Schools, colleges and universities are in the process of improving accessibility throughout, both in the physical as well as the virtual environment. It is important to enable students with disabilities to reach their full potential and as educational professionals, we try to be inclusive and not erect any unnecessary barriers for learners, be it physical or otherwise.
That is not merely good practice, it is also the law. The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) came into force in 1999. The Special Educational Needs Discrimination Act (England and Wales) followed in 2001. What not many know or realise fully is that all goods and services fall under this act, including web sites, the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and e-learning materials.
Since the introduction of the DDA various guidelines for web sites have been published. In 2006, AbilityNet concluded that probably more than 80% of websites in the UK did not meet the minimum standard requirements for accessibility and where thus legally at fault. Similar guidelines exist in the US and there the first lawsuit has resulted in a $6 million settlement. The Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB) is flagging up websites that do not conform to the DDA and it is likely that in the coming years there will be a test case of some sort in the UK. Therefore it is very important that educational providers take the accessibility of their learning and especially their e-learning provision into account.
If we look at accessibility as a part of the quality of e-learning, two major (and sometimes conflicting) approaches emerge. The first is the technical approach to accessibility; websites and learning resources should be accessible to a wide variety of people with a wide variety of needs. This approach is restricted; using standards and benchmarking, working towards zero errors, testing with automated checkers: a technical approach which may work when it concerns websites that need to be accessible to the public or when an e-learning resource is a stand-alone application, to be used in a distance learning context. Not all exciting Web 2.0 applications are accessible to assistive technology; but should that be a reason not to use them?
The other approach is pedagogic: trying to provide inclusive learning experiences taking into account the needs and preferences of a group of learners. This approach looks at the quality of learning experiences as being fit for purpose. Many learning programmes are designed as constructive and collaborative learning experiences. It is not merely one learner accessing one system but a more complex system in which learners access learning materials, communicate with their tutors and class mates, collaborate in wikis and blogs and using social networking sites. That kind of experience is very difficult to measure with a technical approach.
Making these experiences accessible is more than providing total online accessibility. Conflicts can arise when considering the needs of students with dyslexia, who may benefit from including rich multimedia content, which can provide difficulties for students with a visual or a hearing impairment.
In time, making learning truly inclusive will happen. Not because of guidelines and legislation, but because it ‘is the good thing to do’. The two processes: accessibility as a set of standards guided by legislation, and accessibility as part of the overall quality of the learning experience will eventually meet at some point where proponents of both approaches feel comfortable. In order to make this transition smoothly, raising awareness of the issues will be very important, combined with simple hints on how to move towards greater accessibility of some of the most popular applications.
Born in the Netherlands when a phone was still a black object the size of a small shoe box and television was black and white. After many wanderings, including two years living and working in Russia, I am now a lecturer at Carnegie College in Dunfermline, Scotland, currently seconded to the Centre of Innovation and Learning Technology in college. I have a Masters degree in Online and Distance Learning.
This article was first published in Computers in Classrooms in September 2010.