Checked Your Blog's Accessibility Lately?

There is a story on Techcrunch about a website called White Cane Label which is an online apparel shop designed for blind users.

OK, where am I headed with this post? It's accessibility of online resources.

Two students from RIT started this new site as a project for their studies, but now plan to launch this fall "a non-profit effort to help blind people shop online and easily keep track of their wardrobe without the help of a sighted friend."

Most shopping sites are heavily driven by images of products (in the paper catalog tradition) that fail miserably for visually imapired users. The site is set to be sound & text based.

Beyond recommendations and detailed descriptions of each item, when they order, they receive the merchandise with Braille tags indicating the designer, clothing type, size, and color for easy reference and another tag with washing instructions.

I don't know how many of you have ever looked at sites like the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative or have checked your own site to see its accessibility.

In a previous position, I spent a lot more time considering these issues for web sites and online course materials. I was never able to generate much interest on campus from faculty to consider these issues when designing course materials or accompanying we pages. when I presented recently at EduWeb about our iTunes U efforts at NJIT, one audience member asked about accessibility issues using iTunes and podcasts in general and honestly I had no answer. I don't think anyone, including me, ever brought it up in all our planning.

NJIT's Continuing Professional Education division has a very interesting program running this summer for people with varying disabilities who want to enter the computer technology area, so I have been seeing these people on campus and working in the labs and it has been more on my mind. (Note to Tim - write post about this program.)

Just before I started this post, I ran this blog site through an online accessibility checker. I used Cynthia Says which is very easy to use, though rather difficult for non-web design people to interpret. (The HiSoftware CynthiaSays portal is a joint Education and Outreach project of HiSoftware, ICDRI, and the Internet Society Disability and Special Needs Chapter.) All you need to do is put in the URL of the site you want to check.

This blog fails miserably. I wonder if we even have any users who try to access the blog using special software for thiose with disabilities. We fare somewhat better using the W3C CSS validation checker - only 2 errors but 40 warnings. You won't see me including their badge on this site in the near future.

I'm curious how many of you reading this check, validate and fix your site for accessibility. I'm particularly interested in bloggers and those using blogging software like Wordpress. Does it validate? Is your blog accessible and do bloggers care about this issue?

SOS: Social Operating Systems

If you read Wired magazine, you probably have come across their section called "Jargon Watch." The issue I'm reading now (you can check it out online too) includes the term Social Operating System which they define as "a social network site like Facebook or MySpace that seamlessly integrates activities, including entertainment and shopping, to become a platform for online living.”

Most of know operating systems (OS) as a set of computer programs that manage the hardware and software resources of a computer - such as Windows or Mac OS X. So how is something like Facebook an OS?

Before we move on, mash this up with something I heard in the latest This Week in Tech podcast episode where they were looking at Facebook as a kind of little Google innovating and connecting and now buying up other companies. You'll hear talk of Google and Facebook becoming "operating systems" on many sites. Facebook just acquired Parakey which is self-described as "a platform for building applications that merge the best of the desktop and the Web."

You may not think of Facebook as something that can be used educationally or professionally, but others disagree with that opinion - see these ways to use Facebook professionally.

Back in May, Facebook began being talked about as being an operating system with other web apps integrated with it. They released their own Facebook Query Language and started developing their own web servers.

Now, every time you log on to Facebook, you find another widget or application is available. Most of them are for fun (tarot, trivia...) but that will change.

So, people are starting to seriously talk about something like Facebook become a Personal Learning Environment? (BTW, I cannot consider MySpace - despite Wired's definition - as being a contender here since that site is such a design mess).

PLEs are systems that allow learners take control of and manage their own learning by providing support to set learning goals, manage content and and communicate with others in the process of learning.

PLEs may be a desktop application, or composed of web-based services. They would allow the the integration of both formal and informal learning experiences. Social networks, especially ones that can cross institutional boundaries, (Facebook rather than Blackboard) come closer to the ideal.

The Elgg system, which works well with a Learning Management System like Moodle, might be a good example of this.

So, would an a social operating system be a mashup of all these things? Would the ideal SOS be one where a learner would select all the tools & applications she needed and not necessarily just accept the ones selected for her by the teacher? Could the learner select the content he wanted or needed?

Will sites like Facebook move towards becoming learning environments, or will learning environments like Moodle, Elgg, Blackboard move towards social networking? There evidence of movement in both those directions now. The former feels more "open" right now, but with open source learning management systems like Moodle or Sakai adding blogs, wikis, RSS feeds and other tools, perhaps the commercial players will be left behind.

Et tu, Moodle?

I'm not the greatest proponent of Distance Learning coures as they have been developed and implented at many colleges and universities (including NJIT). The idea of expanding a student population without having to budget the expense of building additional classroom space drove administrators and academic departments to shoehorn existing course offerings into a web browser accessible format and register additional "online" students. A result of those efforts was to produce online enrollments that sported (especially for undergraduate studies) drop out rates of about 45%. Oher attempts at improving distance learning courses and content delivery soon produced blended learning (or hybrid) courses that required students to attend classroom sessions that supplemented their online studies. The drop out rates improved and adult-oriented programs like Weekend University began to pick up some academic steam.

The usual notion of distance learning is to have a professor/instructor at some central location teaching students at remote locations, but what if students remainined in a classroom, and the teacher taught from a remote location?

The Spring, that question was asked by Bishop George Ahr High School and Continuing Professional Education provided the answer.

The well-accomplished Latin teacher at Bishop George Ahr High School was leaving for France before the start of the 2008 school year and, while they didn't want to replace that fine instructor, they needed a solution to provide four years of Latin educaton to their pupils. CPE at NJIT, using Moodle as a content delivery platform, provided detailed one-on-one staff training and course content conversion to place the curriculum materials in an effective distance learning format.

Beginning in the Fall of 2008, the Latin students at Bishop George Ahr High School will be able to view multimedia lectures from the classroom, home or any remote location, receive detailed feedback about their performance, participate in real-time chats with their instructor and take their examinations in a protected and proctored classroom environment. The administrators at Bishop Ahr tested this new program at the end of this school year and solicited feedback from students and parents and reported that everyone was excited and supportive of this new initiative for the start of the next school year.

If Web 2.0 technologies can usher in Latin instruction in a distance learning format, what could be next, English?

Summer Camp for Geeks

That's what the flyer (and webpage) called the KansasFest computer conference of July, 2007, a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the original Apple ][ computer.
The Personal Personal Computer

It takes an extraordinary group of people to convene (for the 19th consecutive time) to celebrate a computer platform and philosophy that the manufacturer abandoned in 1992, but the original promotion by Apple Computer touted the Apple ][ computer as the "personal, personal computer," and that idea resonated with millions of people worldwide.

The days of Apple IIe labs and Apple IIGS clusters nestled on Appletalk networks in grammar school computer labs ended in the mid 1990's with Apple's failure to provide an upgrade path from the aging ][ series to the Macintosh. Schools were left with thousands of dollars of terrific educational software and no computer on which they would run. Schools began to move to PC hardware and Microsoft based programs.

Those early Apple computers never stop appealing to a dedicated group of users. Unsupported by Apple Computer, User Groups were created on online services such as CompuServe and Genie and new third party hardware and software continued to be developed and sold.

KFest 2007 was a remarkable mixture of the new and old --both products and people. The conference has actually grown in size over the past few years with oldtimer attendees (like me) meeting and greeting teenage and twenty-something devotees who hadn't been around long (if at all) when the Apple ][ line had been born or discontinued. There were attendees for the US, Australia and Canada with one of the Canadian presenters making the trip to Kansas City from Toronto on a Vespa motorbike.

There were presentations on new software, old hardware and foundation operating systems, there was a keynote address by David Szetela, the first editor-in-chief of Nibble magazine and, later, Apple Computer executive. My own presentation "FreeBSD, the Macintosh Unix" was preceded by Geoff Weiss's excellent presentation of software mapping between Microsoft's Vista and the Apple operating systems.

The real joy of this conference,though - the real reason for attending-- wasn't to make a presentation or watch other talented presenters loose their expertise upon the attendees. The real joy was in hanging out in the dormitories at Rockhurst University where we were housed and watching brilliant people shine. There was non-stop software developing, hardware hacking and on-topic/off-topic discussing all night long. Then, when people needed a quick break, they piled into a 1973 Chevrolet school bus driven from Oklahoma to Kansas City by an attendee to make a 3 AM Denny's Restaurant run. After that fast refueling, everyone was back at it again, hacking and programming and opining until it was time to go to breakfast. The red-eyed stumble became, at least for me, the dance of every day.

The conference lasted about 5 days and it was a little sad to watch the attendees and presenters scatter on the last day. But, even before the end of the conference, Kansasfest 2008 was announced (specific dates pending) and, to a person, the attendees and presenters remaining to hear that announcement were eager to say they'd be back next year.

The old rallying cry of Apple ][ users was "Apple II Forever," now it might be "Apple II Users Forever." The convening of this group of remarkable people every year is now about who they are and who they may inspire to carry the banner of world-class independent software and hardware development to the 20th anniversary of the gathering next year.

Blogs Have Legs

When I first started this blog in February 2006, I was excited that a few dozen people were reading a post after just 48 hours. As the weeks went on and I really decided what the foci was to be, I was a bit disappointed that the numbers didn't suddenly surge, though I had no reason to believe they should surge.

It took a month or more before I began looking at the stats and noticed that the numbers on the early posts were moving up faster as time went by. The blog posts had legs. People were finding posts weeks/months after I wrote them through the wizardry of search engines, tags and links from other bloggers.

Looking back at an entry I did back in month one on Web 2.0, I see that it now has had 25,388 hits. Even the first entry I did as a test that explained the 35 part of Serendipity35 now has almost 14,000 hits.

Now, we don't make any money on the site, so hits don't have that kind of value, but it is nice to know that what you write is being read.

I find it interesting to sift through the stats (thank you Tim & Webalizer) to find:

  • that last month we were averaging 6631 hits per day (at times, more than 1000 an hour)
  • how many people have come to the site from the mention we got in PC Magazine
  • or on a foreign blog about ?? in a language I can't read (an explanantory comment below from any of you would be welcome)
  • that the top search terms that brought people to Serendipity35 are things like cloning, olpc, kindergarten, minority report, cartoon family, father knows best, one day university, pedagogy, andragogy and classroom
  • that the top countries outside the U.S. that we have readers in are Germany, Japan, Brazil, Canada, Australia, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom