Accessibility is probably one of the biggest concerns facing educators today. Learning Technologists across many institutions often have direct responsibility for both advising on, and implementation of relevant legislation and good practice in e-Learning. Three years after the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA), we asked you as professionals working very much “in the field” to share your experiences and opinions…
For Peter Jeffels
, the goals of designing for accessibility are already enshrined in the principles of usability “If the basics of usable design are ignored all
users can be disabled by the inappropriate use of technology. Some fashions seem to promote poor design”. In testing the accessibility of a document, Peter and his colleagues at Aberdeen found it “to be quicker and more effective to go through each Checkpoint of the W3C accessibility checklist manually rather than use an automated accessibility checker”.
Embracing accessibility at the Institutional level has implications for software purchase and training: “Usability and accessibility need to be considered when purchasing web authoring tools, virtual learning environments and quiz tools. Some common HTML editors used by academics throw in unwanted styles and use inappropriate code for layout purposes. Many who use such tools are unaware of the problems and lack the skills and time to rectify them. Institutions need to provide adequate tools and accessibility training. Even the best tools do not include all accessibility features. Dedicated individuals and organisations need to continue to share their knowledge and influence future software design”. Anise Bullimore’s
expectations of e-Learning are high: “E-learning has the capacity to enable flexible learning opportunities for an ever-expanding range of students. Also the implementation of e-learning can contribute to the facilitation of independent, interactive and collaborative learning in ways that students can negotiate, control and customise”.
For Anise, Learning Technologists who implement accessibility guidelines can have a broader effect on the pedagogic process, “the focus on accessibility and efforts to enshrine its promotion in law pose exciting and welcome opportunities. Every student brings with them some kind of minor or major accessibility issues such as disability, family, work or other commitments, limited resources, limited confidence, gaps in knowledge, or English as a second language. This accessibility focus has spawned a plethora of resources that offer usable guidance underpinned by a philosophy that is student-centred and based on innovative approaches to teaching and learning. Inevitably, accessibility cannot rely on traditional, didactic models of teaching. A case in point would be the new Skills for Access website, available at www.skillsforaccess.org.uk
. Consequently, design and implementation of accessible, inclusive e-learning is often synonymous with effective e-learning that is beneficial to all students. Learning technologists are therefore able to smuggle in changes to teaching and learning practice under cover of the theme of accessibility”.
This change can be effected over short and longer term periods, “Small yet effective changes would include making course materials available to students in advance, delivering succinct, clear instructions, signposting, chunking and use of file formats that students can adapt. Over time, we can work with teaching staff to push forward the fundamental changes that will make accessibility within e-learning a given, and not requiring special treatment”. Graham Lewis
is able to provide a unique perspective, “As a visually impaired e-Learning trooper, I do see (or not..) accessibility from the inside (or the outside?). Getting into this area in the first place was driven largely by the potential I saw in internet technologies for increasing access to learning and other aspects of society and not just for disabled people. I was bowled over by the initial concept that HTML separated content from appearance then dismayed at the later invasion of the evil designers
who polluted that pure vision”.
“The availability of multiple media presents both an opportunity and a barrier to the visually impaired. The temptation to present information in the snazziest format you can manage regardless of whether this helps to convey the message is often a barrier but the availability of alternative formats such as audio helps immensely. Providing alternative views on the same information by using different media is of course good practice as it supports different learning styles. Actually though, it isn’t often necessary to do so to support disabled students as they tend to have their own coping strategies; they have to use Amazon and eBay as well as your course web page! However, it might just turn out that being a bit more open about the media you use, and how you use it, improves learning all around”. David Ireland
sees Internet search engines as being great benefit to those for whom processing text-based information is problematic, “initiatives to transfer students with Severe and Complex Learning Difficulties (SCLD) into further and higher education (FE/HE) tend to favour students who are able to process text-based information. What about students with SCLD who are unable to do so and yet are still very cognitively capable? I have known a few such students who could use Internet search engines to complete a learning activity with support from staff that could translate their icon-based queries into textual input for the search engine interface”.
Despite search engines’ increasing speed and power, David has reservations over their design, “it seems very little development is being undertaken to make their interfaces more enabling for users. I do not think there are any search engines that provide icon-based interfaces. Extending search engine functionality in such a way, would allow students with SCLD to demonstrate their cognitive ability, independent of their text processing abilities. Obviously, these students could at first only demonstrate their cognitive abilities for learning activities that involve the use of search engines. However, similar extensions to functionality could be developed for other learning technologies.” Kirstine Lehaney
remembers her first encounter with accessibility issues back in 2001, when attending a TechDis briefing about SENDA. “The implications seemed almost insurmountable at the time as he went through them. I was so busy preparing for other things that suddenly I realised I hadn’t taken accessibility issues very seriously within my job before, and that made me feel very guilty indeed. That it took SENDA to make me think about those people with disabilities and their needs certainly makes me feel horrified now. In the long run however, I think it has been an enormously positive development.”
“There are many areas of support out there for those designers of teaching and learning materials who require help integrating accessibility into their work, and I think that “integrating” is the key concept here. If we treat accessibility as just another factor to be incorporated into our design process, we at least have a better chance of producing a finished product that works for everyone. I think it is important to talk to other people, find out what sources of information they use and build up a network to call upon when and if you need to. There are the obvious websites, but sometimes that personal touch is just what you want.” Chris Smith
alerts us to the importance in catering for students with dyslexia, “By far the most common cognitive disability is dyslexia, which in the general population has an incidence of, around, 6%. However, a screening of over a thousand students in four universities has found that 23% of the students fall into the 'at risk' category on the British Dyslexia Association's screening test. This does not mean that 23% of students are dyslexic, but that these students do have sufficient difficulties with reading to warrant a fuller assessment. They are also more likely to have an inappropriate and less effective learning style - in this case a surface approach to learning, as opposed to a deep or strategic approach. A surface approach is often less conducive to benefiting from using Learning Technology. E-learning, for example, often gives students a high degree of control over their learning, for which a surface (or 'low awareness') approach is less effective than a deep or strategic approach”.
“A simple and effective method is to always use a sans serif font such as Arial, Helvetica or Century Gothic. Also, using a relative size of font (i.e. setting the size as a percentage) allows font size to be changed within a web browser, which also makes the font easy for screen readers and the partially sighted to view. A more flexible and effective aid for dyslexics for web pages is to add a colour bar on each page, which allows users to choose the background colour they are most comfortable with. See, for example, http://ddig.lboro.ac.uk/pages/old_meetings.html
” . Tom Franklin
feels that although accessibility guidelines are long overdue, they need to be applied critically, “many of us have been arguing for years that making these things more accessible to people with disabilities makes them more accessible for everyone. However, when this is misunderstood and simplistic rules used it can be detrimental, as what helps people with one disability may be disabling for other people with other disabilities. Most guidelines and tools concentrate on a group of physical disabilities at the expense of others, notably cognitive disabilities such as dyslexia. I have heard many disability advisers state that everything should be available via text and that if it is not available as text then some people will be excluded (which is true). It is much rarer for one to hear advisers point out that large amounts of text are inaccessible for other users who would find the information accessible if they can explore it visually”.
“Accessibility should not be used as a reason for having a dull site or for having nothing but text, and it does not need to exclude the use of image maps or Flash objects etc. What is important is to consider who the intended audience is and what functionality will help them to achieve what they want to achieve. It may then be necessary to consider how those who cannot use the design can be supported”. Nicole Kipar
is concerned that claims by software companies that their products are accessible has more to do with marketing hype than practical reality, “Take the VLE of choice at our institution - we are assured by their corporate statement that the software is accessible. Why is it then that screen-reader tests with visually impaired students show that navigation through the VLE is an incredibly slow and torturous process? Leaving the substantial problems with java based synchronous communication aside, contributing to discussion boards with a screen reader poses almost insurmountable hurdles”.
“The upshot of it all is that while it is physically possible to read and reply to discussion board contributions with a screen-reader, it is not practical. It seems to be fairly easy for a software company to claim compliance with accessibility laws as long as it is possible to use their products, but is this enough? Should we be satisfied with this, no matter how difficult it is? Just because something is possible does not make it practical. Perhaps there is a magic solution for this problem that we haven't encountered yet, but we fear that until the Fairy of Learning Technology raises her magic wand to sprinkle accessibility dust all over the VLE, our students who use screen readers will not be able to take part in online discussions. Surely, if this is the case, instead of widening participation - and enhancing accessibility - we are narrowing it?”Some positive results
Overall, despite an awareness of the potential problems imposed by the legislation, most of the views expressed are optimistic and positive. For Peter Jeffels
“it has been possible, and indeed enjoyable, to work with developers to implement modifications which have produced usable and highly accessible online resources”. The final words go to Graham Lewis
, who lets us know quite clearly why it is all necessary and worthwhile, “Certainly it has changed the lives of disabled people, giving us much wider access to information and communication as it has for everybody else -it is neither an information utopia or dystopia but, perhaps more so for visually impaired folk, it is an alternative place to ‘live’ and learn”. Contributors:
Peter Jeffels, Learning Technology Unit, University of Aberdeen
Anise Bullimore, E Learning Unit, City University
Graham Lewis, Centre for Academic Practice, University of Warwick
David Ireland, School of Management and Languages, Heriot Watt University
Kirstine Lehaney, Centre for e-Learing Development
University of Stirling
Chris Smith, FDTL Learning Styles Project, Department of Psychology
University of Central Lancashire,
Tom Franklin, Franklin Consulting
Nicole Kipar, The Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit, Canterbury Christ Church University College