Accessible learning platforms

Many things influence the accessibility of a learning platform. Here, Alistair McNaught gives some pointers to the main issues. And – as we see below – it is not just about technology; the way you use it matters too. This overview looks at four key areas; users, resources, activities and browser choices.

Users"" 

Usability of system

The usability of the system is influenced by many things. Consider…

  • How easy it is for users to log in and authenticate (and do you need to login again within the learning platform, for example to access library resources)?
  • Will it work on tablets/phones? A disabled person’s phone/tablet may be their main assistive technology.
  • How simple is the layout and navigation?
  • How consistent are page layouts and navigation conventions?
  • How easy is it to see your context in the site (for example breadcrumb trails)?
  • Are there disability-specific features, for example
    • highlighting of tab focus for keyboard only users
    • provision of ‘Skip to main content’ links or ARIA landmarks to aid navigation
    • consistent and clear labelling of form fields for screenreader users.

Accessibility of input tools

A range of users (from tutors to library staff, system admins to students) may be involved in creating, uploading, downloading or managing content. How accessible are the editing tools provided by the system? Can they be used without a mouse? Can they be magnified effectively? Have they been tested with screenreaders?

When students need to submit content or participate in activities can they do so without using a mouse? Can they magnify dialogue boxes if they need to?

Organisation, navigation and structure

Is the organisation of the main site and subsites as simple and consistent as possible? Is the layout consistent at different levels and in different places so that any user can quickly “get a feel” for the way the site works. Are heading levels used effectively to allow screenreader users and others to browse the site rapidly?

Personalisation

Can users easily select colour/font size themes that suit their visual needs and preferences? How effectively does the page structure reflow to take account of an enlarged font size? Can the all the platform features be effectively used with assistive technologies? For example,

  • by keyboard only?
  • by voice recognition tools like Dragon Naturally Speaking?
  • are all the screens compatible with text-to-speech tools?
  • are all features compatible with screen readers?

Training implications

Since quality training contributes to user confidence it is worth considering whether training materials are already available and if not,

  • whose responsibility will it be to create them?
  • how will training be promoted, delivered and made widely available?
  • will training cover personalisation / accessibility options so that those with additional needs are proactively informed of features that would benefit them?
  • will personalisation options be promoted to everyone?

Resources""

The ideal learning platform makes it easy to both create resources and upload existing resources. For maximum inclusion and accessibility, it will host a wide range of media but will also proactively prompt good accessibility practices when media are uploaded.

For example, does the dialogue box for image uploads include a field for alternative text or captions? Does the dialogue for audio uploads include a field for transcripts? Are users encouraged to add alternative text, captions or transcripts when uploading images and audio?

In many cases, staff will be uploading existing content so the usability experience from a learner perspective will depend on pre-existing good practices. The following checklist summarises the key features for usable and accessible content.

Documents

Accessible documents add value for all readers. They add additional value for readers with print impairments. These are the main requirements for accessible documents.

  • Text must be selectable (ie not a scanned image of text). This benefits all users in terms of copying and pasting as well as users requiring text-to-speech or screen readers.
  • Documents will be structured using the inbuilt heading styles available in the word processing software (heading 1, heading 2, etc). This benefits all users, particularly those with print impairments because they are easier to navigate.
  • Image descriptions – alternative text tags on an image benefit screenreader users who cannot see the image. Alternatively, captions benefit everybody – even when people can see the image they don’t always understand what it’s showing..
  • A hyperlink with unique and meaningful text (‘Click here for information on galaxies’) benefits anyone skimming a document. Non-unique hyperlinked text (‘Click here for information on galaxies) provide significant barriers for blind users.
  • Maths/STEM equations added through an Equation Editor (like Word’s Insert > Equation feature) are much more accessible than those added as a picture.

Presentations

Making presentations available on learning platforms before delivery is good accessibility practice. The key to accessible presentations is to ensure that the important content of each slide has a text summary. In Microsoft PowerPoint the Notes field is designed to take this content. Content presented this way can rapidly be exported into a Word document through the handout option in PowerPoint. This makes the content more meaningful for all users, especially screenreader users. An image only presentation is little use for revision.

Images

Images can be made more accessible to a wide range of learners by ensuring,

  • the colour contrasts work. A simple way to check this is to convert the image to greyscale within Word or PowerPoint. If the main features are still perceivable then you can switch it back to a colour image, confident that it will work with most visually impaired learners.
  • the important teaching points of the image are summarised in the alternative text or an explanatory caption.

Audio and video

Audio and video add significant value to some learners but can provide barriers for others. To minimise any barrier and maximise any benefit both audio and video should be accompanied by a text description that helps make sense of the important teaching points. At its simplest, this may consist of a key point summary accompanying an audio or video clip. This will benefit all learners by being searchable and clarifying spelling of key terms et cetera. A full transcript is even better and, for video clips, closed captions are ideal.

Activities BlogActivity

Most learning platforms allow a range of interactivities to take place from short multiple choice quizzes through to online discussion boards. These can add significantly to engagement but may also introduce unintended barriers.

Accessibility awareness

Different activities have different accessibility profiles for different people. A simple drag-and-drop labelling quiz may be an engaging way for a dyslexic student to self-check learning but for a blind person it may be a tortuous test of short-term memory to listen to lists of labels. It could even be a pointless exercise if the image description gives away the answer. It is important for organisations to take a positive approach to adding value to learning. It would not be acceptable to deny this to many learners just because one or two learners cannot access the same experience in the same way. So tutors need to be aware of any potential barriers that an activity might create for a disabled person. Often a perceived barrier can be reduced by managing the activity a different way. For example, online discussion boards can be difficult for people with motor impairments to keep up with due to slower typing speeds. By moving from a live discussion to an asynchronous one over several days the impact of the slower typing can be reduced.

Keyboard only compatibility

One of the main accessibility questions for any short activity is ‘Can it work without using the mouse?’ If it can’t, people reliant on keyboard access (including motor impaired and blind users) will not be able to participate.

Hidden disabilities

Bitesize activities are best. However engaging, longer, more complex activities may impact adversely on people with concentration or short-term memory difficulties. Activities with background noises or blinking lights can adversely affect people on the autistic spectrum.

Browser choiceBlogBrowser

The browser is the vehicle through which the learning platform is delivered. Ensure users have access to a browser appropriate for their needs; for example…

  • Mozilla FireFox is optimised for NVDA, the most popular free screenreader. There are a wealth of plug-ins available to personalise the user experience (for example font sizes, colours, text-to-speech et cetera).
  • Google Chrome is not optimised for NVDA but scores well in the range of other plug-ins offering text-to-speech, speed reading and even voice recognition (for example if the learner is contributing to an online discussion).

So giving learners an accessible experience of your learning platform has many elements to it but if you get them right you will be a long way towards making disabled learners more efficient, independent and successful.

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