Accessibility in Online Learning
By Michael Passetti |
Education and Technology
Education and technology have always influenced each other. With advances in technology, we usually see parallel advances in education, as new technologies are used for educational purposes. A particular historical example of this was the invention of the printing press in 1440, which enabled a dramatic increase in the number of texts produced and played a pivotal role in the proliferation of ideas throughout Europe and beyond. Furthermore, the printing press did not only allow for the proliferation of ideas but the printing of texts in the vernacular of different people. In today’s terms we could think of this as a sort of proto-accessibility, as it allowed for the uneducated masses to read texts that before-hand were solely printed in Latin, and as such only accessible to the educated minority. The printing press revolutionized society, and since then, the relationship between technology and education has only grown stronger.
Online education is not only convenient but should be attainable as well. Individuals with disabilities may not be able to or may face considerable challenges in attending classes at a physical location at a particular time. Online education enables such individuals to get an education from the comfort of their own homes or wherever they feel most comfortable. This is particularly important for certain categories of disabled people, whose home environment may be set up in such a way as to be more conducive to their particular type of disability. For example, perhaps a person has a physical disability whereby they use a wheelchair for mobility. In such a case, their home environment may be better suited to their movements than a university or school campus. Many campuses do cater to such individuals, yet one should still have the option of either attending a physical campus or online education.
Accessible Web Interfaces
Currently, I have been talking about accessibility in a more general sense. I will now talk about accessible web interfaces. The usefulness of online education to those living with disabilities is greatly reduced without accessible web interfaces. An effective online course should consider the learners’ (as well as the teachers’) abilities, disabilities, and preferences. One particular way of doing this is designing and building courses with accessibility in mind and following certain accessibility standards, such as those described by The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative. As the standards set out by The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) are fairly straightforward, I do not wish to list and describe them here, but rather discuss a useful heuristic that one may use in thinking about and implementing accessibility practices in their own online courses.
One particular way of thinking about accessibility is to group different aspects of the online course and the online learning environment into different categories. By doing so, a person may find it easier to judge exactly how accessible a course is. This is because complex problems are easier to understand when we break them down into their constituent parts. Regarding accessibility, the categories we should take into consideration are:
Display: How the user interface and content should be displayed.
Control: Alternative ways of controlling a device.
Content: The specification of auxiliary, alternative, or equivalent content.
These three categories form part of the accessibility preferences of the IMS Learner Information Package (LIP), which is a standard for the collection and sharing of learner information. However, I think that another potential benefit of these categories is using them as a heuristic when we design and build online courses. In a way, standards are useful, but it is also important to think of the concepts behind those standards and how they relate to how we design and build online courses.
Disabilities and Preferences
The IMS LIP goes on to list several disabilities to which their accessibility model caters to:
Again, I think the potential benefit of these categories lies in their ability to break down a complex subject into smaller parts, making it easier for us to cater to these individuals when designing and building online courses. This may prove especially useful for those of us who may not know that much about particular disabilities. However, it may be that the above categories are too limiting, which is the point of not just following standards but thinking with them so that one can adapt the standards to their particular needs, and more importantly, the needs of the learners and teachers.
Lastly, the IMS LIP model makes an important statement that their model “does not describe disabilities but rather preferences.” While accessibility is and should be largely concerned with making online learning accessible to those with disabilities, there are several other obstacles and challenges that learners and teachers face in their pursuit of an education. Some individuals may not be fortunate enough to have a stable internet connection or particular hardware or software. Others may have an unstable home environment and may not be able to interact with the course in how designers and builders imagine. In all these cases, either those living with disabilities or those facing other obstacles, it may be better to think of learners and teachers as having specific preferences. Accessibility is about catering to those preferences while at the same time ensuring that the desired learning objectives are achieved.
Learning Technologist at Construct