom to encourage critical thinking and class participation, most university classrooms involve the traditional lecture format supplemented by assigned readings usually out of a text book and sometimes with a term paper." [Bradley.S, 1995] However, alternative methods of teaching are being used successfully, often implementing computer technology.

Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) as an example of the use of technology in education is seen, in this instance, as a synchronous and/or asynchronous teleconferencing medium, which operates in a similar way to electronic mail with the bonus of group discussions. It offers many advantages to students with different learning styles. Although it has to be said that studies have shown that its success can be very dependent on the particular software chosen to implement the program and interface design should encourage 'rapid and enjoyable initial learning by novice users' [Kaye, 199].

It is also felt that it is equally important to identify:

  • the information requirements of students with special needs,
  • factors that inhibit effective use of the systems,
  • potential negative impacts, as well as "evaluating the extent to which an information technology enhances personal empowerment and improves economic conditions." [Doctor, 1994]

Information requirements of students with special needs

These demands are invariably the same as those required by all students, where opportunities to access academic knowledge is valued and there is an active participation in learning. CMC provides a teaching and learning situation which involves exchanges of information across networks through discussion groups, with the archiving of material for analysis and mainly text-based communication which is not limited to time or place. These elements are often crucial for those individuals with special needs who may need the support of assistive technology or other accommodations to achieve their goals.

There are many software programs designed to deliver web based information via the World Wide Web, for example: Microsoft Exchange, Netscape Collabra, CoW, Allaire Forums and Lotus Notes with Domino and LearningSpace etc. They all provide Graphical User Interfaces (GUI) enhancing, for most participants, communication across networks via cable or modem. A GUI may not accessible to many users, and one of the greatest difficulties to overcome is to provide an environment that is 'all things to all users'. To this end, browser developers have spent a great deal of time on the design of their products. Microsoft's decision to incorporate Internet Explorer into the Windows 98 operating system, will undoubtedly have a profound affect on the way many people interact with the Internet in the future.

One problem with commercially available software is that developers, quite understandably, want to sell their wares to the greatest number of end users. In this regard, although consideration is given to those with special needs, they are often overlooked. Moreover, there is a bias towards the use of 'techno jargon', which immediately alienates or excludes those without the necessary background knowledge to deal with the terminology. However, the concepts used in this genre of software are similar. It is important for students with a wide range of difficulties to be guided through the technological infrastructure of hardware, software, networks and standards as well as understanding the concept of hypermedia with its diverse resources. This can be successfully achieved in a couple of ways:

  • Creating an environment that is as intuitive as possible,
  • Providing enough on-line help where it is needed (while avoiding 'cluttering' the workspace with superfluous information).

Potential Negative Impacts

There are several general accessibility issues that can arise from using CMC technology for instruction, not least the practical problems involved when being dependent on server or modem delivery of data. The pitfalls that affect students with disabilities are often the same as those that impede most individuals when faced with new technology. Poor design features, complex on-line or text based help and lack of time and expertise for skill building.

Students may feel an even greater sense of isolation and lack of support as they communicate in an asynchronous text-based environment that lacks the immediacy of human interaction. There is a chance that information overload will occur with a general sense of failure to cope with the unremitting stream of required responses. Unless the conferencing system can incorporate multimedia aspects of communication, those with dyslexia will find the lack of auditory and graphical expression hard to manage. The student with a visual impairment will need to have all the text read by a speech synthesiser and would prefer to have text description for graphics or rely on pre-defined audio output. The student with a hearing impairment will be able to cope with well-constructed text output and graphics but may miss the implications of an audio message unless it is subtitled.

Those organising on-line lectures and discussions have to remain vigilant when working with students who have different learning styles, (this does not just apply to those with disabilities). It is all too easy to begin with good intentions and then wonder why certain members of the group are no longer communicating. It is very easy to 'lose sight' of the audience in the virtual world of CMC. The DO-IT program and many others have found that where possible at least one face to face meeting may solve some of the social, educational and technological problems that might otherwise arise due to misunderstandings or lack of forethought as the course progresses.

Tutors and participants have their own rules and strategies for coping with learning situations and it is often these rules which can govern the way an on-line course will run. DeKoven [1995] has described the 'Learning manager' or on-line tutor as a 'Shareperson'. It is often left up to this person to "make sure that we can all work on, be represented by, have access to, approval over, be empowered by the shared desktop. It's a social art that any good facilitator uses when working on a flip chart or whiteboard to represent the decisions, goals, and agendas of the group."

Potential Enabling Factors

The list of difficulties may seem insurmountable but it is essential that a pragmatic approach be taken to this task. The 2% of students in higher education (RADAR) who have disabilities are often highly motivated to succeed. Many have struggled with courses in the past but find the use of computers a liberating experience. Active encouragement from tutors can help prevent the sense of isolation that may occur in a computer mediated conferencing situation and other technologies can be included to enhance the supporting network e.g. the telephone. The difficulty of regular attendance for some students may make this form of study a very important asset to the university's course structure as has been cited by Harasim, et al [1995] when discussing the work of the Open University in the United Kingdom.

The ability to sort messages by subject/author or date sometimes on a divided screen has been found to be one of the major helpful factors of most group discussions programs as opposed to telnet or e-mail programs. This facility aids organisational skills and helps with the retrieval of information at a later date. However, it has been noticed that confusion and often elements of frustration can arise with the technique of having buttons on the screen as well as on a menu bar (the user cannot remove these imbedded graphics). In this situation the designers should be guided by Gaver's theory of 'affordances' as described by [McAteer et al, 1997]. The guidelines are that the properties of, in this case, a program should be "seen as natural in that they are always more perceptible, and resultant actions are more economically performed, so more likely to occur."

It is essential for students and faculty alike to have faith in a system, otherwise it will not be used to its full potential for data storage, assessment information and administrative procedures as well as private messaging. One major bonus related to the use of Lotus Notes with Domino (the web browser output from a Notes Database) for campus use is the quality of security it offers and most other systems used by the business world have similar systems of firewalls and passwords. There can be a disabling factor because of the security measures that can occur for those with visual impairments and/or poor motor control. The inability to always hit the correct keys may result in a lock out situation. Some programs have a time limited access system or a specific number of access attempts when typing in a password.

The University of Sussex Cyber Café

The Cyber Café we have created is written using a server-side mark-up language called Cold Fusion, and is accessed through a standard web browser. What seems to be unique about Cold Fusion - and one of the main reasons we chose it - is that the user (on the client side) is sent pure HTML: the language of the Internet. No plug-in or additional software is required to access HTML pages created with Cold Fusion. Indeed, there is a seamless integration between a static, non-interactive web page, and a 'potentially' interactive page created using Cold Fusion, since they look and feel the same. For these reasons, anyone familiar with the basic concepts and use of a web browser should have little difficulty interacting with the Cyber Café Having studied the approach taken by those involved in CMC in past, we realised that for the Cyber Café to be a success it would have to be:

  • Intuitive - we used the analogy of a café in the real world,
  • Helpful - on-line help is available where it is needed, help pages, and complete manuals are also available on-line,
  • Easy for users to join - we employ a simple on-line registration process,
  • Easy to set up - no plug-ins or additional software is required,
  • Pleasing to use - we wanted the Cyber Café aesthetically pleasing, without being too 'technical',
  • Accessible - if a browser supports valid HTML, it will work with the Cyber Café

Conclusion and Reflections

For those individuals with special needs and students separated from their place of learning by distance the world of computer mediated communication holds enormous promise. The relative advantages of this environment bring untold opportunities within reach which can represent significant advancements for those who would otherwise be unable to take part in a learning experience within a community. However many writers on the subject tend to use the word 'can' or 'may' rather than 'will' when summarising the possibilities available as a result of their research findings [Trentin, 1997]. As time has passed and more research has appeared, some even sound a note of caution as to the success of these teaching methods in settings where the individuals never meet. They mention the need for some traditional instruction to be available at a local level, clear definitions of goals, more face to face communication and a careful monitoring of the amount of information given to students [Calvani et al, 1997].

The latest technology with all its 'bells and whistles' may not always be the best for all users. It was interesting to discover that when wishing to set up a discussion session with students who had a variety of disabilities, telnet was voted to be the best option for communication (DO-IT Program on-line chat session April 1998). It is text based, requires little high-powered technology and is available to all those with modem or Ethernet connections as a program provided with most systems. This highlights what is felt to be one of the major problems for those planning to support students across the networks . . . the choice of suitable software. Collis et al [1997] also point out that, early on in their research, students appeared to value web sites more highly for their 'efficiency' rather than 'enrichment'.

With the event of programming environments that allow the delivery of applications to users without the need for additional software, the integration of web browser technology into the core of operating systems, the instigation and acceptance of universal design, the collective familiarisation with the Internet, and the realisation of a World 'on-line', the future for CMC has never looked so promising or exciting.


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Burgstahler, S. (1995). Coop Experiences for Students with Disabilities (DO-IT Program handout ). Seattle: University of Washington.

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Collis, B., Andernach, T. & Van Diepen, N. (1997). Web Environments for Group Based Project Work in Higher Education. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 3(2/3), 109-130.

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