Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 1   Friday, August 5, 2005

ISSN 1748-3603

Cover Page
Contents
Feature article
More than just e-Learning: Sakai so far
ALT news
Executive Secretary's Report
Director's Report
News from members
Your views on implementing accessibility regulations
Project updates
Skills for access: Putting the world to rights for accessibility and multimedia
Conference reviews
EdTech 2005, the sixth annual Irish educational technology users' conference
Legal issues of online learning environments: a JISC legal conference
Software reviews
Macromedia Breeze v5
Learning Activity Management Sequences (LAMS)
Hints and tips
Scenario-based learning using PowerPoint
Subscribe / Remove
Privacy policy

Editorial Team

ALT Website
Skills for Access website
Skills for Access website
Skills for access: Putting the world to rights for accessibility and multimedia
by John Stratford & David Sloan

Fortunately, learning technologists tend to be an abstemious bunch. However, if you can imagine following a group of them into the local pub, would you recognise this snatched conversation?

"And there we were, talking about multimedia in e-learning, when the course director said: 'There are too many accessibility issues. Let's steer clear of it - I don't want to end up in court'."

"I try not to think about it. If you're not careful all you end up with is text, text, text. It stops you doing what you want to do. It's a right pain."

"What's the problem? Just run a validation tool and it will tell you if what you've done is accessible."

While statements such as these may reflect some elements of concern, by no means do they represent the full picture. Accessibility in e-learning - especially when using rich media - does throw up challenges; however, they are challenges that, more often than not, can be overcome. With this in mind, a recently launched website may come to our collective aid.

Called Skills for Access, the site is a comprehensive guide to creating accessible multimedia for e-learning, aimed at anyone who is involved in commissioning or developing digital learning materials, or who is engaged in developing curricula involving e-learning. The site is the result of a two-year project funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) under the improving provision for disabled students initiative. Although the focus of Skills for Access is towards HE, the site is likely to be of value to the whole education sector, including the FE and 14-19 vocational sectors.

The genesis of the project can be traced to conversations not a million miles from the fictitious pub conversation above. In 2002, we in the Learning Development & Media Unit at the University of Sheffield were looking for information that would help us to prepare for the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Act 2001(SENDA) - the act which enabled the scope of the existing Disabilities Discrimination Act 1995 to be extended to educational services - due to take effect that year. We found that web accessibility was fairly well covered from the technical perspective under the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative, but where was the advice on the wider issues relating to making multimedia accessible? In addition, even when we could find advice - and in the case of the "non-techies", understand it - the technical guidelines did not address any of the learning issues faced by disabled students, nor did they relate to the role of the proposed learning materials in achieving the aims of the wider curriculum.

At that time the call for projects under the HEFCE improving provision for disabled students initiative was issued. The call offered the opportunity to create the sort of accessibility guidance that was patently lacking. Consulting with TechDis, the Learning Development and Media Unit was put into contact with a group of experts in accessible and inclusive technology design at the University of Dundee: the Digital Media Access Group. With accessibility experts working alongside multimedia developers, the idea for Skills for Access came into being.

The site sets out to dispel the myth that there is such a thing as a fully accessible resource, and that to develop one, all you need to do is to run down a checklist and follow the instructions. Accessibility needs to be qualified by questions such as: Accessible to whom? In what context? For what purpose? The notion of reasonable adjustment is also discussed in the legislation; but to what extent is it reasonable or even desirable to add certain accessibility features? What affects might adding or withholding features have on other aspects of the curriculum, or on other students? In addition, if, for whatever reasons, the desired outcome cannot be achieved by one route, what other routes might be appropriate?

So, rather than providing instructions, the site makes it clear that deciding what needs to be done in terms of accessibility is often a game of judgement. This demands a holistic approach to accessibility that takes all of its dimensions into account, not just the technology. The site therefore roots itself in practice by providing a number of case studies; some written by practitioners who have confronted practical issues, and others by disabled students who talk about their experiences, both good and bad, of studying using multimedia.

An extract from one of the video interviews - an interview with a dyslexic part-time MSc student - highlights a very important point: rather than multimedia being seen as creating accessibility barriers, it can in fact be an enabling technology, often overcoming barriers that are inherent in traditional teaching environments:

"Multimedia is a very, very, powerful learning tool and it's certainly my preferred way of learning. It has advantages over oral lectures because I can listen to a lecture, but I can't read my writing afterwards! If I have something that's presented through multimedia formats, all there for me, I can go back to it and it's clear and I can understand it. I can also take my own time and learn at my own pace and again, if its well designed, I can also choose the bits that I want to concentrate on and think that I need to learn about the most rather than having it prescribed for me."

The full interview (audio, video and text transcript) is available via the Skills for Access site.

The site also provides insights into topics such as metadata for learning objects; development of simple multimedia using common applications such as Microsoft Office; and an innovative system for enhancing the accessibility of fieldwork. But so as not to leave the poor user who really does need answers to nitty gritty questions such as "Just tell me how to get this to do that?" high and dry, the site presents a range of "How To" guides which give practical advice on how to create accessible media with current software and applications. But even here, mindful of the dangers of applying technical fixes without understanding the bigger picture, the site presents users with a "Before you continue" warning that reminds them of the need to think holistically.

Where to from here? The site is receiving enthusiastic feedback, but there is plenty more that can be done. The number of case studies and articles can clearly be expanded. The "How To" section needs to be updated as new versions of software, applications, browsers and assistive technologies are released. There is also scope for expansion into new areas. Might it be that the site could become an area for the e-learning community to discuss accessibility issues? Another possible development may be to create structured pathways through the material, creating modules that can be used by a staff developer in the training room, or by individuals for self-study.

Meanwhile, you are invited to visit the site and to give feedback to the team. If you wish to submit a case study or an article we would be pleased to hear from you. Certainly, once the learning and teaching community has discovered the Skills for Access site, we hope that the pub talk will become altogether more positive, and that the discussion will be about the shared experiences of how the tricky areas can be overcome, rather than backing away from them or pretending they do not exist. Catering for accessibility needs to become an accepted part of professional design practice for all e-learning developers. It may be a tall order in the short term, but we hope that the Skills for Access site will play its part in helping that view to become more widely accepted.

"Who's buying the next round?"

John Stratford
Director, Learning Development & Media Unit
The University of Sheffield
j.stratford@sheffield.ac.uk

David Sloan
Project Lead, Digital Media Access Group
The University of Dundee
dsloan@computing.dundee.ac.uk


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