At first glance, creating eLearning that’s accessible may seem as simple as expanding the technical requirements for building eLearning to meet a set of technical accessibility standards. It all sounds very simple, but the process is, unfortunately, much more complex.
In this blog, I’m going to tell you about some of the common challenges to building accessible eLearning and possible ways to overcome them.
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The idea of following a set of standards and guidelines seems straightforward, but the problem is that some of the standards in the section 508, WCAG 2.0, and other standards, are more open to interpretation than the term “standards” leads us to expect. For instance, some of the standards require providing an “equivalent learning experience.” The problem is they don’t spell out what they mean by “equivalent.”
Is reading a transcript or captioning an equivalent experience to audio narration? Does providing information readable by screen readers provide an experience equivalent to visual elements? It depends. The answers to these questions often come down to making an educated judgement call. And then, once you make that judgement call, you need to be consistent in its application. Which has its own challenges.
One approach we at Fredrickson use (as a best practice for determining if an experience is equivalent) is to establish personas for learners with different abilities. If these personas are known up front, designers and developers can ask what each persona’s experience will be of each element of an eLearning course as they design and build.
Another key to overcoming this challenge is determining up front what approaches are acceptable or not to meet standards that are open to interpretation. Gaining alignment early among the development team, subject matter experts, reviewers, and stakeholders on these decisions is key to efficiently building accessible learning.
Testing accessible learning can also be a challenge. Often, the individuals creating eLearning are not familiar with using assistive technologies like screen readers, so they don’t make the best candidates to test for accessibility on behalf of learners who rely on such technologies. Working with accessibility experts who know how to apply assistive technologies is a great way to provide a thorough test of all elements. Keep in mind this doesn’t always have to mean accessibility consultants – consider involving the learners in your organization who use assistive technologies in testing. Observing learners with different abilities complete an eLearning course is extremely valuable to understanding their experience.
A word of caution here about tools which purport to automatically test for accessibility – while these can be useful to essentially audit your code, an automated tool alone cannot confirm accessibility. Also, these tools are built around one company’s interpretation of what constitutes accessibility. Your organization’s interpretation will be different.
Some of the interpretation of standards I mentioned earlier centers around determining the key messages of learning. Take describing what’s being shown visually on screen, for example: let’s say a image of a baseball team is displayed. Does what each person looks like and what they are wearing need to be described in detail? What about the background of the image? It’s key to ask what information is crucial to the learning when determining key messages.
In the case of the baseball team image, if it was being used to support content about being part of a team, it’s sufficient to describe that the image is of a happy and successful team. If, however, the image was supporting content telling learners that a specific team won a game, then the key message is the name of the team. Defining key messages and making sure all learners can access them is key to accessible eLearning.
This is one simple (but powerful, I think) example of why existing eLearning cannot be “made accessible” by simply changing code to meet a technical standard. Real accessible learning involves accessible instructional design. If the course is not designed to be accessible, you cannot “code accessibility in” later.
While there are challenges to creating accessible learning, they can be overcome with careful design, planning, and expertise. Collaborating with someone who has created accessible eLearning before can be a great place to get started.