Today, distance learning courses employ a wide array of electronic and information technologies. These include web pages, chat software, multimedia, and audio and video conferencing. To assure that the electronic and information resources used are accessible to all students and instructors associated with a course, administrators should address the following issues.
Consider the characteristics of potential instructors and students.
Keep in mind that your audience may be diverse in terms of age, language skills, learning styles, physical abilities, and sensory abilities. Regarding disabilities:
- Students and instructors may have mobility impairments that require them to use alternative keyboards and mice, speech recognition, or other specialized input devices to access Internet-based course materials. If their input method is slow, they cannot effectively participate in real-time "chat" communications.
- Participants who are blind may use screen reader software and speech synthesizers to access a course. With this technology, a synthesized voice reads aloud the text content on the screen. The content of graphics can be understood only if text descriptions are provided. Other visual materials, such as video presentations, also create access challenges for participants who are blind if the content is not also provided in text form.
- Students and instructors who have low vision may use magnification software to enlarge the content of the screen. By doing so, they may view only a small portion of a standard screen page at a time. Web pages that are cluttered and use inconsistent formats can make navigation and comprehension of the content difficult for these individuals.
- People who are color-blind may experience difficulties accessing course materials and navigational mechanisms that require the ability to distinguish one color from another.
- Some participants may have specific learning disabilities that impact their ability to read, write, and/or process information. Some individuals with learning disabilities have trouble understanding the content of websites when the information is cluttered and poorly organized and when screen layouts are not consistent.
- Most Internet resources do not require the ability to hear. However, when multimedia materials include audio output without providing text captioning or transcription, individuals with hearing impairments cannot access the content.
- Some web pages include flashing content to grab the viewer's attention. Flashes at certain rates (often between 2 and 55 hertz) can induce seizures for people who are susceptible to them.
Consider the accessibility of distance learning course authoring tools.
The authoring tools used to develop a distance learning course should be accessible to all potential students, instructors, and course designers, including those with disabilities. Distance learning authoring tools, such as Blackboard™ and WebCT™, include some accessibility features. Keep in mind, however, that in order to create an accessible course the designer needs to employ the accessibility features provided. For more information on distance learning authoring tools, see the AccessIT Knowledge Base article How do various courseware products differ on accessibility?
Consider the accessibility of web pages.
Regardless of whether or not you use an authoring tool, the web pages for promoting and delivering distance learning courses should be accessible to everyone. This requires that developers either avoid certain types of inaccessible features or formats or create alternative methods for performing the functions or accessing the content provided through inaccessible features. Lists of standards and guidelines exist for designing accessible web pages. The two most commonly used lists are those developed by the World Wide Web Consortium and the Section 508 standards developed for United States federal agencies. For more information on these standards, see the AccessIT Knowledge Base article What is the difference between the W3C guidelines and the Section 508 standards for web accessibility? Other countries and organizations have developed standards as well. In addition, web authoring tools, such as Dreamweaver™ and Front Page™, include accessibility features that, if employed, can help to make web pages accessible. More information about the accessibility of web authoring tools can be found in the AccessIT Knowledge Base article Can I make accessible web pages using web authoring tools such as FrontPage and Dreamweaver?
Consider how teachers and students will interact.
Text-based resources such as Usenet discussion groups, bulletin boards, electronic mail, and distribution lists are generally accessible to students and instructors with disabilities. On the other hand, "chat," where participants communicate synchronously, is not accessible to everyone. For example, a student with a learning disability or a student with a mobility impairment that makes it impossible to input text quickly may have difficulty keeping up with the pace of the conversation. The accessibility of a chat room to individuals who are blind and using screen reader technology depends on how the chat room was developed. For more information on this topic, consult the AccessIT Knowledge Base article Are chat rooms accessible to people with disabilities?
Consider the accessibility of video and audio clips.
To make video clips accessible to students or instructors who are deaf, captioning can be provided. Similarly, transcripts should be provided for audio clips. Audio description (a technique for verbally describing visual content) should be provided for those who are blind. More information on open and closed captioning can be found in the AccessIT Knowledge Base articles What is the difference between open and closed captioning? and Is it better to caption or transcribe educational multimedia? The National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) has developed a free software tool called Media Access Generator (MAGpie) that allows multimedia specialists, publishing companies, and service providers to add captions, subtitles, and audio descriptions to their work. You can visit the MAGpie website to find out more information about the product's features and to download a free copy.
Accessible design is good design.
People without disabilities may have situational limitations that are similar to the limitations imposed by disabilities. For example, a student or instructor may need to access course content from a handheld computer, low resolution monitor, or slow modem connection. High graphic content may not be easily viewable by these individuals. Also, a student or instructor may need to access multimedia content in a noisy environment and may be better able to access audio if it's captioned or transcribed. Designing a distance learning course to be accessible to students and instructors with disabilities will make it more accessible to everyone. For more information on making distance learning courses accessible, consult the article Distance Learning: Universal Design, Universal Access, Steps Toward Making Distance Learning Accessible to Students and Instructors with Disabilities published in Information Technology and Disabilities, How can I get started in making my distance learning course accessible to all students?, or the comprehensive document IMS Guidelines for Developing Accessible Learning Applications.