2003 Conference Proceedings

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Dagmar Amtmann, Debbie Cook, Kurt Johnson
National Center on Accessible Information Technology (AccessIT)
Box 357920
Seattle, WA 98195-7920
Phone: 206-685-4181
Fax: 206-543-4779
Email: accessit@u.washington.edu

Online distributed learning, also referred to as distance learning, has grown exponentially throughout the last decade. Online learning management systems (LMS), such as Blackboard, WebCT, Learning Space, E-College, Prometheus and numerous proprietary systems developed by educational institutions are increasingly used to deliver web-based content and create online education environments. These systems, also sometimes called courseware, offer server-based course management that integrates learning tools, utilities, and curriculum content. A list of tools that instructors can choose from is long and includes calendars, assignment tools (for giving assignments and submitting student work), classroom discussion tools, tools for viewing grades, evaluating progress, tools for sharing work and peer review, and many other others.

Learning management systems create virtual school environments. The same way that physical environments in brick and mortar schools have to be accessible to students, employees and others with disabilities, accessible virtual learning environments have to be constructed in an accessible way. The most basic requirement is that the structure itself be accessible to all. In the physical world that means that, for instance ramps and elevators are provided for users of wheel chairs. In virtual environments it means that web sites have to be designed with accessibility in mind. However, accessibility does not end with accessible web design. Any tool students are required to use in their online learning has to accessible as well. Some of the tools commonly used in distributed learning present more challenges than others across different learning management systems. These tools typically include interactive, mostly synchronous communication and collaborations tools, such as synchronous text chat, testing and assessment tools, tools for sharing work and peer review, and whiteboard.

Guidelines are available for developing accessible learning applications to aid those who develop online learning tools (IMS guidelines, 2001). However, the guidelines do not necessarily help educators and policy makers understand the experiences of users with disabilities and evaluate accessibility of different tools. The purpose of this paper is to provide a brief overview of the issues selected tools present to users with disabilities. Our presentation at the conference will demonstrate accessibility issues outlined here.

Chat tools

Synchronous text chat tools allow several users to communicate via typed text in real time. There are two basic issues related to accessibility of chat applications. First, fast paced conversation and the need to track multiple simultaneous threads of exchanges present difficulties for users who have difficulties with reading, writing, or typing and for people with cognitive disabilities. Confusing interfaces and inconsistent navigation also contribute to difficulties for users with cognitive and mobility disabilities. When synchronous (real-time) interactions are not necessary using asynchronous tools (such as email or listserv) often works better for these users because they provide more time for reading, composing, and typing of messages.

Second, users of screen readers experience considerable difficulties when using chat programs. Screen readers are typically able to handle some HTML chat rooms, but how new messages are displayed (automatically or manually) can be problematic. Most current chat rooms are web-based applications that use the programming language Java. That means that unless the chat interface was specifically designed to work with screen readers, the application will not be accessible to blind users. Chat tools included in LMS often present accessibility problems for users of screen readers (Johnson & Ruppert, 2001), although considerable progress has been made in developing and implementing accessible chat applications. For instance, Blackboard 6.0 includes an accessible chat tool that utilizes Java Accessibility and the Special Needs Opportunity Window (SNOW) project located at the Assistive Technology Resource Center in Toronto, Canada has released an alpha version of their accessible chat application. Until accessibility issues related to chat programs are resolved, using instant messenger chat tools that seem to be reasonably accessible to users of screen readers may be a good alternative, but only if all participants can agree on using a specific chat program to avoid incompatibility problems.

When looking for accessible chat programs look for those can be used through keyboard only (no mouse required), work with common screen readers, allow users to control the scrolling and/or refreshing of messages, do not rely on sound alone to convey important information, have consistent and easy to use interfaces and controls (Smith, 2002).


Whiteboards function as graphical chat tools. They allow multiple users to draw, paint, and share existing graphical files in real time. Exclusively graphical workspace is not accessible to users of screen readers. Even text tools that are available in these environments often produce text in a way that is not accessible by screen readers. Whiteboard tools currently include many exclusively mouse-driven functions, excluding those who cannot use a mouse from participating. Clearly, students with certain disabilities would not be able to participate actively in Whiteboard activities, either because they are unable to use the graphical tools or because they are unable to see the shared environment. In some cases access to the information could be provided by using an additional tool in conjunction with the whiteboard tool, such as teleconference or accessible text chat, to provide a meaningful description of the graphical work to those participants who cannot see it. However, this is a complex solution that requires considerable skill and discipline on the part of the instructor and all participants. Therefore the best way to accommodate users of screen readers is to avoid using Whiteboard exclusively for delivering content that is essential and significant.

Tools for sharing work and peer review

To simulate work sharing in classroom environments, peer review electronic tools allow participants to upload their work into a shared work area and to provide feedback on the work of others. In order for users of assistive technology to participate in these activities, the interface and all controls have to be accessible. Of course, the format of the shared work has to be accessible as well. Peer review tools often use Java language to handle interactivity and unless the application interface was specifically designed to work with screen readers, the tool will not be accessible to blind users. Another common accessibility issue is the use of color as the only way of identifying the author of comments/feedback. To facilitate peer review when users of assistive technology are involved consider using a different approach. In some cases email may work well, in other contexts providing comments in the body of a word document and flagging the comments using an agreed upon notation (such as asterisk) or using the tracker features built into many commonly used word processors may be appropriate.

Testing and assessment tools

Online testing presents a complex environment in which great care has to be taken to make sure that both the interface and the content are accessible to users with disabilities. Online testing is a very important and pressing issue as schools move to meet the requirements of the "No Child Let Behind Act of 2001." The Act requires states to have annual assessments in reading and mathematics for all students in grades three though eight by the end of the 2005-06 school year. Many schools are looking to computer- based testing to help them meet the challenge (Thompson, Thurlow, Quenemoen, & Lehr, 2002). All online learning management systems include testing and assessment tools. There are many issues related to testing that affect students who use assistive technology, but some of the major issues include whether (when appropriate) students could use assistive technology to complete tests and whether additional time can be selectively provided to certain students. For instance, accessible testing tools allow student with a writing disability to respond to questions by using word prediction or voice recognition software, provides questions and answers in a format that can be read out loud by assistive technology to provide access for users with low vision, blindness, and reading disabilities, allows instructors to set up quizzes that provides more time for selected students, allow for all quiz questions to be delivered one at a time with the ability to revisit previous questions.

In summary, online learning management systems create complex environments that present numerous accessibility issues. It is also important to remember that it is always possible to create content that is not accessible even when the tools with which content is created are accessible. Both the infrastructure and the content have to accessible in order for distance learning courses to be accessible, so instructors and software developers share the responsibility.

IMS guidelines for developing accessible learning applications (2001). IMS Global Learning Consortium, Inc. http://www.imsproject.org/accessibility/accwpv0p6/imsacc_wpv0p6.html

Johnson, A.& Ruppert, S. (2001). Accessibility in online learning management systems. University of Wisconsin. http://www.uwosh.edu/accessibility/papers/

Smith, J. (2002). Accessibility of online chat programs. WebAIM. Retrieved 9/14/02, 2002, from the World Wide Web: http://www.webaim.org/articles/chats

Thompson, S. J., Thurlow, M. L., Quenemoen, R. F., & Lehr, C. A. (2002). Access to Computer-Based Testing for Students with Disabilities (Synthesis Report 45). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved October 1, 2002 from the World Wide Web: http://www.education.umn.edu 

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