Friday, May 13, 2016

Usable and accessible online courses

Greetings from the seminar room of Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW)at the Australian National University where I am taking part in "How usable and accessible are your on-line courses?" by Professor Denise Wood, Central Queensland University, and Dr Sheila Scutter, University of South Australia. We were first introduced to the principles of accessible web design and the more general Universal Design for Learning. They are designing a MOOC for teaching this. Jeremy Smith from ANU received an acknowledgement for his contribution.

The project is not just about making course materials readable for people with a disability, it is also  about accessibility more broadly. Also it is about making course accessible on-line for completely remote delivery, or in blended mode.

Some of these are issues of basic course design, which will benefit all students. For example, how to how to contact the instructor and what course materials are available are issues which are not well addressed in traditional classroom based courses and can be improved with on-line support.

One tool mentioned was the Student Usability Scale (SUS). Also the use of software installed on the user's computer to record a test session for the usability of a course was discussed. The Flexible Learning for Open Eduction (FLOE)  tool was demonstrated.

I am familiar with some of these accessibility issues having been an expert witness in the Sydney Olympics 2000 Accessibility case and invited to advise the Beijing Olympics.

Wood and Scutter gave an excellent seminar on well run research into teaching. Unfortunately, this appears to be another of the Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT) funded research projects which is addressing the wrong question. There are decades of research on on-line course design and accessibility. There are tools and training courses based on this research in routine use in the vocational education and training (VET) sector for developing accessible courses. The question is why Australian universities do not implement what has been shown to work in the VET sector.

For anyone teaching across the vocational and university sectors (as I do), the differences are obvious. In the vocational sector (and in distance/open universities) the courses are designed by a team and then delivered by instructors. All the courses for a program use the same template, with course components laid out in the same way. The instructor has limited, or no, ability to change the template or the course materials (even to correct spelling errors or broken links). As a result, accessibility is designed in to the program, at the cost of flexibility.

Universities, particularly research orientated universities, allow their academics more freedom in course design and delivery than the vocational sector. The academic can teach what they want, how they want. But researchers are trained to conduct research and are understandably reluctant to take the extra time needed to learn how to design courses and teach. This problem is not unique to Australia. Last year I talked to staff at Cambridge University about how to help the graduate students with on-line courses. One option would be to incorporate basic teaching skills in postgraduate research programs, bringing early career academics up to the standard of VET teachers. Bryant and Richardson (2015) found that university lecturers with teacher training tended to have fewer failing students.

Academics producing a course content need to only work on the content, using the skills of specialists to worry about how it is presented. As an example text can be written using the default formatting features of a word-processor, so that it will inherent the style set up for the institution's template. I have used this approach for the course "ICT Sustainability", enabling the course content to restyle automatically when the institution's template is updated. This has also allowed the course to be ported between three very different higher education institutions (vocational, open and research orientated) and also adapted for mobile devices with minimal additional work required.

Scriven describes how from the 1970s he became increasingly disenchanted with evaluating US education programs based on the goals of the programs, leading to Goal-Free Evaluation (GFE)  (p. 56, 1991). A program designed to improve the usability and accessibility of courses is likely to be successful by its own internal logic: those academics who are motivated to take part are likely to produce better courses. However, using GFE, the bigger question becomes apparent: how do we motivate Australian university academics to improve courses? I suggest this is the area needing research.


Bryant, D., & Richardson, A. (2015). To be, or not to be, trained. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 37(6), 682-688. DOI: 10.1080/1360080X.2015.1102818

Scriven, M. (1991). Prose and cons about goal-free evaluation. Evaluation Practice, 12(1), 55-63. Retrieved from

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