Towards digital exclusion?

Earlier this month I read a great article – Social networking: Not as inclusive as you might think!

Some people will know that I have a passing interest in accessibility and that I have written a little on it in the past. So, when I saw the article it piqued my interest. I won’t repeat all of the findings here; I recommend reading the article, but I think some of them are worth discussing and thinking about in an educational context.

At various conferences I’ve attended over the last 12 months the virtue of using social networks has been a major topic, and whilst there have been warnings about user data etc, there has been little said about accessibility. The initial deployment of these tools meant that we saw students using them for fun and they were separate to an Institution’s learning and research activities. However it wasn’t long before we saw lecturers and researchers starting to use the tools in their practice, with some social networking tools deployed on institutional servers. I haven’t seen any accessibility audits of these tools but it would be interesting to see if they were deployed with the same rigorous checking as Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs). In fact, for all the criticisms of VLEs, the need to recognise the diversity of students using them was high on their agenda, whether they were large powerful corporate VLEs or homegrown. The COSE system developed at Staffordshire University was a prime example of where the needs of all users were put at the centre of development. Generally, social networking tools put the emphasis on interactions between users at the centre, or in some the need to generate income through advertising. This can be detrimental to some users. A further issue is the constant changing of the systems: new features seem to come on stream almost weekly (if not more often), and it is hard enough for a user who is unimpaired – a user with a cognitive disability must get very frustrated. There is also an emphasis on ‘cool’ layouts, often done in ways that are inaccessible rather than using good coding techniques.

Content is another major issue. Recently it was explained to me by an accessibility apologist that “Web 2.0 and social software are very accessible”. “How so?” asks I. “Because in user generated content everyone, not just those technically able, can tag material with context, add transcripts to videos and podcasts, and explain what is going on images”. And he was absolutely right – but the reality is that they don’t! Browse the video, picture and podcast sites and count the instances where this has happened.

Why is this becoming a problem? Because at the moment a lot of people in both education and working with social software tools are blurring the boundaries, for example, tools that can interface with social networking sites and VLEs. In some cases tutors have been placing material on social networking sites rather than the VLE and point students there instead. Did they check all their students could access it first?

Finally, a word on the social model of disability, something that most disability organisations work towards and advocate. The article I mentioned at the beginning of this post reports that:

“A lack of accessibility is driving many disabled web users to create their own, alternative social-networking platforms. US-based sites such as Disaboom and Don’t Dis Me, for example, provide disabled people with a secure, accessible online community along with advice, forums and information. In the UK, there are a growing number of social-networking sites for disabled people, including Y-A-P, launched earlier this year by Mencap, and CKfriends.org.uk, a Scottish site that provides a safe online community for adults with learning disabilities”.

Rather than inclusion, social networking sites are actually creating a divide in digital space, a space where it shouldn’t matter about disability, race or gender.

3 thoughts on “Towards digital exclusion?

  1. Is this part of a trend or simply an example of technology running ahead of itself? Will the social networking sites etc back track when the initial boom is over?

  2. W3C WAI is aware of this problem and is promulgating a “Roadmap for Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA Roadmap)” (http://www.w3.org/TR/aria-roadmap/). This is currently at Working Draft stage – it would be good if JISC could get involved. I’m unsure where TechDis is on this?

    Peter Brophy
    CERLIM
    MAnchester Metropolitan University

  3. Thank you for the prompt – the JISC TechDis Service will be working in this area alongside the JISC Development team and other Services of JISC.

    TechDis is currently mapping a further programme of work in the areas of Social Software and will be working with JISC, other Educational Agencies and Research Groups on this topic, as the comments has been well made we cannot be involved given our remit.

    As with any technologies there may well be accessibility benefits and barriers from some WEB2.0 applications. Again we intend to be embarking on some work in this field.

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