Thomas Edison State College Offers Internet Access to the Visually Impaired

 Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, New Jersey, is a strong believer in providing inclusive education beyond the typical classroom setting. The college enables adult students throughout the U.S. and around the world to take courses and earn degrees in a variety of methods including their On-Line Computer Classroom.

Yet its inclusiveness was put to the test in considering the needs of a population that could not be served by traditional online methods. Thomas Edison State College provides its students with courses and information such as curriculum, class schedules, advisement and e-mail privileges via the college's proprietary network. Unfortunately, this platform cannot readily serve potential students whose computer access is limited by visual impairment. Indeed, computer access for the visually impaired was, for many years, available only with the help of very expensive hardware and special software additions to existing programs.

Now the online world, with its emphasis on graphics and the clicking of a mouse on icons, literally locks the visually impaired out of cyberspace. And Thomas Edison State College, with plans to change its platforms from a proprietary network to an HTML text-based Internet system, would be working against its mission of inclusiveness and thus contributing to the dilemma facing its visually impaired students.

A Talking Web Browser

The college's solution came almost by accident when Drew Hopkins, director of MIS, noticed the Web cite design work created for the City of Trenton by Ray Ingram, a local cyber-designer. Hopkins invited Ingram to re-design Thomas Edison's Web site ( and, during that period, learned that Ingram was in the process of creating a new company with a special mission: providing Internet access to the blind.

Ingram's nascent company, The Productivity Works, developed pwWebSpeak, a speaking, large-type Web browser that enables the visually impaired to explore the World Wide Web. Created for the Windows environment (3.1, 3.11, 95), pwWebSpeak technology is specifically designed to remedy the obstacles facing the visually impaired: the Web browser itself interacts directly with the information on Web pages, translating this data into speech.

The software navigates the user through the structure of a document based on its contents, rather than scrolling and interpreting a structured screen display. Unlike previous technologies that attempted to cover the same ground, pwWebSpeak understands the HTML constructs, thereby automatically bypassing any constructs that have no relation to the information content of the document.

The pwWebSpeak software supplies both speech and large-character interpretation of Web pages. The software's architecture supports multiple modalities for control and display, thereby facilitating access to Web-based information by a wide range of students and staff.

Further appealing to Hopkins' sense of educational all-inclusiveness were the further uses of the technology. As a speaking Web browser that reads aloud a Web page's contents, pwWebSpeak also opened cyberspace to students with dyslexia, for whom reading is often a frustrating obstacle course. Now dyslexic students can literally have Web sites read aloud rather than suffer through the confusion of not being able to comprehend the text on the monitors before them.

A Single, Universal Access Point

On June 17, 1996, Thomas Edison State College became the first educational institution to license pwWebSpeak. The license agreement allows the school to offer pwWebSpeak to students, staff and faculty, providing a new avenue of access to the wealth of information and research material available on the Internet. "Thomas Edison State College is well known for reaching out to those who are often overlooked in their pursuit of learning," explains Hopkins. "I believe this effort and pwWebSpeak fit our pattern of innovation. We are pleased to be part of this project."

Implementing pwWebSpeak is part of the college's concentrated push towards total Internet access. Thomas Edison College is currently developing applications for the Internet that mimic those presently available on the school's proprietary network. "We want to create a single access point for all of the colleges services by developing intuitive applications for both students and faculty," says Hopkins. "In an environment where students of a single institution are located all over the world, ease of use and access are the keys to success."

The college currently offers a Masters in Science and Management degree that uses the Internet, which they plan to use as a blueprint for designing similar online services. Over the next year, most if not all, the services offered on the college's proprietary network will be transferred to the Internet. This means that students will be able to access class schedules, courses and course information, ask billing questions, receive academic advisement, as well as obtain detailed information about enrollment and transfer credits, all via the Internet.

There are also plans to create a "chat engine" that will not only enable faculty and students to communicate, but will also create an atmosphere of community by allowing students to casually chat with each other and keep up with current collegiate events. In instruction, a classroom-type atmosphere will be created by having faculty use the chat engine to post questions, enabling students to respond to both the professor and fellow students. Furthermore, much of a course's reference material will be made available online, saving students both time and expense in obtaining them.

The design for the college's new Internet service is taking place entirely in-house, with new courses added according to demand. As more of the proprietary network is transferred to the Internet, the Thomas Edison College, with the help of pwWebSpeak, will soon hold the distinction of being the only college to offer truly universal access to all of its programs and services.

Product mentioned: The Productivity Works, Trenton, NJ, (609) 984-8044, or [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.