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Return to SENDA? Implementing accessibility for disabled students in virtual learning environments in UK further and higher education

9. Recommendations

Figure 12 is a flow chart showing the ideal critical path of an accessible VLE course, from original developer to the eventual e-learner. The chart indicates that testing with disabled learners is necessary at the development stage and at the content creation stage, that standards for accessibility must be adhered to at both stages and checked by an independent verification body, and that support for web development skills, instructional design skills and e-pedagogy must be supplied for staff in FE/HE

Figure 12.The accessible ideal: e-learning from developer to student

Implementing accessibility in VLEs is a complex and collaborative enterprise involving numerous stakeholders, including:

  • VLE developers
  • technical bodies
  • national educational bodies
  • individual FE and HE institutions
  • teaching staff
  • ILT/ICT staff
  • students.

The idealised critical path in Figure 12 above indicates where these groups come in the ‘life cycle’ of a VLE course, from the original software developer to the student’s computer. While the following recommendations address these stakeholders as separate groups, many of them have implications for many or all of the groups, as Figure 12 indicates.

9.1 VLE developers

  • Adopt user-centred development processes, incorporating testing for usability and accessibility with all groups of end users – ICT systems support, content authors, teaching staff and – crucially – students
  • Actively consider alternatives to the frames-based structures currently favoured, and consider simplifying interfaces and functions, rather than adding more complexity with each new version
  • Give as much control as possible over display preferences to the end user
  • Acknowledge that compliance with standards does not guarantee accessibility, and encourage educational institutions to understand this
  • Acknowledge in particular the problems that synchronous communication tools continue to pose for a range of disabled students, and draw the attention of institutions to these issues
  • Understand and be explicit about the pedagogical assumptions made during product design, and acknowledge one VLE cannot suit all pedagogical requirements
  • Investigate more diverse models for VLEs, including systems more suited to active learning as opposed to a content-delivery approach
  • Consider incorporating automated accessibility checking within the authoring tools incorporated into the VLE.

9.2 Technical bodies

  • Adopt a more pragmatic and user-centred approach to producing standards, specifications and guidelines, taking into account the constraints under which developers and authors operate, and the conditions under which the majority of users access the web
  • Clearly differentiate between standards and specifications aimed at technical experts, and general guidelines for non-technical content authors
  • Focus as much on usability issues as on interoperability
  • Make clear the limits of accessibility standards/specifications/guidelines, so that compliance is not assumed ipso facto to equal accessibility.

9.3 National educational bodies

  • Consider developing joint initiatives with bodies such as the Disability Rights Commission to target awareness about disability law and accessibility good practice in further and higher education institutions
  • Further consider the creation of some form of e-learning conformance authority to monitor and enforce adherence to technical standards, including accessibility standards, in UK e-learning products
  • Continue to take steps to delineate and address the skills gaps in e-learning; specifically, consider actively supporting the creation of a recognised qualification in instructional design, and ensure e-learning usability and accessibility are given due prominence
  • Continue to support initiatives such as Skills for Access (2003) that aim to address some of the technical skills gaps in accessible e-learning, including training and support regarding the specialist needs of learners with various disabilities
  • Consider providing support for a central usability and accessibility testing service for e-learning material used in FE and HE
  • Consider establishing a central repository for accessibility guidelines for non-technical authors of VLE content resources, ideally in a downloadable format that can be quickly customised to the needs of individual institutions
  • Consider providing support for institutions undertaking institution-wide accessibility audits that include e-learning
  • Consider support for FE and HE staff wishing to learn more about assistive technologies (see for example the BRITE initiative (BRITE 2003))
  • Consider supporting institutions in buying-in assistive technologies such as screen readers, to enable in-house testing and increase staff awareness about the practicalities of disabled web access.

9.4 Individual FE and HE institutions

  • Recognise the range of skills needed to develop quality e-learning, in particular:
    • consider creating learning development specialist units, responsible for the overall planning and management of e-learning in close collaboration with academic groups
    • support the development of instructional designers within these units
  • Conduct an institution-wide accessibility audit, including of e-learning provision, to highlight problems and enable efficient targeting of resources (see for example the IDEAS project (University of Aberdeen 2001))
  • Develop an institution-wide web accessibility policy, which incorporates or is linked to an institution-wide VLE accessibility policy; set up mechanisms to implement and monitor these policies
  • Ensure that strategies for ICT, learning and teaching, and widening participation, are joined up and consistent
  • Ensure co-ordination between disability services, ICT support, learning support and teaching staff when addressing VLE accessibility
  • Recognise the additional time needed to needed to comply with technical accessibility guidelines when developing VLE content
  • Include accessibility in quality assurance (QA) processes, and ensure QA takes account of the pedagogic impact of online learning, and the impact on any inclusive learning objectives in learning and teaching strategies
  • Ensure that inclusive learning and teaching, which will include accessibility issues, is incorporated into staff training and development programmes
  • Consider acquiring the most common assistive technologies such as speaking browsers, and develop the capacity of ICT and ILT specialists to support users of these technologies
  • Ensure that all training for staff in the use of VLEs includes accessibility and usability
  • Ensure there is adequate support for students, including disabled students, using VLEs.

9.5 Teaching staff

  • Understand the pedagogical underpinning of VLE courses, and define carefully the goals and outcomes of learning experiences that incorporate VLEs
  • Recognise that e-learning is neither a ‘total solution’ nor a ‘total problem’, but a tool that, properly used, can contribute greatly to the aim of inclusive learning
  • Recognise the promotion and support of accessible learning as the responsibility of all teaching staff, not just the specialist disability services
  • Understand that a basic level of ICT skills is a prerequisite for teaching, and in particular take steps to understand the key issues in web accessibility
  • Understand that ‘quick and easy’ approaches to creating web content will not produce usable and accessible material. Allow adequate time in curriculum development processes to create quality online materials, and provide appropriate alternatives to any inaccessible aspects of the material or experience
  • Know where to find specialist advice on both instructional design and web accessibility, and incorporate this advice into authored content
  • Adopt a student-centred approach to creating VLE content by encouraging structured feedback on VLE materials from students, making changes accordingly, testing new courses with a range of students, including if possible students with disabilities.

9.6 ILT/ICT staff

  • Take steps to understand the fundamentals of user-centred design, as well as the technical aspects of web accessibility, and to try to support their implementation across the creation of all VLE content
  • Develop an understanding of pedagogical theory and inclusive learning objectives, and aim to ensure that these underpin the design of all VLE courses, and work with teaching staff to develop this
  • Consider setting up a formal user-testing programme for all VLE courses in an institution
  • In institutions where web accessibility policies do not exist, push for their development and for the incorporation of VLEs into these policies
  • Try to ensure that the perspectives of specialist instructional design and web development staff are adequately represented at the early stages of curriculum design, and that communication between teaching staff and ILT/ICT specialists is open and constructive.

9.7 Students

  • Understand the implications of disability legislation and institutional policies with regard to ICT provision and inclusive learning and teaching
  • Work constructively with institutions to improve the accessibility of VLE material, including taking part in user testing
  • Make use of any training offered in ICT skills.


All pages and content copyright © Sara Dunn 2003, unless otherwise stated.