Creating accessible e-learning resources for disabled students.

2. Technology as an enabler

Before discussing strategies for creating accessible e-learning resources, it is worth considering those technologies that facilitate access by disabled students to information and communication technology. This helps towards a better understanding of what needs to be done from an author’s point of view in order to provide disabled students with the best chance possible to access and use e-learning resources.

There are many technologies, collectively referred to as assistive technologies (AT for short), which can work with standard computing facilities to enable many groups of disabled people to access e-learning.

Visually impaired and blind people can use text-to-speech devices pre-installed on their computers, meaning that there is no need for e-learning resource providers to provide spoken versions of resources. Text-to-speech software is also a great help to people who may have dyslexia or other impairments that adversely affect on-screen reading. The primary function of this software is not to read out the entire page content, but to read out on-demand text selected by a user.

People with low vision may be able to see the contents of the screen with the help of screen magnification software. Braille display devices also exist that can be attached to the keyboard to display screen content in Braille form.

For people with physical disabilities that affect manual dexterity and mobility, and prevent them from using a standard mouse and/or keyboard, alternative input devices exist. These effectively interact with a computer interface, such as a web site, in much the same way as a keyboard – through a series of discrete on/off actions.

For many other people with impairments, accessibility needs can be met by the accessibility options provided by operating systems such as Windows, and specific software applications such as web browsers. Options exist to enlarge text size, customise mouse operation, improve keyboard functionality, extend the range of audio output, replace audio warnings with visual equivalents and customise desktop colour schemes.

It is important that institutional computing support allows disabled students to make the necessary adjustments to accessibility options at an operating system level, in order to optimise access wherever on campus they may be.

The IMS Accessibility for Learner Information Package Specification (IMS ACCLIP) has been developed with the aim of providing a structured way of storing a student’s specific accessibility preferences. These preferences may include any assistive technology or accessibility option settings required by the student, and required alternatives to content in a specific form. There is also scope to allow teachers to specify accommodations that may be made for the learner when in an assessment situation. Complementing this is the IMS Access for All Metadata Specification, which allows e-learning resource authors to describe, for a particular resource, any specific accessibility requirements for using the resource, whether equivalent alternatives exist and how adaptable it might be to transformation or customisation. Together, the learner information and the accessibility information of a learning resource can be used to configure the resource in a way that matches the learner’s access needs. Although yet to be widely used, these specifications offer great potential for both students and e-learning authors, particularly in terms of reusable elearning objects.

For assistive technologies and accessibility options to work effectively, elearning resources must be designed with accessibility in mind. It is very easy to create resources that contain significant accessibility barriers, leading to disabled students finding that, despite being given appropriate access technology, they cannot easily access or use e-learning resources, because of the way these resources are designed. In the vast majority of cases, the most problematic accessibility barriers can be avoided without difficulty.

Importantly, these barriers are those that can also affect all staff and students accessing e-learning under certain browsing conditions, such as at home over a low-bandwidth Internet connection, or using a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) with a small screen and no mouse. So accessible e-learning development is not simply catering for disabled people - it has the added and significant benefit of addressing many of the needs of all students accessing e-learning in an increasingly varied set of circumstances.

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