The clock ticks

Posted: March 31, 2008 in meta, Pedagogy, Usability

About a week ago, my adviser asked me if I had started packing yet (I’m moving to another school for a PhD program next year). I responded “Not physically.” He laughed. I hadn’t meant it as a joke. At the time, I thought I meant just that while I had started planning how to pack things up (like my office), I hadn’t actually started yet.

Looking back, though, I see that I really did mean what he thought I meant. I’ve started packing up and leaving school. I have one foot out the door. Senioritis, if you prefer. And I really don’t like that.

Thankfully, I had the opportunity to force myself to some additional rigor. I was required to say in writing when I would have my thesis finished. The date offered to me was April 20, which is a Sunday. I opted to push the date back, just a little, and said I would finish on or before the 18th. Granted, rigor was not the only reason I did this. April 20 is the anniversary of my mother’s death, and I never do any work that day. (her death, by the way, also ruined April Fool’s day for me; I found out she was going to die on the 1st that year)

Getting back to rigor… I am trying to push myself to stay on target. I am presenting in my adviser’s place on Wednesday for a workshop on accessibility. More about that in a second… I am also presenting a paper at a conference next Friday and running a workshop on writing dialog the following Monday. Once that’s done, my thesis is due four days later. Oh, and I have 40 students handing in 5-7 page research papers this Friday. So I’m piling on the stress, because it helps me concentrate.

None of that is important though. This is a research blog. Therefore, I should really be discussing things like accessibility. Preparing to present on this topic has really made me think about it, and about how important it is. My uncle has been a quadriplegic all my life and I spent many summers working with kids who would have killed to have that much movement. So maybe Accessibility rings true for that reason. I don’t know. What I do know is that I think it’s very important, and most people don’t.

The bottom line is that any website that isn’t accessible denies access to a significant number of people, and it’s so easy to prevent that. But it’s more than people who are physically handicapped. The blind, the deaf, the partially blind; all of these people need accessible websites as well.

No need to really expound on that, I don’t think. What I can talk about, though, is a number of places where accessibility is necessary but often ignored, because people just don’t think about it. Specifically, I want to focus on Pedagogy.

If I had a student with special needs, I would be informed ahead of time. But I still make the website that I design for a class (and indeed, any site I design) as accessible as I possibly can. I do this because I know that some students will be accessing it with an older, slower computer. Some will visit on their iPhones or PDAs. I also do it to make the site more usable.

Accessibility is part of Usability; I hope that goes without saying. I’ve noticed that most of the things that increase accessibility also increase usability (with the possible exception of an accessibility statement). And it goes both ways; most of the things I can do to increase usability also increase accessibility. Having larger links with more expressive text helps those with motor dysfunction, but is also helps those students who can’t be bothered to read the whole text and just want to know where to click (ie, virtually all of them). Having a color scheme that will still be clear for those that are color blind helps the colorblind, obviously, but it also tends to make the site more appealing and less offensive to the eyes.

My wife has a vision disorder (the name of which escapes me) that makes it very hard for her to focus on stark contrasts. She can’t read black on white very well, and uses translucent plastic covering to help her read for school. She isn’t color blind, but the stark contrast that bothers her immediately will also bother students who look at the site for too long.

I want everything I do to be as usable as possible. That’s why I like footnotes so much. I like to be able to put footnotes throughout a paper, pointing to other sources if the reader is interested. It’s like hypertext in print. And hypertext in general is fascinating. I’ll talk about that in another post.

The point is, the more effort we put in to Accessibility with teaching, the better. Students need to be able to look at their notes or a handout years later and still understand it. They need to be have multiple tracks to understanding something (like when you have multiple links to the same place on a site. I have several leading to the main page on every page of the site, for example).

This came up most concretely during my class today. As I mentioned, their research paper is due Friday. Since I’m presenting on Wednesday, there won’t be class between today and when the paper is due. (This worked out well; I liked giving them time to work) So today we spent the class trouble shooting. While I answered questions and offered suggestions, I realized that I was trying to offer multiple ways to deal with any problem my students presented. This isn’t a brilliant breakthrough; every good teacher I’ve ever had has done this, and I’m just trying to be as effective as they were. But the act of doing this, the act of showing multiple ways to approach a problem, increases the usability of the teaching. Just like joking around can make the class more accessible to the students, showing them multiple ways is just like putting three links to the same thing on a website. I explain a solution, then explain it again from another angle, and hopefully again from a third.

Like I said, this is no innovation. But it interested me to think about how Usability and Accessibility apply to a whole lot more than just computers.

  1. cbdilger says:

    Finished? You mean drafted 🙂

    Accessibility is part of Usability

    A lot of people think this, but I’m not so sure; it’s a very complicated relationship. There’s a lot of overlap. In practice, I think it’s best to consider them differently.

  2. cogitas says:

    I consider them different things, but I think that they are deeply interconnected. I might say that each is a necessary (but not sufficient) part of the other, but I’m not sure about that.

    I definitely agree that I need to look more deeply at this issue.

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