Guest blog by Shar Carpenter
Web accessibility provides all students the ability to equally access information and contribute to the class in an online environment. The World Wide Web Consortium (2021) defines web accessibility as the inclusive practice of ensuring everyone, including people with disabilities, can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with websites and other online tools thus making it an essential aspect of online learning.
In addition, web accessibility best practices embrace and work hand-in-hand with the scientific framework of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a set of guidelines to ensure learning environments are inclusive, flexible, and reduce learning barriers by providing accommodations and support for all students to be successful. The Center for Applied Special Technology (2020) notes that UDL assumes that one size does not fit all and, instead emphasizes proactive planning that takes into consideration the variability of all learners.
I recently conducted research for my Capstone project in the Information Design and Strategy program on web accessibility challenges and gaps that K-12 students faced in the abrupt switch to online learning in 2020. My goal was to better understand and help inform how to improve web accessibility for all learners.
My research uncovered the following three insights.
1. Ensuring access to audio across all class materials is necessary
Quantitative and qualitative data from a survey identified the challenge of audio availability. The gaps in audio access can fall into several areas. The first area is the technology platform, the second area is the content added by educators to the technology (i.e., PDFs, slides, and Word documents) for the student to use, and the third limitation of the student’s device or device set-up.
2. Web accessibility knowledge is limited and varies
Quantitative and qualitative data from both the user surveys and educator interviews identified an opportunity to improve basic web accessibility knowledge of what students with learning differences need. Survey participants’ knowledge focused on audio-to-text readers, which they found limiting and not enough. Educators had more in-depth knowledge but with a concern for meeting accessibility accommodations and compliance laws. They know what works and what does not but addressed web accessibility challenges with each student personally, even though most communicated online learning had left them feeling as if there was not enough time in the day.
3. Online consistency across classes for students with learning disabilities is important
The survey’s qualitative data helped identify an unexpected web accessibility gap in why students with learning differences experienced challenges with online learning. Inconsistency in the use of online tools from educator to educator and subject to subject was a difficult challenge for many students. This suggests that gaps are being created in online tools and platforms based on an inconsistent class and content set-up approach.
Overall, the qualitative and quantitative research uncovered insights around important web accessibility needs such as audio, the opportunity to improve web accessibility knowledge, and the unexpected web accessibility gap caused by the inconsistent use of online tools. These insights are potentially not surprising given the abrupt shift from traditional in-person schooling to at-home online learning experienced in 2020 due to the global pandemic. However, it is extremely interesting to consider the gap caused by the inconsistent use of online tools.
Many schools were able to quickly shift classes online, but web accessibility was most likely an afterthought rather than a proactive upfront part of training or designing a class that was intended to be taught in a classroom. And with the majority of K-12 online content being provided by external software companies in a “one size fits all students” approach there is the possibility that K-12 educators assume the content is accessible if it aligns with state standards. It is also important to note that in addition to software companies providing content, educators create and add their own content in the form of PDFs, slides, and other documents to platforms like Google classroom and Canvas.
Improving Web Accessibility and Next Steps
These insights confirm that the “one size fits all students” approach to online learning does not account for the needs of all students, including students with learning disabilities. The first insight about the necessity for audio is expected. The second insight about limited web accessibility knowledge is not surprising. However, the third insight about the need for online consistency helps shed light on the varying degrees of web accessibility students experience from educator to educator and class to class that contributes to the widening achievement gap and how essential web accessibility standards are for students.
In addressing these insights it’s important to ensure all students have equal access to robust information in order to reduce usability barriers and bridge inaccessibility gaps. Simple changes such as providing straightforward navigation, directions in text and audio, creating accessible documents, using sufficient color contrast, and limiting unnecessary animations are easy ways to impact all students positively. These changes can result in improved usability and better overall user experiences that can increase all students’ engagement, comprehension, and overall performance in a class.
CAST. (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved 2021-02-04 from http://udlguidelines.cast.org
Web Accessibility Initiative. (2020). Accessibility Fundamentals Overview. Retrieved 2021-02-04 from https://www.w3.org/WAI/fundamentals/
About the Author
Shar recently completed her Capstone course in Information, Design, and Strategy. She is the co-founder of Redonk and has over two decades of global digital and marketing experience in the high-tech industry. With an emphasis on customer-centricity, Shar leads strategy for customer experience, digital marketing, demand generation programs, marketing communications, and channel initiatives to deliver results. Her deep knowledge of the cybersecurity industry has made her an asset to deliver strategic value to B2B clients such as Dell, Secureworks, Imperva, Palo Alto Networks, Veritas, Alert Logic, and many more. Prior to Redonk, Shar led McAfee’s North American field and channel marketing team driving channel marketing strategy for the top revenue-producing partners, defining B2B demand generation programs, optimizing online customer acquisition strategies, and managing security product launches. Shar holds a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from the University of Calgary in Canada and a Master of Science in Information Design & Strategy from Northwestern University.