By Sarah Horton, David Sloan, and Billy Gregory
Note: This is the manuscript version of the paper we presented at the 13th Web for All Conference (W4A 2016). The paper appears in W4A 2016 Proceedings of the 13th Web for All Conference, Copyright © 2016 ACM.
Ensuring the accessibility to students with disabilities of online learning experiences is widely recognised as a socially and legally significant objective. Any successful program with an objective of producing accessible learning experiences will need to address elements closer to the surface, including:
- Platforms: Can students with disabilities access and use the content and features provided by the software platform?
- Resources: Is the content and functionality of the learning materials accessible and usable and understandable?
- Assessments: Can learners with disabilities demonstrate mastery of the subject matter in a way that is authentic and comprehensive?
Many efforts are underway in the educational technology sector, as well as in individual institutions, to raise levels of accessibility, in particular activities aimed at improving accessibility of learning management systems (LMS) (see for example, Gay et al., 2009). However, in addition to the learning management system, online learning accessibility applies to learning resources, the quality of the process used to acquire and provide them, and how instructors use them to deliver learning experiences. The academic context—the learning objectives of the experience, and the baseline knowledge expected of learners—adds a unique challenge to defining what is an appropriate accessible experience.
Additionally, like all digital experiences, an effective accessibility solution is partly dependent on the extent to which someone with accessibility needs has an available solution that will allow them to access and interact with the digital resource. When an education provider prioritises a strategy of accommodation, individual learner needs may be met, but inaccessible aspects of the underlying learning experience remain unaddressed. With the emergence of remote learning, where a learner may never visit a physical campus, there is less opportunity for an institution to provide the learner with a particular technology setup, and therefore there is less scope to make design decisions based on assumptions about a student’s available technology.
Often, accessibility activity is reactive. Education providers may be responding to actual or threatened legal action relating to disability discrimination. These efforts instinctively focus on evaluating existing digital systems against accessibility standards, with the intention of remediating barriers that are found. This approach is inefficient, as it often places significant burden on a few individuals. It is also often unsuccessful, for example when the technical nature of the barriers found means that a system cannot reasonably be remediated, or when a resource is provided by a third-party supplier and the institution is unable to make any changes to it.
In short, an accessibility strategy based on accommodation and remediation is not sufficient to effectively meet student rights to accessible and equitable education, and to provide a good experience for learners who have disabilities. Accessibility must be infused into organizational culture and practice, particularly in key areas such as organizational leadership, policy, and resource procurement. Accessibility can be further supported by introducing new processes and services that make accessibility more readily achievable.
In this position paper we propose foundational activities related to culture and practice that bolster more direct efforts to provide accessible online learning experiences.
The Value of Masterplanning
Most public organizations, including schools and universities, have a facility masterplan that defines current resources and maps out plans for growth and change over time. The masterplan reflects the goals and aspirations of the organization and supports its long-term strategic vision. The strategic masterplan exposes relationships and dependencies, to show how change in one area influences options in others. When guided by a masterplan, activities and initiatives harmonize across the institution. Organizations that are required to provide accessible facilities will include accessibility as a required attribute of all programs and facilities. Because accessibility is drawn into the masterplan and considered in all facets of the environment, campus activities are more likely to be accessible to people with disabilities.
As accessibility consultants, we often work with clients in the education sector—colleges and universities, publishers, software companies. Our primary offering has historically been audits of existing software against accessibility standards. When we work on auditing LMSes, we see a clear delineation between responsibility for the content and functionality provided by people who design and develop the tool and the content and functionality provided by people who use the tool—including instructors.
However, through engagements with a number of universities on providing strategic accessibility consultancy, we know resolving accessibility issues with LMS software is only a small piece of the puzzle, and in some ways the most straightforward to resolve. The real challenge lies in harmonizing all activities in the digital classroom such that accessibility is a required attribute of all contributions.
A masterplanning approach to a digital campus accessibility strategy encourages a holistic view of the way in which the digital campus evolves—strategies and activities, internal and external stakeholders, standards and practice—and how each of these can play a role in positively influencing accessibility.
Masterplanning the Digital Campus
The digital campus is much less planned than the physical campus, and many more individuals have a hand in its composition—in creating it and changing it (Welchman, 2015). Given that the web has its origins in education and the devolved nature of most educational institutions, especially at higher education level, it is unsurprising that most organizations involved in online learning have largely unplanned digital estates. This is problematic, as a lack of structure and coordination makes governance and implementation of online accessibility more difficult to achieve. Institutions implementing a long-term and sustainable digital accessibility strategy must work to create a more planned digital campus.
A feature of an immature approach to accessibility is isolated subject-matter experts and advocates, who may be highly knowledgeable in accessibility, and skilled in diagnosing and remediating issues; but who have little to no voice or influence in institution-wide strategy and activity. This situation betrays a reactive, remediation approach to accessibility; when problems with process are never addressed, the result is that these informal champions may see their work as never-ending and unrewarding, and may become disillusioned over time with a lack of progress or attention. The institution thus loses its domain experts but retains ineffective practices and exposes itself to potential unlawful discriminatory practice.
For accessibility to have visibility and influence requires support from leadership, and a genuine recognition of the value of including accessibility as a core quality of the institution’s activity (Kline, 2011). Masterplanning naturally forms part of the responsibilities of an institutional accessibility initiative, led by an accessibility lead and supported by a group of influential staff who have authority and responsibility for accessibility as a quality attribute of the digital campus. This core accessibility leadership group should have sufficient representation from across campus to have a clear understanding of the diversity of culture and practice, and the practical challenges that will need to be met when masterplanning an accessibility initiative.
Focus accessibility masterplanning on online learning
Masterplanning accessibility into an entire digital campus can be a major undertaking. Online learning provides a good target for accessibility planning, with opportunities to enhance the quality of the learning environment, widen access to a greater number of learners, and where there are potential legal ramifications to inaction or insufficient action. Accessible online learning provides an opportunity to put structures in place to support accessibility across the organization. For accessible online learning, digital resources that are used to support teaching and learning must be prioritized.
Educational organizations should have no difficulty making a case for prioritizing online learning resources, if only for the sake of minimizing risk. Many countries have clear laws protecting the rights of students with disabilities to education, and education providers have found themselves subject to legal inquiry due to perceived discrimination against disabled students due to digital accessibility barriers. For many organizations, risk mitigation can provide the motivation and resources needed to prioritize accessibility in the online learning context.
Foundations of Accessible Online Learning
Accessible online learning experiences arise from an integrated, mature approach to accessibility. Masterplanning should look at key activity areas: policy, process, programs and practice.
Educational organizations must establish which standards will be used to benchmark accessibility, and which digital products and services are required to comply with the standard. Policy establishes and articulates the priorities and obligations of the digital campus.
Set an accessibility standard for digital learning resources
Education providers must have a clear definition of and policy around accessibility. The policy must set a target standard and level of accessibility, such as the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA. The policy must both define a minimum acceptable level of user experience for people with disabilities and preserve academic rigor for online learning materials.
An effective accessibility policy will be future-focused, encouraging activities around new digital resources rather than existing resources in need of remediation. It will encourage replacement or retirement of resources that are difficult or impossible to repair.
A realistic accessibility policy will not require full compliance with accessibility standards. There are far too many variables that affect accessibility to aim for an online learning environment that is fully and completely compliance with accessibility standards. Instead, the policy should seek to minimize accessibility issues in digital resources, understand accessibility issues that remain, and have a plan of action for how to address them.
Include an exception procedure
An exception procedure describes what must happen when a resource or tool is found to be non-conformant with the standard and what should happen when it is considered impractical or impossible to achieve conformance.
Replacement or retirement options should be considered before persisting with a resource that does not meet the specified standard. If the digital resource is vital to delivery of learning experiences, accessibility issues must be documented, along with a plan for managing accommodations for people who encounter issues using the service, and providers must seek ways to address outstanding issues.
Establish accountability for policy compliance
In most online learning offerings, implementing and enforcing an accessibility policy will require a partnership among different groups based on a shared understanding of roles and responsibilities. That said, the effort will be most successful if someone takes an accessibility leadership role. A leader and subject matter expert can set direction and communicate expectations around the policy, monitor compliance, and be accountable for the success of the effort (Welchman, 2015).
The foundational software and resources that comprise online learning environments are generally acquired rather than built. Vendors contributing to the digital campus must meet accessibility requirements, and organizations must have the means to evaluate accessibility in products and services.
Include accessibility in resource procurement
Most online learning offerings are composed in some part of tools, platforms, and content that are procured by the sponsoring organization. In these cases, implementing accessibility is not a matter of training designers and developers, but rather asking the right questions in the procurement process.
Procurement of systems, tools and resources may take place centrally, or be devolved. With centralisation, there is greater control over the application of a procurement policy, but in many institutions, there will be significant devolution of procurement to faculty. This means that masterplanning must promote the value of following the accessible procurement policy, and the articulate the risks of not doing so.
Establish a documentation standard
Documenting accessibility is a vital part of policy implementation. Using a standard template, such as a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, or VPAT®, can help to ensure consistency in scope and reporting.
In procurement initiatives, there will likely be situations where no supplier can deliver a product or service to the required level of accessibility. The exception procedure that partners with the accessibility standard must provide guidance on assessing the implications of adopting a solution that is sub-standard in terms of accessibility, and dealing appropriately with any issues that arise. Longer term, aligning institutional accessibility policies across the educational sector will help institutions articulate their accessibility demands in a more uniform way to suppliers. In turn, this may increase the chances that suppliers take steps to meet market demand by improving accessibility accordingly.
Centralized and coordinated accessibility programs can provide the right resources at the right time. Developing a solid supporting service layer will make it easier for course providers to deliver accessible online learning.
Establish accessibility services and resources
Many accessibility activities require doing things differently, not necessarily doing something additional, while others require additional effort and time. Establishing centralized services to support accessible online learning will require an initial investment, but will reduce the outlay overall. For example, media accessibility requires additional time and effort, with investment required to create an equivalent version of the information, such as captions for the audio in course videos. In this case, a central caption provisioning service that is integrated into the process of posting videos will help produce content that is accessible to all learners.
Consolidate decentralized programs and services
Crosscutting initiatives like accessibility are difficult to accomplish when different groups are responsible for delivering the same programs and services. Generally speaking, the effort of building accessibility awareness and skills and maintaining a common understanding over time is more difficult with decentralized services. When laying the foundations for accessible online learning, strive to centralize programs and services that support online learning to the greatest extent possible.
The arguments for accessibility of online learning experiences are widely espoused, and there is increasing agreement that accessibility is an important quality of an online learning experience. The construction and delivery of an online learning experience is a complex task that may involve many stakeholder groups. For a successful, accessible online experience, each stakeholder group must recognise and meet its responsibilities.
Understand policies and obligations
Accessibility requirements vary around the world, as do support resources and accommodations available to students with disabilities. Responsibility for supporting students with disabilities in the online context may be different from supporting on-campus students. Responsibilities may differ for courses that are offered free of charge and course that are offered for a fee. Understanding policy on supporting students with disabilities helps establish the impact on responsibilities for accommodating students with disabilities in online courses.
Identify who is responsible for assisting students with disabilities
Many educational organizations provide support services for students who have disabilities, such as note-takers, real-time captioning, and document conversion. A masterplan establishes who is responsible for providing support for students with disabilities and the level of support provided for online courses. Some organizations will provide some support through student services and other support through information technology services—for example, help using learning management systems with assistive technology.
Inject accessibility into teaching methods
As the primary providers of learning experiences, instructors have a critical role to play in the accessibility of the digital campus. Instructors are contributors of digital assets, whether through creating or modifying them, or commissioning or procuring them from third parties. Therefore, they must be aware of institutional standards and best practice in designing or selecting accessible digital content.
Teaching practice also influences the accessibility of the learning experience, whether in a classroom or online. An awareness of inclusive teaching practices recognises learner diversity and different learning styles, which may be influenced by accessibility requirements (CAST, 2011).
An instructor’s practice can also impact on effort required to ensure digital accessibility at a more fine-grained level. Take, for example, an instructor whose lectures are captured on video, which will be captioned and transcribed and made available to learners. If the instructor applies inclusive teaching practice, when using visual aids such as graphics projected onto a screen visible to the class she will also describe orally the key information available in each graphic. This oral description can also be captured in the transcript. If the instructor were to assume that the visual aids were accessible to all of the class, there would be additional burden on the transcriber to generate a description of the salient points of the visual aid, which might require additional input from the instructor. The use of un-described visuals adds to the effort required to create an accessible equivalent of the lecture.
Therefore, masterplanning needs to include a focus on the professional practice of instructors, to ensure that inclusive teaching is a recognised core skill. Integration of digital resources in the learning experience must cover ensuring resources are optimally accessible, while also applying best practice in inclusive teaching methods. Recruitment, promotion schemes and professional development programs can serve as places to reinforce the value of inclusive teaching.
Build an accessibility “Community of Practice”
Communities of practice can be powerful aids to increasing the profile of accessibility as a cross-campus quality, and to support sharing of accessibility knowledge and experiences amongst digital content creators in a supportive and positive way. Masterplanning might focus on activities such as:
- establishing accessibility champions within academic and central organisations as points of contact and sources of information relating to accessibility, and ensuring these champions are kept up-to-date with institutional strategy and activity relating to accessibility;
- supporting the establishment of regular cross-campus informal gatherings focused on discussing aspects of inclusive design;
- encouraging networking between domain experts in accessibility related topics, such as web development, disabilities studies and human-computer interaction, and faculty and institution-wide accessibility strategy and practice;
- encouraging engagement with local accessibility communities of practice, such as accessibility meetups, or virtually, such as the Viking and the Lumberjack series of accessibility videocasts.
Building on Foundations for Lasting Change
A masterplanning approach provides a way for a more strategic approach to improving inclusive online learning experiences, by looking holistically at an educational organisation’s policies and practices, processes, and assets—human and technical. We suggest this approach as one that we have encouraged amongst higher education organisations we have worked with. Implementation is a long and slow process, and it will take time to evaluate its impact.
What might success metrics for a masterplanning approach include? In the case of the University of Colorado at Boulder, one early and positive outcome of their strategic accessibility work was the closing of a legal inquiry into unlawful discrimination by the Department of Justice. Another possible success measure would be a greater number of learners with disabilities successfully completing educational programs. At a more specific level, we might look to measure things like changes in baseline awareness of accessibility across staff, application of inclusive teaching methods, and accessibility of digital resources and tools.
Another critical consideration for the future of organisational capacity to deliver accessibility is raising awareness of accessibility as a digital literacy and as a specialty. How well are we teaching accessibility as a subject in our educational programs, and preparing the next wave of stakeholders—the software designers and engineers, educators, instructional designers, student support providers, librarians—to provide an environment that supports delivery of accessible online learning?
Education providers themselves have a responsibility in this area, but two initiatives are underway to explore these topics in depth:
- Teaching Accessibility, an initiative of a consortium of organisations from industry, education and disability advocacy to raise baseline expectations for accessibility skills amongst new hires, and to correspondingly raise the profile of accessibility in educational curricula: teachingaccessibility.com.
- A W3C Community Group focusing on accessibility of online learning, with an initial remit of establishing opportunities for developing W3C accessibility documentation to better support people working in the education sector: www.w3.org/community/accesslearn.
- CAST (2011) Universal Design for Learning Guidelines, Version 2.0. Wakefield, MA.
- Gay, G., Mirri, S., Roccetti, M., and Salomoni, P. 2009. Adapting learning environments with AccessForAll. In Proceedings of the 2009 International Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibililty (W4A) (W4A ’09). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 90-91.
- Kline, J. (2011) Strategic Accessibility: Enabling the Organization. Live Oak.
- Seale, J. (2014) E-learning and disability in higher education: accessibility research and practice. Routledge.
- Welchman, L. (2015) Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design. Rosenfeld Media.