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SPECIFICATIONS FOR ACCESSIBLE LEARNING TECHNOLOGIES: THE SALT PARTNERSHIP

Madeleine Rothberg
CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media
WGBH Educational Foundation
125 Western Ave.
Boston, MA 02134
madeleine_rothberg@wgbh.org

Cathleen Barstow
CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media
WGBH Educational Foundation
125 Western Ave.
Boston, MA 02134
cathleen_barstow@wgbh.org

Introduction

The CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) is a research and development facility which is pioneering the use of accessible media in Web-based education. One such project is the Specifications for Accessible Learning Technologies (SALT) partnership. SALT is a four-year collaboration with the IMS Global Learning Consortium to develop and promote open access specifications and effective models for the on-line learning industry. NCAM and IMS have established an industry-led Working Group on Accessibility to identify the features needed to make on-line learning accessible, and to specify the resources and technologies needed to implement solutions.

Objectives

This four-year project, which began in December 2000, is working with learning technology companies, publishers, and infrastructure and content providers to identify the features needed to make on-line learning accessible to all users and to specify the resources and technologies needed to implement solutions.

Project objectives are to:

* maintain an industry-led IMS Accessibility Working Group which will develop, refine and proliferate formal Access Specifications for on-line learning
* engage learning technology companies, publishers, and infrastructure and content providers in a national forum to identify the features needed to make on-line learning accessible and specify the resources and technologies needed to implement solutions
* catalyze early delivery of accessible learning platforms and technologies, resulting in products and services that allow people with disabilities to access and benefit from distributed learning

On-line Learning Accessibility Issues

Students who are blind, low-vision, deaf, hard-of-hearing, or mobility-impaired face pervasive barriers trying to access online educational content. The picture is equally grim for instructors and administrators with disabilities who face barriers using networked technologies to create content, complete administrative tasks, access archived records, or manipulate financial or academic reporting systems. These factors threaten to isolate and disenfranchise disabled students and professionals; an ironic outcome given the potential of on-line learning to provide people with disabilities with self-paced, independent, and customized materials.

Producers of educational software are increasingly aware that they must consciously include people with disabilities in their scope. Developing materials that are accessible will increase the publisher's reach by broadening the market to include students who have previously been excluded. However, developers are just beginning to understand why accessibility is a critical need and are seeking guidance on how to provide it in their products. Other factors focusing attention on this issue are policies in the U.S. and world-wide, which are now in place or are under consideration requiring accessibility for all computer hardware and software.

Complete access to features and control is an essential part of any software applications. Too often, accessibility features are added after a product has been designed or implemented. By failing to address access for all users from the beginning of the development cycle, accessibility becomes much more difficult to address. Although many developers are of necessity rewriting existing code, whenever possible, accessibility should be treated as an absolute requirement from the start.

Properly designed educational software can and must be accessible to all users. Developers who incorporate access solutions may find that these modifications bring benefits to the wider student populations, as studies of multi-modal learning have shown. The principles of universal design, designing to meet the needs of as many users as possible, provide a new dimension for improving the usability of educational software for all learners. Incorporating accessibility features into IMS' technical specifications for on-line learning will allow producers in the distributed learning industry to add these features into their products, enhancing the accessibility of educational resources.

The IMS Accessibility Working Group is engaging leading companies involved in product development, institutions implementing distributed learning environments, and international standards organizations in the SALT partnership. Through their efforts and participation, the future of on-line learning will have the potential to reach all users, including those with disabilities. Together with the National Center for Accessible Media and the IMS Global Learning Consortium, other project partners currently include Blackboard, Educational Testing Service, WebCT, the University of Toronto's Adaptive Technology Research Centre, the United Kingdom's Open University and Australia's Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DETYA).

Phase One Project Results

In the first phase of the project, the group's scope of work focused on two main components: first, the group compiled a set of guidelines on how to ensure accessibility in a wide variety of on-line learning tools. The guidelines capture known solutions and give suggestions on how best to use them, and will point developers toward existing guidelines. In some areas solutions do not yet exist, so the guidelines explain the problems and the requirements of students with disabilities. The intent was to build on existing work to create a set of guidelines for the development of learning applications and tools. Issues which have the potential to impact accessibility have been identified and addressed with solutions drawn from existing practice. References are made to printed and on-line resources likely to aid developers in the design and development process.

The second component for this first phase of the project was to create accessibility extensions for two existing IMS specifications. The Accessibility Working Group developed an extension to an IMS specification called "Learner Information Profile". Within a Learner Profile, the student can indicate whether they need all audio information provided visually, or all visual information provided in audio, and whether they use a keyboard only or a mouse only, and so on. By adding this extension, the learning systems will know what the student's accessibility needs are and will automatically adjust to meet those needs.

The second extension the Working Group developed is an extension to the IMS Meta-data specification. For IMS purposes, Meta-data is data that describes a learning resource so that systems can deliver alternative content that is matched to the primary content. This will allow caption files to be linked to a video, for example, or text descriptions to be linked to a photograph. Then, using the learner profile, the system will know what kind of information the user needs. In cases where accessible materials are not available, this system might alert users beforehand that a particular section might be inaccessible. When accessible material is available, the system will be able to locate that information and provide it to the student. Formal adoption of the specification extensions by IMS is subject to voting by the IMS Technical Board. If approved, the specifications with accessibility extensions would be available for download free-of-charge from the IMS website at: http://www.imsproject.org/.

In upcoming phases of the project, companies will be encouraged to incorporate these accessibility extensions to specifications into their software. User testing of products with accessibility extension implementations will begin in 2002. Additional accessibility extensions to existing IMS specifications will be proposed in future phases of the project. The project is expected to have a significant impact on the accessibility of on-line learning once the specifications are adopted in the industry. In addition, the features that have been proposed, and those that will be proposed in later phases of the project, are the kind of flexible, individualized learning that is in demand, so significant interest in incorporating project results is anticipated.

Acknowledgements

The SALT Partnership is supported by a grant from the Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnerships (LAAP), a program administered by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education.


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