Thomas Edison State College Offers Internet Access to the Visually Impaired

 Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, NewJersey, is a strong believer in providing inclusive education beyondthe typical classroom setting. The college enables adult studentsthroughout the U.S. and around the world to take courses and earndegrees in a variety of methods including their On-Line ComputerClassroom.

Yet its inclusiveness was put to the test inconsidering the needs of a population that could not be served bytraditional online methods. Thomas Edison State College provides itsstudents with courses and information such as curriculum, classschedules, advisement and e-mail privileges via the college'sproprietary network. Unfortunately, this platform cannot readilyserve potential students whose computer access is limited by visualimpairment. Indeed, computer access for the visually impaired was,for many years, available only with the help of very expensivehardware and special software additions to existingprograms.

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

A Talking Web Browser

The college's solution came almost by accidentwhen Drew Hopkins, director of MIS, noticed the Web cite design workcreated for the City of Trenton by Ray Ingram, a localcyber-designer. Hopkins invited Ingram to re-design Thomas Edison'sWeb site (, during that period, learned that Ingram was in the process ofcreating a new company with a special mission: providing Internetaccess to the blind.

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

The software navigates the user through thestructure of a document based on its contents, rather than scrollingand interpreting a structured screen display. Unlike previoustechnologies that attempted to cover the same ground, pwWebSpeakunderstands the HTML constructs, thereby automatically bypassing anyconstructs that have no relation to the information content of thedocument.

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

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

A Single, Universal Access Point

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

Implementing pwWebSpeak is part of the college'sconcentrated push towards total Internet access. Thomas EdisonCollege is currently developing applications for the Internet thatmimic those presently available on the school's proprietary network."We want to create a single access point for all of the collegesservices by developing intuitive applications for both students andfaculty," says Hopkins. "In an environment where students of asingle institution are located all over the world, ease of use andaccess are the keys to success."

The college currently offers a Masters in Scienceand Management degree that uses the Internet, which they plan to useas a blueprint for designing similar online services. Over the nextyear, most if not all, the services offered on the college'sproprietary network will be transferred to the Internet. This meansthat students will be able to access class schedules, courses andcourse information, ask billing questions, receive academicadvisement, as well as obtain detailed information about enrollmentand 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, butwill also create an atmosphere of community by allowing students tocasually chat with each other and keep up with current collegiateevents. In instruction, a classroom-type atmosphere will be createdby having faculty use the chat engine to post questions, enablingstudents to respond to both the professor and fellow students.Furthermore, much of a course's reference material will be madeavailable online, saving students both time and expense in obtainingthem.

The design for the college's new Internet serviceis taking place entirely in-house, with new courses added accordingto demand. As more of the proprietary network is transferred to theInternet, the Thomas Edison College, with the help ofpwWebSpeak, will soon hold the distinction of being theonly college to offer truly universal access to all of its programsand services.

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

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