2004 Conference Proceedings

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PRACTICAL TIPS TO SUPPORT FACULTY IN PROVIDING ACCESSIBLE ELECTRONIC CONTENT

Presenter(s)
Brian Hardy
National Information and Library Service (Australia)
454 Glenferrie Road Kooyong Victoria Australia 3144
Phone: +61 3 9864 9525 Fax: +61 3 9864 9650
Email: Brian.Hardy@nils.org.au

Norman Coombs
EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information)
PO Box 818, Lake Forest CA 92609
Phone: (949) 855-4852
Email: nrcgsh@rit.edu

Richard Banks
EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information)
PO Box 818, Lake Forest CA 92609
Phone: (715) 233-3187
Email: dick@easi.cc

Introduction:

Providing accessible course content has two major components. First, the infrastructure must be accessible. This means that accessible courseware or accessible Web pages that point to the actual content can be compared to making a physical campus accessible. It can be compared to accessible curb cuts; having accessible ramps instead of stairs entering a building; doors that can be managed by someone with motor problems; elevators between floors and classroom doorways that can easily accommodate a wheel chair or scooter. Second, accessible electronic content is similar to how a faculty member delivers the course within that accessible setting. Accessible education requires that both the infrastructure and the content be readily accessible to students with disabilities.

The work of the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative, (WAI) in setting out a set of Web accessibility guidelines provides an internationally accepted base line that is receiving increasing acceptance. Now, increasing numbers of software designers and professional Web designers know about the WAI guidelines and educational institutions, in particular, are producing educational technology that includes more and more of these guidelines. The fact that Web authoring applications are embedding accessibility aids in them means that providing an accessible infrastructure for education will be easier and will become much more common.

The next step and a more difficult one is to get faculty to create and provide electronic course content that is accessible to their students with disabilities. It is more difficult for two reasons. First, faculty members are notoriously independent and frequently even stubborn. They resent anyone telling them how to teach or how to produce instructional content. Overcoming this ingrained resistance to taking advice and directions is a challenge. Second, large numbers of faculty want to teach their subject matter and resent having to spend time learning technology as part of their work. Persuading them to add the extra task of using technology in an accessible manner will be seen by them as an arduous and unfair burden. This paper will focus on ways that Australia and the United States are working to provide simple, hands-on, practical tips which can provide reasonably accessible content requiring faculty to learn relatively little new technology and to devote only a little more of their time to achieve the intended goal.

The first half of the presentation will describe a set of activities taking place in Australia which demonstrates low technology activities which faculty can use to provide students with alternative versions of electronic course content that is reasonably accessible. The second part of the presentation will introduce techniques from a United States project designed to help faculty create a single, universal design version of content that will meet the needs of both the mainstream students and simultaneously the needs of students with disabilities.

The Australian Project:

Australian universities are developing a wide range of flexible learning options to cater for International students and those students within Australia who find off-campus study more convenient and practical. These courses are developed professionally to best use the capability of learning technologies. Content that is maximally accessible is an important part of the development of these courses and universities are expending significant resources to make sure that all students can access these courses.

However there is also a substantial body of content that is made available online in a much more ad hoc way - lecturers put up a copy of some PowerPoint slides for students to access; a fellow student or faculty member makes available an interesting article in a Microsoft Word format and so on. These ad hoc materials are often critical to successful completion of a course.

To help faculty members minimise the accessibility barriers to this ad hoc material, the National Information and Library Service has been running some Quick Tips training courses with several Universities. These quick tips help make content more accessible, but are not sufficient to ensure accessibility to all.

This session will demonstrate some of simple techniques that enable Word Documents and PowerPoint presentations to be reasonably accessible within the proprietary format without converting them into accessible HTML.

The United States Project:

EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information) is a leader in providing practical training for college and university staff in creating accessible computer and information technology across the campus. We are now adding new material specifically designed to meet the needs of faculty and instructional designers in creating course content that will enable students with disabilities to have an equal learning opportunity with their peers.

It is not enough to have Federal and state legislation mandating that these students be provided access to an equal education. Having such legislation is important, but there are many ways that people can find to drag their feet to avoid compliance, and, when faculty do not have a student with a disability in their courses, they see expending extra effort to make content accessible to be a needless and burdensome effort. Then, when they are confronted with such a student, revamping the content with little or no advance warning is either impossible or a genuine hardship.

EASI's training materials make three points:

  1. Using universal design principles to create an accessible version of course content rather than creating a second accessible alternative version will save them time and energy;
  2. using software with which they are already familiar plus a few tricks and special plug-ins, faculty can design accessible content without having to learn new software or learn new technologies;
  3. content that is designed to include students with disabilities will simultaneously accommodate different learning styles and result in improved instruction for everyone.

This workshop will introduce some of they key steps to make electronic content accessible. (These are covered fully in the EASI courses.)

The first step in designing accessible online course content is the old slogan, "keep it simple". Avoid being overly academic and pedantic; write less like a textbook and write more like a news magazine. Break material into small modules; use short paragraphs; use simple rather than complex sentences; and use the active rather than the passive tense. While this will benefit all students, it will be important for students with learning disabilities and also those who are hearing impaired.

The second tip is to provide content in parallel versions when possible. Some people grasp material presented in a graphical format; some are more at home with text; and others are primarily auditory learners. When the same content is displayed in different modes, it provides reinforcement for some users. For those with disabilities, depending on the disability, one mode may be accessible while another may not. A student who is blind can learn from auditory content while one who is deaf will benefit from the text transcription.

The third insight is for faculty to realize that When they create material in, for example, Word or PowerPoint and output it to the Web, there may be special accessibility issues. There are ways to compensate for this deficiency. John Gunderson and Dan Lindner from the University of Illinois have developed a software plug-in that will walk faculty through the process of creating accessible HTML versions. When the plug-in is installed, and when the designer selects the "Web accessibility" option, the software prompts them for relevant labels and inserts it without the faculty having to learn HTML code.

Fourth, faculty sometimes take print documents, scan them using a scanner and place the results on the Web or otherwise send the electronic document to students. A scanner and optical character recognition software are common ways to provide content for users with disabilities. Practical help on how to use a scanner and OCR software to create an electronic document that is fully accessible will be described.

Fifth, many content designers like to output documents in PDF (portable document format). It is possible to produce accessible PDF content. However, to do it, the creator needs to create it using Acrobat and also needs to know exactly which settings to select in the Acrobat software. The course walks faculty through actually producing several accessible PDF documents.

The EASI course also explores the similarities between a traditional face-to-face presentation and an interactive video presentation. It describes accessibility problems in Internet or Satellite video presentations and provide guidelines for making video presentations accessible for students with various disabilities.

Conclusion:

This session will introduce some of the techniques and approaches that will help make electronic content accessible for all students. These techniques use one of two basic strategies: overcoming accessibility barriers within the proprietary format and converting content into accessible HTML. These techniques are particularly useful for faculty who do not have the skills or inclination to create accessible HTML content using more advanced authoring tools.


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