Ensuring the accessibility of all learning content

Share this on social media:

The accessibility of learning content is undergoing a dramatic change right now, writes Rick Johnson.

This change is being built upon existing standards that key parts of the industry are implementing, as well as new standards. All the changes that are happening are, for the first time, enabling the ability for institutions, instructors and learners to adopt and access accessible content, that is the exact same content, at the same time, on the same platforms as any other user.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) have emerged as the benchmark for creating a common platform for accessibility. The WCAG technical standard's 12 guidelines, that fall under four principles, provide testable success criteria. Published and maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). WCAG is also an ISO standard (ISO/IEC 40500:2012). The international success and adoption of this standard has increased the expectation of what every ed-tech company should do.

The reality, unfortunately, is that not all ed-tech vendors actually do it.

This dichotomy need not be the case. Increased expectations, supported by increased transparency about actual capabilities, will help move standards conformance forward, but only if there is interoperability among system parts and mutual support and commitment to the standards that enable that interoperability. For the learners at our institutions, this means we must ensure that all customer-facing applications conform to the WCAG standard wherever possible and make documentation about that conformance publicly available.

With the prevalent use of web technologies everywhere today, it would be unthinkable to consider a part of an institutional ecosystem that did not work with the Internet. Similarly, it should be just as unthinkable (and dare I say irresponsible) to have content, or a reading system in today's ed-tech marketplace that is not accessible.

Historically, understanding exactly what 'accessibility' meant was confusing to many. For too long, it simply meant providing access to a general statement, such as the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) document in the United States. This approach, regardless of the specific format, are overly general and lack key details. This lack of clarity and objectivity in examining claims around accessibility was noted in a recent study published by UKSG Insights, where it was observed that 'Existing guidelines mean little to those who matter… Accessibility guidelines for web content are already in existence; however, these are beyond the technical understanding of most stakeholders.' Adding to this confusion was the observation that being compliant with a standard 'is easy for a supplier to claim and hard for a purchaser to argue," and there was near universal agreement "that e-book suppliers should provide better accessibility information.'

In the US, the recently announced refresh of the US Federal Government Accessibility Standards (Section 508) has brought the specifics about the WCAG standard to the forefront, and the WCAG standard now defines the requirements that must be used. The same adoption of WCAG has happened in the UK, the EU, and around the world. Similarly, the publishing world recently released the Accessibility 1.0 specification for EPUB that also uses the WCAG standard and adds book-specific requirements (such as page numbers that correspond to the printed version). This EPUB file standard is quickly becoming a requirement as the prevailing distribution method for textbooks and other learning materials continue to move to digital.

These and many other efforts are bringing adoption of a common standard for evaluating accessibility to the marketplace. This, in turn, will let us create the needed transparency regarding actual capabilities and allow for effective evaluation and comparison. With greater transparency of each part of a system involved in teaching and learning – and common frameworks to use to compare them — we can all make more informed decisions about how a platform intersects with the content being used, the device it is being viewed on, the installed operating system, and any enabled assistive technology. In other words, users want enough information to know that it works. Yes, it's a lot of moving parts, and none of us can do this alone, however, the real-world test is not how each of the parts conform to a standard, but how all the parts actually work together to provide a highly functional system for users.

An external review of the accessibility of each piece of content can provide confidence and trust in a vendor's claims. Benetech's recently announced Globally Certified Accessible Program is a great example of this, which is being enabled by the excellent work DAISY is doing thru their Inclusive Publishing Hub. We need a similar effort to test platforms, as well as transparency around exactly how well each platform supports content accessibility and interacts with devices, operating systems, and assistive technologies. This is a current gap, that all of us, in the industry, need to fill.

As we all work to improve our solutions, we will continue to find other gaps that must be filled. We might find these gaps in functionality, the standards, the laws, or even the testing process. Participants, especially from the ed-tech community, disability services offices, and instructional technologies, must be involved in identifying and filling these gaps. We all need to roll up our sleeves and participate in working groups, test creation, and community discussions about the best ways to partner, fill these gaps, and insure transparency around every facet of the problem.

Providing accessibility is a never-ending journey, and vendors must understand the commitment it requires. It must be at the core of their operation and development processes. They will never solve the problems at hand if they are trying to fix things afterward or in later releases. Vendors must design in accessibility from the start, commit to the journey, and ensure it is a fundamental part of their DNA.

To revive an old phrase, we are all moving down this information superhighway. The pace of change and the volume of content moving along with us are constantly increasing. Unless each of us revisits our assumptions about how we need to 'solve' accessibility, we will wind up in a cul-de-sac rather than the fast lane.

The increasingly nomadic behavior of participants, whose interconnected devices provide access to their critical content without boundaries or restrictions, requires that we take a broader view and partner everywhere we can. This is where standards win. None of us can do this alone. Standards enable us to stand on the shoulders of the giants who have come before us, as well as to be immersed in the crowd and share the advances we can contribute.