Accessibility can be huge, and it can be overwhelming if you’re just starting….Where do I start? Well, the answer is you just start wherever you can. Being partially accessible is better than not being accessible at all.” – Kevin Gumienny on getting started with accessible elearning
A few days after returning to Austin from the 2018 CSUN Assistive Technology Conference in San Diego, Microassist colleagues Vivian Cullipher, content specialist, and Kevin Gumienny, senior learning architect, wanted to provide some quick tips on how to design online training (elearning) that could work for everyone, including people with visual, auditory, mobility, or cognitive impairments.
Most government agencies and educational organizations are required to make all their online content accessible, including elearning. Please see our Accessibility IT Services for Government and Microassist Accessibility Services pages for how Microassist can help you both meet requirements and increase the usability of your custom training.
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Interview with Kevin Gumienny: Getting Started with Accessible Elearning, Tips from CSUN 2018
00:00 — Introduction
Hi. This is Vivian Cullipher. I’m here with my colleague and Microassist senior learning architect Kevin Gumienny. We wanted to give elearning designers, training team leaders, and program managers a quick take on ideas and strategies for creating elearning that works for everyone, including individuals with disabilities. What better place to learn and glean great insights and tips than the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference?
Kevin, first tell me a little bit about CSUN. What is it, and why were you there?
Last week, we were at CSUN. It’s the 33rd year they’ve put it on. The CSUN Assistive Technology Conference is a conference designed to showcase and to demonstrate assistive technologies, which allow people who have disabilities to interact with their environment as close as possible to those who do not have disabilities. So we’re really kind of aiming for an equivalent experience for somebody who’s blind, who has a hearing disability, who has an issue like moving their hands or mobility—How can we use technology to reduce the gap and make things easier for people who have those disabilities to access the world and interact with content?
01:05 — Tips on Getting Started with Elearning Accessibility
You mentioned that that includes interacting with online learning content as well, so elearning. I know you’re going to expand on those accessible elearning concepts that we talk about here with a follow-up blog post [UPDATE: That post is here], so what I’d like to do is provide an overview of ideas that struck a chord with you. For someone who has an elearning development project in their near future and they know they want to make it accessible, where should they start?
That’s a great question. Accessibility can be huge, and it can be overwhelming if you’re just starting— if you just get into it— because there’s a lot of different things to consider. Designing a program or a learning experience for somebody who has a disability with their vision is going to be a different sort of thing than designing a learning experience for somebody who has a disability with their hearing. By factoring all this stuff in, it can be really overwhelming and you get lost. Where do I start?
Well, the answer is you just start wherever you can. Focus on the low-hanging fruit first. Being partially accessible is better than not being accessible at all.
Where do you want to start? Well, there’s really simple things that you can do.
If you’ve got images in your elearning program, put alternative text on those images because somebody who’s blind can’t see an image. That information, they just don’t get that at all, so we put on alternative text. If they have a device that can go through and look at those images, that device will read the alternative text in there and let them give you an equivalent experience to what somebody who can see that image experiences. So alternative text. A lot of programs that you can use to build elearning are going to be able to do this, so do that. It’s very low-hanging fruit, very easy to do.
There’s so much little things that you can do when you’re designing a learning experience. We in the elearning field like to use a lot of mouse action, so a lot of interactivity. We love our click-and-drags, right? Well, one of the things that we might consider is somebody who has a mobility disability can’t use a mouse, and so, they generally interact with a keyboard.
It so happens—this is kind of cool—that if you design so that your experiences can be accessed through a keyboard, not only does it help people who can’t use a mouse, but it also helps people who are using a device like a screen reader to listen to elearning because people operate a screen reader using a keyboard as well. If you can design your activity so that it can be activated, manipulated, interacted with using a keyboard, just that one little thing, all of a sudden, you’ve opened up your elearning to people who have mobility issues and, to a large extent, people who have vision disabilities as well.
Start with the low-hanging fruit, start with the easy stuff. Alternative text on images. Making sure that you can negotiate, maneuver, navigate through your elearning experience using a keyboard. Those little things can help open the learning experience that you’re designing to people who have disabilities because getting started on accessibility, a little bit of accessibility, is better than no accessibility at all.
If you can design your activity so that it can be activated, manipulated, interacted with using a keyboard, just that one little thing, all of a sudden, you’ve opened up your elearning to people who have mobility issues and, to a large extent, people who have vision disabilities as well.” — Kevin on the “low-hanging fruit” of designing accessible elearning
03:56 — Where Accessibility Fits in Elearning Design
It sounds like planning out the interactions and how they are going to be implemented within your elearning, and then—as well as planning out which images you’re going to use, and which images are going to communicate most effectively—is going to happen at the very early stages of your elearning design and going into, I guess, a design plan. Is that how it works with elearning?
Quite often, yeah.
So once the project manager or training coordinator has a solid plan in place, are there any tools or techniques that can streamline that accessible elearning development?
So all too often, when we think about accessibility, it’s something that’s done at the end of the process. We build our training and it works great. Then, we go back and, at that point, we go back and make it accessible. That’s a really difficult time to make it accessible. It’s much better to build it in from the beginning.
In the learning world, I’m a big fan of objectives. I like to know what the goal is for the course and how the learners are going to achieve that goal. I start with that. I don’t design my entire training, and then go back, and then retrofit objectives in because that doesn’t create a good learning experience or an effective learning experience. Accessibility is kind of the same way. When you’re thinking about, “How do I make this available to people who have vision or hearing or mobility or cognitive disabilities,” I need to build it in from the very beginning.
So, what we like to do at Microassist is, I generally think in terms of roles. I might take the course from the beginning all the way to the end, from the needs analysis all the way to bringing it live, but I can still think of my job as a series of roles. There’s the instructional designer role where I design the learning and then there is the course developer role where I take that design and I implement it in an elearning solution for deployment.
I think one of the key things you can do with accessibility is put the accessibility in the right place.
When I’m an instructional designer, I think of things like mobility issues. The learning experience that I am designing—Can it be designed for use without a keyboard? So to the extent at all possible when I’m designing an interaction, I avoid things like click-and-drags, things that I expect people to only use the mouse to manipulate. So I’ll build it with the mind that, “Hey, somebody can navigate this using a keyboard.”
Thinking about designing for mobility when you’re building that learning experience at the very beginning, and not trying to retrofit tabbing or using a keyboard to access your learning experience at the end, is one of the important things that you can do. Put design of accessibility in the proper place so that you address it as you’re building your training and not trying to do it all at the end.
I don’t design my entire training and then go back and then retrofit objectives in because that doesn’t create a good learning experience or an effective learning experience. Accessibility is kind of the same way…. I need to build it in from the very beginning.” — Kevin on where accessibility fits in the elearning development process.
06:30 — Interactivity, Visual Appeal, and Learning Goals in Accessible Elearning
There’s a perpetual conception, I think—especially when you’re talking about the design part of it—that any digital content that is accessible, whether it’s a website or a document or online training, that it’ll need to have those dynamic interactions and creativity stripped out of it to some extent. Is that true? If not, how do you marry accessibility and a visual appeal to create a user experience that works for everyone?
That’s a really good point, and I think it needs to be acknowledged. Whenever you put a constraint on a process, where you put a constraint on a design, it does limit what you can do, so that when I am designing for accessibility, one of the things I need to pay attention to for example, is color contrast. I have to make sure that my design has sufficient color contrast from the foreground and the background so that somebody who is color blind can still see to read the text. That means that I can’t do things like—very common today—you might see a light gray text on a white background on a website. It’s very nice to look at, very nice to use, but that would fail color contrast, so that puts a constraint on what I need to do.
I don’t think there’s any way to get around that. You might love using your mouse to do a click-and-drag or to activate a slider. If you’re designing for accessibility, you might have to remove those activities from your list of things that you can do. So I like to acknowledge that. I give this a lot of thought. So then it becomes, okay, well, what can I do, and how do I find creativity within those constraints? I think you need to acknowledge that there are constraints, and then, I think you start to see, well, where can I push?
An example that we might talk about is—one course that I’ve worked on in the past was—teaching bus driver safety. A really neat way to do that—and I’ve seen this done and I love it—is to have a simulated environment where you have a steering wheel that you can operate with your mouse. You got a gas pedal and you got a brake pedal. You could turn the radio on, turn the radio off, all that kind of stuff. It’s all generally operated through a mouse and, of course, if you’re just using a keyboard, it makes them much more difficult. I can’t do that, right? I couldn’t design a simulation bus training.
Now, on a side note, designing all that’s very expensive in time and money, so that might be a constraint as well. So I think we do work within constraints all the time. But if I dial it back: “What’s my goal? My goal is to teach people how to drive a bus safely. Well, how can I do that?”
The way that we ended up doing this particular course was to create a scenario-like event where we asked them questions, and then, asked them, “Okay, here’s a situation. What would you do?” and we would offer them a couple of options. Then they choose one option. They see the results of that option. Sometimes it’s the right one, sometimes it’s the wrong one, sometimes it’s one that is almost right, but you could do better. So for those of you who are listening, you recognize this is a branching scenario. We’re able to create that simulation, maybe not in a direct simulated environment, but we’d use a branching scenario to reach our learning goal.
Then, depending on how you design that branching scenario, if you use something like multiple choice questions, with a custom “Next” button—so if I answer this, then it branches me to this slide; if I answer this way, then it branches me to the next slide—to a different slide, now I’ve created a scenario-based, interactive learning experience using multiple choice questions. And that’s accessible. Somebody can tab to the answer—they can select the right one. They can tab to the “Next” button—they can go on. If somebody has a visual disability and they’re using a screen reader, the screen reader can read them the scenario, and then, the screen reader will read them their options. They can select an option and move on.
We remember what our goal was. Never lose sight of your goal. Remember what your learning goal is, remember what your training objective is. Then, recognize those constraints in which you have to operate, and then, design so that while meeting those constraints, you achieve your learning goal.
[For ideas on how to work within these constraints efficiently, consider reading Kevin’s article, ”Creativity within Constraints: When Cost, Resource Scarcity, or Deadlines Make Effective Elearning Seem Out of Reach.”]
10:17 — All Elearning Starts with Business and Learning Goals
And that’s the most important part, right? The focus has to be on the right thing. The focus isn’t exclusively to make this the prettiest elearning module…
…that was ever in existence. The goal is to get your learners to be able to get the information and to change the behavior that they need…
…in order to be able to implement new skills.
Right, right. Exactly. It’s very rare that we want to get people to just remember information. Especially in an environment where you’re training adult learners, you want to change behavior, then move from that. Or you’ve got, as Cathy Moore writes, you want to achieve a business goal. That’s why you’re training: You want to reduce the calls coming into the customer service center because you want people to be able to find their information or operate your application more effectively.
That’s the goal, right? It’s your business goal or your training goal. Remember that goal and design it to that goal. Always keep that forefront in your mind, and then, you can start to work within those constraints to achieve that goal.
Never lose sight of your goal. Remember what your learning goal is. Remember what your training objective is. Then, recognize those constraints in which you have to operate, and then, design so that while meeting those constraints, you achieve your learning goal.” — Kevin on creativity in accessible elearning development
11:16 — CSUN Accessible Elearning Takeaways: User Experience Testing and Pattern Libraries
You mentioned some of that in your training session at CSUN. So not only were you attending there, but you gave a session on developing or creating accessible and engaging elearning. I remember you talked about putting the learner’s needs first and the learner’s goals first. How did what you learn at CSUN support or change your thinking on designing accessible elearning?
When you go to someplace like CSUN, you are listening to and talking with people who are at the top in their field. They’ve thought about stuff that you just never think about, and it really widens your perspective. I love going to conferences like this.
There’s a couple of things that I really picked up that really struck home with me. One is, I attended quite a few sessions on user experience testing. What’s cool about user experience design? The coolest thing about user experience design is this idea that you are not your user. What makes sense to you might not make sense to somebody who is just encountering your application, in this case, for the first time.
Well, I attended several sessions on that and that got me thinking—and it’s really easy to map to learning design—because I’m not my learner. What makes sense to me as a instructional designer or as a course developer isn’t necessarily going to make sense to somebody taking the course. We all know this, right? We also know, as a side note, that learners aren’t always the best judge about what makes learning effective. But that shouldn’t stop us from reaching out to our learners and seeing what their pain points are, contacting our learners wherever we can.
Now, this can be huge because you’re thinking “focus panels” and you’re thinking of going out and sending it out and collecting experiences and doing surveys. Yeah, that’s great, and that’s actually a really helpful thing to do. But one of the points that they made in the user experience sessions that I attended was any data is better than no data. So even if you can just go to your colleague who has never seen your course before and have them go through your course while you’re watching them, that’s a huge win. You can get feedback from that.
Better yet, try to get two or three people—maybe not in your office, maybe your target learning environment—and see how they interact with that course. “Capture that feedback and feed it back into your learning” would probably be the biggest takeaway from user experience.
In one of the blog posts that I’m going to be writing up as a result from our trip to CSUN, I’m going to be talking about pattern libraries. This is basically just the idea that I’ve got preexisting templates that I can dump my content into. If I can design those pattern libraries so that the pattern libraries themselves are accessible—like a multiple choice, right?—if I can build a multiple choice that’s accessible, a multiple choice interaction that’s accessible, then I can use it in all kinds of ways. I can use it to create scenarios as we talked about a little bit earlier. I can use it for a quiz at the end. I can use that pattern library, and what that does is it goes back to that question of constraints. It does put a constraint on me. At the same time, operating within that constraint, it makes sure that whatever I build is going to be easy to make accessible.
Now, we had thought about this before in the learning field. We were kind of in our learning bubble. One of the things that really opened my eyes at CSUN was that people are talking about this idea of pattern libraries, then using it for all kinds of programming and all kinds of interface with style guides and designing websites, which opens up to me this brand new—and it’s kind of terrifying, right?—this brand new world that now I can research and I can take some time and I can figure out, “Okay, here’s how people are doing it in application design. How do I apply that to elearning?”
Whenever I go to a conference like this, it’s very rare that you will attend a session that you can’t pull something out of and map it to your own experience. It constantly changes the way that I think about things.
Well, it sounds like you’ve got a lot more information in you to develop into a blog later on, and so, I’m really looking forward to getting that and reading it and posting it and sharing it with everyone. But I wanted to say thank you for talking about CSUN and accessible elearning—and just thanks for doing the interview with me.
Well, thanks for the opportunity. It’s always a joy to talk about this, to share accessibility experiences, to share efforts on how we can make learning available to everybody, including those with disabilities.
Accessible Elearning Resources
- CSUN 2018 Assistive Technology Conference Backchannel: Tweets, Blogs, and More! — Additional interviews, accessibility training for content developers, and links to CSUN presentation repositories are all here.
- How to Make Elearning Accessible: Insights from the 2017 CSUN Assistive Technology Conference — Kevin’s thoughts from his first visit to CSUN.
- Creating Accessible Elearning — What’s the benefit of designing accessibly? Kevin shares some thoughts.
- Client Successes-Learning Development Case Studies — A short selection of elearning projects.
Tell Us What You Think!
Have an idea or question about getting started with accessible elearning? Have you encountered training that was inaccessible for you? Or maybe you’ve launched an accessible elearning project that you’re proud of? Comment below!
Learn More about Developing Accessible Elearning for Your Organization
Many public-sector and educational organizations are required to develop accessible elearning (accessible online training), either by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, or Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title II or state or local specifications.
Businesses and other organizations also develop their online training to be accessible so that they can better serve their employees and stakeholders, cultivate inclusive staff development and customer service practices, do business with entities (such as government) that have accessibility requirements, or comply with legal decisions that require website accessibility for public accommodations.
Contact us about your elearning project. We will help you ensure your online training is accessible to all users, including people with disabilities, and that it complies with the appropriate guidelines (e.g., WCAG 2.0 Level AA, Section 508). Let’s get the conversation started about your accessible elearning project!