Critical review of resource
Online learning opportunities have been growing in number since the early 1990s, and online learning is often said to increase access to education (Hashey & Stahl, 2014). However, many of the content types and technologies used for online learning come with accessibility challenges that can leave students with disabilities at the margins of online education (Burgstahler, Corrigan and McCarter, 2004; Hashey & Stahl, 2014). For our project, we wanted to create a resource that would ultimately help reduce the accessibility barriers many students face when interacting with digital content.
When looking at accessibility and digital content in education, there seems to be two major problems: First, many educators are not aware of the accessibility issues that digital content might present, and don’t understand how many students with disabilities may access and navigate content (Hashey & Stahl, 2014). Second, educators are unfamiliar with digital accessibility guidelines and practices, and therefore do not take the simple steps needed to increase the accessibility of their content (Hashey & Stahl, 2014). Additionally, many educators still view individual accommodations as the main method for ensuring content is accessible to students with disabilities. In reality, creating accessible digital content both ensures that students with disabilities are included, and also makes content more accessible for all students (Cifuentes et al., 2016).
As a first step in our project, we wanted to increase awareness of the accessibility issues that digital content might present. We wanted to force educators to think beyond how they experienced and navigated digital content themselves, and to understand the experiences of others. To do this, we created a series of videos that demonstrated what most able-bodied educators would expect that experience of interacting with a piece of content to be, and then also demonstrated a variety of other experiences students may be having while interacting with that content. We chose to do this through a video series so that educators could be immersed in the experience, rather than simply reading about it. This approach will enhance an educator’s awareness and remembering of the issue, and increase their level of empathy (Levett-Jones et al., 2017).
As a second step in this project, we wanted to inform educators of basic digital accessibility guidelines and practices. Audio, video, text and images have been identified as the most common formats for presenting content in digital learning environments, and so were the areas in which we focused (Hashey & Stahl, 2014). These formats also aligned with our review of the web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) and the research on accessibility barriers that students often face. Common accessibility issues cited in the research include: difficulty navigating content, videos without captions, audio without transcripts, and images without alt-text, among others (Burgstahler et al., 2004; Cifuentes et al., 2016; Hashey & Stahl, 2014).
The role of an educator is multi-faceted, and ensuring that resources and content are accessible is only a small, albeit very important, part of their overall role. For this reason, we wanted to make our resource as simple and straightforward as possible, and ensure our content contained language that was easily understood, and did not rely heavily on technical language. While many digital accessibility resources exist already, few are created with the educator in mind. With the goal of creating an educator-specific checklist, we made a blog post with clearly laid out categories and sections, each with its own bullet-pointed recommendations and guidelines. Separating the blog post into the four categories outlined above allows an educator to quickly identify the content type they wish to learn about, without having to wade through information that may not be relevant to their current project. We chose to convey recommendations and guidelines via bullet point to be as direct as possible about the steps educators would take to create accessible content. Where relevant, we also included information about the impact that our recommendations would have, both for students with disabilities and for all learners.
There is an overwhelming amount of information available regarding creating accessible content. An educator may have the best of intentions when viewing our video series and reading our blog post resource, but will likely not remember all the accessibility practices they should implement the next time they create a resource, perhaps several weeks or even months later. For this reason, we also compiled a quick accessibility checklist for educators. This checklist outlines the accessibility recommendations, broken down by content type, quickly and succinctly, with no further information, and is intended to be used by educators to double-check the accessibility of digital content before disseminating to students.
Summary of research findings
The research on accessibility in education addresses why accessibility needs to be implemented in digital learning environments, and how to ensure accessibility standards and practices are followed when creating course content.
Research suggests that although online instruction can be a new site of rich learning experiences, many online resources are inaccessible to a wide range of learners (Cifuentes, et al., 2016; Gronseth, 2018; Hashey & Stahl, 2014). This creates a barrier to learning for many students with disabilities, as well as for other learners that benefit from accessible resources.
The research recognizes that many institutions have inadequate supports in place to meet the need for accessibility (Cifuentes, et al., 2016). Educators are often not given the tools or knowledge to create accessible content, leaving them with the belief that making resources accessible can be time intensive, and requiring them to research guidelines and protocol surrounding accessibility on their own. These barriers can lead to an unwillingness to create accessible course content (Cifuentes, et al., 2016). However, the literature indicates that accessibility should always be viewed as fundamental to course design (Gronseth, 2018). As a possible solution, many researchers suggest that when instructors are designing digital learning environments, applying the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), along with the tenants of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) will have a positive impact on learner experience (Cifuentes, et al., 2016; Gronseth, 2018)..
It is widely advocated that in order to create accessible digital content, content should conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (Cifuentes, et al., 2016; Gronseth, 2018; Hashey and Stahl, 2014). Furthermore, the use of online accessibility checklists and “checkers” is encouraged when analyzing both created and curated resources (Cifuentes, et al., 2016; Hashey and Stahl, 2014). An example of this is using WebAIM’s online colour contrast checker, which will quickly assess if content meets the required contrast ratio to be considered accessible, or using the built in accessibility checkers in Microsoft Office or Google Docs (Gronseth, 2018; Hashey and Stahl, 2014). These checklists offer thorough and evaluative criteria of resources.
The majority of research focused on online learning with regards to the higher education experience. Furthermore, the literature tended to focus on online tools, legislation, and recommendations for how educators could increase the accessibility of content. Research was lacking in the exploration of why educators are unfamiliar with accessibility concepts and effective strategies to teach about accessibility. Additionally, little research explores the implications that inaccessible content has on students with disabilities or delves into their personal learning experience.
Burgstahler, S., Corrigan, B., & McCarter, J. (2004). Making distance learning courses accessible to students and instructors with disabilities: A case study. The Internet and Higher Education, 7(3), 233-346. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2004.06.004
Cifuentes, L., Janney, A., Guerra, L., & Weir, J. (2016). A working model for complying with accessibility guidelines for online learning. Techtrends, 60(6), 557-564. doi:10.1007/s11528-016-0086-8
Gronseth, S. (2018). Inclusive design for online and blended Courses. Educational Renaissance, 7(1), 14-22. https://doi.org/10.33499/edren.v7i1.114
Hashey, A. I., & Stahl, S. (2014). Making online learning accessible for students with disabilities. Teaching Exceptional Children, 46(5), 70-78. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/10.1177/0040059914528329
Levett-Jones, T., Lapkin, S., Govind, N., Pich, J., Hoffman, K., Yeun-Sim Jeong, S., Norton, C.A., Noble, D., Maclellan, L., Robinson-Reilly, M., & Everson, N. (2017). Measuring the impact of a ‘point of view’ disability simulation on nursing students’ empathy using the Comprehensive State Empathy Scale. Nurse Education Today, 59, 75-81. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2017.09.007