Conference to introduce results from the 100-School Networking Project (Phase II)
Elementary school meeting

Using the Internet at a School for the Handicapped
—A Simple, Friendly, and Practical Networking System—

Masato Mizuno, School for the mentaly retarded attached
to the faculty of education, Fukui University

1. Introduction

Students at our school present a wide range of handicaps of varying severity. As part of the 100-School Networking Project, which started in FY 1995, we conducted a trial project of e-mail exchange with students we met during school trips and people in the field of education from all over Japan. But maintaining this exchange was made difficult by the poor grasp of our students of the relation between their various e-mail correspondents and the faces and identities of real people behind them. We felt that networking for the mentally handicapped might be more familiar, and easier for them to understand and use.

In FY 1997, we decided to join Challenge Kids, a membership system network created for special education that is free to children. This system protects their privacy, allows them to become familiar with networking by sharing common interests, and increases their skills in self-expression. We believed that local information would be easier for them to understand, attract and hold their interest, and be useful in their everyday lives. We solicited volunteers among students at Faculty of Education of Fukui University, Course for Information and Socio-cultural Studies and asked them to create a web site presenting information familiar to children at our school, including personal information. We met in person and got acquainted, to provide our students with real-life counterparts to their on-line correspondents. We also tried to ease access and navigation for this web site and other web sites by preparing touch panels for students, some of whom had difficulty navigating a networking system because of poor mouse manipulation skills.

2. Our current situation and equipment

Our equipment consists of one server and twelve personal computers (two are used, one is for office work, and eight are notebook-sized), connected to a 64 kbps leased line.

As of FY 1997, students from the computer club use computers on their own about three times a week after school, outside of regular club classes.

3. Activities in FY 1997

(1) Joining Challenge Kids

Challenge Kids is a membership system network for special schools and classes all over Japan, run mainly by Special School for the Mentally Handicapped, Affiliated to Faculty of Education, Shiga University, which is designated by the Ministry of Education to conduct research on the use of computers over the term FY 1996 and 97. Twenty-seven schools participate and conduct research as a team.

Our school joined this network in FY 1997. A friendly and fun user interface keeps the students interested and encourages them to continue exchanging e-mail and pictures.
(2) Interaction with volunteers, including face-to-face meetings, and providing information to enhance children's daily lives
Although we first planned to send information to the children by e-mail, including pictures, we chose in the end to create a web site, in order to reach as many people as possible. During preparations, we invited our volunteers to meet and get to know students from our computer club. Our web site includes an information page describing daily life, with images created by the volunteers, a page where children can request information and home pages they're interested in seeing, and a story page where children can use touch panels.

(3) Improving access to web sites through touch panels

For children who have difficulty using a mouse, we tried to ease access to interesting web sites, including the site created by our student volunteers, by using a touch panel. We obtained permission to use images from other home pages and put them on a local page (not our school's home page), so that students could access them just by touching the image. Touch panels are easy to understand and use. Some children even remembered to press the browser return button on the second time they used it, and were able to retrieve information on their own.

4. Individual examples from the past three years

(1) E-mail and network conferencing (Student A, high school third grader)

She became interested in e-mail after seeing a friend using it. She started by exchanging her daily diary with a friend at her school, successfully remembering her own password to access e-mail and teaching word processing to her friends. She exchanged e-mail with several correspondents, including a college student in Shizuoka prefecture. She sent and received lots of e-mail, sometimes writing them after school. She also became interested in real-time voice exchange, using network conferencing software, and enjoyed chatting and drawing with friends.

(2) Sending your own drawings by computer (Student B, high school third grader)

This student, who enjoyed drawing, joined the computer club (after school) in the middle of 1996. After we sent his pictures to people who applied to our Christmas e-mail project, some schools put his drawings on their home pages. He continued to draw after we joined Challenge Kids, sending his work to "Small Museum," one of their pages. All this made him more aware of the interest many people had in his work and motivated to keep drawing. The praise he received for his drawings gave him confidence and self-esteem. He enjoyed the idea that people would use his work in various ways. He also got much pleasure from choosing colors and lettering fonts when sending e-mail. He drew pictures for each student from Fukui University who had volunteered to help with our project.

5. Conclusion

We had no computer club before we joined the 100-School Networking Project. Neither children nor teachers were familiar with computers. We've struggled throughout this project, and haven't yet reached the level where we can return the fruits of our labor to teachers and children. We'd like to be able to make the network more an everyday, routine part of our lives, and go beyond the stage where the primary focus is on learning how to use it.

If we continue as project participants, I would like to add more information to our school's home page, broaden teacher use of the network, and increase the number of volunteers from various walks of life who can provide information to help children improve their lives, and establish an Internet volunteer network. Hopefully, we'll be able to use web sites created by people outside our school. We need to do more research into networking systems that suit individual needs, while monitoring the progress of technology.

Words of gratitude

Information-Technology Promotion Agency, Japan (IPA), Center for Educational Computing (CEC), Fukui prefecture Ishikawa prefecture Toyama prefecture regional network (FITNET), and Information Processing Center of Fukui University all provided essential support in creating our network, including information on using a leased line. Mr. Miyashita from the Faculty of Education at Fukui University helped us connect our computers to the Internet, and Mr. Tsukamoto from the Faculty of Education at Fukui University has helped us contact and organize Internet volunteers. We would like to express our thanks to all these persons and institutions.

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