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Accessibility in e-learning and digital learning development strategies

schedule 17th May 2018 by Matthew Dickinson in Virtual College

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Accessibility in e-learning means that all learners, including learners with disabilities, can participate fully in the e-learning. However, ‘enabling all learners to participate’ is much easier said than done.

Consequently, many eLearning providers either make no provision at all for learners with disabilities or they offer them a text alternative of the course content instead of creating fully accessible e-learning products.

Even though providing a text alternative will at least ensure that a disabled learner has access to all the relevant facts taught in the course, it will hardly result in an interactive and engaging learning experience.

As a digital learner centric company, Virtual College took the plunge, started to explore e-learning accessibility in detail, and began to integrate it into our design and development process. Our first fully accessible module will be available soon.

When developing accessible e-learning, we focus on several key areas

Accessibility standards

The relevant accessibility standards for us as a UK company are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0). Complying with the relevant WCAG guidelines is an important legal requirement, but ticking the right boxes on the WCAG checklist is only the start. We need to do much more to ensure that our e-learning modules are engaging and effective as well as accessible.

Understanding the needs of disabled learners

To be able to create high-quality digital learning experiences for all learners, we need to understand the needs of all our learners, including learners with disabilities. After all, a detailed understanding of the target audience is one of the basic elements of instructional design.

As instructional designers, we rarely get the opportunity to watch learners with disabilities use e-learning or discuss their experience, even though this would be ideal. Therefore, we need to find other ways to help us understand their needs. Watching videos showing how a visually impaired individual uses a screen reader or uploading screenshots of example slides to a colour blindness simulator can provide valuable insights.

Once we can put ourselves, at least to some degree, into a disabled learner’s shoes, it’s much easier to create great accessible e-learning experiences.

Accommodating opposing needs

Different groups of learners may even have opposing needs, and we need to find a way to accommodate both groups. For example, having the on-screen text narrated fully can be very beneficial to learners with dyslexia or learners with low literacy skills, but according to Mayer’s ‘Redundancy Principle’ having the same information presented as audio and on-screen text is not beneficial to the vast majority of learners.

By being flexible and allowing learners to choose their preferences, we can ensure that both groups of learners can enjoy a learning experience that works for them.

Integrating accessibility smoothly into the design and development process

The best way to develop accessible e-learning without hugely increasing development times and cost is to think ‘accessibility’ right from the start. Instructional designers and graphic designers need to be familiar with accessibility requirements and integrate them seamlessly into their work.

Here is an example: A screen reader* reads the elements on the screen from left to right and top to bottom. If we are unaware of this fact or ignore it when designing and building an e-learning course, we can easily create a lot of extra work for ourselves. For example, if we place the ‘Next’ and ‘Previous’ buttons anywhere other than the bottom right corner, learners who use a screen reader can easily miss part of the information, as the screen reader will ‘read’ the ‘Next’ button before it has read all the information.

To fix this issue, we then need to go back to our module and manually change the tab order (the sequence in which the screen reader reads the elements on the screen) for each single slide. Had we considered the tab order at the start and placed the buttons at the bottom right corner, we would have saved all this time. This is just one simple example, there are many more potential pitfalls.

Creating accessible e-learning is a complex task. The best way to master it is to focus on the needs of our learners, listen to their feedback, master the accessibility features of our authoring tool and make accessibility a natural part of the design and development process.

  • A screen reader is a piece of assistive software that is used by people with severe visual impairments. The screen reader reads aloud the elements on the screen, such as text, images (if they contain ALT text), buttons etc.
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Author: Matthew Dickinson

Matthew is a Learning Solutions Consultant, helping to design learning experiences for clients. He has a keen interest in how technology can be used to enhance learning. In his spare time he is a Leeds United fan for his sins.

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