Monday, August 12, 2013

Accessibility of Course Content and Administrative Systems

Greetings from the Accessibility Week Conference at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. The first session is an introduction to web accessibility for people with a disability. As anyone working in education should know, there are federal laws requiring education to be made available to people with a disability and guidelines for web accessibility. I was an expert witness in the case which was the legal precedent for web accessibility (Maguire Vs. SOCOG, 2000). This case was more than ten years ago and conforming with the guidelines is not very difficult, but many universities are still failing to make their course content and on-line administrative systems accessibility. Apart from people with a disability, the accessibility guidelines also make web materials easier to access for those using a smart phone, with English as a second language and on slow Internet links.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) provides a list of Accessibility Standards and Guidelines for Education as well as Web Accessibility Information. Some of the problems I commonly see in university materials are poorly formatted PDF documents, videos with no captions and no text notes, images with no captions and use of color with no text alternatives.

Checking a course for accessibility can be a good time to rethink what information you are providing to students and how you provide it. One common response I get when I point out to teachers and administrators the need for accessibility is: "We can't reformat all this material.". But in many cases the material would benefit from revision and simplification. In many cases the course has grown up with a jumble of documents with redundant, obsolete and contradictory information. Paring down the information will help. Also preparing documents in an accessible format can make them easier to maintain.

One tip I have is to use web pages in place of of HTML. While it is theoretically possible to create accessible web pages, it is easier to avoid the issue and just use web pages. This also makes maintenance easier. As an example, I prepare my ICT Sustainability course notes as a set of web pages, one page per week. The notes use the basic HTML constructs, such as headings, paragraphs and lists with no mention of fonts, colors or layout. When I import the notes into a Learning Management System (LMS), such as Moodle, the document inherits the colors, fonts and layout set by the educational institution. This way if the color scheme or other details change, I don't have to make any changes, my notes adjust automatically. If a mobile version is provided for smart phones and tablets, my notes also adjust.

But before spending time making course documents accessible, first consider if they are needed at all. As an example,  one of my colleagues showed me a table they had prepared to summaries their course topics, week by week, along with lectures, tutorials, workshops, assignments and exams. They had color coded the table and tried their best to make it clear. However, the problem was that the course seemed to have no logical pattern to what the students had to do. Instead I suggested breaking the course into modules which had a repeating pattern, so that a complex table would not be needed.

As an example of a pattern, my ICT Sustainability course is divided into two halves, with an assignment for each. Each six week module has one forum with questions to be answered at the same time each week.

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