Meet the Endless Summer – A Review of ED-MEDIA 2009

Stefanie_Panke80By Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education

The 21st annual World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia & Telecommunications (ED-MEDIA) attracted 1200 participants from 65 countries. A diverse crowd, including K-12 teachers, university faculty members, researchers, software developers, instructional designers, administrators and multimedia authors, came together at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel from the 22nd to 26th of June with a common goal: to share the latest ideas on e-learning and e-teaching in various educational settings and at the same time enjoy the aloha spirit of tropical Oahu, Hawaii.

Organized by the Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE), the annual conference takes place at varying locations in the US, Europe and Canada. Thanks to funding by the German Academic Exchange Agency, I was able to join my colleagues in Hawaii to present two current research projects on social tagging and blended learning and en passant absorb the international flair and information overflow that go together with a packed conference program.


The attendees experienced a full program. In addition to various invited lectures, 210 full papers and 235 brief papers were presented, complemented by numerous symposiums, round tables, workshops and an extensive poster session. The conference proves to be exceedingly competitive with an acceptance ratio for full paper submissions of 37%, and 56% for brief papers. Eleven submissions were honored with an outstanding paper award. My favorite was the work of Grace Lin and Curt Bonk on the community Wikibooks, which can be downloaded from their project page.

Beginning with Hawaiian chants to welcome the participants at the official conference opening and the local adage that “the voice is the highest gift we can give to other people,” audio learning and sonic media formed a recurring topic. The keynote of Tara Brabazon challenged the widely held perception that “more media are always better media” and argued for carefully developed sonic material as a motivating learning format. She illustrated her point with examples and evaluation results from a course on methods of media research (see YouTube excerpt below). Case study reports from George Washington University and Chicago’s DePaul University on iTunesU raised questions about the integration into learning management systems, single-sign-on-procedures and access management.

Among the invited lectures, I was particularly interested in the contribution of New York Times reporter Alex Wright, who reflected upon the history of hypertext. The author’s web site offers further information on The Web that Wasn’t. Alan Levine, vice-president of the Austin based New Media Consortium, clearly was the darling of the audience. Unfortunately, his talk took place in parallel to my own presentation on social tagging, but Alan has created a web site with his slides and hyperlink collection that gives a vivid overview on “50+ Web 2.0 ways to tell a story.”

A leitmotif of several keynotes was the conflict between open constructivist learning environments on one side versus instructional design models and design principles derived from cognitive psychology on the other. Stephen Downes advocated the learning paradigm of connectivism and praised self-organized learning networks that provide, share, re-use and re-arrange content. For those interested in further information on connectivism, an open content class starts in August 2009. This radical turn to free flowing, egalitarian knowledge networks was not a palatable idea for everyone. As an antagonist to Downes, David Merrill presented his “Pebble in the Pond” instructional design model that — similar to “ADDIE” (analysis, design, development, implementation, evaluation) — foresees clear steps and predictable learning outcomes. Tom Reeves, in turn, dedicated his keynote to a comprehensive criticism of multimedia principles derived from the cognitive load theory, picking up on an article by Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006), “Why Minimal Guidance Does Not Work . . . .” The audience, in particular the practitioners, reacted to this debate true to the Goethe verse “Prophet left, prophet right, the world child in the middle.” As Steve Swithenby, director of the Centre for Open Learning of Mathematics at Open University (UK) posted in the ED-MEDIA blog: “Well, actually, I want to do both and everything in between. I can’t see that either is the pattern for future learning – both are part of the ways in which learning will occur.”

With blog, twitter feed, flickr group and ning community, the conference was ringing with a many-voiced orchestra of social software tools. Gary Marks, member of the AACE international headquarters and initiator of the new ED-MEDIA community site, announced that he has planned several activities to foster interaction. So far, however, the few contributions are dedicated to potential leisure activities on Hawaii. The presentation “Who We Are” by Xavier Ochoa, Gonzalo Méndez, and Erik Duval offered a review on existing community ties of ED-MEDIA through a content analysis of paper submissions from the last 10 years. An interactive representation of the results is available online.

Twitter seems to have developed into a ubiquitous companion of conference talks. Whether the short messages add to the academic discourse and democratize ex cathedra lectures or divert the attention from the presenter, replacing substance with senseless character strings, is a controversial discussion. Accordingly, twitter received mixed responses among the conference attendees and presenters. In the end, 180 users joined the collective micro-blogging and produced approximately 2500 postings — an overview may be found at Twapper. As a follow-up to this year’s ED-MEDIA, participants were invited to take part in an online survey, designed by the Austrian/German twitter research duo Martin Ebner and Wolfgang Reinhardt. The results will hopefully further the understanding of the pros and cons of integrating microblogging in e-learning conference events.

The AACE used ED-MEDIA as an occasion to announce plans for future growth. Already responsible for three of the largest world-wide conferences on teaching and learning (ED-MEDIA, E-LEARN and SITE), the organization extends its catalog with two new formats. A virtual conference called GlobalTime will make its debut in February 2011. Additionally, the new face-to-face conference GlobalLearn targets the Asian and Pacific regions.

Is ED-MEDIA worth a visit? The sheer size of the event leads to a great breadth of topics, which often obstructs an in-depth discussion of specific issues. At the same time, there is no better way to gain an overview of multiple current trends in compact form. Another plus, all AACE conference contributions are accessible online through the Education and Information Technology Library. The next ED-MEDIA will take place in Toronto, Canada, from June 28 to July 2, 2010.

Accessibility and Common Sense

Claude AlmansiBy Claude Almansi
Editor, Accessibility Issues

Technology and technology guidelines are very important in implementing accessibility. Yet accessibility is not a technology issue — it is a common sense issue, both because it is logical and because making things as accessible as possible for as many people as possible becomes an obvious necessity once you “sense in common” with the other person, put yourself in his or her place.

Accessibility in 3D life

(I am not sure if what follows makes sense to readers in America, as accessibility in real life seems to be part of the American culture.)

People without motor disability usually don’t notice steps at the entrance of public buildings or toilet doors too narrow for a wheelchair. If you are in one, or often accompanying a person in one, you do. Builders’ decisions at times can lead to strange absurdities, though they know about accessibility rules and architectural technology. For instance, in 2000, a grand accessible toilet was added to the Museo d’Arte in Lugano (CH), while at the same time accessing the museum in a wheelchair was made well-nigh impossible by adding of a visitor-counting turnstile at the main entrance: people in wheelchairs had to be carted by on a spiral staircase up to a back door.

True, building decisions were made by the town administration, which, though it had a public works departments where people should know the rules and the technology to implement them, was not known for its common sense — in either meaning of the term. However, in 2001, after a protest by a disabled people’s association was taken up in the local media and caused questions in the local parliament, the administration finally provided a lift to the level of the back entrance for people in wheelchairs.

Computer accessibility: non-text objects

Guidelines for computerized and web content accessibility says that equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content must be provided for deaf and blind people (see the first WCAG 01 guideline, for instance). For instance, if a video is used, this means captioning audio for deaf people and giving an audio description of nonverbal actions for blind people. Or at least, if this is not feasible, offer an alternative text transcript that can be read by both blind (through text-to-speech) and deaf people.

Alt attribute

Static images that convey information should be provided with an alternative content description: when a short description is enough, this can be done in the alternative content description attribute (alt=”description”) in the link that shows the image. This should be fairly simple: nowadays, authoring tools — be they desktop or online, like the one for this blog — prompt you to add such a description when you insert an image through the “rich text” editor (see Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) Overview and links therein), which will add the alt attribute.

Nevertheless, while the above-mentioned Museo d’Arte of Lugano gave in to public pressure about wheelchair accessibility, its website remains blithely callous in ignoring basic accessibility precepts, in spite of directives to make all public administration sites accessible. It still has a “no right click” script that disables the contextual menu, thus hampering people with motor disabilities, despite the long-averred uselessness of such scripts to prevent users from saving images (either by saving the whole webpage or by looking up the URL of a given image in the source code). And it uses text images without any alt attribute instead of normal text for its navigation. Therefore, if you view the homepage in “replace images by alt attributes” mode in order to get the same content a blind person using a screen reader would, the result is:

As all texts are presented as gifs of text images WITOUT alt attributes in this page, you only see the word HOMEPAGE

Empty alt attribute

If the image is purely decorative, you still provide an alt attribute, but you leave it empty (alt=””): this way the text-to-speech just ignores it. Nevertheless, there are websites that use the empty alt attribute (no description) for images that convey information (and vice versa add a useless description for decorative images, which means that the screen reader will read a lot of bunk).

Limits of automated accessibility checkers

Automated accessibility checkers are very useful to spot accessibility problems. But as they only check the source of the page, they won’t fail a page for inappropriate uses of the empty alt attribute — they will just suggest you check that the image really doesn’t convey information. Maybe at times the empty alt attribute is deliberately used to pass the automated check, for instance if laws or regulations state that a given type of computerized content (educational in particular) must apply accessibility guidelines and if this is only checked with an automated program.

Embedding an inaccessible page into a frame is another way to bypass automated accessibility checks. (mentioned in Microsoft Case Studies: Manteca Unified School District) does pass Priority 1 level of accessibility with the CynthiaSays checker, in spite of evident lack of alt attributes (and misuses of the empty alt attribute in some cases). But it does so thanks to the use of frames. What the checker reads is the source page, which only says: “Welcome to the Manteca Unified School District. Our site uses frames, but your browser doesn’t support them.” The realcontent is in, which is embedded in a frame of CynthiaSays does fail for the lack of alternative description, but a hasty check on just might misleadingly give the impression that the page conforms to the Priority 1 level of accessibility.

Be it through the inappropriate use of the empty alt attribute or of frames, though, the result is that blind people don’t get the information conveyed by images. This is why it is so essential to apply common sense, to put oneself in the other person’s place

Accessibility in education

Fortunately, most educational web sites are designed for real accessibility to the greatest possible number of students, not just to pass automated accessibility tests. And while this can be time-consuming, it also offers great advantages to all students:

Designing for accessibility leads to greater educational usability

In the 3D world, removing — or better, avoiding from the beginning — architectural barriers to facilitate access for people in wheelchairs also improves usability for other people: mothers with a child in a pram, aged persons for whom the staircase access is too tiring, etc.

This is also true with designing computerized content with accessibility to the greatest possible number of users in mind. If you structure a text correctly, using hierarchical heading styles for subtitles (instead of just playing around with bold and font size) to make navigation easier with a screen reader for blind people, you can also automatically extract an interactive table of content. This is handy for everyone. And adding explanatory graphics to help people who have other, non-visual, text reading impairments (dyslexia for instance) will also help people who are more visually inclined.

The point is that accessibility leads to redundancy in order to cover as many cases as possible of disabilities. And hence it also covers different learning styles.

Teachers’ and students’ content

While main educational web sites tend nowadays to apply accessibility guidelines, course materials uploaded to a course management system or platform can at times remain an issue. It is therefore necessary to educate teachers about what accessibility does and does not entail and about simple tools to implement it (captioning etc.).

Web 2.0 and accessibility in education

Some education authorities are very wary of public Web 2.0 tools being used in schools, but usually because they fear they’d have to answer for students being exposed to inappropriate contacts and content. However, even when there is no such veto from the powers above, Web 2.0 tools can also present accessibility issues, especially for authoring. Jennison Asuncion has created the LinkedIn Web 2.0 Accessibility Forum where questions about these issues are discussed (you have to join, but anyone can).

Universal accessibility?

Some education authorities require that links to the Nth level be checked for appropriate content in course materials. This is not feasible, not even in the limited “non-pornographic” sense of “appropriate” they usually have in mind. Let alone for accessibility. Each person is different, and so it has been claimed that there is no such thing as universal accessibility because persons with a disability will each have different requirements. However, they will also each have their own way to address barriers.

Faced with a reading requirement presented as an image PDF, for instance, blind students are more likely than non-blind ones to think of putting it through an optical character recognition software to get a text version their text-to-speech can read — and to have such software on their computer. Yet why not start by giving the reading requirement as text to start with? It would be far more usable for everybody. One problem is that accessibility is often perceived as something very complicated and technological, “for geeks.” This is discouraging. So are some myths like “accessibility and usability are not compatible,” whose propagators at times allege to prove it by saying that “a black text on a black background,” like the one below1

This is an example of “black on
black” text that might pass automated accessibility tests.
But who – except kids wanting to write “secret messages”
– would do that?

would pass accessibility checks. Automated checks, maybe. But as explained above, automated checks are useful tools, but just tools.

So even if universal electronic accessibility is not concretely reachable, accessibility to the greatest number of people, according to their various capacities and impairments, must be the goal. To this end, there are some basic “common sense” design principles that are useful to all, and there are free, easy-to-use tools to implement them. And for fine-tuning, there are experts ready to answer questions. It is necessary to make people — and teachers in particular — who produce electronic content aware of this.

Pet bitch

One of the accessibility design principles is the already mentioned use of heading styles for titles and subtitles in a text, rather than messing about with character size and shape and bold and what-not directly on the text. See Using Headings Correctly in WebAIM’s Creating a Semantic Structure page.

Indeed, heading styles are semantic because they identify for others — not only for the screen-readers used by the blind — what you consider as main and subsidiary content, and they allow you to draw an interactive table of content2. Yet, somehow, it is at times difficult to convey the usefulness of headings, even to teachers and to people otherwise endowed with strong logical capacities. So why don’t blog platforms — this one included — almost never offer the possibility to choose heading styles in their visual editor while wiki platforms do?

Sure, authors can switch to the html version and add the necessary tags, as I have done here. But I can still remember the not-so-distant time when I had sworn I would never learn a single html tag, because I thought it was “geek stuff”. . .


1To view the text, just highlight the black box by mousing over it

Ineffective Use of Computers in Schools

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

On Tuesday, December 9, 2008, the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, “Obama wants to put more computers in classrooms, an old idea with dubious educational merit”[1].

It’s true that people have been putting computers in classrooms for many years. It’s also true that the impact of these computers has often been less than wished. However, neither of those facts tell us that we should stop. Rather, they tell us to review how and why computers are being used in those classrooms.

In my own visits to schools across the country, I have seen those computers being both underutilized and over-utilized. In some schools, the computers sit idle while traditional instruction continues. Occasionally, students are allowed to use the computers, and they get to use the standard business tools available such as spreadsheets and word processors. Sure, it’s nice that the students are learning to use those tools, but are they helping students learn their subject? I think not.

In other schools, I’ve seen computer rooms fully booked so that some teachers are unable to use them at all for their students. Upon inquiry, I discovered that math and English classes have priority because of high-stakes testing. The computers have various programs on them that drill the students on concepts required on those tests. In my opinion, these schools are wasting a valuable resource.

Computers slowly and quite certainly have revolutionized many businesses. Lawyers, among the last to succumb, now cannot live without their word processors with the ability to rewrite accurately, insert boilerplate, and check spelling and grammar. Software has been created to support the advances in productivity that we’ve seen in many industries. So, what’s the matter with education?

keller04The larger class sizes we see in schools are not the result of improved worker productivity; they’re caused by budget shortfalls. Clearly, computers have not improved teacher productivity. Students aren’t learning better. Just look at any number of international measures of student success in mathematics and science. We (the United States) are losing.

At least in traditional classrooms, neither the quantity nor quality of product has improved in this age of technology. Charter schools are making some headway mostly because their employees work multiple job descriptions and long hours. Generally, online education works because students self-select based on study skills, and teachers have tools to allow them to have slightly larger numbers of students. Those tools come with “learning management systems” (LMS) that online schools use to handle administration of classes.

To be fair, the United States has over 50 different sets of standards for education and administers those standards from a very large number of individual school districts. That fact makes creating software usable across the entire country quite difficult. Turkey has committed its education system to online learning and doesn’t have the same problems. The software I’ve seen from Turkey is first-rate and shames our own home-grown efforts.

If we don’t get moving on real innovation in education right now, we may find our children learning from online schools headquartered in Turkey, Israel, and Singapore quite soon. Teachers, like factory workers, will see their jobs disappear overseas.

Instead of waiting, as the automobile industry did, until it’s too late, begin today by merging the various state standards, requiring teachers to use good computer-based learning tools, and having our federal government support innovation that uses technology to make a real difference and that’s not just drill repackaged or textbooks converted to online format with animations and sound or other similar old methods with new facades.