Accessibility and Distance Learning: An Overview
The term distance learning (sometimes called e-learning) encompasses many different instructional situations. The precursor to today's distance learning was the old-fashioned correspondence course, delivered via print materials through the mail. Today, distance learning courses may be Web based only or have a combination of Web-based instruction, print materials, audio and video materials, and onsite instruction. Even a college course that is taught on campus may put course materials, grades, and other supplementary materials online. Regardless of the delivery methods, distance learning is increasingly preferred by both instructors and students for the delivery of the courses of many different types of organizations, including colleges, primary and secondary schools, governmental organizations, and businesses.
Distance learning courses are generally delivered using a collection of tools, including e-mail, chat applications, threaded discussion groups, peer review tools, and whiteboard tools. For a course to be accessible to people who are blind or who have low vision, all distance learning components and tools that are used in the course need to be accessible; that is, the Web-based pieces need to follow good Web-accessibility practices, video needs to be described, and so on. This article discusses some tools that are specific to distance learning that may present barriers to access by people who are blind.
How Is a Distance Learning Course Constructed?
A course may be developed from individual components. For instance, an instructor may develop a web site with course materials and links from the web site to other tools, such as a threaded discussion group or chat application. In this situation, the tools to which the instructor will link are likely to have been developed by a number of different software companies and may not be hosted and managed by the organization that is offering the course. This process requires instructors to become fluent users of the information technologies that are used in the course, such as those that are used to develop web pages. Students may have to negotiate a different set of tools and different setup for each course, which places an additional burden on them as well. The accessibility of the course depends largely on the instructor's awareness of accessibility issues and how willing or able the instructor is to develop courses with accessibility in mind.
To avoid the problems associated with the individual-component approach, schools and other organizations frequently buy a commercial courseware package. Because these packages are expensive, organizations carefully investigate and select the features and functions they believe will best serve their students and faculty. Unfortunately, accessibility for individuals with disabilities may not be considered during this process. When an inaccessible courseware package is purchased, accessibility issues are compounded, since students and instructors encounter accessibility problems in every course they take or teach. Accommodations can be made, but they tend to be costly and not effective in facilitating full participation. Since the passage of Section 508 <http://section508.gov>, which raised awareness of accessibility issues, commonly used courseware packages, such as Blackboard <www.blackboard.com/company/accessibility.aspx>, have improved the accessibility of products, and some courseware packages, such as eCollege <http://ecollege.com>, have been explicitly designed with accessibility in mind.
Finally, the organization may develop its own set of proprietary distance learning tools. These tools often have accessibility problems similar to those of commercially available courseware packages. However, if the program's developers are trained and skilled in accessibility issues, there is no reason why proprietary tools cannot be developed to be accessible to students and instructors with disabilities.
Accessibility of Individual Tools and Features Used in Distance Learning
Courseware products include tools and features for both the instructor and the students. The tools include calendars, assignment tools, classroom discussion tools, tools for viewing grades, tools for evaluating progress, tools for sharing work and peer review, synchronous (real-time) chat, testing and assessment tools, threaded discussion tools, and many others. In some cases, students and instructors have the same access to these tools, and in other cases instructors have access to functions that are not used by the students. For instance, both the students and instructor can view grades online, but only the instructor can post grades.
In this article, we cover only information technology, but it is important to remember that distance learning courses may also require in-person meetings, proctored examinations, and printed materials and that these components must also be accessible to students and instructors with disabilities.
Synchronous and Asynchronous
Interactions that occur during a distance learning course can be divided into two categories: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous communication occurs in real time, similar to the way an in-person conversation or a telephone call occurs. Asynchronous communication has a time lag between individual communications. E-mail is one example of an asynchronous communication, and chat is an example of synchronous communication. Chat requires that those who are engaged in the communication are online at the same time, whereas the exchange of e-mail does not. We make this distinction here because synchronous tools tend to have more accessibility problems, while asynchronous tools tend to be more accessible.
Electronic communications, such as threaded discussion groups, Usenet discussion groups, bulletin boards, and e-mail, fall into the category of asynchronous text-based resources and are typically accessible to users of assistive technology, such as screen readers and screen magnification.
Tools for Sharing Work and Peer Review
Peer review tools are designed to simulate the sharing of work in a classroom environment. Typically, participants can upload their work into a shared work area where other students can access it and feedback can be provided. For users of screen readers or screen magnification to participate in these activities, both the content structure and the controls must be accessible. Typically, content is not accessible using these tools because the interface does not support commercial applications like Microsoft Office. Instead, content is delivered using a generic document viewer in which screen readers cannot detect the structural elements of the document, such as headings or tables. Sometimes, the use of color is the only way of identifying the author of comments or feedback. This is also a common problem with these tools.
It is possible to work around these limitations by using alternate approaches to peer review. For instance, the instructor can direct students to use e-mail as the vehicle to share work and provide feedback, while in other contexts, students can provide comments in the body of a text document, using an agreed-upon notation--such as surrounding edits with two asterisks and placing comments in brackets--or by using the tracking features that are built into Microsoft Word.
Text chat is a synchronous tool that allows several users to communicate via typed text in real time. Users post messages and respond to other users' messages quickly. Users of screen readers may experience considerable difficulty when using chat programs. Screen readers are typically able to handle some HTML-based chat rooms, but the way in which new messages are displayed can be a problem. Most applications do not allow the user to control how and when new messages are displayed. Typically, as the screen refreshes automatically with each new message, the screen reader will interrupt reading in progress and move focus to the new message, making it difficult for the user to maintain orientation and read the entire thread. For a chat program to be accessible, it must allow users of screen readers to control the refresh of new messages.
Many courseware packages include a whiteboard tool. The purpose of the electronic white board is the same as that of a blackboard or whiteboard in a brick-and-mortar school. Instructors and students write or draw on the board to share their ideas and to deliver instruction. Electronic whiteboards work as graphical chat tools. They allow multiple users to draw, paint, and share existing graphical files in real time. As you may suspect, exclusively graphical workspace is not accessible to users of screen readers. Even the text tools that are available in these environments often produce text in a way that cannot be accessed by screen readers. Furthermore, whiteboard tools lack keyboard accessibility. Thus, students who are blind or have low vision cannot participate actively in whiteboard activities either because they are unable to use the graphical tools or because they are unable to see the shared environment. Students who are blind or have low vision must therefore use the same strategies that are used in the regular classroom; that is, the instructor needs to narrate consistently and meaningfully what is being drawn or typed on the whiteboard. Doing this consistently and meaningfully requires considerable skill and discipline by instructors and students alike. Distributing the information before the whiteboard session in accessible formats (for instance, as a Word document with graphs, figures, and pictures described) will make it easier for students who are blind or have low vision and for other students who need more time to engage with the material before or after the real-time session. At this time, the best way to accommodate users of screen readers and other assistive technology is to avoid using whiteboard tools for delivering content that is essential and significant.
Testing and Assessment Tools
Online assessment is important in distance learning because it is sometimes the only tool that instructors have for assessment, and assessment is a high-stakes process both for the students and the instructor. Great care must be taken to make sure that both the interface and the content are accessible to users of screen readers, screen magnification, word-prediction software, and reading programs. Graphics need alt text descriptions, all controls need to be keyboard navigable, and color should not be the only indication of an event or choice. If the event is timed, the software application should allow the instructor to provide additional time for selected students (although this feature is not available in any of the courseware packages we examined). As we mentioned previously, both the infrastructure and content need to be accessible. To be accessible, the infrastructure must, at a minimum, allow and, at best, invite instructors to develop accessible quizzes and tests. The instructor must understand the accessibility features and take the time to include them.
A Word About Media on the Web
Most commercial media players (the software used to play streaming video or audio from the Web) are accessible, but can play only media files that are formatted for a specific player. Instructors sometimes include more than one file format, so that students with different players can access the media. Accessibility of proprietary or imbedded media players varies widely and may not support use from the keyboard.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of how the distance learning environments are developed, the principles are the same.
- The course materials and infrastructure need to be accessible to instructors with disabilities, so the instructors can develop and teach the material.
- The infrastructure should provide easy and low-effort ways for instructors to build in accessibility and should guide them as to where and why accessibility features need to be included.
- Instructors need training to develop accessible distance learning courses and understand accessibility issues. If an instructor does not understand the purpose of, for instance, including a description, he or she may dutifully include a description when prompted, but the description may say something like "graph." This type of description is not useful to students who cannot see the graph or cannot see it well.
- All course materials and tools need to be accessible to students with disabilities, so the students can successfully complete the course and fully participate in course activities.
- Students also create course content by participating in discussions, sharing their work, interacting in small groups, and so on. Content developed by students also needs to be accessible. Instructors routinely set requirements for the formatting, structure, and length of students' work. Basic accessibility guidelines can be included in these requirements. For instance, students who post their work on the Web could be required to include an alt tag (description) for every image.
Full accessibility can be achieved only if the course materials and infrastructure are accessible and facilitate the development of accessible content and if both students and instructors have sufficient understanding of accessibility and take the time to create accessible content. Of course, it is still possible to create inaccessible distance learning courses even when the infrastructure and all tools are accessible to the highest degree possible.
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