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Setting up a mailbox for visually impaired students


Peter RODNEY, Danish Institute for the Blind and Partially Sighted (Denmark)

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Detailed Abstract

The paper describes the development of an EU Comenius project. The intention of the project was to give the visually impaired student access to the same e-mail possibilities as their fully sighted fellow students has. The paper covers many issues on the subject, but are of origin not a technical presentation. It deals more with the process of adjusting 4 institutions in their expectations on e-mail possibilities for visually impaired people and the difficulties in starting a communicational process between the students.

Many organisational issues are also questioned, but an essential point is that there are a long span from the technical possibilities to the personal implementation of such technical facilities.

The goal for the project was:

  1. To analyses the field of e-mail software that at present was available for visually impaired students.
  2. To develop educational material and pedagogical methods to be used in introducing the use of these applications.
  3. Motivate and support the students in the initial phase
  4. To create a social network between visually impaired students, both nationally and internationally

These are still the objectives, but we are still trying to update them and are at the moment considering to include the Baltic countries

In the software part, I describe the latest changes in the situation for blind students where the shift from DOS oriented application to Windows applications has procured a whole new setting with new challenges to both the students and the staff.

The individual support and motivation especially are been giving a close investigation. It analyses the different aspects in this process and give an impression on difficulties impaired students are facing

The social network part of the presentation is a later added assignment. This was done because of the different situation the students were facing in the different countries. It takes it starting point in the Danish integration policy as it has developed the last 25 years. The statement is, that visually impaired people in a fully integrated educational system should have the possibility of speaking with other students in the same situation. We find that the mailbox project is a good way to achieve this network

The conclusion is that it is not enough to provide the students with the suitable software and technical solutions. There must be a considerably effort on the pedagogical aspects as well

Furthermore the paper is an invitation to take part in the exchange of e-mail. Young visually impaired students are invited to join the maillinglist at the listserver. Extensive information is available from the project page at www.visinfo.dk/ibs/mailbox.htm

J. Engelen et ali: "COPERNICUS NR 806 Final report", Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, April 1997.

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Full Paper

Table of Contents:

  1. [ The beginning of project ]
  2. [ The different aspects of project ]
  3. [ The objectives of project ]
  4. [ The different conditions of blind student ]
  5. [ How does the project stand today? ]
  6. [ The future ]
  7. [ An open invitation ]

1. The beginning of the project

The background for this project between institutions in Denmark, Finland, Germany and the UK was an approach by the Staatlicher Handelschule für Blinde und Seebehindere in Hamburg. They had during the fall of 1995 tried to contact some parallel schools in several European countries, trying to get partners for an EU COMENIUS project with the working title "setting up a mailbox for visually impaired students" The main idea in this preliminary phase was that visually impaired students should have the same possibility of using the e-mail part of the Internet as fully sighted students have.

In 1995 the possibilities of the Internet and the use of e-mail was still in a wait-and-see phase. Many colleagues at the approached institutions were not sure of the implications and the potential of these new technologies. And first of all, many of these colleagues had only read or heard about these developments. They had never had hands-on.

The circumstances for research and development of new initiatives at the European institutions for visually impaired were best described with the lack of time or resources. Many had replied that they were interested, but that they could not manage to take part in a European development project. They had to spend all of their resources on daily tasks and even that often turned out to be insufficient. So the daily stress factor was to many an enormous obstacle.

The next organisational problem in establishing this transnational project was that the institutions had to apply for funding at their local national agencies. This meant that these agencies, who often had different application dates, where waiting for each other for granting project money. The consequences were that whenever an institution either withdraws from the project or is being refused funding, it affects the rest of the participating institutions. For the Danish participation it meant that when a UK institution withdrew, we were told from our national agency that the project proposal now only consisted of two institutions instead of the 3 that were needed, and for that reason we were not given funds for the first year. So we took part in the planning process on our own expense. One thing you can learn from that is that whenever you are planning a European project you should contact more institutions than the minimum required. The first year was therefore spent on organisational and planing issues.

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2. How did the different aspects of the project develop?

The participating institutions ended up being:

To summarise the 4 institutions you can say that none of them were organised in the same way or were providing the same services. This was really a challenge. The common aspect for the institutions was that the students were in an educational situation, between 15 and 20 years of age and that they were visually impaired, besides a few students from Barnsley College who had other disabilities.

At our first joint meeting in Hamburg in November 1996 the representatives from the institutions outlined the goals of the project together with a timetable for the work and the guidelines for our way of conducting the co-ordination of the project.

First, we reconsidered the name of the project, "putting up a mailbox". It was to some of the participants uncertain what the technical implication was and at the same time it became clear that we wanted to add more to the project than just the ability to send e-mail. So the project was given an extra describing title, namely "Improving the life quality of visually impaired people by using the Internet" We would in this context like to emphasise the word use.

By doing that we tried to set several goals for the project.

  1. To analyses the field of e-mail software that at present was available to visually impaired students.
  2. To develop educational material and pedagogical methods to be used in introducing the use of these applications.
  3. Motivate and support the students in the initial phase
  4. To create a social network between visually impaired students, both nationally and internationally

The next thing we decided was that our own communication, planning and exchange of information should be done through the Internet. This turned out to be both an advance and a difficulty.

The positive side was obvious, since e-mail is a fast and relatively secure way of communication. Another great advance was that we established a project web site administrated by the Danish Institute. You can find the project web site at this URL: www.visinfo.dk/ibs/mailbox.htm. The idea was that all information concerning the project could be gathered here. At the same time there are links to the national project pages in the participating countries.

The problem we encountered in our "communication by the Internet" was that it was quite difficult to make it work in practice. In theory it sounds so easy, but when it comes down to reality it is more complicated than that. "Technical problems" turned out to be the harmful misfortune that haunted us throughout the project. So we were learning it the hard way. The technical problems went from ISDN connection failures due to cable lengths to software difficulties and insufficient support. Still today we suffer from temporary failures in sending ordinary e-mail to each other, due to mailserver problems.

Why did we change the title of the project, and why did we add the social network aspect to the goals of the project?

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3. The objectives of the project

The first 2 objectives of the project are quite ordinary pedagogical approaches to a new field of education, this could have taken place at any of the participating institutions. Of course it always a good idea to exchange information, but as we found out later in the process, it is not always straightforward to offer and receive information on, for instance, software. The conditions for analysing and developing the software at the institutions turned out to very different.

I will at this point not go into a closer description of the advantages or disadvantages of the different e-mail software that is used in the project, but reefer to the web site. I will just as an example mention that the programme "Pine" that has been working well for one institution, was useless to another since in those versions we had found, it was only usable in local networks.

The second objective, the exchange of educational material, is still to come. Since the native languages of the participating students are 4 different European languages, it still is very difficult for us to make a pedagogical approach. Here we saw again that the technical problems overshadowed the pedagogical issues. I can just hope for further research and projects for the pedagogical issues in education of the visually impaired students.

So with all these reservations I move on to the 3rd of the objectives. We very soon realised that the education and training in the use of e-mail, without actually having anybody to mail to, was the same as practising the use of the telephone without anyone at the other end. So whom should the students send all their mail to? Of course to each other. But first we did not have a list of the participating students and more, what would they tell each other? It is very difficult to approach anybody without having an idea of what to talk about, what should the subject be and so on.

To solve this problem we decided to set up a listserver function. A listserver is a kind of active bulletin board system. To take part in this service the students just had to send a subscribing e-mail to the listserver. Then it is very easy to send collective or shared e-mails to all the members in the mail group. This is different from an ordinary bulletin board system where you actively have to look up the site and go through the content to se if there is any news. This is the same way that newsgroups are working. With the listserver you automatically receive all the mail that is sent to the server. This of course means that the messages that are sent to the server are of a more public nature. Examples:

Hi my name is Matthew Greening and I am studying Information Technology at college. I enjoy many things such as various sports e.g. Football, Tennis and Formula 1 racing. I enjoy using my computers at home for work and playing many different types of games I enjoy films at the cinema and enjoy playing the drums and other percussion and listening to the BEATLES

Hello there my name is Andrew Foster, I am a student at Barnsley College in south yorkshire, England. You know the place, that funny little island near France the one that is wet for most of the year. I am just sending

this message to see if there is any body that would like to talk to me and it would help if you did because using e-mail is part of my GNVQ course in Information Technology. It would be helpful if you could pass this message on to other people that can reply to it, my mail books address is a.foster@he-learner.barnsley.ac.uk

thank you for taking the time to read this message

You can then either respond to this message in the same open way, telling about your interests or suggestions, or you can respond directly to the sender and in that way start a more personal dialogue. The listserver function is very effective if you want to start a communication between groups of people who share a common interest, but really do not know each other. On the Internet, there are several listservers that deal with all sorts of subjects around visual impairment. See for example the index of blindness-related and blindness-specific e-mailing lists at http://www.hicom.net/~oedipus/blist.html

This 3rd of our objectives had a second part: Motivating and stimulating the students to use this facility. I often see a difference between the technical possibility and the actual use of the possibility. This is often the case if the innovations of this subject are put into the hands of technicians. They tend to think that once the technical possibilities are available, everything will develop by itself. I more tend to think that the introduction of these techniques must be a specific and carefully planed communication process with a distinctive pedagogical aspect in it. Especially if you, as in this example, are dealing with people who are in a special situation. So in promoting this idea of e-mailing other visually impaired students, we had to take into consideration every individual aspect of each student’s life. How was his or her social life, did they have few or many friends, how was their approach or attitude towards computers, how did they appear as persons, in other word are they extrovert or introvert in their approach to challenges or problems. All these aspects had to be taken into consideration when a student was offered the opportunity to join the project. It is not just enough to hand out an e-mail account, a piece of software and a handbook.

The 4th and last objective to create a social network, is linked to the additional title of the project, improving the quality of life of visually impaired people. This extension of the project in many ways challenges the usual way that we think of the integration of impaired people. At least as it is carried out in the Nordic counties. Here it has been a firm conviction that visually impaired children and students could be fully integrated into the mainstream educational system, as long as the supporting system provided the necessary assistance. Resent research has shown us that this is only is true to a certain degree. Many of these students do not have many friends, if any at all, they are lonely and are often not invited to take part in social events in their peer group. When I see these young persons in groups with other visually impaired young persons, they tell each other about their experiences in the fully sighted world. They seem to relax and are able to exist on their own terms. I am not saying that the segregated world is better, just that for many it seems important to have relations to the world of the visual impaired. The full aspects of these implications are beyond the scope of this presentation.

This ends up with the importance of a wellfunctioning social network. And you do not necessarily get that from the perhaps limited group of visually impaired fellow students you meet during the day. Especially if you are in a fully integrated system. To have a social network with a broad personal approach among people who are in a similar situation, you must have a relatively large number of persons to choose from.

In this sense the listserver group, where you meet and discus topics with other visually impaired students, is an extension of the potential social network and in this way improves the quality of life.

Throughout the 2½ years that the project has been running the computerworld has changed considerably. One change that has had a great impact on the project is the final shift from DOS-based to Windows based program. This has had great significance for blind computer users. I 1995 there were still some DOS programs available for the blind users. So the most radical consequence during the project years for blind users is in the shift from a DOS to a Windows environment. I will not go into details about that, but just say that when we look at the partially sighted students they are now well off with enlargement programs like Zoomtext. But the blind users who are still trying to survive on a DOS level are in a troublesome position. In Denmark there are only 2 Internet providers who offer a DOS access. The e-mail side of this service is badly off, with only shareware programs like Yarn, Nupop, Pine and Pegasus for which the providers do not have any hotline service.

At the same time we had to realise that Braille displays were developed quite differently in the participating countries and that there were often individually manufactured devices like the Braille-lite in each country. In Denmark we have the Logtext. All these factors have until now placed the blind students in a difficult position. Until an acceptable Windows access has been introduced this will still be a major obstacle.

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4. The different conditions for blind and partially sighted students

In this sense the listserver group, where you meet and discus topics with other visually impaired students, is an extension of the potential social network and in this way improves the quality of life.

Throughout the 2½ years that the project has been running the computerworld has changed considerably. One change that has had a great impact on the project is the final shift from DOS-based to Windows based program. This has had great significance for blind computer users. I 1995 there were still some DOS programs available for the blind users. So the most radical consequence during the project years for blind users is in the shift from a DOS to a Windows environment. I will not go into details about that, but just say that when we look at the partially sighted students they are now well off with enlargement programs like Zoomtext. But the blind users who are still trying to survive on a DOS level are in a troublesome position. In Denmark there are only 2 Internet providers who offer a DOS access. The e-mail side of this service is badly off, with only shareware programs like Yarn, Nupop, Pine and Pegasus for which the providers do not have any hotline service.

At the same time we had to realise that Braille displays were developed quite differently in the participating countries and that there were often individually manufactured devices like the Braille-lite in each country. In Denmark we have the Logtext. All these factors have until now placed the blind students in a difficult position. Until an acceptable Windows access has been introduced this will still be a major obstacle.

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5. How does the project stand today? A success or a failure?

It is not safe to say, at this stage, whether the project has been a failure or a success. Many things have gone wrong or turned out in another way than we had predicted. The technical problems have often been overwhelming and the different ways that the support system is established in the different countries have also made things problematic. Things have taken much longer than we predicted in the initial phase and are very dependent on personal relations. Another obstacle has been the number of students participating in the project.

In the planning phase we predicted that around 50 students would take part in the project. At this point we must realise that the number is 20 and that they are not sending as much e-mail as we had expected. Together this means that the total communication has not been large enough to become fluent.

The positive position of the project is that we have begun and have overcome many beginners mishap. Many technical problems have been solved, and visually impaired students have begun to communicate over the Internet and more are coming along each month. Besides that the staff at the institutions has learned about the conditions for visually impaired people the different countries, and the personal contact that has come out of our meetings has brought many new ideas to the surface. At the moment we are planning a joint meeting in Copenhagen where some of the students will have a chance to meet each other. This we see as a natural step since the Internet will never be able to replace face to face human contact. We have the expectation that this part of the project will be growing in the future.

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6. Where should we place our efforts in the future?

So where should we put our combined efforts in the future? First, we must secure a solution for an unproblematic access for blind users. Next we must keep on telling the impaired students of the possibilities that are emerging from the Internet and in that process still try to assist on a personal level.

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7.An Open Invitation

I have an invitation.

By presenting this paper we would like other European visually impaired students to take part in the project. We know that many of you in the audience are in contact with students who already have an e-mail address and if not this could be a god opportunity to get a modem and set up an account. The only thing you have to do to join, is to follow the instruction on our project page on the Internet as I showed you earlier on. Or take a print copy here.

Welcome to the European mailbox project for visually impaired students.


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Elaboration d'une boîte aux lettres pour étudiants déficients visuels


Peter RODNEY, Danish Institute for the Blind and Partially Sighted (Denmark)

Résumé Détaillé

Introduction

Cet article décrit le développement d'un projet Comenius européen. L'intention du projet était de donner aux étudiants déficients visuels l'accès aux mêmes possibilités de courrier électronique que celles dont disposent leurs condisciples voyants. L'article traite de nombreux problèmes liés à cette question, et n'est pas en premier lieu une présentation technique. Il s'intéresse davantage au processus d'adaptation de quatre institutions dans ce qu'elles attendent des possibilités du courrier électronique pour les déficients visuels, et aux difficultés rencontrées pour établir un processus de communication entre les étudiants.De nombreux problèmes d'organisation sont également soulevés, mais un point essentiel est qu'il reste un long chemin à parcourir entre les possibilités techniques et la mise en oeuvre individuelle de ces facilités techniques.

Le but du projet était :

1. D'analyser les logiciels de courrier électronique actuellement à la disposition des étudiants déficients visuels.

2. De développer du matériel d'enseignement et des méthodes pédagogiques servant à initier à l'utilisation de ces applications.

3. De motiver et de soutenir les étudiants lors de la phase initiale.

4. De mettre sur pied un réseau social entre les étudiants déficients visuels, tant au niveau national qu'international.

Ces objectifs restent les nôtres, mais nous essayons de les mettre à jour régulièrement et nous étudions actuellement l'extension du projet aux pays de la Baltique.

Dans la partie consacrée aux logiciels, je décris les derniers changements dans la situation des étudiants aveugles, où le passage des applications orientées DOS aux applications sous Windows a instauré un contexte totalement nouveau avec de nouveaux défis aussi bien pour les étudiants que pour les enseignants.

Le soutien et la motivation individuels ont fait l'objet d'une étude particulièrement détaillée, analysant les différents aspects de ce processus et donnant une idée

des difficultés auxquelles sont confrontés les étudiants déficients visuels.

La partie "réseau social" de l'étude a été ajoutée par la suite, en raison des différences entre les situations auxquelles sont confrontés les étudiants dans les divers pays. Elle prend comme point de départ la politique d'intégration danoise telle qu'elle a évolué au cours des vingt-cinq dernières années. L'assertion est que les déficients visuels dans un système d'enseignement totalement intégré, devraient avoir la possibilité de dialoguer avec d'autres étudiants dans la même situation. Nous pensons que le projet de boîte aux lettres est un bon moyen de réaliser un tel réseau.

Conclusion

La conclusion est qu'il ne suffit pas de fournir aux étudiants les logiciels et les solutions techniques appropriés : un effort considérable doit également être accompli au niveau pédagogique.

En outre, cet article est une invitation à participer à l'échange de courrier électronique. Les jeunes étudiants déficients visuels européens sont invités à s'inscrire sur la liste de distribution sur le serveur de listes. Des renseignements détaillés peuvent être obtenus sur la page du projet à l'adresse : www.visinfo.dk/ibs/mailbox.htm

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