Teesside University’s Widgets for Inclusive Distributed Environment (WIDE) project aimed to produce open source widgets that can be plugged into a range of learning environments to support disabled learners and are freely available for use and adaptation by the wider community.

Widgets to support disabled learners - Teeside University

Introduction

Teesside University’s Widgets for Inclusive Distributed Environment (WIDE) project aimed to produce open source widgets that can be plugged into a range of learning environments to support disabled learners and are freely available for use and adaptation by the wider community. The project used a community based approach by involving disabled learners not just as research subjects but as consultants, designers and partners. The result: a bank of high quality widgets that can be plugged in to a range of VLEs.

The Accessibility Research Centre at Teeside University is a group of academics, researchers and technical developers with an interest in making IT more accessible for people with disabilities, and more inclusive to all users. A JISC workshop on wookie widgets (which allow you to upload and deploy widgets for your applications) inspired the Centre’s director, Elaine Pearson, to explore the area further and successfully apply for JISC funding. The resulting WIDE project fitted perfectly with the general research direction at Teeside – the group had already done a lot of work on adaptable learning objects and on personal learning environments.

The widgets, gadgets and (mobile) applications market has had considerable growth over the past several years, as we turn to mobile applications for immediate access to many resources and tasks that once were performed on desktop computers. These emerging technologies provide an opportunity for the creation of small, bespoke widgets that perform specific functions and act as assistive technology and learning aids to support learners with disabilities.

Personalised learning

The learning landscape of the twenty-first century is increasingly allowing students to make personal choices about their learning. To act on these choices students need the right resources – which often isn’t the case. A recent survey on the e-learning experiences of disabled students in Higher Education (Seale et al., 2010) has highlighted an ‘all or nothing’ approach to assistive tools, in which you either have the technology or not. Furthermore, when students with disabilities use proprietary access technology, they have little or no way to adapt it or select individual components to suit their own needs. For users with disabilities, as for all other users, free or open source software offers the opportunity for users to control their own learning, to make software fit their needs rather than passively accepting whatever developers choose to offer them. The WIDE project aimed to produce open source widgets that can be plugged into a range of learning environments to support disabled learners and are freely available for use and adaptation by the wider community. The idea was to make widgets that meet specific needs, but at the same time could be easily adapted to suit other specific needs.

Collaborative design

The project team used a community based approach by involving disabled learners not just as research subjects but as consultants, designers and partners.

Through a series of workshops and a collaborative design and development process, the WIDE project team brought together accessibility experts, academics, researchers, teachers, tutors and other practitioners from the Higher, Further and Specialist College education sectors to develop a set of bespoke widgets. Researchers and technologists (WIDE team) worked together with disabled students and practitioners to identify a student need, and to explore the issues and impacts of potential solutions to that need. The ideas were then translated into a design document, which represents a learning design for a widget that will best support the student. The WIDE development team then adopted an agile development approach to produce iterative prototypes of the widgets in close cooperation with the designers. The result: a bank of high quality widgets that can be plugged in to a range of learning environments.

Following the design process each of the widgets were classified in terms of a number of factors grouped into technical elements (such as whether they needed access to a database, web-services, operating system or GPS) display features (widget window, desktop, full-screen, movable, resizable, dock-able etc) and application compatibility (such as to mobile device, browser or VLE).

The widgets

The nature of widgets lend themselves to an agile development process with quick feedback.

The project team had set themselves a huge task. In six months they managed to achieve everything they had set out to do and developed 31 widgets. These include a wide range of tools such as:

  • Visual shopping list widget that provides symbol-based task list
  • Digital abacus, a learning aid widget to assist students with motor difficulties in their math calculations
  • Sentence jumbler widget that shuffles the words in a sentence requiring the user to put
    them in the right order
  • ‘I am here widget’, a widget that allows the user to report that they have arrived at a specific location
  • ‘Ruler’, is a simple widget that supports dyslexic students reading and tracking text


    Visual shopping listDigital abacus

    Virtual shopping list                 Digital Abacus

The widgets have been widely disseminated and the team have already had an external request for an adaptation to the Visual Shopping List widget: “When I saw the Visual Shopping List in the JorumOpen listings I knew it was something I should show to the teachers. They liked the widget very much and have asked me to try and find out if it can be adapted. Their particular idea is that the teacher would be able to type in weights and specify exact brands, where necessary, to allow the system to be used within cooking classes where students visit the catering store to collect their ingredients.”

Meeting users’ needs

“As a result of that initial JISC funding, we produced something that practitioners really want.” Elaine Pearson, Director, ARC

The WIDE project clearly established that there is a demand for bespoke widgets, especially to support disabled students. “Throughout the whole process we have involved the community – designers, developers, teachers, researchers and students – in creating something that people actually wanted,” explains Elaine Pearson. The team combined participatory and agile development approaches and managed to encapsulate learner voices and produce bespoke widgets as a result. The positive results of a preliminary evaluation of the widgets in context by disabled students highlight that the WIDE process has been effective in responding to the needs of disabled students.

The future for widgets

“The interface is excellent and will be hugely popular, not only for disabled people but as a tool for anyone wanting to build an easy widget for their desktop. It has endless opportunities.”, Kevin Turnbull, web designer and former Teeside student.

Although basic widgets are simple for those with some technical expertise to develop, the development of new widgets is likely to be beyond the means of most teachers or tutors. For this reason the Accessibility Research Centre has been awarded another JISC grant to develop a set of authoring tools (incorporating libraries of templates, services and APIs and a repository) that would enable academics without technical skills to develop, modify, adapt and share widgets. The Widget Design and Authoring Toolkit (WIDGaT) project is set to help transform the lives of disabled learners and their teachers.

“We believe we have created the world’s first code free widget authoring tool” – Elaine Pearson

Links

The final widgets are available for download and distribution through the Teesside Wookie server with a link from the WIDE wiki website, from the ARC website, a dedicated web page within the TechDis resource on Free and Open Source technologies and are submitted to JorumOpen.