learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

About Learning.Now

Learning.now is a weblog that explores how new technology and Internet culture affect how educators teach and children learn. It will offer a continuing look at how new technology such as wikis, blogs, vlogs, RSS, podcasts, social networking sites, and the always-on culture of the Internet are impacting teacher and students' lives both inside and out of the classroom.
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Insuring Online Content is Accessible to All Students

Can you spot the difference between these photos?

Winston the Cat

If not, maybe you should ask a student who’s blind. Their answer will demonstrate the importance of the new accessible digital media guidelines published last week.

The quality of online content is in the eye of the beholder - quite literally when it comes to people with disabilities. While the rest of us may take the Internet for granted, it can be a daily struggle for someone with visual, hearing or motor skill impairments. Imagining having a chronic disability and navigating a virtual environment based on visual cues, or highly accurate control of a mouse. It’s not easy. With more people than ever accessing the Internet over high-speed connections, it’s no surprise that content providers are creating an increasing amount of websites utilizing interactive interfaces, audio and video. But how often do you find a podcast with a transcript? Or a closed captioned video blog? Or a photo gallery with embedded descriptions for people who can’t see the photos? Sadly, they’re few and far between.

Ironically, the Internet is reaching a point where the tools available to content producers are making it easier than ever to make content accessible to people with disabilities. For example, podcasters and video bloggers could utilize free tools like MAGpie, which creates captions for multimedia content. But the fact of the matter is that most people don’t even think of accessibility as a major issue. Try going to a video sharing site like YouTube and count the number of videos that are captioned. I dare you. Don’t hold your breath.

That’s why I’m very excited that the WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) has just released a new publication called Accessible Digital Media: Design Guidelines for Electronic Publications, Multimedia and the Web. NCAM, the inventors of closed captioning and an industry leader in promoting Internet accessibility (including the aforementioned MAGpie software), published this free resource on July 12, in the hopes of getting online content developers producing resources accessible to students with disabilities. It’s something that’s so important to them that they’re actually giving away CDs of the publication to anyone who emails a request to access@wgbh.org.

Accessible Digital Media is the culmination of NCAM’s Beyond the Text project, funded by the US Department of Education, as well as previous documentation efforts funded by the National Science Foundation. “While the guidelines focus largely on content creation for educational materials, the solutions and recommendations are not restricted to academic settings,” explained Geoff Freed of NCAM. “Lifelong learning is expected of every individual in the 21st century and advancement in the workplace is often tied to learning new skills and concepts.”

The guidelines offer an example of the challenges faced by students with disabilities:

Educational software presents challenges for students with disabilities in a number of ways. While other students are using an interactive simulation to learn a biology lesson, the student with low vision may be sitting to one side listening to classmates as they describe what they are doing. Chances are, the sighted students will leave out some details and the visually impaired child will miss important information. If lesson instructions are given only in audio, a student with a hearing impairment may not receive enough information to complete an assignment. A child who uses an assistive-technology device to operate a keyboard can be stalled by operations that require using a mouse. In some cases, the child with a physical disability may be “excused” from the computer lesson and sent to another area of the room for a different activity. This lack of accessibility stigmatizes children by preventing them from using the same materials as their peers and limits their educational opportunities….

Students of different ages and with different amounts of computer experience may need different kinds of accessibility features in educational software. For example, young children with visual impairments will have the most success with software that is designed to provide the flexibility they need directly through options a teacher can set for them, such as enhanced audio, larger fonts and icons, and high contrast backgrounds. Older students may have been taught to use a screen magnifier and can therefore rely less on adjustments available within the program itself.

Just as non-disabled computer users vary in the amount of experience and comfort they have in using software, users with disabilities vary greatly. Some students with visual impairments may receive keyboard training fairly early in their school careers, while others may not use a computer until later. Some students may be comfortable using their assistive technology for only the most rudimentary tasks, while others will be more adept. Also, not all assistive technologies offer the same features, so some students may be able to use their assistive technology with a certain piece of software, while others will not. This range of skills, comfort levels and technology limitations should be considered when deciding how to provide accessibility in educational software.

The guidelines go on to offer step-by-step explanations of the methods used to make digital content, including images, graphs, tables and multimedia, more accessible for people with disabilities. Take the two photos I posted at the top of this essay. To a person without visual impairments, they look precisely the same, which makes sense because they’re identical pictures. But if you were using assistive technology to read this blog entry, you’d know the first picture was an orange cat (my tabby Winston), while the second picture would remain a mystery. That’s because I’m using a simple technique to embed descriptive information into the first picture. If you look at the HTML code, you’d see that the first picture contains two tags that are absent in the second picture. One tag, known as an ALT tag, provides brief alternative text summarizing the content of the image. Another tag, the LONGDESC tag, links to a page containing a more detailed description. Non-disabled viewers wouldn’t give it a second thought, but a blind Internet user relies on this kind of additional descriptive information.

But these guidelines are for professional content developers, not classrooms, right? Not necessarily. With more and more students and educators creating their own content, it’s vital that they have a baseline understanding of accessibility. It’s often tempting to create content full of bells and whistles, but these bells and whistles have consequences when they don’t provide alternative options for disabled users. That’s why I’d love to see more educators incorporate accessibility into their assessment of student-generated content, particularly if that content is made available to the general public. Whether we realize it or not, today’s students are already producing enormous amounts of online content. Take YouTube, for example. Tens of thousands of young people upload new videos each day, downloaded around 100 million times daily. And that’s just one website. So now is the time to teach young people about the importance of accessibility—and thankfully, the new guidelines from NCAM can help. -andy

Filed under : Cool Tools, Websites


Great job Andy! I shared this with a colleague who works with assistive technology, and she gave it high praise!

Thanks! I really appreciate it…. -andy

Thanks for the great resource. I am going to try and get them to integrate these standards into the online courses I help develop in Texas. I also sent the link to several school district administrators

I thought it was very interesting that you showed the difference between the tags on the pictures or the cats. Is it necessary to identify the same idea when I roll over a word that is hyperlinked like you have on this page?

You should include descriptive information whether it’s hyperlinked or not. Imagine going to a page with a dozen hyperlinked images and the only way to find out what each image represented was to click them one by one and hope the next page explained it. No one should be forced to do that, especially when it can be fixed so easily with descriptive information.

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