A Public Consortium Emphasizes the Importance of LMS Accessibility

By Rebecca André, Ohio State University (OSU) Technology Enhanced Learning and Research, Mark Felix, University of Arizona, Tucson, Alan Foley, University of Wisconsin System Administration, Dawn Hunziker, University of Arizona, Tucson, and Ken Petri, OSU Web Accessibility Center

In this article we explore the state of LMS accessibility and provide both a broad review of LMS accessibility and the practice of site and tool design, and attend to the successes and challenges of LMS accessibility.

Changing Design Practices

Yogi Berra once said, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, in practice there is.”

From a sociological perspective, accessibility is not a practice in theory but a practice of individuals with a specific set of ideas about design that come from their training and cultural position. Their notions of design and what makes it good design are long held. Changing this requires a challenge to design at its core. We must encourage designers and developers to change their practices and incorporate accessibility, but we also need to appeal to the core passions that draw designers to their profession in the first place.

An interesting way to think about this views computers as theater – an experience that varies from viewer to viewer and that is dependent on varying experience, attitudes, and ideas. Brenda Laurel suggests that humans working with computers are not merely “users,” but human agents. The potential that a person has, not as merely a computer user, but as a person acting with agency to shape her/his own experience adds endless possibly to the conception of Web-based tools. This notion of the agent also forces Web designers to think about the people who will be using their Web site – what experiences, background, learning styles, and abilities they bring to the experience. Web designers often do not make these considerations for a variety of reasons.

The biggest challenge of accessibility is to convey an understanding of an experience that is different than one’s own. To generalize, designers can be considered in their way of looking at the world. Their expertise is in understanding and controlling visual presentation. They find tools such as screen readers extremely difficult to work with. Moreover, accessibility can not always be validated with a simple “Bobby” like tool. There is no “spell check” for accessibility. Designers often have no background to make decisions about assistive technologies or the way they are used, yet they are the most important group in terms of those whose behavior needs to change.

Accessibility is a process. Accessibility can’t be learned in a day. Working with designers on accessibility requires a sustained effort on the part of Web accessibility practitioners. The impact and implications of accessibility may not become immediately clear after a single presentation from an expert. To expect designers to implement accessibility with a singular workshop training is unrealistic. Accessible design often requires an experiential learning process where designers first understand and then learn to incorporate the specific use cases for accessibility. Designers require an opportunity to follow up on accessibility with additional questions and concerns as they begin to grapple with the specifics of accessible design. Enough emphasis cannot be made that leaving accessibility to the end of a project is never a workable strategy and that good practice includes accessibility as a design parameter, not a feature request.

Course management system creators should actively engage the community and solicit input from people using computer technologies in multiple ways.

Learners with Disabilities and How They Access a Web-Based LMS

The four main categories of disability that must be accommodated are visual, motor, auditory, and cognitive. Visual disability encompasses blindness, low-vision, and color-blindness. Low-vision users often increase the font sizes within the browser or use some sort of screen magnification software. About 5 percent of men in the United States have one of the three forms of red-green colorblindness. There are other forms of colorblindness, but the red-green types are the most prevalent. For colorblind users, it is essential that checks be run to make sure foreground-background contrast is adequate and that meaning within iconography and text is not conveyed solely by color. Blind learners typically access a LMS via a screen reading program that voices the textual content of Web pages (or, for the deaf-blind, produces refreshable Braille output).

Motor disability encompasses users who have undergone traumatic injuries or have congenital diseases or other disorders that affect gross or fine motor control. Interaction with a Web-based LMS for these learners typically cannot involve the mouse. Keyboard navigation of all functionality is necessary.

Auditory disability encompasses full and partial hearing loss. To accommodate deaf learners, audio content must have synchronized captioning. Interfaces cannot rely on audible cues for interactivity.

The largest group of learners with disabilities includes learners who have some form of cognitive disability. This constituency includes people with various attention disorders, reading impairments, linguistic and verbal comprehension deficits, problem-solving deficits, and graphic and math comprehension deficits.

It should be noted that many of the so-called accommodations that have to be made to make the LMS accessible enhance learning for all users. For example, keyboard navigability speeds input generally. Captioning of content provides access in noisy environments (or places where quiet is enforced). Captioned content is also beneficial for people trying to learn a language or those who learn best when presented content through more than one mode of delivery. And the text transcripts used in captioning can be indexed by LMS search features, facilitating accurate and comprehensive lookup.

Why Should We Care How Accessible Our LMS Is?

It is likely no one will question the legal responsibility of universities to accommodate disabled learners. So the initial question of “why accommodate?” answers itself: We have to. But this answer is far from satisfying, and only opens the floodgates for the critics. Undoubtedly someone makes the claim: “The legal requirement forced on universities to make complex software, such as an LMS, accommodate users of assistive technologies, hampers deployment, limits functionality for the non-disabled, and ultimately hobbles pedagogy.”

Although technical hurdles increase in some instances of complex interactivity when developers are required to code with accessibility in mind, it is highly likely that the end product will be more robust as a result of the increased attention. The effort that g'es into re-imagining a complex interactive interface so that it better accommodates assistive technologies has an added effect of improving the overall quality of the interface. It is a simple case of having to approach a problem from multiple perspectives. The interface is more thoroughly conceptualized, more flexible, and necessarily adaptable to a wider variety of platforms and browsers. The interface becomes enriched rather than impoverished through the rigor required to make it accessible. And, as a result, the usability of the interface improves for all users.

Considering content design, there is no question the clarity and overall quality of content improves from the extra planning and composition care that must be taken when authoring and structuring content to accommodate users with disabilities and users who access the LMS via assistive technology. Additionally we see that content is more likely to be more easily reusable. The semantically-rich content and structure best suited to people with disabilities is also better indexed by search tools used by all. Thus, learning objects are more likely to get better exposure in any community of learners.

Consortium Working Directly with LMS Developers

Product managers and programmers at Desire2Learn (D2L), our Consortium’s LMS, have a direct interest in accessibility. The University of Toronto Adaptive Technology Resource Centre performed audits and analyzed the current product. D2L’s project manager and its usability specialist directly liaise with the Consortium. In addition to maintaining an internal checklist for developers, D2L has built into its code build process hooks that prevent the product from compiling unless it satisfies certain interface-level accessibility standards.

Most significantly, however, D2L will be working directly with disabled users at Consortium member universities to perform usability tests. It is this last effort which we believe will have the most lasting effect. The Consortium can be used to mediate the cultural divide between developers and users with disabilities, and we believe this process will result in tangible improvements in access. As we have stated elsewhere, designing for accessibility is an ongoing and interactive process. Without direct usability testing, it is simply not legitimate to vouch for the functional accessibility of any LMS.

Take Responsibility

Individual instructors must take responsibility for creating the best learning experience possible for students online as they do in-class. Lack of accessibility is not always the fault of programmers and designers alone. The following list of ten tips conveys the importance and the ease of creating accessible online materials.

  1. Importance of “Alt” Text – Not only is it important for students who use screen readers, but it can also provide an opportunity for instructors to re-think the descriptions of images, the usefulness of images and the grouping of similar images. This can serve as the impetus for reorganizing your course materials to increase their effectiveness and better convey the information you are providing. Images that convey information (that is, non-decorative images), graphs, and other graphics in Word, PowerPoint, PDF, and HTML, should all have alternative text descriptions that are useful for all students.
  2. Use of PowerPoint – PowerPoint is very heavily used for course materials by many instructors. It is best to have PowerPoint open in its native application, rather than within the browser. It is recommended that you include in the text that links to PowerPoint the phrase, “right-click and download to desktop before viewing.” This has the advantage of making it trivial to save the presentations for later viewing and, in relation to accessibility, it overcomes the problem of PowerPoint loading within the browser. Such a strategy also allows users to print handout versions of the file with three or six slides per page, which can save students a considerable amount of money over a semester. However, when PowerPoint presentations are displayed within the browser (via the Windows Active-X component) their accessibility can be compromised for screen reader users and users who rely on the keyboard to navigate. In terms of accessibility, it is preferable to use an HTML alternative to PowerPoint. One very convenient method for outputting PowerPoint into HTML is the Accessible Web Publishing Wizard for Microsoft Office, which outputs PowerPoint into well-structured and accessible files. Also see WebAIM’s excellent tutorial on creating accessible PowerPoint .
  3. Look for Features That Allow Un-Docking of Frames and Alternative Layouts – Make sure to inform students of these features to help alleviate screen navigation issues that arise from frame based layouts. Using frames can severely restrict what users see, especially if the screen resolution is set to the largest size allowed by their monitor. Providing maximum screen real estate for larger concepts that are utilizing multimedia presentations is a best practice that all users will appreciate.
  4. Online Quizzes, Homework or Learning Activities – Create less work for yourself by removing the timed component from quizzes. Instead of allotting 30 minutes to complete the quiz, allow 3 or 4 hours. Research has shown that the majority of students will complete the exam within your expected timeframe. However, by dedicating more time to complete a quiz, you give students with documented disabilities and students with English as a second language the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of the course material without the stress of a timed exam. Also, without a time allotment for your quiz, you reduce the need to make arrangements for “special access” or other mandated testing accommodations. For more information including publications and citations go to: http://drc.arizona.edu/teach/extra-time-research.html, and be sure to inform yourself about your campus’s policies regarding testing accommodations for students with disabilities.
  5. Online Quizzes, Homework or Learning Activities – Most Web based tools that accomplish these assessment activities allow an instructor to control certain display options. If you are given choices for display, please use the vertical layouts rather than horizontal. With a vertical layout, screen readers read the information more accurately based on the hidden table structure that the programmers implemented for the student interface. This layout will be greatly appreciated by all students because the format is much easier to read. The quiz may require more scrolling to finish, but each question will be focused on assessing knowledge and not comprehension of technology or deciphering screen layouts.
  6. PDF – When creating anything in PDF make sure to use the “convert to PDF” function in Adobe Acrobat rather than printing your document to the PDF Print Distiller or using the “print as PDF” function. Using the convert to PDF Plug-In in Word or any other program that supports it or using Acrobat Professional itself, to perform the conversion “marks up” the PDF with tags that provide structure to the document that allows a screen reader to access its text. PDFs are inaccessible to screen readers unless they are converted in this manner. For good pointers on this technique, see WebAIM’s excellent tutorial on PDF and Word.
  7. Auto-Refresh of Frames and Screens – Sometimes these are on by default and all screen reader users will need to turn them off. It forces the page to reload at pre-set intervals, causing the screen reader to start over at the top of the page. This can severely distract students while they are in the middle of a learning activity.
  8. Equations Editors – The equations that can be built by Web-based editors are not easily seen by different browsers and are very difficult or impossible for screen readers to decipher. If you choose to use an equation editor, please provide concise and accurate text descriptions of the formulas and actions being done in the mathematical exercise. All students will thank you for the descriptions.
  9. HTML and Java-based Chat Clients/Tools – These tools are essentially unusable to students who access with screen readers. They are also non-optimal for users with mobility impairments. If you need to communicate in a synchronous environment, we recommend having a separate communication venue for students that have disabilities. E-mail, phone, or discussion boards are all better alternatives than synchronous chat tools.
  10. Captioning – If you incorporate video or audio containing speech into your materials, it is imperative that the multimedia have synchronized text captioning or a text transcript. Synchronized captioning is called for in video, or if your audio is accompanying a slide show (PowerPoint or other) in which the words spoken are related to particular slides. For a couple of excellent tutorials on captioning for the Web see the articles by WebAIM and these guidelines from the National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM).

Ongoing Efforts: Examples from Our Institutions

A New Position at OSU. A new usability specialist role to oversee accessibility initiatives has been created at Ohio State to oversee technology initiatives university-wide and work directly with disabled faculty and staff. We are conducting internal testing with assistive technology and working with clients. OSU has also spawned a users group focusing on users with disabilities and our/their technology needs. This increasingly active group conducts usability testing for current and new software introduced into the university community, including our LMS.

Built-in Attention to ADA Compliance at University of Arizona. The University of Arizona held a two day workshop in the spring of 2006 on learning activities and assessments with a focus on having the ADA compliance issues built into the creation experience. The Learning Technologies Center Tutorials for instructional technologies have best practices for ADA compliance built into them so that instructors cannot tell the difference. This removes the point of emphasis of ADA Compliance being an after thought or testing for it after completing the build process and makes it part of the build process in a way that benefits all students.

Consortiums for Feedback to Vendors and Users

We opted to publicly post our issues, concerns, and ideas to help motivate change. These issues and ideas surface organically from individual interests and real-world functionality. Our assessments allow for inter-institutional collaboration to share information and solve problems.

Join Us!

Your contributions matter! Regardless of your LMS, please review comments and add your own ideas. Visit the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign Center for Instructional Technology Accessibility Collaborations online at http://cita.rehab.uiuc.edu/collaborate/.

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