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Why designing for accessibility in e-learning matters

Equality and equity are two sensitive concepts. Dramatic debates can spring instantaneously based on them. At one point or another the well-known phrase from the famous novel “Animal farm” might creep into those debates.

All animals are created equal but some animals are more equal than others.

Orwell certainly knew his onions. This phrase is so true, beyond the politics surrounding it. At first glance, there are two big types of people: those that are equal between them and those that are more equal. But the latter category can be split as well into those that are more equal and know it and those that are more equal but don’t realize it.

Those belonging to this last category are so many. I probably belong to it. You probably belong to it. Anybody who never experienced any type of discrimination probably belongs to it. And only after someone from the equal category points out the more part of our category do we realize that we’re in it. At least some of us do.

Some of us really are more equal than others

Let’s take for example people with disabilities. Completely healthy people and people with disabilities are equal in front of the law, they have equal access to education, they can follow any cultural norm they want, and so on, and so forth. But some won’t be able to climb up the stairs when going to court to perform jury duty or when rushing through a school’s halls to get to the next course. Solutions exist, nonetheless, but stairs remain an insurmountable obstacle for those people.

Millions of adults in the US are living with some sort of disability, whether we’re talking about physical (or motor) disabilities, totally or partially visual impairment, totally or partially hearing impairment, speech disabilities, color blindness, cognitive or neurological disabilities, or other undisclosed or temporary disabilities.

On top of that, developmental disabilities know no age limit. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, relatively recent estimate in the United States show that about one in six, or about 15%, of children aged 3 through 17 years have one or more developmental disability, which usually last throughout a person's lifetime.

Many of these disabilities affect the information processing and learning experience of children and teenagers, but they are not impossible to overcome. Just because someone can’t differentiate between bright pink and grey doesn’t mean they can’t understand what a course is about, can’t do their home assignments, or generally be a good student.

Why e-learning accessibility matters: WCAG and Section 508

Even though the education system insists on keeping traditional (and sometimes obsolete) methods of instruction, change is imminent.

Teachers are flipping their classrooms, try out gamification techniques, include apps in classroom activities, and keep track of student progress through a school learning management system. Technology plays an immense role in how education is transforming, and growing numbers of learning activities happen online.

If getting to different floors in an educational institution can be done by both stairs and elevators or ramps — to ensure all students get access in a classroom — what can be done to ensure all students have equal access to the virtual learning environment that happens online?

And above all, why should you care?

Well, e-learning is a form of online content, and all online content should adhere to the WCAG.

WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These guidelines have been created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3CM), the same organization that is behind HTML, CSS, XML and other technical stuff that make the Internet possible. The WCAG documents explain how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities.

But creating online learning materials that can be accessed by all students, including those that have a disability, is not just about following the above-mentioned guidelines. It’s about respecting the law.

All e-learning content must comply to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended in 1998. Section 508 requires Federal agencies to make all electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities.

So if you are in any way involved into the creation of online courses for students, you need to pay attention to these guidelines and law requirements and design online learning materials accordingly.

What should educators focus on when ensuring accessibility in e-learning

Before you start designing online courses that respect accessibility requirements, remember that students with disabilities are still students. Don’t create different courses or different learning materials especially for them. Generally, accessibility features are not obvious for those that don’t have any disability.

Accessible e-learning design is simply good design.

A good design is visually pleasing. If you show your online course to someone — to anyone — and they back away from the screen, squint their eyes, or mimic any sign of discomfort, you have more work to do on it.

A good design is organized and easy to navigate. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is the one of three clicks. The user must be able to get to the information they want in three clicks or under. So don’t bury learning materials and demand students to put on a headlamp while searching for it.

A great design means an uncluttered screen. It’s a fine line between making information hard to find and putting all of it on the homepage. Some may call it art. But managing this fine line can be learned and it can be mastered.

A great design makes use of a good contrast. Be careful with the colors you choose. Set a limit on their number in a course, don’t make them too bright or too shady, and never ever use neighboring colors to make a point. Check out more tips on making beautiful colorful courses here.

A good design is static. It has no moving, rolling, flashing or otherwise visually disturbing items. Users really don’t need to have a visual disability to be affected by such things. Just don’t go there.

As long as you follow these principles and guidelines, your online courses will be great. All your students will enjoy the learning experience. Healthy students won’t even notice the accessibility design, while those with one disability or another will be happy to be able to access your courses without major problems.

Stay tuned!

In the next post I’ll dive even deeper in accessibility design in e-learning and I’ll share examples and specific tips on how to create online courses that meet the needs of all students, no matter if they have a disability or not.

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