I am proud that Saskatchewan Polytechnic, the institution I teach in, is committed to meeting the needs of its diverse student population. In particular, it has dedicated support to ensure equal access to students with disabilities. This support requires students to self-identify as having an intellectual, learning or mental/physical disability. For these students, and those that do not self-identify, I also have a responsibility that the online learning environment I design is accessible.
Below I have shared student accessibility strategies I have implemented in the design of my prototype and identified areas that need additional work or resources.
Formatted instructional materials for assistive technology
I used a variety of digital media tools to present course content, including text, images and video that includes audio as one of my efforts to create an engaging learning environment. The following are strategies I used or need to consider to ensure the instructional materials in these various formats are more accessible:
Text: Adding a text to speech or speech to text option is helpful for students with physical impairments and EAL students. I found the suggestion of Google Read&Write Chrome extension from a resource my classmate, Colleen, shared on Twitter. There are many possibilities for student support in this extension, including a text to speech player, translator, dictionary, picture dictionary and web search features. Students can also use the talk and text feature when contributing to the discussion board.
I found the text to speech player adequate for the text materials within Brightspace and Adobe Spark Page. However, I found the language options for the translator limited and are not representative of the first languages of most of our international students. ImTranslator, a free alternative Chrome extension, translates English to over 22 languages with audio presentation and dictionary. I tested it on my prototype and believe it may be a useful tool for EAL students.
Video: Providing closed captions and/or a video transcript is typically targeted to those who are hearing impaired. However, providing text with videos can also provide greater accessibility to students whose first language is not English and students who have special learning needs. In addition, viewing text with videos can provide greater knowledge comprehension and retention for all learners. To ensure students were aware of these accessibility options, I indicated that closed caption option and transcript below the videos I included in my prototype.
Images: Adding alternative text to an image provides students with an explanation of its contents when using a screen reader. I tested this function using Google Read&Write and found it useful with images embedded in Brightspace webpages. However, when testing with Adobe Spark Page I was disappointed this feature did not work. This is a limitation I had not considered when developing online content using Adobe Spark Page. This is an area I will need to further investigate to make this content more accessible.
Layout of content is easy to navigate and read
Consistent and logical content layout is important to enhance the user experience, especially for those who have low digital literacy skills and users of assistive technologies. Brightspace provides templates to ensure content is provided in a format that is compatible with assistive technologies, including suggested headings to differentiate blocks of text and colour contrasts to signal new topics. I was pleased with this feature within Brightspace to assist designers in increasing accessibility for students.
For students who have limited access to the Internat, each webpage within Brightspace can be downloaded and viewed offline. Currently, Adobe Spark Pages cannot be downloaded in a PDF document. When this course does go live, I will convert these pages into a format that can be downloaded.
One of the most important ways to meet the needs of students is to ask them the preferences. Students who are users of assistive technologies or require other accommodations are a great resource to ensure the instructional materials and learning environment is engaging and accessible. While I don’t have this opportunity with my prototype, I will solicit student input when it does go live.
In summary, I grateful accessibility was a suggested topic for discussion. Although I had considered basic accessibility options including offline access and closed captioning and video transcripts, I now recognize there is much more an educator can do to ensure learner accessibility in an online learning environment. Before going live with my prototype I plan to consult with our accessibility office and instructional designers to find a comprehensive solution.
Can you suggest other assistive technologies or strategies that I can implement in an online learning environment? What other benefits do you see for accessibility in online education?