Adding variety without adding barriers

It’s great to use a variety of resources and media types with learners, adding value to the learning experience. However sometimes value added to one user is subtracted from another. Here’s how to minimise barriers when working with a range of media.

Documents

Structuring a document appropriately is one of the most fundamental accessibility practices. By using heading styles (instead of formatting menus), the meaning of the content becomes much more obvious. Microsoft Word’s Document map/Navigation pane view is a classic example of the benefits of a well-structured document. Users can browse by different heading levels and immediately jump to any section in a long document.

Adding alternative text to images within documents ensures that people who rely on screen reading software are not disadvantaged.

See Jisc guidance on making documents, spreadsheets and presentations more accessible

Web pages

Being “born digital”, many web pages are reasonably accessible by nature  Web browsers allow readers to zoom and magnify. Browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla FireFox can be extended with free plugins to turn text to speech, or change colours, remove distracting information on the web page, even helping with navigation. See the training guide on useful browser plugins.

Audio

Audio is quick, cheap and easy to create. The majority of mobile devices can play audio files. There is very wide support for the MP3 format. Audio can be a preferred medium for users with different types of disabilities although it may create barriers for those with hearing impairments so  please ensure the key learning objectives are available in a linked text file. This practice benefits all users (making it easy to search, copy/paste to notes or check spellings of key names). Audio suits multi-tasking; learning you can do whilst driving, jogging or working out at the gym.

Digital text can be turned into audio using text-to-speech tools. Text to speech is built into some mainstream tools like Microsoft Office (2010 upwards) and Acrobat Reader. It is available for browser plugins for Google Chrome and Mozilla FireFox. There are free stand-alone audio tools that can either read directly from the page or save as MP3 files.

Visual – images

Images can be used in many ways. Whether it is a well-prepared diagram to support a dyslexic person, or simple symbols to support users with learning difficulties, visual media provide significant benefits.  Mobile devices, which most people have access to are ideal for storing and reviewing and creating visual materials in the form of photographs and video. Alternatively, copyright cleared images are easy to source from a range of collections including Pixabay, Flickr CC and Wikimedia Commons.

The accessibility of an image depends on technical factors (brightness, contrast, sharpness) as well as pedagogical factors (how effectively it is labelled, how well it is described, how it is integrated into a text/audio narrative). Summarise the key teaching points in captions, body text or alt tags so that barriers are minimised and benefits maximised.

Multimedia

Videos can stimulate discussion, clarify explanations or allow learners to record their skills and abilities. Free tools and services such as Screencast-o-matic, TinyTake or Jing can help tutors/learners turn still images into narrated movie clips. If you have PowerPoint 2013 or above it has an automatic screen recording tool under the Insert options. Apps for tablet devices (e.g. EduCreations, Book Creator, ThingLink, Explain Everything) make it easy to create multimedia content with embedded video/images and raw videos can be taken on most smartphones. See this example of a learner using Educreations.

As with images and audio, a text summary of the key teaching points adds value for everyone and is an essential minimum for accessibility.

Interactivity

Creating rich media and interactivity is no longer a specialist job requiring expensive training and tools. Free content creation tools such as Xerte toolkits and eXeLearning as well as a range of websites and phone/tablet apps such a Showbie allow staff or students to create sophisticated interactivities including quizzes with instant feedback. However, the more sophisticated a learning experience becomes, the greater the potential for accidentally introducing barriers.

Some interactivities add a lot of value to one kind of learner but prove to be a barrier for another – for example dragging and dropping slope labels onto a contour map will be a fun revision tool for many learners but a barrier for a blind person. You could adapt the coding to make it technically accessible but the resulting activity would require immense concentration and memory for a blind user – not at all a ‘fun, revision tool’. In circumstances like this it is important to get the balance right. It can be appropriate to have “partially accessible” resources on the network if they benefit many learners so long as an alternative resource (in this case perhaps a tactile alternative) is available. However, it makes little sense to waste the time of the developer and the blind student in making an inappropriate learning experience ‘easier to access’ if it is still an inappropriate activity.

Be creative and collaborative

Accessibility is as much related to the pedagogical approach as it is to the nature of the resource. Being creative about different types of reasonable adjustment will allow you more freedom to be innovative with both the online and the offline experiences. Working with rather than for disabled users will often help uncover simple solutions.

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