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Elearning for all: developing digital learning with accessibility in mind

21

May 2019

Elearning for all: developing digital learning with accessibility in mind

Podcast and audio recordings

In a world full of digital chaos the importance of making technology accessible for all is more important than ever. An area that can be overlooked in learning design is accessibility, it can be all too easy to treat it as an after thought and that if needed, accessibility features can be added to learning that’s already been created. Thinking about accessibility needs a different mindset, Susie Miller a leading consultant in this area from eLaHub.net, describes this mindset as a reframing how we think about accessibility. It is not a question of “Do you consider yourself to have a disability?” but “Do you consider yourself to have an accessibility requirement?”.
 

Transcript

Rory Lawson:
Welcome to Kineo's stream of thought, a monthly podcast that features informal chat from the Kineo team about all things learning. I'm Rory Lawson, account director here at Kineo and for this podcast we are talking about accessibility within elearning. 

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Rory Lawson:
Today, i'm joined by: 

Matthew Leathes:
Matthew Leathes, Senior Technical Consultant at Kineo. 

Susi Miller:
I'm Susi Miller. I'm an instructional designer and an elearning accessibility consultant and I work for eLaHub. 

Sam Cook:
I'm Sam Cook and I run the Kineo learning content testing team. 

Rory Lawson:
Thanks for joining this week, this week it's quite an important subject. And on Thursday this week, on the 16th of May it is actually the Global Accessibility Awareness Day. This day promotes and helps people learn and talk about all things in terms of accessibility through different forms of media channels and so on, and its importance to people with disability needs etc. So we thought we would come together and share our best as Kineo to help with this, and we're going to talk about accessibility in elearning. I'm joined by a special guest speaker today, so Susi thank you for joining us. Susi is a specialist consultant within the industry, within elearning that has focused her skills on accessibility and elearning. Thank you for joining us. So let's get the conversation started, let's take this from what's happening in the industry, what type of changes are coming about. Let's start with the legislation change that's coming through. 

Susi Miller:
Okay, so the legislation changed in September 2018 and the new legislation that came in affects all public sector bodies, it affects higher education and further education institutes and some charities. 

Rory Lawson:
My understanding is there's some technical aspects to the timeline around that. Some phases of how that legislation has been brought in. How does that work?

Susi Miller:
That's right. One of the important things to be aware of as well is that the legislation for the first time actually aligns accessibility with WCAG, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and the guidelines are the new revised guidelines which are the 2.1 guidelines and all of these bodies need to be accessible up to A and AA requirements, so that's a big change in the legislation. And also, with the timeline it really depends on what we're talking about, so the guidelines really refer to websites and also mobile applications.

Rory Lawson:
So it covers quite a wide remit now. 

Susi Miller:
It does, yes. So from a website point of view any websites and any content on that website which could be for example PowerPoint or Word documents or a PDF which is quite common and any elearning, if it's an external facing website that content has to be accessible. If it is on the website now, if it was published before September 2018 when the law came in, then it has to be accessible by September 2020. Any new content, any new websites that are published since September 2018 have to be accessible by September 2019. So quite soon. 

Rory Lawson:
So it's a quite soon, just around the corner really for a lot of organisations. 

Susi Miller:
Yes. And also from an intranet point of view that's slightly different. Any content which is on there existing, is actually exempt until there's a major revision but any new content that is put on an intranet which could be a VLE or LMS, that actually has to be accessible after September 2019 as well. So anything new that goes on any of those platforms has to be accessible after September 2019. 

Rory Lawson:
So this marks quite a big change for a lot of organisations. This legislation isn't new really, there's been a lot of legislation before it. Can you tell us a bit more about that and the type of work that we've been doing already in the industry towards that legislation?

Susi Miller:
Okay so the legislation that was in place before that the new legislation we were talking about is basically in the U.K. It's the Equality Act, and the Equality Act is very interesting because it has said from the beginning which was 2010 when it came in, that we have an anticipatory duty to provide accessible services to our clients. And the interesting thing is the anticipatory duty so the idea is that you're not supposed to wait until someone comes to you with an accessibility need, it's supposed to be by standard. 

Rory Lawson:
So in theory then people should already be working towards new legislation. But this new legislation actually provides just a little bit more stick behind it in terms of what people need to be doing. 

Susi Miller:
So I think the main difference is that the new legislation it's aligning it to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines because before, yes we had an anticipatory duty to make all of our products and everything accessible from a digital point of view, elearning point of view, we didn't have anything that said yes you specifically have to meet these requirements and I think that's the change in the legislation. 

Rory Lawson:
Okay so when talking to clients, what type of questions should we be asking our clients then? Let's open this to the floor. We get lots of projects coming in and we're talking to lots of clients within the industry, but how do we start to ask the right questions, what are the right questions to ask going forward?

Sam Cook:
I think an important one is that we've been guilty in the past of just treating an accessible audience as an abstract concept rather than actually talking to clients and finding out ‘who are your user base, and what are their needs?’. And we have been doing more of that in recent times but we, and I think the industry as a whole was certainly guilty of just treating it as an arbitrary thing and not actually thinking about the real users who have to use these courses. 

Matthew Leathes:
Yeah I mean from my point of view the first thing I do is open up a dialogue about accessibility with the client and just find out how much they've thought about it in the past. Are they the kind of client who is already thinking about this kind of thing and can provide a lot of information, or is it something very new to them and therefore I'm likely to have to provide much more of a steer as to what they should be doing rather than them telling me what they'd like to do. And I think going back to what Sam said as well, finding out ‘do they have any users who can test this for us?’ because the single most valuable piece of feedback we can ever get is actual user feedback from somebody who's using assistive technology. It's strangely difficult to get that kind of feedback and when we do it's like gold dust and we can fold it back into our development process and improve everything we're doing based on actual learner data and feedback. 

Rory Lawson:
So it sounds like what's key here is being proactive with our consultancy around subjects and asking questions like, ‘can we actually do end user testing as part of the process?’ Actually find out what's working for people and bringing that information back in and improving their product as well as our own kind of service and our development processes behind the scenes.

Susi Miller:
One thing I would like to say is it's very interesting when we were talking about finding out about a bit more about our users. I think for me that is something that I think I would suggest is maybe a rethinking or thinking of accessibility in a different way, because we tend to think of accessibility as he was saying as that kind of an abstract concept. You know we haven't got any experience ourselves of for example using assistive technology maybe and we kind of think of it as people who have got an impairment or disability. In actual fact I think we need to start thinking of it as this is relevant for everybody. So although I completely agree, it's great to find out more about your users, but actually accessibility impacts all of us, It doesn't impact only people who have permanent impairments. And a really good example I think is for example something looking at the colour blindness. So if you think that 1 in 12 men have colour blindness, then surely something to make your courses more accessible to someone with colour blindness should be standard and the same with something for example like dyslexia. 1 in 10 people have some form of dyslexia, so I think it's thinking about things differently not necessarily thinking well we have to research exactly who are our users. Accessibility affects all of our users. And in my own experience if you think of your own your own situation, I don't think I have a permanent impairment but I know that I wear reading glasses, I know that I do have mild dyslexia, so I know things that can help me with that dyslexia. Also for example I sometimes get RSI so I will actually just go through a website just using a keyboard, and I am typical. So it does affect every one of us, instead of thinking that there's a specific audience that we're trying to actually reach we are trying to reach everybody. Anything that we do to make a course more accessible is a benefit to everybody. 

Rory Lawson:
So that means as an industry we really need to reframe how we think about this and come at it from a completely different kind of perspective and ask the question around ‘what are the requirements?’. What do people need or what do they appreciate from the design of our product?

Susi Miller:
A good example would be captions on videos. That's traditionally been seen as something to do with accessibility but actually when we think about situational impairments where you're on a train or if to have captions then captions are good for SEO, so it's a much wider benefit than just somebody who needs captions because they have a hearing impairment. 

Matthew Leathes:
It's interesting that on that point how the use of social media has really driven the use of captions and videos and you see so much video on social media platforms now where, because people are looking at it on a smartphone on the train, they don't necessarily have audio. So people are now used to almost all video being captioned and that's really created this change in people's expectations. I mean going back to your earlier point about your example around dyslexia, was a good one. In my experience there's a lots of things talked about dyslexia that don't seem to be very evidence based to me. So for example one of the things was how using a specific font can improve a dyslexic person's reading of content. And it's interesting how it only seems to be the person who developed that font, who seems to have any supposed evidence. So for me this is why it's always coming back to talking to the actual learner rather than letting someone else dictate to you what they think that person should experience. I want to talk to the learner about what they actually do need. And that's a really important factor for me. 

Susi Miller:
I agree with you about the dyslexic font completely. I think a good example for me is that the idea of readability and one thing that you see quite a lot in elearning design is the use of all caps, especially in titles. And one of the things that the WCAG regulations suggest (it's a recommendation it's not actually a standard) is that you don't use all caps. You basically use the rules of the language. Now that means then that you wouldn't be using all caps. And that's really interesting from a readability point of view because it touches on the way that we actually read, so by a certain age we will read according to the shape of the word. And so if you put everything in all caps, then it will slow down everybody because the scan reading skills are based on the shape of the letters, the shape of the word, so you're not actually reading it. And then if you come back to the dyslexia and that's one thing that I find quite difficult is if it's all caps if you have a dyslexic learner, that does make it more difficult to read. It slows everyone down but particularly a dyslexic learner. 

Matthew Leathes:
That's really interesting. Presumably if you had a style guide that said all titles need to be all capitalised, if you did that using CSS then the learner could turn that off by using their own style sheet to override that and turn it back into normal sentence capitalisation. 

Sam Cook:
I think that's a good example. In the past we have pushed back on that specific issue to clients and there's been a complete lack of awareness that there is an issue. And also I think clients perhaps are more focussed on how their course looks and how it feels, and you might have to struggle a little bit to actually get them to accept the fact that that's a very sensible change to make. 

Susi Miller:
And I'd say it would be the same with colours. So that the idea of pushing back on clients who have got their brand colours that are not meeting accessibility requirements. And again you can think of it as saying it will help people with a visual impairment, it will help everybody. Again, if you're coming back to the situation impairment, if you're looking at your laptop in bright sunlight, if you've got a high contrast then that will help. Again, it's helping everybody is not just helping someone with the visual impairment. 

Sam Cook:
There's a great free tool that we use a lot called colour contrast analyser. And that's great for just highlighting where contrast fails to varying degrees of the WCAG standards. And also that's nice because it actually gives you a bit of ammunition when talking to clients to say this isn't just our opinion, this technical tool has deemed this not to meet those standards. 

Rory Lawson:
So let's look at this from a client’s perspective. What questions should they be asking us around the industry ,as elearning developers and authors? What type of questions should we expect to be answering?

Matthew Leathes:
I mean the first question has got to be ‘are the tools you're using to produce the content for us meeting WCAG standards?’ has got to be the first and most immediate thing. Because it's not just a technical thing it's also a design thing. So it's like what's in your design process that addresses accessibility? How do you think about accessibility for your users? How are you testing for accessibility? And again, going back to this point of if they have learners who they know will be accessing this with assistive technology, with some kind of disability, can those learners provide feedback? Is there a part of the process where you will take that feedback on board and build that into the product? 

Sam Cook:
I think Matt touched on an important point that we've learned through trial and error is that, if when accessibility is a requirement it has to be there from the absolute start of your project. It's not something that you can just retrofit or tack on at the end, it informs your design, it informs your development and it informs your testing. 

Rory Lawson:
So we've talked a lot about accessibility so far but let's look at it through a different lens. How do we go about adopting more of an inclusive mindset? What are the attributes of that? What does that feel like? So how do we provide universal access?

Sam Cook:
I guess an important consideration is that we're often thinking about course content as content creators but the platform used to deliver that content is just as important, obviously, because you can make a course as accessible as it can be. But if the platform used to deliver it isn't, then you've fallen at the first hurdle. Historically in elearning when we've talked about accessibility, we've been guilty of thinking of what I would call the main sort of disabilities such as visual impairments and motor impairments and through looking at Susie's website and the work we've done it's obvious that there's actually far more outside of that. And I think we can get too focussed on just those and not provide a more all-encompassing accessible course that covers a lot more situations.

Rory Lawson:
What type of situations might they be? 

Susi Miller:
So maybe if we start thinking about temporary impairments. So these were impairments that can happen to any one of us at any time. So, some good examples would be from a visual impairment point of view, if you'd had laser eye surgery and then it's obviously very difficult to look at the screen. If you are thinking of a motor impairment, you could have injured your hand, injured your wrist, maybe RSI which comes and goes can be a temporary impairment and again that means from an elearning point of view that you are not able to use your mouse, you have to be using the keyboard. 

Matthew Leathes:
I think one of the things I hadn't really thought about much up to now was the situational problems that you can have. So it's really all about the device that you're using the learning on, or the device that you accessing being flexible enough to suit the situation that you have at the time which as we said earlier you don't have headphones so it's important that the course has captions or you may be in an open plan office. So it's important that the course doesn't suddenly start blaring out audio really loudly and distracting your co-workers. There's all kinds of different situations that you need to adjust the learning to the aren't necessarily anything to do with disabilities. 

Sam Cook:
And the older technology as well. Our corporate clients have had to meet the needs of new devices, smartphones and tablets but also they might have lots of quite old P.C. architecture that we also have to support and make sure our courses can work on those. 

Rory Lawson:
I know we can't call out clients by name but there are clients that we're working with that are doing this really well. 

Sam Cook:
There's a large financial institution that we do a lot of work with who have their own really stringent accessibility standards. I think they were probably our first client to really push us to meet those standards. They're one of our few clients who do their own accessibility testing in conjunction with ours. And we've worked very closely with them on our own technology to develop standards that we can support and that need to meet their needs. So everything we create for them has to be accessible to a really high standard. And we know they're going to be looking at that, we know they're going to be testing it. So it's a big deal for them and for us.

Rory Lawson:
I think with the client case study you're referencing there, they've even built that into their top line strategy in that I think from memory that their mission is to become one of the most advanced in the industry. That top FTSE company that takes accessibility, embraces it and builds it into their strategy. So it's really interesting case study in terms how they're going about it, how they're thinking about it and then how that kind of ripple effect through everyone they work with has to kind of work in the same way and have the same kind of mindset to them. 

Sam Cook:
It's win-win for them because it's great PR for a company to be seen to be able to do this and also it just makes commercial sense as a provider to do this. So I mean what amazes me is that more companies don't have the same level of standards that they do. 

Rory Lawson:
So really, they're showing the right mindset and going about this in the right way. 

Matthew Leathes:
I love how public they are about it you know to the point where you'll even see this referenced on a cash machine when you go to take money out, it's brilliant to really see it being given that level of promotion out in the wider world. I think they're really setting a standard. 

Rory Lawson:
Are there other organisations that you're aware of that are taking it to the same level? 

Susi Miller:
So obviously we talked about the legislation and we were talking about the legislation being applicable to public sector organisations. So obviously public sector are very aware of this. I think it's really interesting to find that private companies or commercial companies who are also realising that it is really positive and beneficial to them to be thinking about this as well. So in my example or in my experience I have one particular client who has embraced it and started off just by thinking of it just on the elearning accessibility side of things. And then that has spread and it's gone throughout all of their digital platforms. And whereas it started as a sort of small interest group, it's actually spread throughout the whole company. And they're seeing something that is a competitive advantage for them. 

Matthew Leathes:
I think we're starting to see this more and more now where companies that you know it's just a given. And in particular there's a large social media company we do a lot of work with and this is just baked in at every level. There's simply no way you could get away with doing anything without considering accessibility at the deepest level of whatever you're doing. And they've given us a fantastic amount of feedback recently that has been extremely valuable. Like I say having that that actual learner feedback is so vital. It's like gold dust and we've really taken all of that on board and used it to improve everything that we're doing. And then that's feeding back into all our other clients. So it's kind of an ever growing circle of accessibility feedback and improvement. That's really important to us. 

Rory Lawson:
That's a really interesting point and leads me to my next question. So we're doing a lot of work in terms of building out our framework, the Adapt framework. Can you tell us more about how we're bringing all of that user feedback into the framework?

Matthew Leathes:
Yeah absolutely. I mean we've just done a huge new release, Adapt version 4 which was really focussed on accessibility and again it brings back everything we've learned from feedback from all these clients that we've been talking about, back into the framework and pushing it back out into the open source community. So it's giving it back, it's improving the experience for everyone as well as improving everything for us as well. So it's been a really important big new release for us and it's all about constantly considering accessibility not just going right, this is accessible, we've done that, let's move on. We're always thinking about how to improve it and I think pretty much every week I see a change in Adapt, a new pull request issue that is to do with accessibility. We have a very active accessibility chat room, even just yesterday there were loads of improvements made to the media component to make that more accessible to get it to pass tests, so it's an ongoing thing. 

Rory Lawson:
What are the main differences between the previous version and where we are now?

Matthew Leathes:
So a Adapt version 3 was great for screen reader users and users of assistive technology like Jaws. What it wasn't great for was the levels we've been talking about up to that. So particularly for example the keyboard accessibility wasn't great. Essentially it didn't do keyboard accessibility unless you turned on the full screen reader accessibility and even that is not something you should have to do. There shouldn't have to be anything you have to enable, the thing should just be accessible out of the box. And if you're using a screen reader it understands and works with the screen reader by just being standards compliant. I think we were actually overthinking it and putting too much in there to address accessibility and actually it needed to be a lot simpler, and just by adhering to the standards, it actually becomes more accessible. So in effect we actually ripped a load of code out of Adapt in order to improve it which was a surprising thing and is always a nice thing to do as well, less code is always a good thing. 

Rory Lawson:
And what's great about the Adapt project is, from an inclusive point of view we're actually giving all of that knowledge and thought back into the industry because it's an open source community. So more companies, more organisations, more developers benefiting from all of that work and all of that insight that's coming into it. 

Susi Miller:
So for me that's a great example. I do think it is worth thinking about  people who maybe are using and authoring tools, rapid authoring tools and maybe some of the struggles that they're having. I think you were mentioning that there was a very active community for Adapt which is fantastic. I think one of the things that I have found myself and I do find with clients is that people do tend to be very isolated. So they may be in a position particularly if they are in the public sector for the higher education and in charities, they might be someone who's just working on their own, they're working with a authoring tool and they're suddenly faced with having to now make it accessible and accessible to the full WCAG A and double A regulations. And there isn't really a community that isn't really anywhere that people have been able to go to find support for that. It can be very difficult to find out how to use your rapid authoring tool to make that accessible. It could be because the tool might be saying ‘yes, it's accessible’ but it may be not giving you full instructions on how to do that. Prior to these new regulations, there was no requirement to be completely WCAG A and double A compliant and to meet those requirements where there is now. So I think there is a real need to be addressing people who genuinely do want to make things accessible but really don't know how to go about it. 

Sam Cook:
I think that's the obvious next big milestone. Our focus up to this point has almost solely been on the end product, the course itself. The actual authoring  environment is something that I think we are going to have to start really thinking about; trying to make that accessible. 

Rory Lawson:
There's a lot of work that goes on here in terms of our whole development process that everybody contributes to how the products designed. So there are lots of internal design teams within our client base developing elearning. They use rapid authoring tools which go so far to making the product accessible for end users but it is hard to follow those technical guidelines, what kind of advice can we give those users?

Susi Miller:
So one of the advantages of the guidelines is that it is now very clear on what you need to actually do. I do agree with you that those guidelines are quite technical but at least in black and white it tells you what you need to do to make your elearning accessible. I think then it comes back to looking at what you're authoring tool is providing, so if you're authoring tool says it is accessible which many of them do it. You need to be able to find out how it's accessible and particularly how it's accessible to the WCAG criteria. And if it isn't then at least now there is an opening for a discussion so as before we had the criteria was very much ‘well, it's accessible’. Now if you're saying your tool is accessible then show me how it's accessible to meet these criteria and give me instructions and give me help that will make my elearning accessible. 

Rory Lawson:
So going back to the legislation that's coming through at the moment, that's going to bring about change and I anticipate that more and more clients will ask us questions. But I think we need to recognise that working to these legislation requirements brings about different thinking and there is an impact on certain aspects of what we do. So if we think of it from a time / cost / quality perspective what kind of issues might we consider when talking to clients?

Matthew Leathes:
We definitely have to talk to them about the time and cost implications because inevitably particularly with screen reader testing it is quite a time-consuming process, it's hard work. Obviously with Adapt being so accessible out of the box, we're bringing a lot of stuff to the table that is already well designed and well thought through. So there's always a cost saving by using it as out of the box as possible. But obviously our line of work is bespoke development and inevitably it's going to increase the cost of any bespoke development work, not just technically implementing it, testing it, making sure it's designed properly and for me to the ultimate level which is one that often gets left aside is really thinking about the usability experience from an accessible user's point of view. So it's not just a checkbox exercise that actually means they can get through the learning but it's quite painful experience that it should actually be as painless as an experience as possible for them. And that's something that is hard to do and can't get left by the wayside. 

Sam Cook:
Testing for accessibility is one of the most time-consuming tasks my team has to do, and there are no shortcuts. You have to do it, you have to journey through that course as an end user would and it's really crucial to do that. And we've talked a lot today about the value of end user feedback and if you're going to incorporate that, there are no really quick solutions. It takes time for them to use the course, to get that feedback, to incorporate it, to test it again and to get it to a point where it's really working as well as it can. 

Rory Lawson:
So it's a kind of wrap things up today, I just want to finish on a final question and let's think of it from a futurist that kind of starts actually. This is a question I heard being asked / Jakob Nielsen answered. So the question is, what will users in the future think of today's online experience?

Sam Cook:
It's funny looking back, I've been I've been testing accessible content for elearning for about 12 or 13 years now and it's interesting to look back at when I started and what largely a terrible experience it was. In the days of Flash content nothing really worked, I think there was complete ignorance in the industry and also our clients, about how things were supposed to work. So I can see the distance we've travelled so far. So to be honest that makes me optimistic about the future. I think with this legislation and the pace of advances in technology I'm really hoping that things can improve radically over the next 12 or 13 years. 

Rory Lawson:
I'd like to just like say thank you to everyone today for their insights into this critical subject within our industry. There are some really good points that everybody can learn from. I'd also like to say thank you to Susi for coming in today. Susi, you're launching your web site this week I understand? So if you'd like to find out more about elearning accessibility, this is a really good resource for people to go to. It's Ella Hub and if you want to find that web site you can go to E L A hub dot net to find out lots more about what we've been talking about today. We're going to use it here as a tool going forward as well. And we'll also be promoting it to our clients as well. So thank you for bringing that to the table.

Speakers

    Matthew Leathes

    Matt has been interested in computers since first using an Acorn Archimedes during his school years. This interest has grown into fascination (and a career!) with the birth and rise of the World Wide Web in the 90s and that has continued to grow ever since. Matt’s also a collaborator on the Adapt Learning project.

    Rory Lawson

    Rory has over 10 years’ experience directing innovative learning solutions and strategies and is a leading Solution Consultant at Kineo. Helping to define clients’ requirements, Rory works with the Kineo team to produce creative and effective elearning and LMS solutions that meet clients’ needs. 

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