Volume IX Number 1, October 2003

What Color Is That Comment: The Mechanics Of Online Collaboration From A Blind Student's Perspective

Stephanie Watts
Freelance Assistive Technology Consultant

As the first blind student to attempt to complete the MS in Education, Online Teaching and Learning, program at California State University, Hayward, I am blazing a trail for other students with disabilities who desire to participate in the cyber classroom as online teachers and learners. In this article, I briefly open the window to allow readers a quick view of my experience.

I made it through my first year in the Masters in Education, Online Teaching and Learning, program at California State University, Hayward--an accomplishment of which I am very proud. One reason for my pride is that I am twenty years post completion of my Bachelor's degree and, despite my decision to pursue the Master's, I had serious concerns about my stamina. The other reason for my pride is that I am the first blind student to attempt to complete this particular program. As such, I know I am blazing a trail for other students with disabilities who desire to participate in the cyber classroom as online teachers and learners.

Ok, enough of this patting myself on the back. Despite how this story began, I actually have a few pearls of wisdom to share regarding my experience as a disabled student participating in the Master's in Education, Online Teaching and Learning, program. I can honestly say that, for the most part, I have not experienced any setbacks that resulted in exclusion from classroom activities. For example, I have been able to successfully contribute to threaded discussions, exchange e-mail with classmates and instructors, and use the Digital Drop Box tool within the Blackboard Course Management System (CMS) to submit assignments.

By far, my biggest challenge has come in the area of group collaboration. While it is clear that, in order to collaborate students must communicate, it is the chosen method of communication that has sometimes hindered my ability to collaborate effectively on group assignments. In one instance, my group decided to have a virtual chat within the Blackboard CMS. We had used the threaded discussion area to exchange ideas during the week but determined that we needed a brainstorming session. We all agreed that the best way to accomplish this was through virtual chat.

As the virtual chat progressed, one student decided to illustrate a point by using a tool called the Whiteboard to draw a figure representing his concept of the assignment. Not satisfied that his point was clear, he decided to insert a picture (since a picture is worth a thousand words.) This resulted in a flurry of comments in the virtual chat area between the rest of the group members. Once the topic was chosen, members agreed to share one document in order to minimize duplication and enhance the collaborative effort. The virtual chat was terminated after everyone agreed on the topic and the methodology for completing the assignment.

Over the next five days, group members shared the document by e-mailing it to the person designated next in line to provide input. Each group member made written comments in a specific color in order to keep track of each comment's author.

My assignment was to write the summary, which seemed simple enough to do. Boy was I in for a surprise! I soon realized it was not that simple after all. In fact, I quickly realized that the mechanics of online collaboration, for a blind student, would require mental gymnastics such as how to distinguish colors of each author, how to read and comprehend the document given the limitations of my Screen Reader, and how to reenter the overall collaborative process. I had been inadvertently left behind from the virtual chat to the point of my part of the assignment.

First, the group chat presented a challenge since I had difficulty getting my Screen Reader to keep up with the text as it scrolled up the screen. Next, the Whiteboard presented a problem since I was unable to discern the contents. For this reason, I could not offer an intelligent contribution to the brainstorming session. Finally, the writing exercise proved to be more daunting than I would have expected. A process that simplified collaboration among the group caused stress for me. While Screen Readers do have the capacity to recognize colors, the difficulty in discernment increased as the paper was shared over the five-day period and grew longer. Instead of being able to scan the paper and select the area for my contribution, I had to listen to the entire document as it announced color and punctuation (including blank lines and spaces).

As I reflect on my experience, I am now more aware of how the mechanics of collaboration can affect a student's participation. The process itself can be fatiguing and, at times, frustrating for blind students or any disabled student who must use Assistive Technology to access the course site.

What should online instructors and learners do with this information? As current and future online teachers/facilitators, acknowledge that there may be a student who is having difficulty participating in the class for some (or all) of the reasons I have shared with you. When you contact the student to inquire about the lack of participation, simply mentioning an awareness of the difficulty of the mechanics of collaboration may open the door for meaningful discussion regarding his/her absence. in order for us to exploit the potential benefits of online education, the resources must be developed in Web formats which are accessible to students who use adaptive technology (Harrison, Richards, & Treviranus, 2000).

For students who are blind or visually impaired, consider sharing feelings about the experience with the instructor. If the instructor is unaware of your difficulty, then help cannot be provided. As you become acquainted with classmates, also consider sharing the dilemma a certain technology used in collaboration may present. You will be pleasantly surprised at how willing classmates are to help find solutions. Feelings of frustration can be overcome when students join together in a community of learners who support each other (Brown, 2001 September).

While the mechanics of online collaboration present challenges for online learners and instructors, there are also opportunities to expand knowledge about the use of technology in online teaching and learning (Schenker & Scadden, 2002).

Clearly, more research is needed in this area as all students are, in some way, affected by the mechanics of online collaboration. Everyone will benefit by improvements in this aspect of learning and collaboration in the cyber classroom.


Brown, R. E. (2001 September). The Process of Community-building in Distance Learning Classes. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Network, 5(2). Retrieved November 12, 2002, from: http://www.aln.org/alnweb/journal/Vol5_issue2/Brown/Brown.htm

Harrison, L., Richards, J., & Treviranus, J. (2000, March). Building Accessible Curriculum and Courseware Tools - Education Beyond the Campus. Paper presented at the CSUN Center On Disabilities Technology Conference, Los Angeles. Retrieved November 14, 2002, from: http://www.utoronto.ca/atrc/rd/library/papers/accesscurric.html

Schenker, K. T., & Scadden, L. A. (2002). The Design of Accessible Distance Education Environments That Use Collaborative Learning. Information Technology and Disabilities, 8(1). Retrieved November 14, 2002, from: http://www.rit.edu/~easi/itd/itdv08n1/schenker_scadden.htm

Watts, S. (2003). What color is that comment: The mechanics of online collaboration from a blind student's perspective. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 9(1).