Problems in Education: multimedia modules & Universal Design

I used this great tool for teaching Poe’s “The Black Cat” a couple weeks ago.   I love the Picture This tool because of the visualization that the module forces students to do.  The text is dense with vocabulary that can be illustrated with the pit-stops for picking a summarizing image.  Furthermore, the multimedia ‘text’ creates an interactive interface that helps students see synonyms for Poe’s heavy vocabulary.  I ran into trouble, however, when I realized that my projector would not display enough clarity for my students to follow along with the reading and highlighted vocabulary in the large classroom environment we had.  The tool has been nagging at me in the back of my mind as I write a SPED paper this evening.

Why?  Well, for many web users with poor eyesight or with a little bit of brower-saavy, you realize that you can easily enlarge or shrink text that is coded in html/css.  (Certain members of my family have learned this trick on the shared home computer… Naturally, those youngsters in my house had to figure out how to shrink text back to ‘normal’ after the ‘rents figured out how to customize their computer experiences.  A first, I know, in generational tech adaptation when the parents discover something first.)  Now, when you code/design this module into such a small Flash box, you can very obviously realize that there is a tremendous loss of text quality and adaptability — this was probably done with the intent to keep load-times quick.  I fortunately did not have any students with special visual needs in that class, but I nonetheless felt very seriously torn between the immediate reward of the tool but still the neglect that went into accessibility accomodations.

The accessibility problem comes in not being in the field and knowing how many adaptations need to be made in order to make a bulletproof lessonplan that invites all of the kids to learn in whatever entry mode is easiest for them.   Browser text enlargment (Crtl+ or Ctrl- for those who need a distraction at this point) does not work with fixed text imaging (ie Flash), unless you program it specifically.  Browser text enlargement only works with good HTML/CSS coding.  You simply cannot provide the same service with this kind of coding, without using many languages which means greater coding expertise or a larger design team costing… drumroll… probably more money and time for a team who is not working for the rewarding private sector.

The scarcity problem of such good tools, I suspect, does come down to money.  Online educational tools are hard to market.  Yes, you can build the tool fairly easily if you get a few encouraged, (really) knowledgeable people involved.  But in reality, a site host cannot expect that a teacher is going to click on any advertisements to help fuel the site’s upkeep revenue.  And there are very few charitable designers/programmers/educators who can get their tools onto the mainstream Net.

Very simply put: accessible, interactive educational tools are necssary but not marketable or profitable enough to appear yet on the mainstream Web. These major factors go into a the conceptualization of most mainstream sites nowadays:

  • audience
  • time spent on the site
  • advertising potential with the above two factors

And when you consider that the users will be expected to not click off the site to jack up revenue for the host.  And that most users will use the site in less than an hour and never return to it in their educational careers.  And that we cannot make money to support the creation and upkeep… Well, educational resources do not compare to warranting the engineering effort that are demanded by the for-profit, uncountable-daily-hit websites we are so familiar with in our day-to-day lives.

There is promise, however!  I see the Library of Congress really taking a good look at their interfaces, but like any good effort for the humanities, it probably needs more manpower and resultingly more money.

Hey, if you can prove me wrong, or give me a great example of what I want to see, pass it on!  I am in a big group of soon-to-be educators who love to find reasons to bring their laptops up in front of the classroom with them.  We are all youngsters to the educational side of cyberspace.

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