Accessibility by design

This is a guest blog post written by Steven Hope, who together with Ben Whitaker and Dan Fitzpatrick make up the hosts of the Edufuturists podcast. They deliver training across the world on education, technology and leadership, as well as continuing to serve in various education settings.

Well before the lockdown, accessibility has been a focus for many Further and Higher Education organizations, due to the changes that will come into force from September 2020. This initially includes the accessibility of their website but will factor in virtual learning environments and course content as well. These changes in legislation coupled with the shift to remote learning are bringing learner inequalities to the fore, helping to shape accessibility by design rather than default across education. 

I suppose before I explore this and many more things around accessibility, I should define the word in terms of what it means for me. Accessibility in the context of this article and for our own practice is about ensuring learning is available to all regardless of any barrier which they may experience. So for example, if a college is using video on their website or a teacher is using it with their learners, it should have ‘layers’ to ensure that this is available to all. Such as closed captions for all elements in an audio file and the option for the video player to be navigated using keyboard functions and shortcuts. 

I would also add that accessibility has to include making learning available to all despite the fact they may have childcare, caring responsibilities or have issues in terms of location, which could potentially impact them and their learning. To that end, accessibility is creating points of access for all learners, regardless of their individual needs to be able to engage in learning. It is an issue of equity. 

Accessibility legislation changes 

So, what does it mean for you? If you’re reading this and you work in FE or HE, then hopefully you should know all about it. But if not, then you need to go firstly to your organization’s website and review how this is set up. One product which has been a godsend for so many is Browsealoud® from Texthelp. This product, put simply, is a toolbar which can be attached to any website to make it more inclusive for your visitors. 

The toolbar has great features such as text to speech, the option to translate the site into many languages, screen masking, a magnifier and the ability to simplify your site for users. All these are fantastic for your site visitors and very easy to apply to an existing site without a revamp and overhaul. Check it out to find out how to make your digital content more accessible & available for everyone. 

Once you’ve had a look at your site and got that sorted, I would encourage you to ask yourself: Is everything I create for my users (staff and students) accessible to all? And does it take into account the things discussed so far in this article?

A great anecdote someone told me once which stuck, was that it’s like the approach of gaining access to places and locations. Some people need to take the ramp when they cannot use the stairs, whilst others have the option of stairs or ramps. The question is: do we always create a ramp in our learning experiences and conduct as educators? If not, then we need to ensure we do and apply that to every teaching and learning experience across the board.  If you want to look at this in further depth, I recommend this great article on accessibility regulations from Jisc. 

Online learning and accessibility 

There are so many potential benefits of using technology and even more so, cloud-ready technology for making learning accessible to all. Gone are the days when the only support a student would get around their learning was in the classroom. Tools now exist where any features or functions they need can be extended beyond those four walls. 

This includes applications such as Read&Write which is accessed by signing into the Chrome browser. Providing all learners with the ability to access a range of support tools from any place at any time. The power of this cannot be overestimated and means that learning is truly accessible. 

No longer is the kit too expensive for people to actually afford, nor does it require a device or piece of equipment which can only be used by one person. What is also key is that the big players in the tech world, such as Google, Microsoft and Apple, who deliver platforms for a lot of learning to take place online, are all creating tools and features which have accessibility layered within them by design. Some great examples of these are tools such as closed caption features in video delivery tools including Google Meet. As well as some fantastic tools from Microsoft, Immersive Reader to name just one. 

One thing to say about these tools is that the tech powerhouses which have created them have developed these well beyond what used to be the level of functionality. How many tools for closed caption and speech to text would get lost in translation? And, as a person from Northern England, I would have to speak in my best ‘Queen’s English’ for it to ‘type’ anywhere close to what I said! This may sound silly and unrelated but it really is, especially if you imagine this on a scale for those who experience speech barriers. My experience, although somewhat trivial, just wasn’t good enough, and now the companies are working on tools for many issues, such as dialect and accent - things that can become issues if they are highlighted in this negative way. 

If you want to explore some great cloud based accessibility tools then look no further as a starting point than ReadWrite. There are a number of and Colleges using this tool, some of whom have created short snippets of their impact, which you can watch. 

Breaking down barriers and the role of technology 

As I mentioned, accessibility to me is also about breaking down barriers which could impact and ultimately, impede learning. If we look at those learners who have caring or childcare responsibilities, for example, where at times they cannot make it into class, the issue around access ramps becomes even more pronounced. 

Looking back at other points in my career, the opportunity for these ‘needs’ to be met and for learning to occur asynchronously, would not be there and little or no progress would be made. If you then bring in cloud technology such as Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams then this barrier can somewhat disappear. Learners can access the information they missed from any device and at a time which best suits them. The teacher can then provide live feedback (synchronously) or at a later point before they next see the learner (asynchronously), thus meaning learning misconceptions or any discussions can be picked up quickly. 

This idea of synchronicity vs asynchronicity applies to so much more than just this example. Some great lessons can be learned from this about making learning accessible to all for reasons such as lack of specialist teachers in an area (think about the shortage of Math or languages teachers, for example). Or the inability to travel to access high quality teaching and learning (think about those who have mobility issues or financial constraints on travel). 

Some of these lessons are most pronounced for those who deliver this way as ‘the norm’. Including those in the outback of Australia or islands in the Indian Ocean, where learners who live in very remote locations access learning from central teachers live via a video link as their only option.

We can then even look much closer to home to the highlands of Scotland. They have been breaking barriers to learning by using technology to deliver online for many years. As this Guardian article explains, Scottish educators have been tackling the problem of remoteness, the ability of learners to travel to obtain high quality education and technology as a solution for over ten years. 

This is clearly nothing new and there are many cases both close to home and globally which we can look to as examples of what is being done and most importantly, how it can be done well. Check out our recent podcast with Texthelp to learn more about the approaches to breaking down barriers to remote education from Scottish educator, accessibility advocist and Google Certified Trainer, Eilidh McKay. 

No matter the definition you find yourself settling on for accessibility in learning, by looking at technology as an enabler, you will not go far wrong. Whatever you do and whatever approach you take on learning and assessment, your first thought should be developing it in such a way that it is accessible by design rather than by default.


If you would like to hear more from the Edufuturists, why not explore some more of the resources we have collaborated on this year. Including how education fits in today’s digital era and the opportunities that EdTech presents to make remote learning accessible to all. >>Check it out<<