Tech Tips: Trends in Higher Education - The Scoop from EDUCAUSE

Terry Thompson, DO-IT staff

In early November, four DO-IT staff members traveled to Anaheim, California, to attend EDUCAUSE, the premier annual conference on technology in higher education. This event is always a great opportunity to sample the latest products from technology software and hardware vendors, attend sessions on creative ways that colleges are utilizing technology to improve teaching and learning, and to talk with all of these technology leaders about ensuring that cutting edge technologies are accessible to students and employees with disabilities. EDUCAUSE is always a huge conference, and 2003 was no exception. There were nearly 200 exhibitors and hundreds of general sessions. DO-IT co-hosted an exhibit with project EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information) and the Pacific ADA and IT Center.

As has become typical at EDUCAUSE, one of the most visible and talked about product lines was course management systems (CMS), often referred to as courseware. Courseware vendors, including Blackboard™, WebCT™, eCollege™, and others, develop products that provide a consistent web-based environment in which colleges can host their online courses. Colleges typically purchase a site license or subscription to one of these products, which means that many if not all of the courses taught at that college have a very similar online interface. This consistent look and feel is good, because students can focus their attention on the course content, rather than on trying to figure out how to navigate the course website.

All of the major courseware vendors have worked hard to improve their accessibility over recent years, but there are still features of all the programs that present accessibility problems to some students with disabilities. Most significant among these are chat rooms (most are inaccessible to screen readers and are challenging for slow typists) and online white boards (instructors' scribbles and drawings can't be read by screen readers).

Courseware packages can be rather expensive, and are sometimes challenging for colleges that want to customize them to better fit within their complex technological environments, where there are many distinct software applications that need to communicate with one another and share information. In response to these issues, several universities gave presentations on how they had developed their own in-house course management systems. These universities were encouraging other schools to join them in their efforts to further develop "open source" tools that are essentially free, and are typically more flexible and customizable then canned one-size-fits-all packages from commercial vendors.

Another trend at EDUCAUSE 2003 was wireless interactivity in the classroom. Several vendors exhibited classroom systems that utilize a variety of small handheld devices that allow students to respond in class to multiple choice and true/false questions. The results of their responses are beamed wirelessly to a server, where results are tabulated, projected to a screen and immediately discussed. Applications like these have the potential to make classroom discussions much more dynamic, and allow instructors to modify their teaching immediately if they discover that students aren't grasping a particular concept.

The best attended event at EDUCAUSE was a panel in which two leading university administrators and two outspoken activists from the entertainment industry discussed music and video piracy on college campuses, and the role that higher education entities should play, if any, in stopping this growing problem. More on this topic in the next issue of DO-IT NEWS.