Adaptive Content Delivery to Assist Blind Students in Accessing Course Materials

M. Emin Donderler, K. Selcuk Candan, T. Hedgpeth, S. Panchanathan


For blind individuals, educational opportunities which can translate to employment opportunities and independence are scarce. IT strategies can help the individuals who are blind to overcome these barriers, and to pursue educational opportunities that will allow them to become productive members of the society. With this in mind, we conducted extensive discussions with blind students, researchers involved in disability studies, and companies that manufacture products in adaptive technology. These engagements resulted in the identification of user scenarios, which highlight that special care has to be taken in designing human-computer interfaces and systems for blind students, especially in hypertext environments.


Hence, we started designing and developing a system, called iCare-Assistant, to assist blind students in accessing electronic course materials: courses presented on the Web in hyperlinked form allow students to explore the content freely, based on their interests and goals. The learner is engaged in an activity to create both meaning and structure through her decisions with respect to which link to follow next. However, state-of-the-art browser-based interfaces rely heavily on users’ visual skills for information presentation, and can result in significant navigational burden. Existing navigational helps, such as site maps and visual cues, alleviate this load only for sighted users. Furthermore, for blind students, screen reader programs are not always helpful in large hypertext documents with many links, as users must listen to the entire document. Blind users cannot get an overview of the structure of the information presented in a Web page or a Web site at glance on the screen, as sighted people do. Therefore, it is much easier for blind students to get disoriented in a hypertext environment. Thus, our main goal is to minimize the cognitive navigational load on blind students, while they access electronic educational content, such as course Web pages consisting of (a) a syllabus, (b) lecture notes, (c) assignments, (d) projects, (e) announcements, (f) discussion pages, (e) group pages, (f) external links, (g) course documents, and (h) grades. To address these challenges, iCare-Assistant provides unobtrusive, task oriented and individualized delivery of electronic course information, and handles the tasks of information integration, filtering, and modulation to minimize the information overload that renders existing educational interfaces unusable by blind students. Following are two scenarios that exemplify the use of iCare-Assistant by blind students.


Example Scenario 1: Mr. Willus arrives at a lecture and configures iCare-Assistant to operate in its lecture mode. The system consults the user profile manager, sets up the appropriate integration and presentation modules, fetches the lecture materials, and sets up the relevant annotation modules. Mr. Willus may follow the lecture, take notes, and participate in class discussions using iCare-Assistant just like his sighted classmates.


Example Scenario 2: Discussion boards facilitate learning among students outside the classroom environment, and hence, they are important in education. Mr. Willus configures iCare-Assistant to operate in its discussion-board mode at home. He searches the messages posted under different threads for a specific course simply using predefined shortcut keys and keywords. Messages that are determined to be important to his current inquiry are found and brought up to him in a simple-to-browse hierarchy organized with respect to their relevance and relation to one another. Mr. Willus may post new messages or replies to the messages that he found by his search, easily.


Our main thesis in this work is that the education domain is a restricted one, meaning that a suitable model can be used for addressing many challenges that are not tractable in unconstraint domains, such as the Web. Hence, new methods and improvements on the existing ones are needed. We see that our work will have a significant impact on educational content delivery to blind students, and improve their educational experience and success. The technical impact includes research into core universal access, information-management, and human-computer interaction technologies. Our research outcomes will be disseminated locally and nationally through ASU's Disability Resources for Students and its partners.