Pima Community College: Creating Accessible Online Math Courses

By Chris Lamar
Students with visual, hearing, cognitive, or motor impairment disabilities make up 7.2 percent of the beginning post-secondary population. In 2002, Pima Community College (PCC), serving three counties in southern Arizona, had 720 students identified with disabilities, and—like most educational institutions—was grappling with how to enhance accessibility to meet the technical standards mandated by federal law Section 508 for telecommunications, multimedia products, and Web-based curriculum and services.

So, when Macromedia Inc. and the League for Innovation in the Community College approached Chris Lamar, director of PCC's telecommunications and production services, to collaborate in pilot-testing the newly released Macromedia Studio MX Suite software, she jumped at the chance. "It was a real godsend," says Lamar. "They wanted to explore the challenges of implementing accessibility standards in online courses in community colleges, and our course developers wanted to learn how to use software designed to support those standards."

The partners in the Macromedia Accessibility Project (MAP) committed to sharing hardware, software, training, services, and intellectual capital toward project goals and, in the summer of 2002, began work against a tight, three-month timeline.

The Pima team created two online math courses and, in the process, confronted challenges related to conversion, pedagogy, conventions, and interoperability with screen readers and other assistive devices.

With an open-door admissions policy, PCC serves 84,590 students on six campuses. As with most community colleges, it prepares some students to move directly into the workforce, and others for transfer into four-year degree programs. To accommodate this great variety in needs and learning styles, Lamar explains, "We've developed a low-cost, high-support, high-touch environment, offering tutoring and other special support, with the convenience of distributed delivery."

Course Selection and Development
For the project, two core math courses—one existing and one new—were made accessible online: Pre-Algebra, a high enrollment course, and Topics in College Mathematics, a course typically taken by Liberal Arts students for transfer to university level studies. This allowed the Pima team to compare the process of updating content and design versus the creation of new content and design for Web-based delivery. Cal Stanley, Mathematics Chair at PCC's Downtown campus, tackled the development of the new course.

Outcomes, deliverables, and criteria were set to meet course development standards. Bob Regan, Senior Product Manager at Macromedia, and Alan Foley, assistant professor in Curriculum and Instruction at North Carolina State University, trained the PCC team, with follow-up provided through conference calls.

With only limited prior experience, all Pima team members were able to develop content, evaluating and correcting it for 508 compliance as it loaded. After a content review, they began evaluating pages, adding alt tags as needed to allow alternate text images to be interpreted by text-only assistive devices, such as screen readers. The Macromedia Studio MX Suite provides on-screen prompts that walk a developer through the process, highlight accessibility related tag attributes, and provide tag editors to ensure that the program code meets compliance standards.

One of the first problems encountered was to determine what convention to use in the alt tags for mathematical operations because, according to Lamar, "There are no industry-wide standards for mathematicians."

Content in the advanced math course crossed many topics with a variety of math symbols. Stanley initially encountered standards difficulties in using Mathspeak, a language increasingly used by university mathematicians for interpreters for the blind. Eventually, he found that with a little tweaking he was able to effectively use that software. For the developmental course, however, Lamar says, "We had to consider learning styles of developmental learners. We needed to allow plenty of places for them to practice, and we had to make learning engaging, so it wouldn't seem intimidating." So she chose another path: "I decided to put in what I thought an instructor might say, as opposed to using the coded Mathspeak format. Developmental students don't need any extra step to memorize."

Another challenge was encountered in the pre-existing pre-algebra course. Designed to hold the attention of developmental learners, it included multiple animation files. When the PCC team attempted to create accessible components from the animations, it encountered "legacy" problems—especially with files constructed in layers. But with Flash MX, the team was able to create a workaround: They discovered they could add alt tags to animation files by using a unique file extension format (.swf versus the more common .fla) to solve delivery and download challenges.

"The software has usability functions that allow accessibility shortcuts to let us skip repetitive steps or redundant information when we access the content through screen readers," says Lamar. The Macromedia Studio MX Suite applications include embedded options to enable keyboard accessibility, increase the font size to make panel and dialog fonts easier to read at higher resolutions, and support the usability of screen readers.

One of the greatest advantages of the project, says Lamar, is that, "Although instructional designers are known to complain that design suffers when access has to be considered, the Web developers on our staff loved using the MX Suite."

Team members also learned how to use free accessibility resources and software plug-ins, including a captioning tool for Flash files available from the National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM: http://ncam.wgbh.org/), as well as online validation tools, such as a site that checks pages for colorblind users. References to this information are available online by searching "accessibility" at www.macromedia.com.

PCC is implementing both math courses in Spring and Summer 2003, with visually impaired students validating course content and presentation.

Chris Lamar (chris.lamar@pima.edu) is Director of Telecommunications and Production Services at Pima Community College, in Tucson, Ariz. For more information on accessibility and on MAP in particular, visit www.macromedia.com/accessibility.

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