CyberLearning and Learning Cyber: Lifelong and Accessibility Experiences

Susan L. Gerhart

Alex Finnarn

White paper for NSF CyberLearning Task force

Background: Alex is completing one year service with AmeriCorps Vista as a educational technology specialist for OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Yavapai College, also working with Northern Arizona SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) in Prescott Arizona. Susan is a semi-retired computer scientist, translating her experiences with vision loss into education and advocacy for web accessibility and adoption of assistive technology. She is a student of philosophy, history, and economics in OLLI, working with Alex and others on a technology task force, and facilitator of courses on social media and technology and society.

    To make cyber learning effective in the 21st century, it needs to be available for all populations and people who possess a desire to learn.
Current technology has not lived up to this promise. The younger generations of learners have embraced technology adequately with the help of adventurous teachers and innate ability; however, the older generations of learners have met cyber learning with adversity. Oftentimes, the systems they desire to use are not streamlined enough for adequate adoption. Finally, learners with classic accessibility issues, like poor vision, are ignored when online learning tools are designed. By reaching out to these disadvantaged populations, the whole of cyber learning will improve.

Experience with Cyber Learning for Lifelong Learners

OLLI is nationally supported by the Osher Foundation operating at over 100 U.S. independent locations. Yavapai College OLLI has over 600 members selecting peer directed courses from over 50 subjects during each six week session for fees of $130 for five class sessions per year. Courses are often structured around 1/2 hour lectures from The Learning Company supplemented by facilitator moderated discussions and materials. Diverse fare includes computer training (keyboard, Windows, Mac, Internet, Office, Photoshop) as well as rock and roll, art, health, memoir writing current events,, etc.

We asked: Where does CyberLearning assist OLLI activities and courses? What benefits might accrue
from a good technology platform?

We began to place course materials online after conducting a user survey in the spring of 2010. 87% of respondents in the survey reported having Internet access at home, and 79% reported checking their email at least once a day. The majority of the membership for OLLI did indeed have access to and used the Internet; however, none of the classes were able to readily incorporate cyber learning into their curriculum. A few classes tried using an online learning system, but interest peaked early and soon faded into disuse. With an able-bodied, intelligent, and Internet-ready membership, why was this OLLI unable to engage in cyber learning?

From strongly worded survey comments, we derived a “social contract” that members would not be forced into technology but rather be offered optional technology enhancements. Without clear cut cost benefits, such as reduced printing, or measurable improved learning objectives, we focused on outreach to home bound members, interaction with similar institutions for broader curricula opportunities, repositories and sharing within courses, and archiving institutional pictures and stories.

Existing platforms generally failed to attract interest and use from facilitators despite tutorials and assistance. The first problem is privacy, quite appropriate for repeated warnings of phishing and identity theft, but a barrier to sharing when members do not want a public web identity (Facebook aside). Streamlined and flexible entry is essential especially when courses occur in rapid cycles of six weeks. Forums for sharing are sparsely used because members are involved in many personal and community activities. They spend time as desired, but not required, on outside reading, Googling, and reflecting. A crucial feature of OLLI classes is the lack of tests or assessments during the course. Once grading and competition are removed from the classroom, many online platforms become bloated with unnecessary features. Furthermore, the incentive of using an online classroom to take a quiz or study for a test disappears, and a student must rely on innate curiosity to visit an online classroom.

While email and search engine savvy, OLLI members are not cognitively familiar with the models of forums, blogs, wikis, or tweet streams, and because of this, we are faced with introducing both new models and complex platforms together. After some experimentation and testing, we settled on using EDU 2.0, a rapidly growing U.K. based company with a reasonable business model and support, for an online classroom. We also partnered with another interesting venture in an Australian-based U3A, University of the 3rd Age, which offers self-paced courses and repositories available for facilitator adaptation at similar lifelong learning institutions. Although the OLLI membership is predominantly White, well-traveled, and professionally diverse, international thinking and contacts can offer many new opportunities for our OLLI, like an international book club.

Meanwhile, OLLI’s monthly newsletter has been adapted to appear on a WordPress blog with future plans for moderated forums. We are also actively using the college’s interactive TV classroom connection to offer distributed courses to our sister OLLI, expanding their course selection in the process. A long term goal we have is to host joint OLLI Internet-based courses that would take advantage of the country’s pool of retired expertise. However, the really tragic goal of reaching homebound elders in a community lacking public transit remains primarily a function of offering shared rides and a reliance on volunteers working within the public library.

Perhaps a more important goal is “Learning Cyber” or learning “by osmosis” and how social networks and cyber learning are changing our information practices. Why would any sane person use Twitter? How does a grandparent respond to pressure to participate in Facebook in order to see pictures, or monitor children, grandchildren, and vice versa? Does Google always provide correct information? What happens when newspapers open articles to potentially unpleasant community commenting? What is RSS? How does one critically check facts and correct chain emails with political misinformation? Facing complex interactions with Social Security websites, how does one upgrade their skills for PDF, forms, and chat help? Who wrote Wikipedia? When can You Tube, BigThink, and TED supplement the History and Discovery cable television channels? What are our real privacy rights regarding Google, Facebook, and online retailers? Institutions like OLLI provide an informal setting for increasing and assessing the skills of individual Cyber Learners. Our technology initiatives may be more effectively directed at exposure and bridging generations in both technological and chronological senses.


For the continuing improvement of a national Cyber Learning movement, we suggest researchers and developers incorporate, sooner rather than later, constituents from learning environments such as OLLI and similar institutions. We also recommend investigating the educational and technological practices of the two international sources we found most attractive, EDU 2.0 and U3A. The above experience should provide insights into and questions about cross generational Cyber Learning, which will benefit the movement as a whole.


  1. The Bernard Osher Foundation Lifelong Learning Institutes

  2. OLLI Yavapai College, Prescott Arizona

  3. The Learning Company DVD Lectures

  4. “University of the Third Age” international movement

  5. U3A Australia, courses at Griffiths University

  6. EDU 2.0 Free U.K. based Learning Site

How Attention to Accessibility Can Improve Cyber learning

Attention to accessibility for persons with disabilities should be an immediate objective for educating *ALL* constituencies who touch any aspect of Cyber learning. Consider “accessibility” as the practices and technology that enable persons with disabilities using “assistive technologies” to participate fully and comfortably in CyberLearning.

Indeed, there is no choice if the Departments of Justice and Educations follow through on their “Dear College President” letter regarding
fairness in applications of emerging technologies in academic environments. “Accessibility” here means that devices and web sites must support assistive technologies commonly available through special education channels and increasingly appearing in mainstream markets: Screen (text-to-speech) readers, alternative input/output devices, networked tablet readers such as Kindle and iPad, and possibly lab instrumentation and pedagogical software.

As we argued regarding senior learners, citizens and markets must be served by people who differ in many aspects of physical and mental activities. Education workplaces and curricula must adapt to concepts of universal design ancultural diversity.
Fortuitously, adapting to accessibility offers a systematic way of expanding and analyzing design tradeoffs that benefit far more than persons with disabilities. Think about curb cuts originally for wheelchairs and now beneficial to baby strollers, bikers, inattentive walkers, and luggage cart users. In web environments, standards: address usability for persons using screen readers, also causing difficulties for many mobile device user;, facilitate interoperability of browsers and other user agents; and help manage costs of do-overs and long term maintenance.


For CyberLearning to reach its potential and broaden participation, attention to accessibility is not only overdue and inevitable but also a chance to refresh underlying technology as a CyberLearning experience in itself.

1. Web standards such as WCAG 2, provide a fledgling “science of accessibility” in the form of definitions, principles, experimental results, and field trials. Standards and theories evolve by employing high quality peer reviews, broad community input, extensive documentation,continuing debate in blogs and on Twitter, and increasing adoption earlier in cycles of HTML adoption. Professor Richard Ladner’s group at U. Washington contributes in depth traditional graduate and capstone education experiences, experiments, and publications, yielding cohorts of researchers also involved in outreach to K-12 students with disabilities. Furthermore, an engineering paradigm is emerging as “progressive enhancement” supported by static analyzers, and free operational tools (NVDA screen reader and VoiceOver on Macs). This science is a rich area for computational thinking.

2 University and professional organization web sites are often exquisitely poor examples of attention to accessibility, attested to by a recent NSF-funded study, ironically locked behind a professional society pay wall. Why are many Cyber learning organization web sites so bad? Accessibility simply is not a requirement, e.g. look up your own organizational accessibility statement. Is there one, is it followed, who is responsible? Ok, so academics don’t have time to learn or enforce accessibility theory or practice. But, is it acceptable to turn away Students who can otherwise function well in society but face extra barriers in STEM? and where will accessibility aware CyberLearning developers come from? Ouch, should organizations such as NSF and MIT promote inaccessible pedagogical tools such as Scratch?

In fact, we are not talking major engineering feats, but rather well structured pages as in good technical communication, a few lines of code that make forms into relational structures and pictures into captioned objects. The principle is general use of POSH (Plain Old Semantic HTML) from straight text HTML preserved through styles and fancy interactions topped off by seconds of automated compliance analysis and minutes of insightful execution of use cases. However, accessibility in pedagogical software definitely requires fundamental adoption of hooks and interfaces provided by system vendors.

Think of this change as one small step in technical communication and one giant leap forward in understanding and improving human learning performance.

3. Practically speaking, curricula can only have accessibility grafted onto courses and tools rather than taught as separate subjects. But creative and active learning can come into play: interviewing local ADA specialists for requirements and projects; turning off displays and browsing with a screen reader; estimating costs of retrofitting for omitted accessibility requirements; analyzing risks of lost markets and litigation; adding features suggested by audio supplement or alternative output and input channels; ethics and accessibility addenda to assignments. People who love game controllers and touch screen mobile devices should dig these exercises.

4. Specific interventions must be attempted starting with faculty awareness and introduction to the science of accessibility and its economic importance as well as social fairness. Suggested activities: accessibility seminars at educator gatherings; forced overhaul of professional and government sites to match .com and other .gov levels; design contests for students to makeover and create new information resource sites to meet the grand universal design challenge; audit of pedagogical tools, including textbooks, for universal learning objectives encompassing accessibility; release of all disability related publications now imprisoned beyond professional society pay walls; increased awareness of accessibility as a job and professional speciality; recognition of assistive tech as part of user interfaces; rubrics for POSH in technical communications. …

On a personal note, many avid learners gain vision rehabilitation facilitated through a vibrant online culture of blogs and podcasts on emotional, social, education, and technical topics. Visit this world yourself: book clubs and interactive demos at AccessibleWorld; product demos by individual users at BlindCoolTech; more demos and discussions at ACBRadio; and now a community of #accessibility and #a11y gurus and users on Twitter. Off the mainstream, but taking full advantage of CyberLearning while casting a wider net to newly disabled individuals offers a testimony to spontaneous online learning.

The Data Literacy Challenge

Finally, while the above complaints and suggestions are largely remedial, one clear challenge is the equal visualization” of information and data. Portfolio pie charts, rainfall tables, stimulus recovery expenditure maps, timelines, … are all essential for citizen participation and difficult for visually impaired people. Difficult, yes, but can alternative and multiple ways of channeling data into brains be accomplished through the adapted and flexible recognition and reasoning processes developed by visually impaired thinkers such as scientists and engineers? Can these new models of information and modes of interaction then benefit people with less analytical background or resistance to data driven reasoning?Designing cyber learning for the temporarily fully enabled may not only limit those currently working with disabilities but fail to build upon the unique experiences of and qualities of disabilities which we all have intermittently and eventually.


  1. Department of Justice A.D.A. letter to college presidents

  2. W3C web standards and accessibility guidelines

  3. “>
    U. Washington assistive technology and accessibility projects (Richard Ladner)

  4. “>
    Book “Universal Design for Web Applications” by Matt May and Wendy Chisholm

  5. White paper on”Grafting Accessibility onto Computer science Education”, “As Your World Changes” blog, Susan L. Gerhart

  6. Inaccessible article on inaccessibility of academic web sites

  7. newly founded Institute on Cultural Diversity, including persons with disabilities

Obama accessibility almost on target

I could not resist testing the new Obama for my pet peeves and latent hopes.

It was great to find an Obama administration agenda for disabilities. And right there on the home page were the RSS feeds for my enthusiastic subscription.

However, I immediately hit a few accessibility snags that suggest a bit more analysis and alterations would get the techno-government off to a better start.

Overall I like the page layout with site map in the footer, a design goal described in the accessibility statement.
My current pet peeve, subject of my own web site improvements and a future blog posting, is the logical page structure presented in well described section headings and a clear page outline. I quickly became confused as I toured the home page using my heading key and hearing the headings and their level. The w3 semantic data extractor profile tells
the story in its own outline of the page’s HTML.

Now any accessibility complaint has several components: the page itself, tools used by the user (NVDA screen reader, for me), the user’s skills (improving), and the user’s mental state and surroundings for perception and processing the page content. I’m confident there is an implementation problem here, although other visually impaired users might not find any difficulty or diagnose differently.

Ok, so I head off to the Contact page, and, whoops, a few more problems. Sigh, my immediate reaction to any form is a sense of impending doom as something always goes wrong and uses up a good part of my day’s energy. First, I could not figure out the actual required fields, so I had to fill all. I was not hearing any label read for each form field so had to tab around to find the field name. Missed the zip code and got an error message after submission. The comment box had a 500 character limit, with notice below the box so I exceeded my quota using the above web link. And I was unsure exactly which item was the submit button, actually labeled “contact us”. Now, this only took a few minutes and was typical of form-filling torture — I survived. Then I made another round to complain, sorry comment, about the form itself.

What is going on here? Is this web site a success or failure for one, picky partially sighted citizen? Overall, I’m pleased at the effort and general concept but disappointed that disability feedback did not fix the flaws that muddled my Inauguration after glow. My constructive suggestions are:

  1. Untangle and reconstruct the heading structure. A screen reader has an uncanny ability to reveal presence or absence of underlying logical thinking about page parts and their functions and relative importance. That’s the “semantics” in the w3 validator. In the long run, this quality of thinking about page organization will also pay off in maintenance as the web site grows.
  2. Rework the contact form. It’s doable but should be model of ease and functionality if the government is moving toward increased use of online forms for transactions, information, and oversight. And, by the way, why do I need to supply my zip code to make a comment?

Updates on accessibility

January 28 2009 Observations

  1. I am still befuddled by the Heading outline of the main page. It jumps around phrases like “Peril” to “search” and “blog” . I just cannot envision the underlying logic of the page although I can understand each of the parts when I get there. On the Disabilities page, the heading order read by my screen reader is H3, H2,H4 so I’m a bit confused at levels within the agenda.
  2. Last week I skipped over some mystery 1, 2, 3, 4 reading. This time I poked around more and discovered these bring up a short description of a feature above the boxes. But this dynamic content is not notified to my screen reader. Similar patterns of web design using this tricky interaction of web page with browser read by screen reader could cause great confusion if the content is really important. Right now, the numbers and features are just a bit of glitch in the way of accessibility.
  3. I subscribed to blog feeds on my Levelstar Icon PDA but nothing has come through. I need to check whether this is a non-standard feed that is not added properly to my RSS client.
  4. Just guessing when revisiting the comment page, that required fields are marked by asterisk. But I have punctuation speaking turned off in the screen reader so miss such a notification. As observed in another critique, the form lacks labels where the word Required or Optional might be spoken. This is pretty rudimentary accessibility practice covered in standards. Shame!
  5. The w3 Semantic Data Extractor link above produces the error message:

    Using org.apache.xerces.parsers.SAXParser
    Exception net.sf.saxon.trans.DynamicError: org.xml.sax.SAXParseException: The entity name must immediately follow the ‘&’ in the entity reference.
    org.xml.sax.SAXParseException: The entity name must immediately follow the ‘&’ in the entity

    This might be a minor syntax error on the home page or a flaw in the validator. More later on whether other validators work. Also see the very interesting comment comparing with the British PM website.

Update Feb. 14 2009

More feedback from a partially sighted pro-Obama citizen using Mozilla Firefox 3 and NVDA screen reader. Let’s make sure only the best web techniques trickle down from to the rest of *.gov.

  1. Good!! The comment form fields now have labels and read like “First Name Edit”. However, I didn’t hear any label for zip code. And I still don’t know which fields are required.
  2. The 1-2-3-4 boxes for new features displayed in dynamic updates still did not provide any audible notice of change, just a different blurb of text I could see changing on the screen.
  3. I clicked “watch the movie” for the First Lady talk on “Do the right thing. Either the movie widget is invisible to me by either or seeing or the link failed. A good practice is to always tell the user if a plug-in or external app will launch, if in a new window, or other actions. I do know what’s going on here, sigh.
  4. Link description is drifting into the poor practice “Read this post”, “Read this post”, “Read this post”, … Why not merge this link with the post title?
  5. Headings? Schmedings!
  6. Overall, I still like the page layout and spaarceness of front page content with links to blogs and agenda issues for more details.
  7. Hey, let’s all import that Aussie free open source screen reader NVDA, buy a little TTS (text-to-speech) voice choir, and listen to our web sites for accessibility, usability, and friendliness.

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