Monthly Archives: July 2009

StudyBar – the cross-browser toolbar

The aim of the StudyBar project has been to create a toolbar which can be used in all modern browsers (FireFox, Internet Explorer 8, Chrome, Safari, Opera), which provides users with customisation options and tools to aid studying. StudyBar is an improvement upon the current Techdis Toolbar, which currently only works in Internet Explorer.

There are currently toolbars out there that offer some of the desired functionality, but as of yet there is nothing to provide everything in a concise package, let alone to any browser. To allow us to develop for multiple browsers we have opted to use the JavaScript language (which is interpreted by the browser itself, and supported by every browser – one installation package will work across the board, and even the possibility to be ported to mobile platforms at a later date) which gives us much finer control over the page than traditional toolbars.

During the prototyping phase it was discovered that most browsers have disabled JavaScript from performing page-manipulation on remote pages for security reasons (see Same Origin Policy). Because of this reason, we have opted to use GreaseMonkey, a technology that allows JavaScript to be stored on a user’s computer and used on any web page, therefore not having to deal with the Same Origin Policy.

At this stage of development we have spec’d out the technologies that will be used, and are currently working on:

  • Dynamic toolbar items.
  • Text To Speech Server based on the Festival engine.
  • A SpellChecker with intelligent suggestion.
  • Preset CSS style loading into webpages.
  • Increase/Decrease text size on page.
  • Alter colour of toolbar.

These functions will be available to any page that the user is viewing, using any of the aforementioned web browsers.

At the current stage of development, very rudimentary versions of almost all of these features are present, although slightly buggy. More features will be added as the development time passes to bring it in line, and hopefully surpass current toolbar featuresets.

Introducing The ECS Accessibility Projects Portal

We’ve been seeing more projects than usual in the ECS Accessibility Team, so we’ve decided it’s time to build a single point where anyone can get information on what we’re up to.

Intrepid domain explorers may have tried removing ‘/blog’ from this site, and stumbled upon our test version. We’re happy to say it’s all finished* now, so head over to and take a look! Comments are most welcome.

* ‘Finished’ is a relative term – expect graphical tweaks, compatibility fixes and other adjustments over the next few days…

HTML Pendrive Menu – Test

Initial research into the development of an accessible menu for a USB pendrive containing applications has shown that HTML may not be the correct choice of language to write such a program in, and the reasons that indicate this will be highlighted in this activity.

A test page has been written in HTML, which can be downloaded in a .zip format along with sample applications that you can test to see the results when  attempting to launch them as if they were on a pen drive.
Download the HTML menu files, and then unzip the received folder to begin this test.

The test page is intended to show the outcomes of attempting to link to applications using HTML. By clicking on a link shown in order to launch one of the applications, various results are obtained.

In Internet Explorer and WebbIE 3, the same dialog box appears that would indicate that you are downloading a file. However, the file would be on your own pendrive, and selecting “Open” simply copies a temporary copy of the file, and then opens it from this temporary location, as if it had just been downloaded from the Internet. By selecting “Save”, the user would end up saving an additional copy of the file, resulting in more problems. This is clearly an un-wanted obstacle for a user who quickly wants to launch an application. It may also cause confusion to users who may not realise that the application is still being accessed from the pendrive, and not the Internet.

In Firefox, clicking on the link results in nothing happening at all. There is no obvious way of accessing the linked file, and as Firefox would likely be provided as the browser on the pendrive itself, and would therefore probably launch the page, the option of creating the menu in this way seems flawed.

Finally, in order to allow the user to customize their menu, JavaScript was needed, and in this example it provides the functionallity to change the background colour and increase the text size. More features could be added in a similar way, but without a suitable method of launching applications for direct use, any extra options seem superfluous. Furthermore, these settings can not be preserved for future use i.e. the menu will always start with its default settings, which could become frustrating for the user.

LexDis hitting the top of the searches!

Lexdis has managed to find its way to the top of many Google searches, such as second for ‘IEEE referencing Word 2007‘ and fifth for wikilook and CapturaTalk!  We have over 500 sites linking to us and over 50 vistors each day.   There are some interesting results, such as sixth on the list for ‘dim lectures’!   A link to a strategy ‘Dim screen for note taking in lectures‘.

We are still looking for ways to make us gain improved bounce rates and top search results!  We are also trying to find ways to make the content more useful and relevant to a wide audience with a revamped interface.  All ideas welcome!

Web2Access new entries: Teambox and xFRUITS

Teambox may appear to be a useful way of working on a project with others and I was very hopeful that it would mean there was no need to make a mashup of a set of services.  Sadly it was not that accessible for screen reader users.  I am also not sure that it is really as good as the combination of services that Seb has put together for us all as ours are all capable of doing more than the combined Teambox service.

xFRUITS was a really inaccessible way of aggregating your RSS feeds if you have to use a screen reader.   Lovely idea and would be brilliant if it really was easy to use, although I suspect I am saying this because I am not a true geek!  Now if someone has a better way of providing this service I would love to see it – otherwise here is another project in the offing!!

Communication linked to the project work.

Just as we set up a complete set of communication and tracking systems Jane’s E-Learning Pick of the Day arrives in my email box – a new online project management tool called  TeamBox !

But please leave comments on all our blogs and we have also set up a Google Group and all code for the projects is  available on Google code.   We have a  task management system using TaskFreek and will be releasing progress notes as we go along.   Looking forward to hearing from you all.

Early thoughts on the Pen Drive development

Initial research into the techniques to be used for developing the pen drive has focused mainly on cross-compatibility. It has been found that the majority of the tools that would be considered for use on the pen drive are themselves not cross-platform as they are generally Windows .exe files. This means that building the same menu for use on alternative platforms could possibly reduce the usability of the Windows solution, and furthermore, building an alternative distribution for the Mac would be straightforward and more extensible. There seems to be little gain from designing a cross-compatible menu, when the programs on the pen drive are not cross-platform anyway, and could therefore hamper the quality of the menu.

Two techniques have been suggested for development: a web-based menu written in HTML and accessible through a browser; or a Windows application written in C#. After analysing these, it has been found that there is a clear preference, due to the reasons outlined below:

  • If the menu were to be written in HTML and viewed on a browser, then a method of launching an application from inside the browser would have to be created.
  • On a Mac, launching programs from a browser is impossible, meaning a user would would have to “download” it and run it themselves whenever they wanted to use that application, even though that app would be coming from their own pen drive. This would be a waste of time for the user, as the menu is designed to give quick and easy access to a suite of apps available to them on the pen drive.
  • A further problem with launching apps from a browser would be that if the application was accessed from the Internet, rather than the pen drive, it would need to be copied to a local download folder or cache, which could cause licensing issues.
  • On Windows, running a program in this way would throw so many security prompts that usability would be hindered, and in any case, it is not the role of a browser or HTML to launch applications. If this were possible, then the browser would have a massive security hole, as anything, including viruses, could be run from the browser.
  • More problems with HTML seem to be that it would be problematic to download updates or new programs, as HTML code would have to write to a USB device.
  • Additionally, a user could even browse away from the menu and access other websites, possibly without the understanding that in order to access the menu again, they would need to find the correct page in their browser’s history.

C# appears to have many advantages over HTML at present.  A menu written in C# will run on any Windows machine, and appears to be easier to make accessible. Usability would also be far greater when compared to an HTML solution as discussed above. A C# solution would generally be more extensible for future development, and additional features such as a repository of new apps or updates could be bolted on. Most importantly, a C# solution would not break any security model.

A Mac version is still possible, although advanced functionality such as adding additional applications would be difficult unless there was significant development time available.

We are going to try to develop early test versions in each format and see how it goes!


Accessiblog has been started as we have several accessible technology projects on the go including LexDis, Web2Access and Synote and we wanted to have a space to track other projects as they progressed.  These all have working titles and  include:


StudyBar will build on existing tools such as those provided by Google, Firefox Accessibar and the JISC TechDis Preferences Toolbar, to develop an independent toolbar that works alongside the most widely used web browsers.  The aim is to help all staff and students (irrespective of their skills and abilities) save time when interacting with on-line environments.  Currently staff and students are switching between complex toolsets, especially when undertaking e-learning activities in Web 2.0 environments, such as using blogs, wikis and discussion forums, where time is of the essence.  They also have difficulties summarising and referencing works and require user-friendly tools to support and complete these tasks.

StudyBar will provide easy access to study support services to augment technology enhanced learning strategies.  Time spent working with a series of different or complex tools can be avoided by having a ‘one stop shop’ of easy to use services, appropriate for studying.  Time constraints are an issue for all students but in particular for those with disabilities especially when learning to use new technologies.

Current development is for use with Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Safari and Opera.

The work is being undertaken with close collaboration with JISC OSS Watch, JISC TechDis and JISC RSC Scotland N&E

This project has been funded by JISC TechDis and will run from July 09 to November 09

The Pen Drive

This pen drive is designed for both staff and students working in a teaching and learning environment. The accessible menu system will allow users to launch a range of assistive technologies from text to speech to magnification.   There will also be a portable browser with additional toolbars to provide staff with a means to evaluate online technologies before using them in a teaching and learning situation.

The entire menu system can be customised and all developments will be available via Google Code with the ability to download the source code and make changes.

Current development is for the Window platform but much discussion has taken place around the use of HTML and the Mac operating system.

The work is being undertaken with close collaboration with JISC OSS Watch, JISC TechDis and JISC RSC Scotland N&E

This project has been funded by the Learning and Teaching  Enhancement Unit of the University of Southampton and will be trialed in the Autumn 2009 – February 2010  with a full set of guides on making choices about the accessibility of Web 2.0 applications such as podcasts, blogs, wikis, social networking RSS feeds, bookmarking and microblogs.

Web2 Access Validation toolkit.

This online toolkit will be developed so that all users of the website can evaluate the accessibitity of any chosen Web 2.0 application at the outset and eventually software applications.  The fourteen tried and tested checks based on WCAG 2.0 guidelines will be developed into an online wizard with accompanying narrated screencasts to aid both developers and those new to accessibility issues.

The 14 tests with levels of accessibility in different contexts provide a framework that is capable of validating accessibility in a way that is useful to potential users  for example supports those with visual impairments or has poor text size and contrast levels.  The service provides a ranking that is potentially valuable to providers as an indicator of accessibility although it is always advisable to check sites with disabled users.

Current development is for use with Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Safari and Opera.

The work is being undertaken with close collaboration with JISC TechDis

This project has been funded by JISC TechDis and will run from July 2009 – Jan 2010

Accessibility Cloud

The Accessibility Cloud project will be harvesting the existing accessibility content from previous JISC funded projects, making the data commonly available and searchable and making sure that the engine and data are secure, portable and able to be mirrored.  The initial projects providing the linked data are LexDis, Web2Access, Phoebe, Gateway to Excellence and JISC RSC Yorkshire and Humberside ‘Excellence in Inclusivity’.  Each site offers a different approach to the subject of teaching and learning with the use of technology.  This will mean that users of the accessibility cloud will have the chance to see for example the use of portable devices in colleges, their impact on various disabilities, the strategies developed by students and the way they can be used by staff in their day to day teaching.

It is hoped that it will be possible to browse by a series of categories and search the active data from all the websites but in a way that allows for different perspectives such as a pedagogical approach, disability viewpoint and technology choices.

Current development is for use with Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Safari and Opera.

The work is being undertaken with close collaboration with JISC TechDis

This project has been funded by JISC TechDis and will run from Oct 09 to Sept 2010.