1 CETIS (Centre for Educational
Technology Interoperability Studies)
University of Wales, Bangor
2 JISC TechDis Service, UK
As the implementation of online learning systems continues to grow, so does the need for content that can be used in those systems. If that content were broken down into its component parts (learning objects), tagged with the appropriate metadata and stored in a searchable repository, a wealth of reusable educational resources would become available.
By ensuring that these learning objects are also fully accessible, they can be used by anyone, anywhere, regardless of physical, environmental or technological limitations. Such modularised, accessible learning objects can then be mixed and matched to construct learning experiences appropriate to each learner's needs. This personalisation of learning could be equated in many senses to one-to-one teaching and will require more than just changes in the supporting infrastructure ? it will also require a dramatic change in pedagogical thinking.
Jutta Treviranus and Judy Brewer's chapter introduces the concept of reusable learning objects and describes some of the considerations that need to be made to ensure that accessibility is incorporated right at the very beginning of the design process.
Accessibility Guidelines and Specifications
Guidelines and specifications are available in many areas of online learning ? most of which now either include or will include accessibility elements. If these guidelines and specifications are implemented, they will help to ensure that learning objects are accessible and therefore available to all learners, irrespective of learning style, environment or technology requirements.
The authors emphasise throughout the importance of using standards (or at least guidelines and specifications) to ensure that content is accessible. There are subtle differences between guidelines, specifications and standards. Guidelines are only recommendations towards good practice, while specifications can be considered as guidelines that are "works-in-progress" toward becoming standards, where conformance is optional but recommended. Standards can be regarded as a set of rules to which conformance is mandatory. The number of standards available for online learning is very small whilst the number of fledgling specifications and guidelines is growing, most of which include accessibility elements. Implementation of these guidelines and specifications is necessary to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to access online learning content, and usability and interoperability are greatly increased if everyone adheres to the same set(s) of standards.
The authors describe a small selection from the wide range of needs exhibited by disabled students. This serves to highlight the point that any guidelines, specifications and standards pertaining to accessibility must be sufficiently flexible and generic in nature so as to encompass all potentially disadvantaged students, while retaining enough technical provision to render them achievable in a wide range of circumstances.
Some of the relevant guidelines and specifications currently available are described in this chapter. In particular, they include the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) guidelines with a very brief mention of other guidelines and specifications (such as IMS and Dublin Core). The W3C/WAI guidelines described are:
- Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) - for web based content, and which are also applicable to any electronically based learning materials
- Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) - for support in the creation of accessible software and also to enable software developers to design products, which aid the end-users to create a more accessible end-product
- User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) - for browsers and multimedia applications, and to increase interoperability with assistive technologies, as well as rendering navigation and customisation more accessible by including features, which allow disabled students to select their own preferences
- XML Accessibility Guidelines (XAG) - for making XML-based
Although the authors have briefly touched upon other guidelines and specifications, they are not covered in as much detail as those relating to the W3C. Further expansion of these guidelines and specifications would provide a useful balance. For example, the IMS Global Learning Consortium, which develops specifications for learning technology, is working on adding accessibility elements to many of its established specifications. It has already published "Guidelines for Developing Accessible Learning Applications" and is currently adding extensions to specifications, such as the Learner Information Package (LIP) Specification, which will allow learners to specify assistive technology preferences. The Dublin Core Metadata group is also working on including accessibility elements. Tips on XML and Accessibility can be found in Franklin (2001).
Learning Object Repository Functionality
The authors identify three levels of learning object repository functionality, which relate to the amount of modularisation of a learning object. They are, in order of increasing modularity:
- Sharable learning objects - like a library book, they can be taken out (retrieved) from the library (repository) but cannot be repurposed (most common)
- Repurposing of content - the content is either structured or
broken down into small enough modules to allow component
- Personalisation of the instructional method and/or content -
learning content is constructed independently from presentation and
control functions (virtually unexplored).
By splitting learning objects into sufficiently small modules (and modularising the content, structure, presentation, functionality and control method), they can be joined with other modules to create personalised learning objects. For example, a learning object containing an audio module can be adapted for use by a deaf learner by exchanging the audio module for a text transcript. Therefore, personalisation of learning objects allows learners with different requirements to learn what they need, in the style, format and speed, which they prefer.
The learner should not necessarily be aware of such personalisation, however. This should be done as far as possible in the background as a result of implementing such specifications as the IMS LIP for student preference and by using well-constructed metadata. The only part of the process the learner should see is the selection of preferences, such as a screen reader, amount of graphical content, text transcripts and so on at the start of their interaction with a learning environment. Content should be marked up with the appropriate metadata to describe the degree of accessibility and its suitability for use with various technologies, such as screen readers, for example. A number of organisations are undertaking work in this area, with a view to producing fully customisable and flexible materials.
The Barrier-free and TILE Projects
An overview of the Barrier-free Project is given in the chapter, providing an example of the way in which learning objects can be made accessible. The project involved the development of authoring tools, a player/browser, a learning object repository, and XML-based learner preference specifications. These tools were then used to digitise video content and to mark up video captions for navigation and linking to other learning materials, such as web content. Events occurring visually in the video were also described so that visually impaired people could use the video as a learning object. Video content is particularly difficult to make accessible, as it requires a great deal of time and resources.
A further phase of this project, The Inclusive Learning Exchange (TILE), will extend this personalisation to other types of media, including animation and simulation, which will then be structured in a learning design framework.
Accessibility Strategies for Learning Objects
Learning objects should be accessible, regardless of their modularisation, but it is essential that strategies are designed and adopted first. These strategies should include timescales and planning for making existing content accessible as well as policies to ensure that any new content is made accessible from the very beginning. As Foley and Regan state: "Accessibility must be seen as an integral aspect of the design process, not an add-on or separate activity".
The authors list a number of considerations, which need to be addressed in an accessibility strategy for online learning content. One item not included in the list was the issue of legislation. Accessibility strategies should include reference to any relevant legislation as non-conformance to such legislation can have serious legal implications. Federal (includes educational establishments) websites in the United States, for example, must comply with Section 508 legislation. Although such legislation has not yet been passed in Britain, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA) makes it unlawful for providers of education and educational services to discriminate against disabled people. This implies that all teaching and learning activities, including online learning content must be made accessible to all learners, or at the very least that equivalent alternatives should be made available where appropriate. For a more detailed discussion of the issues surrounding electronic learning materials and legislation in the UK, see Sloan (2002).
As accessibility issues need to be considered at the design stage, the section covering "Planning for Accessibility" could perhaps have been expanded further. For example, further information on the individual issues that need to be taken into consideration and pointers to examples of planning strategies/policies would have been useful.
Jutta Treviranus and Judy Brewer have produced a useful introduction to the issues involved in making learning objects accessible, although it is a theoretical rather than practical account, which emphasises the process rather than the methodology. It is a difficult area to tackle because although guidelines/specifications and technologies are continuously being developed, the idea of personalised learning objects is still very much in its infancy.
In summary, prefabricated learning objects are becoming more widespread with the consequence that repositories are being developed to store them. Content authoring and the supporting infrastructure tools are also being further enhanced simultaneously with the development of myriad guidelines and specifications to ensure that the whole architecture is accessible. However, there is still some way to go before this vision of accessible personalised learning objects becomes a reality and a major shift in teaching methods and pedagogies will be required.
Foley, A. & Regan, B. (2002), Web Design for Accessibility: Policies and Practice, Educational Technology Review Vol. 10, No.1, 2002. Retrieved 5th November 2002: http://www.aace.org/pubs/etr/issue2/foley.cfm.
Franklin, T. (2001), XML and Accessibility, Retrieved 17/03/03: http://www.techdis.ac.uk/resources/TF01.html
Sloan, M. (2002), E-Learning and Legislation, Retrieved 17/03/03: http://www.techdis.ac.uk/resources/msloan02.html
Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI) Accessibility Special Interest Group - http://dublincore.org/groups/access/
IMS Guidelines for Developing Accessible Learning Applications - http://www.imsproject.org/accessibility/index.cfm
IMS Learner Information Package Specification - http://www.imsproject.org/profiles/index.cfm