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
when the course director said: 'There are too many accessibility
Let's steer clear of it - I don't want to end up in court'."
While statements such as these may reflect some elements
of concern, by no means do they represent the full picture.
in e-learning - especially when using rich media - does throw up
however, they are challenges that, more often than not, can be
With this in mind, a recently launched website may come to our
"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
It's a right pain."
"What's the problem? Just run a validation tool and
tell you if what you've done is accessible."
Called Skills for
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
Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and Department for
Employment and Learning (DEL) under the improving provision for
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,
the FE and 14-19 vocational sectors.
The genesis of the project can be traced to conversations not a
miles from the fictitious pub conversation above. In 2002, we in the Learning
Development & Media Unit at the University of Sheffield were
for information that would help us to prepare for the Special
Educational Needs and Disabilities Act 2001(SENDA) - the act which
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
was fairly well covered from the technical perspective under the World
Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative, but where was
advice on the wider issues relating to making multimedia accessible? In
addition, even when we could find advice - and in the case of the
understand it - the technical guidelines did not address any of the
issues faced by disabled students, nor did they relate to the role of
proposed learning materials in achieving the aims of the wider
At that time the call for projects under the HEFCE improving
for disabled students initiative was issued. The call offered the
to create the sort of accessibility guidance that was patently lacking.
Consulting with TechDis, the
Development and Media Unit was put into contact with a group of experts
in accessible and inclusive technology design at the University of
the Digital Media Access Group.
accessibility experts working alongside multimedia
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
to be qualified by questions such as: Accessible to whom? In what
For what purpose? The notion of reasonable adjustment is also
in the legislation; but to what extent is it reasonable or even
to add certain accessibility features? What affects might adding or
features have on other aspects of the curriculum, or on other students?
In addition, if, for whatever reasons, the desired outcome cannot be
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
of judgement. This demands a holistic approach to accessibility that
all of its dimensions into account, not just the technology. The site
roots itself in practice by providing a number of case studies; some
by practitioners who have confronted practical issues, and others by
students who talk about their experiences, both good and bad, of
An extract from one of the video interviews - an interview with a
part-time MSc student - highlights a very important point: rather than
multimedia being seen as creating accessibility barriers, it can in
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
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
all there for me, I can go back to it and it's clear and I can
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
on and think that I need to learn about the most rather than having it
prescribed for me."
The site also provides insights into topics such as metadata for
objects; development of simple multimedia using common applications
such as Microsoft Office;
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?"
and dry, the site presents a range of "How To" guides which give
advice on how to create accessible media with current software and
applications. But even here, mindful of the dangers of applying
fixes without understanding the bigger picture, the site presents users
with a "Before you continue" warning that reminds them of the need to
The full interview (audio, video and text transcript) is available via
the Skills for Access site.
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
can clearly be expanded. The "How To" section needs to be updated
as new versions of software, applications, browsers and assistive
are released. There is also scope for expansion into new areas. Might
be that the site could become an area for the
e-learning community to discuss accessibility issues? Another possible
to create structured pathways through the material, creating modules
can be used by a staff developer in the training room, or by
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
community has discovered the Skills for Access site, we hope that the
talk will become altogether more positive, and that the discussion will
be about the shared experiences of how the tricky areas can be
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 StratfordDirector, Learning Development & Media UnitThe University of Sheffieldj.email@example.com
David SloanProject Lead, Digital Media Access Group The
of Dundee firstname.lastname@example.org