Making elearning accessible is the right thing to do. It’s also often a project requirement. Senior Learning Architect Kevin Gumienny shares conference insights from CSUN ATC 2018 on how to include accessibility in your elearning development process. He’ll introduce using pattern libraries for accessible elearning development, explaining how they can make your development process more efficient.
CSUN Session Takeaways for Developing Accessible Elearning
The 33rd California State University, Northridge Assistive Technology Conference (CSUN) is like all good conferences: so much information so quickly that you fear your brain is about to melt. (By the way, if you want a quick overview of the conference, our CSUN 2018 backchannel is hard to beat.)
CSUN covers accessibility from an astonishing number of angles, from programming to policy and nearly everything in between. I tend to focus on accessible elearning, and while few sessions directly address the subject, it’s amazing how many sessions can offer a new perspective, showcase a new tool, or otherwise provide a new way to understand, and improve, the accessibility of elearning.
I’d like to briefly discuss what I took away in terms of standards, process, patterns libraries, and testing, and then wrap up with how learning and development teams can use these perspectives to make online training and related digital content more accessible.
Isn’t a Standard, Well, Standard?
When designing accessible elearning, one of the first questions you need to answer is: “What does it mean for elearning to be accessible?”
One of the ways that this question was addressed at CSUN was by looking to standards. Multiple standards are used to gauge accessibility (Section 508 for federal agencies, PDF/UA for PDF files), but the most common is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0.
However, a standard may read as being explicit, but when applying it, you’ll quickly discover that ambiguities exist. For example, a requirement might state that an image needs to have a text alternative. But what counts as a good text alternative? Does the image filename work? (No, actually.) Should you describe everything in the image? Should you make it as short as possible?
Glenda Sims and Wilco Fiers’s session on A11y Wars took on this question and turned ambiguity to opportunity. They pointed out that ambiguous guidelines are open to interpretation and asked us to consider using different perspectives to suit different needs.
If you’re making something accessible because of a court order and are under a tight time crunch, then a very strict and limited interpretation might be the best option—meet the standard, nothing more.
On the other hand, if you’re designing a new product, then a strict standard might not provide the level of accessibility and positive user experience that your audience needs. A more generous interpretation, one that looks at each criterion as a baseline, might be best.
The key is to make sure that everyone on the team—designers, developers, testers, project owners, other stakeholders—all agree on the degree to which you’re making the product (or course) accessible. (In their white paper, A11Y Wars: The Accessibility Interpretation Problem, Sims (@goodwitch) and Fiers (@wilcofiers) go into more detail, including proposed levels of accessibility and when each level might be appropriate.)
And When Do Accessibility Standards Get Addressed?
Have you ever found yourself in the position of figuring out how to make an elearning interaction accessible? (Love the click and reveal! Can it be navigated without a mouse, using a keyboard only? What happens if you try to use a screen reader to access it?)
Some sessions talked about how to remediate existing elearning. Jay Nemchek of Elsevier discussed how his team worked with a version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire that focused on medical terminology. Madeleine Rothberg discussed how WGBH partnered with NASA to remediate K-12 content.
In these cases, remediation worked, although it took some effort. What was brilliant, of course, was the way that accessibility was eventually made part of the development process. At WGBH, for example, Rothberg’s team became part of the design effort, so that the team could make sure features like audio description were considered when the content was being created.
What really caught my attention, however, was the extensive discussion, across many sessions, of using interaction pattern libraries in development.
How Can Pattern Libraries Help Ensure Accessibility?
Pattern libraries are preset snippets of code, often wrapped in a style guide and a description of how to use them, that are designed and built from the ground up to be accessible.
Amy Salmon of Tech for All and Brian Hochhalter of Macmillan Learning used pattern libraries to create online interactive elements that were part of digital textbooks. They first focused on the learning goal that the interaction needed to achieve, then built a set of pattern libraries the designer could use to help the learner achieve that goal. Because the pattern was designed to be accessible, using the pattern meant the interaction was accessible, without having to program it to be so from scratch.
And just because Salmon and Hochhalter are that good, they made the interactions elegant to operate and beautiful to behold.
Radina Matic of Learning Equality incorporated pattern libraries into a living style guide, so that people could draw on them as they were developing content .
Everywhere you looked, it seemed, people were drawing on pattern libraries to both ease the amount of work in creating content and to ensure that the content was accessible.
What Are the Steps for Confirming Elearning Accessibility?
You might be thinking that not everything can be incorporated into a pattern library. And you’re probably right.
And you might be thinking that, even if someone uses a pattern library, there’s still the opportunity to break things. And you’d be right again.
- First, validate the code. If you’re building in HTML, run an HTML validator.
- Second, run the automated checkers. For HTML, this might be aXe; for programming in Lectora, it might be the Section 508 checker.
- Third, test using the keyboard. Go through your content without the mouse. If you can’t, then someone who doesn’t use a mouse because they have mobility issues won’t be able to make it through, either.
Using a validator and an automated checker point to the same thing: automated testing tools may not catch everything, but they’re good at catching what they can—they may not be able to tell you whether you have good alternative text, but they’ll tell you if alternative text exists. A manual keyboard test will help you catch many accessibility problems that automated tests won’t, especially navigation issues.
To go one step further, Kelly and Dinkel recommend testing with a screen reader. Run through your course with one. This can be complicated—different screen readers interact with screen content in different ways (running NVDA on Firefox, for example, will be different than running JAWS on Internet Explorer, which will be different than running VoiceOver on iOS.). But some testing is better than no testing.
Putting These Ideas to Use When Creating Accessible Elearning
I’m currently working on a elearning project in which we’re incorporating many of these approaches.
We Set Our Standard
We’d taken the time to develop several guidance documents (borrowing from Agile, we call them definitions of done, DOD) that identify the standards we apply for various stages of our course development. We aim for a moderate level of strictness when interpreting WCAG. We’re not aiming for the barest legality, what would just pass an audit, but we’re also not pushing the envelope.
Our DODs are built to comply with WCAG 2.0 Level AA success criteria. (But when it’s possible, we informally try to conform with Level AAA criteria. For more on the different levels of WCAG 2.0 compliance, see How Accessible Should My Digital Content Be? Understanding WCAG 2.0 Conformance Levels).
We Build Pattern Libraries for Accessible Elearning Interactions
We’re in the process of developing pattern libraries for accessible elearning interactions (we call it our interaction catalog). Sure, these restrict the options our designers can draw on when creating learning experiences—we don’t have drag and drop activities as part of our pattern library—but that gives us an incentive to become creative in different ways.
[Kevin demonstrated how developers can incorporate creativity in his article, “Creativity within Constraints: When Cost, Resource Scarcity, or Deadlines Make Effective Elearning Seem Out of Reach.”]
We Test, and Test Again
And when testing, we use several tools. We go through the course with automatic checkers first, then do a keyboard check, and then a screen reader check. (And there are other tests we do, like checking with color contrast tools, making sure that videos have captions and audio description, using a PDF accessibility checker for handouts, that sort of thing.) It does take a while, but the end result is a course that is accessible to a wide variety of learners.
Tying it All Together
Of course, all of these approaches build upon each other. We identify how we want to meet existing standards, and then dedicate the time to create pattern libraries of interactions that meet those standards. Building elearning using those libraries means that testing goes much more smoothly. If we follow the pattern, use the right interaction from the catalog and don’t tweak it too much, then the interaction should sail through automated, keyboard, and screen reader testing. (We don’t find that using pattern libraries for accessible elearning removes the need for testing, by the way. People are human; mistakes, as they say, will be made.)
What we risk losing with this approach is that creative freedom that both designers and developers often love. Wouldn’t this new, mouse-driven activity be great? Wouldn’t this intensely visual experience make the course soar? And looking at that—how would I program it? What’s my challenge today, and how can I stretch to meet it? (So we build in a couple of escape hatches—there’s nothing to say that we can’t add new patterns to the library…)
What we gain is also important. We’re able to reach more learners proactively. We’re not just reacting to complaints. More people can pursue training in more ways.
This approach may or may not work for you. Draw from it what you can. In fact, a lot of our efforts are works in progress. DODs undergo continuous development; pattern libraries are added to and refined; new ways of testing are tried.
I’m not sure we’ll ever be all the way there. Technology changes, as do challenges. This year’s solutions will work for today, but tomorrow will bring new challenges, demanding new solutions.
Which is why we’ll be at CSUN next year, looking forward to our brains melting, once again.
More on Making Elearning Accessible
Microassist provides Accessible Elearning Development services, so we spend quite a bit of time thinking on and writing about it. These posts may also be helpful:
- [Interview] Getting Started with Accessible Elearning (and 2018 CSUN Assistive Technology Conference Takeaways)
- Creating Accessible Elearning — It Takes Effort and Attention to Create Accessible Elearning. Who Benefits?
- If you’d like to see how CSUN affected my thinking on accessibility last year, there’s always How to Make Elearning Accessible: Insights from the 2017 CSUN Assistive Technology Conference.
Save the Date!
CSUN 2019 — The 34th Annual CSUN Assistive Technology Conference will be March 11-15, 2019 in Anaheim, California. For updates, subscribe for updates near the bottom of this year’s CSUN event page.
CSUN Sessions Mentioned in This Article
Note: Links below go to the CSUN session abstract page unless otherwise noted.
- Glenda Sims and Wilco Fiers’s session was titled A11y Wars: Rethinking industry-Wide Interpretation Differences
- Jay Nemchek of Elsevier discussed how his team worked with a version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in Don’t Play Me: 2 Games in Web Accessibility
- Madeleine Rothberg discussed her organization’s partnership with NASA to remediate K-12 content in WGBH and NASA: Bringing the Universe to America’s Classrooms
- Amy Salmon of Tech for All and Brian Hochhalter of Macmillan Learning presented on using pattern libraries for interactions in digital textbooks in Pretty and Accessible: Bring Beauty, Simplicity, and Usability to Content.
- Sean Kelly and Thomas Dinkel identified three key behaviors developers can adopt to ensure accessibility in Three Developer Behaviors to Eliminate 85 Percent of Accessibility Defects (Presentation available here).
- Radina Matic of Learning Equality talked about incorporating pattern libraries into a living style guide in Use of Style Guides to Leverage Efforts Towards Inclusive Design
This page updated 5/17/2018 with link to newly released A11y Wars white paper.