Columbia University excludes Google Docs

Screen-reader compatibility issues are preventing Google Docs from becoming integrated in the university's systems.

Columbia University is unable to adopt Google Docs when it makes the transition from outdated CubMail to Gmail services.

According to the Columbia Spectator, the focal issue that is preventing the university from making a full transition to the document reader service is that Google Docs is incompatible with certain screen-reading technologies that are used to assist the blind or individuals with limited sight.

An email sent from Melissa Metz, director of systems engineering, email, and databases with Columbia University Information Technology said:

"Google Docs uses advanced HTML that does not function well with most screen reader applications. While using Docs might be possible for students with disabilities, it would be challenging compared to, for example, opening desktop documents like Microsoft Word or using collaboration tools like New CourseWorks."

The infrastructure behind CubMail, Gmail, and Google Calendar are all fully compatible with other systems that can be used with screen reader devices; including Outlook and Thunderbird.

However, screen readers often pose a difficulty for Google Documents due to the nature of the service -- to allow realtime collaboration, it reloads itself continually, and so the toolbars and text cannot be read correctly by these sight aids. The reader may not be able to voice elements such as checkboxes, or give the user enough information about the contents of a button.

The new email system will be gradually rolled out and Columbia University expects that its undergraduate students will have access by December -- without the addition of Google Docs. There is also speculation that this incompatibility may mean that the program itself is not compliant with the  1990s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

There have been previous cases of complaints filed against academic institutions that utilize Google Docs on campus, citing that the adoption of technology which will be inaccessible to groups that are visually impaired can be seen as discriminatory.  New York University is one of the institutions that were filed against last year.

Metz says that the software's current level of compatibility is not high enough for Columbia to accept, but the academic institution is open to the possibility of integrating it in the future if the issue is resolved to a high enough standard for its visually impaired students and staff:

"We will continue to evaluate Google Docs’ accessibility, and if it changes, we will consider adding Docs to our environment, as the application would certainly add some great functionality."

Image credit: C.Osborne

(via The Columbia Spectator)



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