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MAKING ONLINE LEARNING ACCESSIBLE: UPDATE ON ACTIVITIES OF THE IMS ACCESSIBILITY WORKING GROUP

Presenter
Cathleen Barstow
CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM)
WGBH Educational Foundation
125 Western Ave.
Boston, MA 02134
Phone: 617-300-3400
Email: cathleen_barstow@wgbh.org 
Website: http://www.wgbh.org/ncam 

Overview

The CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) and the IMS Global Learning Consortium are engaged in a four-year collaboration through the "Specification for Accessible Learning Technologies" (SALT) partnership. NCAM was awarded funds to establish the SALT Partnership by the Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnerships (LAAP), a program administered by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), part of the Office of Postsecondary Education, U.S. Department of Education.

The goal is to work 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. The SALT Partnership actively recruits and involves learning technology companies, publishers, and infrastructure and content providers in an industry-led IMS Accessibility Working Group, which is developing, refining and proliferating formal Access Specifications for on-line learning.

Through this project, NCAM and IMS hope to catalyze development of accessible learning platforms and technologies, resulting in products and services that allow people with disabilities to access and benefit from distributed learning resources. This paper provides an overview of the work accomplished to date as well work currently underway and still to come.

Accessibility Working Group Produces Guidelines

In July 2002, the IMS Accessibility Working Group published version 1.0 of "IMS Guidelines for Creating Accessible Learning Technologies." The guidelines are available on the Web in a screen-reader friendly format as well as in PDF (http://ncam.wgbh.org/salt). The Guidelines are intended to be useful for a broad range of stakeholders in on-line education, including educators providing online learning materials, developers of learning software such as learning management systems and educational software, and educational publishers, content authors, authoring tool developers and parents, advocates and students with disabilities themselves.

The introduction gives an overview of the needs of students with disabilities and lays out the responsibilities of courseware and software vendors, educational publishers, authoring tool developers, content authors, educational institutions, educators, administrative staff and students. This section, and the appendix on legal policies in countries that mandate accessible learning materials, may be all that some readers need to convince them of the importance of accessibility. They may then pass the detailed material that follows to software developers or instructors who will implement the recommendations. Since changes to both learning systems and learning content are needed for accessibility, information about both topics is included. The Guidelines include the following sections:

While the guidelines do not offer a specific set of requirements that can be tested with conformance testing or evaluated for success, they do offer substantial guidance to developers of on-line learning materials. They frame the key issues, define possible solutions and approaches, and provide a comprehensive overview of problems, opportunities, and resources. Much work remains to be done - by vendors in implementing suggested guideline solutions in products and by the Accessibility Working Group through: 1) implementation and testing of guidelines within IMS specifications, 2) developing accessibility extensions for additional specifications, 3) contributing to new specifications in development and 4) harmonizing this work with international accessibility standards initiatives.

Implementation and Testing

A first example of a product influenced by the guidelines was produced by Can Studios, a media design company in the United Kingdom. Can Studios developed "The Street" utilizing the IMS Guidelines for Creating Accessible Learning Technologies. "The Street" is a 20-hour course that delivers key communication skills. The course targets high school and college students between the ages of 16-25 and brings the communication curriculum to life, taking learners into a cartoon street populated with animated characters. Learning scenarios take place in various locations (a restaurant, gym, outdoors and on a construction site). Each scenario has a range of self-contained learning units lasting from 20 to 45 minutes. The Can Studios software is designed to be directly accessible, so that a person with a disability can operate all of the built-in access features of the product without relying on the aid of an assistive technology. The software offers features such as full keyboard interface and audio output for all vi

Efforts are underway to work with vendors to acquire sample learning resources that are fully compliant with the IMS Learning Resource Meta-data and IMS Content Packaging specifications. These resources will be modified to produce equivalent, accessible versions. This will provide a test bed for IMS staff and the accessibility group members to identify modifications to the Content Packaging specification required for identifying equivalent content resources and to identify modifications required for the Meta-data specification to allow more flexible and accurate descriptions of the equivalent learning resources. A final step will be to provide IMS vendor members with specific recommendations on how their current and future products can support accessibility. These recommendations will be much more specific than the general guidelines already produced by the IMS Accessibility working group as they will be based upon existing tools and sample resources.

Extensions to Existing IMS Specifications

The IMS Accessibility Working Group is also currently working on accessibility extensions to another existing IMS specification - the IMS Learner Information Package (LIP) - in order to allow user preferences to be defined in a manner that promotes accessibility. These extensions will provide a significant means of providing support for a disabled learner to express accessibility needs and to locate and use learning material with support for those preferences. The Accessibility Guidelines describe how content and media objects can be made more accessible but the LIP extension will define ways for users to interface with a learning system and access material appropriate to their needs. Several problems for users with disabilities will be addressed by these modifications to the IMS specifications, permitting learning systems to adapt their display and control features to match the user's needs and preferences.

The current IMS LIP specification allows information about learners to be captured for the general purposes of: recording and managing learning-related history, goals, and accomplishments; engaging a learner in a learning experience; and discovering learning opportunities for learners. The specification supports the exchange of learner information among learning management systems, human resource systems, student information systems, enterprise learning systems, knowledge management systems, resume repositories, and other systems used in the learning process.

When the LIP 1.0 Specification was published, a placeholder was left for capturing information about disabilities of a user. The proposed accessibility extension will fill out this placeholder and is intended to provide the structure for information regarding the needs and preferences of learners with disabilities. Learners with disabilities may have specific requirements for the format in which information is presented (output from the system), and the way in which they can input into the system.

Implementations of the information model provided by an IMS specification may vary, but it is expected that learning software will take advantage of the extended LIP in this way: a profile will be created using information gathered from a learner, perhaps in the form of an online questionnaire or at registration time. Learners will be asked to supply information about the mainstream and assistive technology they use, the settings and features they use, and the format they require for different types of information. The profile can then be used to tailor the user interface and the presentation of different types of content to suit the learner's needs.

The approach taken is to consider the information a system may need about the learner in order for the system to adapt to their needs. It was found that the information required is associated with the learner's functional abilities and the technologies used, rather than with the medical details of their disability or condition. Medical labels of disability do not map onto how a person chooses to interact with the computer. There is a wide variation in the technology that might be used by, for example, people who have cerebral palsy, or people with a visual impairment. This may be due to the degree of disability but also is significantly affected by experience and personal preference. Many learners with disabilities would require a system to be compatible with the assistive technology that they use, therefore this structure considers the hardware and software used by the learners with disabilities.

This functional approach will be captured in Unified Modeling Language (UML), which is a general-purpose notational language for specifying and visualizing complex software, especially large, object-oriented projects. This work will draw on the draft LIP extension and will result in a Learner Preferences Object Model.

The user preferences to be defined in the Learner Information Package could also be used to provide search and formatting information for learning material which is labeled to indicate accessibility features. The Accessibility working group is exploring the most effective way to create and foster implementation of a meta-data model of this kind.

Collaboration with International Accessibility Standards Groups

The Accessibility Working Group has also begun to liaise with other international standards groups, notably the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative and the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative's Accessibility Interest Group. Meeting with European projects with similar goals may lead to additional collaborative work.

All these efforts support our goal of a consistent set of international standards to allow the development of interoperable, accessible educational learning systems.

About Media Access at WGBH

The CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM), The Caption Center and Descriptive Video Service(r) make up the Media Access Group at WGBH. The Media Access Group at WGBH pioneered captioning and video description on television, the Web and in movie theaters. NCAM is a founding member of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

NCAM projects and initiatives expand the reach and refine the technologies of captioning and description, while breaking new ground in the fields of technology, media, disability, and education. NCAM also works with standards bodies and industry to develop and implement open technical standards for multimedia, advanced television, and convergent media. For more information, visit http://www.wgbh.org/ncam

About the IMS Global Learning Consortium

The IMS Global Learning Consortium develops open technical specifications to support distributed learning. Its mission is to facilitate the delivery of online learning to all users and all use environments worldwide. IMS is supported by a worldwide consortium, which includes more than 50 Contributing Members, over 100 Developers Network subscribers, and a Web community of users. All specifications developed by IMS are available free of charge through the IMS Web site at http://www.imsglobal.org/ 


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