Accessible eLearning: Any Time, Any Place, ANYONE
Charlene Douglas, Marketing Manager, Higher Education
Kristie Clements, Marketing Manager, K-12
The web is one of the best things that ever happened to people with disabilities. It allows access to information and places as never before. Additionally, it has empowered many individuals, some for the first time, to engage in learning on a level playing field with their peers.
Though estimates vary, most studies find that about one fifth of the population has some kind of disability. Not all of these people have difficulty in accessing the web and yet accessibility remains an issue for a significant portion of the population. Disabilities may be differentiated by type including: mobility impairments (carpel tunnel and quadriplegia), sensory impairments (hearing and vision limitations), specific learning disabilities (dyslexia and writing impairments), speech impairments, health impairments (cancer and multiple sclerosis), and/or any combination. Each of these disabilities requires specific types of adaptations in the design of web content.
Understanding accessibility as it relates to eLearning is a challenging undertaking. Although the legal requirements and responsibilities have been clearly delineated under Title II of the American with Disabilities Act, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and various state and educational institution legal opinions, the actual understanding and selecting of web-based delivery systems continue to generate questions. The Disability Discrimination Act in the UK (http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/DisabledPeople/RightsAndObligations/DisabilityRights/DG_4001068) also reinforces these requirements. Furthermore, the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) has created an international set of guidelines which are the basis of most web accessibility law in the world.
Before anyone can make their courses accessible, they must understand accessibility, be committed to ensuring accessibility, learn how to implement accessibility, and understand their legal obligations. Best practices for producing accessible software applications and accessible content for online learning have been created (IMS Guidelines and WebAIM):
- Allow for customization based on user preference
- Provide equivalent access to auditory and visual content based on user preference
- Provide compatibility with assistive technologies and include complete keyboard access
- Provide context and orientation information
- Provide headings for data tables
- Ensure users can complete and submit all forms
- Allow users to skip repetitive elements on the page
- Do not rely on color alone to convey meaning
- Follow IMS specifications and other relevant specifications, standards and/or guidelines
- Consider the use of XML
For global eLearning Accessibility – there was an Open forum held last fall in Toronto, Ontario, Canada as part of ISO/IEC JTC1 SC36.
Look for the 10:55 to 11:25 AM presentations on Friday, September 14 for other relevant standards.
Overall accessibility can be increased if developers make electronic documentation available in electronic form accessible by screen reading software; make product support staff aware of disability access issues and that people with disabilities routinely depend on their software products; and establish a protocol to forward accessibility and compatibility problems from product support staff to product designers. Notably, Section 508, subpart D requires that software and information documentation and support are accessible.
Online learning providers understand their responsibilities and obligations to develop an accessible eLearning environment and content to this broad community of users. By approaching online learning from a universal design perspective, products and content should be designed for the broadest utilization by all individuals without the need for special accommodations. Unfortunately many online learning providers adapted this universal approach only after launching their courseware. They are now faced with providing accommodations and/or reworking their programs and especially online content, to provide the broadest access to the community of users they serve. Such online learning providers may only have some accessible products. The challenge is to determine which products are bound by accessibility limitations and which are seamless in their approach to the user base. This assessment may also result in the need to upgrade content and re-train staff and users.
Fundamental issues with online education (High Tech Center Training Unit):
- Accessibility of the Learning Management System (LMS)
Ideal LMSs allow students with disabilities to navigate and interact with the program while focusing on course content. Ideally, the LMS should provide the student with options for selecting various modalities in which to access the information (i.e., rich media, text only, fully annotated media).
- The design of the instructional content placed inside the LMS
When using authoring tools, the course designers can include the accessibility information necessary to ensure that created content can be accessed and used by students employing assistive computer technologies. A variety of third-party accessibility tools are available, including web accessibility checks, digital captioning software, and other utilities that can render text and many forms of rich media into an accessible format.
- Innate capability of the LMS to support the creation of accessible content
Content created inside the LMS must also be accessible to people with disabilities. Content should be functionally accessible for students using assistive computer technologies. Ideally, an LMS should include tools to identify and correct potential content accessibility errors. The LMS should also allow for different types of use. For example, some individuals may require more time on a quiz and the LMS should be flexible enough to accommodate this need. Many LMSs are making great strides with innate accessibility and the capacity to interact dynamically with their content to present information in a fully accessible manner. However, this process is still in its infancy.
Outlined below are some typical questions and responses that will enable the creators of content to maximize access for people with disabilities.
What guidelines should I follow to ensure that content or links I create in an online course are accessible?
Guidelines have been created by several organizations as standards and resources. Listed below is a sampling of such resources:
Checklist of Checkpoints for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0
Technical Guidelines for Digital Learning Content
How do users who are deaf or hard-of-hearing access online learning applications?
Developers need to ensure they have closed or open captioning choices within their auditory options of web-based applications and content including Java applets, videos, recordings, podcasts, and animations through resources such as multimedia access generators including Windows Media Player, Apple Quick Time, and Real Player. A short list of resources to this approach includes:
Creating Captions for Rich Media
Media Access Generator (MAGpie)
How do users who are blind, have low vision, muscular, or other disabilities that interfere or limit their ability to view web-based material, gain access to eLearning opportunities?
A screen reader is a software application that attempts to identify and interpret what is being displayed on the screen. Some are bundled with operating systems, others are available through open source, and many are available for purchase. Even the best screen readers have some limitation and have difficulty interpreting mathematical and scientific symbols and formulas. Thus, MathML is a good choice for a markup language for conveying mathematical and scientific expressions. High-contrast style sheets and operating system high contrast mode are other viable enhancements. Resources include:
JAWS Screen Reader – cost, but most widely used
Linux Screen Reader – open source
NonVisual Desktop Access – open source
Screen magnification is also very common and has come standard with Windows since the XP version. There are a number of resources available listed at Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Screen_magnifier).
Speech recognition software converts the spoken word into application commands or readable text. Not only is this technology applicable to the visually impaired and low vision user, but for those who have physical disabilities with no or limited use of their hands. Resources include:
Dragon Naturally Speaking – cost, but widely used
Sphinx-4 - open source in Java
What resources are available for the users that have a physical challenge?
New technologies abound that assist those with disabilities and physically limiting issues to gain access to eLearning opportunities. Many of the technologies designed for other disabilities have become cross-purposed. For instance, a voice-to-text recognition program may assist the blind as well as individuals with physical limitations to typing. Resources include:
Georgia Tech College of Architecture's Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access
Information Technology in Education Accessibility Checklist
How can eLearning be made accessible for those with cognitive and learning disabilities?
There are many resources that are accessible online that acknowledge the various disabilities and describe how eLearning can be tailored through technology to address their cognitive and learning needs. Resources include:
Assistive Technology with Cognitive Disabilities
Desire2Learn's Commitment to Accessibility
Desire2Learn is dedicated to making the Desire2Learn eLearning Suite accessible to all. Desire2Learn's approach to accessibility is through both standards adherence and functional accessibility assessment. Our accessibility program is well-integrated within our engineering lifecycle – so you can rest assured that our learning solution will evolve in an accessible manner.
References and Additional Resources:
Accessibility in Distance Education (2005), University of Maryland University College. http://www.umuc.edu/ade/ud/index.html
Accessible Information Technology Resources, Southern Regional Education Board. http://www.sreb.org/programs/EdTech/pubs/PDF/DBTAC_Brochure.pdf
Burgstahler, Sheryl. Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning. University of Washington, DO-IT. http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Technology/equal_access_uddl.html
Burgstahler, Sheryl. Working Together, People with Disabilities and Computer Technology. http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Technology/wtcomp.html
Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning, University of Washington. http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Technology/equal_access_uddl.html
Guide to Low-Cost / No-Cost Online Tools for People with Disabilities 2005, The Alliance for Technology Access. http://www.ataccess.org/resources/lowcostnocost.html
High Tech Center Training Unit. California Community College System. http://www.htctu.fhda.edu/
Making Distance Learning Available to Everyone, University of Washington. http://www.washington.edu/doit/Video/real_con.html
My Web, My Way, British Broadcasting Corporation. http://www.bbc.co.uk/accessibility/