Network for Inclusive Distance Education


Synchronous Communication Tools

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Synchronous Communication Tools

Synchronous communication tools such as video and audio conferencing, and real-time text-based tools (chat rooms, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and ICQ (I Seek You) instant messaging services) often pose unique obstacles for those with disabilities.

Synchronous communication (SC) can be defined as real-time communication that occurs between two or more people through a virtual or electronically mediated system. SC systems have become more prevalent as network bandwidth has increased and become both more readily available and affordable.

One of the objectives of the Network for Inclusive Distance Education (NIDE) project was to initiate development of fully accessible real-time synchronous communication tools. The SC component of NIDE was spearheaded by Ryerson Polytechnic University's Centre for Learning Technologies (CLT) and the University of Toronto's Adaptive Technology Resource Centre (ATRC).

From this partnership – which was partially funded by Networks Ontario's Telecommunications Access Partnerships (TAP) program – two synchronous communication tools arose: PEBBLES (Providing Education By Bringing Learning Environments to Students) and JAMTalk.


PEBBLES links students confined to hospital with their classmates at school through a real-time video-mediated communication system. Both the hospital unit and classroom are outfitted with computers that include video conferencing hardware and software. Audiovisual information is transmitted via a high-speed broadband digital communication network.

Within the classroom, a robot-like device that includes a movable head and mechanical hand represents the hospitalized student. The child's face and upper body appear in the robot's "face". The head can be turned in several different directions and the mechanical hand can be activated to signal the teacher or classmates.

The video-conferencing system transmits all images and sounds from the classroom to the hospital unit via a video camera, room microphones, and a wireless microphone worn by the instructor. This allows the student in hospital to view and participate fully in most classroom activities.

Both sites feature local video feedback allowing users to see themselves on the computer monitor and/or separate LCD panel. The hospital unit also includes a game-pad controller as an interface to change camera angles, zoom in or out, and move the mechanical hand to gain the attention of the teacher or fellow students.

PEBBLES not only enables students to "attend" school while recovering from a long-term illness, but teachers also reported that the reintegration of these students when they returned to school was made easier by maintaining contact with classmates.

JAMTalk Tools

While PEBBLES allows an individual to interact with classmates in a group setting, JAMTalk enables a group of students with disabilities to participate in distance learning sessions from various locations.

The JAMTalk component of the project provides synchronous communication to students with disabilities via the following two methods: a discussion tool and a question and answer tool.

Discussion Tool

The discussion tool enables students with varying keyboard skills and speeds to participate equally in learning group discussions. Student entries are displayed in individual columns while topics are differentiated by colour and sound. There is also a separate display for instructor comments (students are informed of the instructor's presence by an audio/visual signal). An electronic "token" is passed from one participant to the next to monitor entry activity for each member of the group. If a student is typing when the token arrives, they will have exclusive access to the display for 20 seconds. Should they still be typing after this interval expires, their comments will be displayed in the appropriate column along with the message, "I'm continuing". When the token circulates back to that participant, the remaining text is added to their message and the process is repeated.

Question & Answer Tool

This tool is designed to support a real-time question and answer dialog between the instructor and students. The students contribute questions and the instructor – in addition to providing answers – is also able to link submissions that contain a common thread. As a result of these different requirements, there is a separate interface for the instructor and for students. The instructor's interface allows questions to be selected from the queue in any order. Instructors can also identify interrelated questions and answers for students. The student interface allows participants to pose questions, view all questions submitted by the group, and examine related topics as indicated by the instructor. As with the discussion tool, all interactions are logged and sorted within the database.

Contact Information

Related Documents

The Adaptive Technology Resource Centre

J.P. Robarts Library, First Floor, University of Toronto Information Commons
130 St. George St. Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 3H1
Telephone: (416) 978-4360 Fax: (416) 971-2629

For additional information please e-mail Laurie Harrison