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Few flexible learning initiatives across Australian universities are soundly informed by equity principles and practice. Griffith University has always had a reputation for innovation, particularly through its focus on equity and the approach it has taken to flexible learning. In response to the Disability Discrimination Act of 1992, Griffith Flexible Learning Services (now Flexible Learning and Access Services) was awarded a Griffith University Equity Grant to undertake a project aimed at ensuring that the design and development of University flexible learning products and services would meet the needs of target equity groups, namely, students with disabilities. This project addressed key objectives of the Division of Information Services' Equity Plan and contributed to a number of University wide initiatives that address access, participation, success and retention rates of target student groups.
Meeting the needs of all equity groups and a range of disabilities can seem quite daunting, and was well beyond the scope of this particular project. However, on closer examination, the kinds of 'solutions' that arose from our investigations into best practice reflected the principles of 'good practice' and 'universal design'. Adopting this approach from the commencement of the design and development process meant that learning opportunities could be maximised for all students, not just those with a disability.
The challenge lay in interpreting specific accessibility guidelines into sound principles for practice and embedding them into the Griffith University context, its approach to flexible learning and the platform it uses for delivering and managing flexible learning resources (Blackboard(tm)) which was introduced to Griffith for semester 1 2001.
How could a mainstream multimedia design and development unit create flexible learning web sites that are accessible to a diverse student population, rather than overlay 'extras' onto an existing process? What considerations need to be made in the conceptual and design stage to ensure flexibility in delivery and access options? How could we ensure that the full potential of the web to provide innovative and challenging learning experiences for students would not be compromised by the need to provide accessible resources?
This paper provides an overview of the methodology used to undertake this project, the issues, challenges and obstacles that were encountered as part of this process, the outcomes of the project - including initial results from the pilot testing phase - and the implications of this on the institution and our practice. It also includes a number of strategic, technical and operational recommendations for other universities embarking on this kind of activity.
This paper outlines the methodology that was adopted to achieve the project's aims, discusses the issues and challenges that arose in the process of researching best practice and embedding the principles and practices of inclusivity into the cultural and technological context of the University. Phases 1 and 2 of the project are complete, with the third and final phase being conducted during semester 1 2002. This paper presents the outcomes of the project to date as well as implications and recommendations for future work in this area.
The diversity of our students is increasing and Griffith recognises that it has both a legal and moral obligation to ensure that it meets the needs of all students more effectively. The University's Strategic and Operational plans, including the Division of Information Services Equity Plan provide the framework for projects such as this to be undertaken through one of their key objectives, which is to develop flexible learning resources and services which are inclusive of all students. The project also contributes to a number of University wide initiatives that focus on issues of access, participation, success and retention rates of target student groups and as a result of an increase in staff expertise that has developed during the course of this project, Flexible Learning and Access Services is in a strong position to play an instrumental role in the provision of staff training and development activities relating to the support of students from target equity groups.
GFLS was established within the Division of Information Services (INS) in December 1995 and has a well developed, team based methodology for the design and development of flexible learning resources delivered via print, web, CD Rom and audio video mediums. The last 12 months has seen the introduction of Blackboard(tm) as the platform Griffith uses to deliver and manage its flexible learning resources. With a dramatic increase in the number of courses delivered in flexible mode, benchmarks and standards are currently under development to support greater academic autonomy in the maintenance of their content, using Blackboard(tm). A realignment within INS has resulted in the formation of Flexible Learning and Access Services (FL & AS). This section not only undertakes the services described above but has amalgamated with other areas within INS to offer a more comprehensive approach to resources access and design.
One of the priorities of the project team during the interpretation and implementation phases of this project has been to ensure that the accessibility of resources would be achieved in a mainstream and fully integrated way, rather than by applying "extras" or "add ons" to the existing process. This was also intended to recognise the strengths of our existing process and to build on the aspects of our approach that have worked well, such as working collaboratively with academic staff in the design and development of flexible learning resources. In interpreting the technical guidelines for best practice in accessibility, the project team were very conscious of the need and desire to continue taking full advantage of the interactive and educational opportunities provided by web technologies, but in ways that would be accessible to all of our students. The team needed to consider the accessibility guidelines in light of the capabilities of Blackboard(tm) and to distinguish between design and development requirements that the system could support and those that it couldn't; providing Blackboard(tm) with feedback on areas for future research and development to contribute to their own accessibility initiative.
Issues of accessibility therefore needed to be considered from the conceptualising and design stage right through to resource development and program implementation stages - all within a team based environment, using a new delivery platform. In communicating the necessary information to design and development staff as well as raising awareness of accessibility issues more generally, and more widely, we needed to take account of the needs and concerns of all role groups involved throughout the process, including academic staff, educational designers, multimedia developers and web builders.
In reviewing previous research (see Appendix 1) it was evident that there was either a focus on technical guidelines relating to web based material (for example, the World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative), or very specific teaching strategies, such as alternative assessment (see examples in the Flinders University Inclusive Teaching website). The importance of the relationship between these 2 has been highlighted by O'Connor (2000) who notes that in order for e-learning to be of benefit to students with disabilities it is crucial that expertise is shared and embedded throughout the institution. He emphasises the need to accommodate diversity within the curriculum as well as to ensure that students with disabilities are not disadvantaged through use of technology.
It is this philosophy that underpins our project. It was recognised that in order to address accessibility of flexible learning resources a University wide approach needed to be adopted. This included drawing on the expertise of a group of stakeholders and developing standards and guidelines that could be embedded in existing work processes and practices. This comprehensive approach has an additional benefit in that the implementation of teaching and learning strategies to meet a wider range of students needs benefits all students, not just those with disabilities. Thus, making courses accessible is just another aspect of meeting students different learning needs and access issues by being flexible.
As the aim of this project was to embed the outcomes in Griffith's flexible learning approach and practices, we adopted a framework that mirrored our team based multimedia development methodology. Consequently the guidelines and standards we researched needed not only to be adapted to Griffith's context but also to the particular role of the people who were using and/or implementing them. The intended outcome was therefore to develop 3 types of guidelines that were relevant and understandable to each of the groups of people who make up the design and development teams.
In the first phase, GFLS undertook research into establishing key benchmarks in relation to the design, development and delivery of flexible learning resources suitable to students with disabilities. The second phase tested an existing flexible learning resource against the benchmarks and prospective users and the third phase, which will be undertaken during 2002, will see the implementation of the guidelines into the design and development of new flexible learning resources to ensure that they are based on inclusive practice.
The project team was comprised of 2 Educational Designers, 2 Education Project Officers and 3 Web Builders, with contributions from Audio/Video specialists, Programmers and Print specialists from within GFLS. The success of the project was also greatly dependent on strong collaboration with the Coordinator of Griffith's Disability Services and members of the project stakeholder group consisting of representatives from the Learning Assistance Unit, Information Technology Services, academic elements and students with disabilities.
Support of the World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Guidelines, as a baseline for achieving accessible online resources was found to come from a range of organisations, such as:
A subgroup within the project team, comprised of an Educational Designer and two Web Builders worked through the library research tutorial module and implemented the W3C guidelines throughout. This was quite a significant process with several changes being required to both the design of the site as well as its functionality. The particular module that was used for the pilot demonstrates to students how to use the library resource database, and as such includes several diagrams and screen shots of components of the database. The changes that were made to the site included:
When the team members were satisfied with the alterations they had made, the project team liaised with Griffith's Disability Services Coordinator to seek feedback from a group of volunteer students with various disabilities. Either individually or in pairs, the students used the assistive technology facilities at the University to work through the tutorial module in the presence of a member of the project team as well as staff from Disability Services. At the end of each session students were asked a series of questions about their experience using the materials and their responses were added to the general observations that staff had made at the time.
Initial results of the testing and feedback process were most favourable and have highlighted the challenge of balancing individual preferences with specific priorities.
Students commented specifically on the usefulness of having tabulated and diagrammatical information described, the logical order of the information, the assistance provided by descriptions and examples, the ease of following the step-by-step instructions, and the options provided for accessing particular information either via video, audio or text based files. The user testing process also provided feedback to the project team on aspects of the site that required further amendments. Some of these limitations, such as using the "back" button for navigation and line spacing are characteristic of the Blackboard(tm) environment and will be fed back into the research and development agreement between the University and Blackboard(tm), however other issues were able to be addressed by the team. As a result of the user testing phase, the resource was amended further and the guidelines were adjusted to ensure additional clarity and precision (see FL&AS guidelines and supporting information - http://www.gu.edu.au/gfls/accessibility/).
Meeting the needs of all equity groups and a range of disabilities can seem quite daunting, and was well beyond the scope of this particular project. However, on closer examination, the kinds of "solutions" that arose from our investigations into best practice reflected the principles of 'good practice' and 'universal design'. Taking this approach from the very beginning of the design and development process meant that learning opportunities were maximised for all students, not just those with a disability.
The recent rollout of flexible learning across the University has meant that academic staff have greater autonomy over the construction and maintenance of course web sites. It is one thing to ensure that flexible learning resources developed within FL&AS meet accessibility standards, and quite another to make certain that accessibility practices are adhered to by individual staff across the University. FL&AS can certainly make sure that the relevant information is available to the University community and can ensure that University-wide benchmarks and standards for flexible learning include specifications for accessibility. Educational designers can introduce academic staff to accessibility requirements, both in one-on-one course development as well as in more widespread academic professional training and development (ADAPT) workshops and courses that are conducted by FL&AS. However, FL&AS also needs to make strategic use of its relationship with the office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor (DVC) Teaching and Learning where high level teaching and learning guidance, direction and initiatives come from.
The specific outcomes of phases 1 and 2 of this project include:
The project has also provided the basis for a research project undertaken by GFLS with the University of Cape Town in South Africa in December 2001. This focused on information technology and disability and the implications for distance education and flexible learning in South African tertiary institutions.
Although this project reflected the specific goals of the University's strategic and operational plans, the recommendations that were made reflect a number of implications that an initiative such as this has on the Institution, Division and Section in terms of both policy and practice.
Blackboard(tm) Accessibility Initiative. [verified 16 Aug 2002] http://resources.blackboard.com/scholar/general/pages/iccontent/accessibility.html
Chong, C. (2000). Web Accessibility Guidelines, mail to Curtis, M. [Online], 16 November. Available: Email: Cchong@nfb.org
O'Connor, B. (1999). Disability in Education: Maximising Everyone's Potential. Opening keynote paper presented at the Disability in Education: Maximising Everyone's Potential conference, University of Otago, New Zealand.
O'Connor, B. (2000). E-Learning and Students with disabilities: From outer edge to leading edge, [Online] November 2000. http://flexiblelearning.net.au/accessequity/disabilities/keyinfo_index.html [verified 16 Aug 2002 at http://flexiblelearning.net.au/resources/1resources-s035.htm]
Flexible Learning & Access Services Accessibility Initiative: Information for staff http://www.gu.edu.au/gfls/accessibility/ [verified 16 Aug 2002]
Flinders University - inclusive teaching and learning practices, [Online] http://adminwww.flinders.edu.au/teach/teach/inclusive.htm [verified 16 Aug 2002]
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, World Wide Web Access: Disability Discrimination Act Advisory Notes (version 3.1, May 1999) [Online] 2000, 30 August. http://www.hreoc.gov.au/disability_rights/standards/www_3/www_3.html [verified 16 Aug 2002]
Le Blanc, J. & Anderson, R. (2000). Access and Accessibility [Online] Available at: http://www.benton.org/DigitalBeat/db031000.html [viewed 2 Nov 2000, verified 16 Aug 2002]
Ruell, A (1999). A model access policy: HTML Writers Guild sets accessibility requirements for Guild pages, mail to [recipient list suppressed] [Online], 13 November. Available: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
TRACE Research and Development Centre. http://trace.wisc.edu/ [verified 16 Aug 2002]
World Wide Web Consortium. Web Accessibility Initiative. http://www.w3.org/WAI/ [verified 16 Aug 2002]
World Wide Web Consortium Works to Bridge "Digital Divide" - Web Accessibility Initiative Director Presenting at White House Digital Divide Event , 21 September 2000 [Online] http://www.w3.org/2000/09/wai-whitehouse
Students with Disabilities - Code of Practice for Australian Tertiary Institutions http://www.research.utas.edu.au/rescollege/docs/DETYA2001to2003.pdf [verified 16 Aug 2002]
Strategies for Teaching - University Students with Disabilities (Available on request from Griffith Institute of Higher Education)
Alternative Assessment for Students with Disabilities (Available on request from Griffith Institute of Higher Education)
Disability Action Plan for Griffith University 2000-2004: http://www.gu.edu.au/equity/frameset2sub4.html [verified 16 Aug 2002]
Griffith University Policy for Students with Disabilities: http://www.gu.edu.au/equity/ [verified 16 Aug 2002]
An Equity Strategy for Griffith University 2000-2005: http://www.gu.edu.au/equity/equity_strat_feb01.pdf [verified 16 Aug 2002]
WWW Access: Disability Discrimination Act Advisory Notes (V3.1 May 1999): http://www.hreoc.gov.au/disability_rights/standards/www_3/www_3.html [verified 16 Aug 2002]
Decision in Maguire v SOCOG : $20000 damages ordered under Australia's Disability Discrimination Act for site inaccessibility: http://scaleplus.law.gov.au/html/ddadec/0/2000/0/DD000120.htm
'Access issue won't go away' The Australian, 14/3/2000: http://australianit.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,2405,429334%255E16%252D03%252D2000%255Eopinion,00.html
Access and Accessibility - The Digital Beat - The Benton Foundation: http://www.benton.org/DigitalBeat/db031000.html [verified 16 Aug 2002]
Disabled and the Internet: http://fullcoverage.yahoo.com/fc/World/Disabilities and the Disabled [try http://story.news.yahoo.com/fc?cid=34&tmpl=fc&in=World&cat=Disabilities_and_the_Disabled verified 16 Aug 2002]
Human Rights and Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission: World Wide Web Accessibility: http://www.hreoc.gov.au/disability_rights/webaccess/index.htm [verified 16 Aug 2002]
Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission: Accessibility of electronic commerce and new service and information technologies for older Australians and people with a disability: http://www.hreoc.gov.au/disability_rights/inquiries/ecom/ecomrep.htm [verified 16 Aug 2002]
Government Online, Accessibility standards home page (includes links to other related sites of interest): http://www.govonline.gov.au/projects/standards/accessibility.htm [verified 16 Aug 2002]
The SNOW Project (Special Needs Opportunity Windows) is a provider of online resources and professional development opportunities for educators and parents of students with special needs. Our tools and information, online workshops, curriculum materials, discussion fora and other resources are available to assist you in using new technologies to benefit all your learners: http://snow.utoronto.ca/index.html [verified 16 Aug 2002]
Designing a more useable world for all (principles of universal design). Trace Centre: http://www.trace.wisc.edu/ [verified 16 Aug 2002]
Human Rights Commission: http://www.humanrights.gov.au/ [verified 16 Aug 2002]
NOIE (National Office for the Information Economy) Access and Equity projects: http://www.onlineaustralia.net.au/projects/access/ [verified 16 Aug 2002]
Designing Accessible Curriculum: http://snow.utoronto.ca:1800/public/Access/index.html [verified 16 Aug 2002]
Charles Sturt University Web Access Action Plan: http://www.csu.edu.au/acadman/webpolicy/disability_access.htm#1 [verified 16 Aug 2002]
An important document for those interested in ensuring that their educational materials are accessible and available for all learners. Jennison Asuncion, Adaptech Project Coordinator: http://adaptech.dawsoncollege.qc.ca/ [verified 16 Aug 2002]
University of Newcastle accessibility web site (with checklist): http://www.newcastle.edu.au/accessweb/ [verified 16 Aug 2002]
Flinders University - inclusive teaching and learning practices: http://adminwww.flinders.edu.au/teach/teach/inclusive.htm [verified 16 Aug 2002]
CAST: Universal Design for Learning: http://www.cast.org/ [verified 16 Aug 2002]
O'Connor, B (1999). Disability in Education: Maximising Everyone's Potential: Opening keynote paper presented at the Disability in Education: Maximising Everyone's Potential conference, University of Otago, New Zealand.
O'Connor, B (2000). E-learning and Students with Disabilities: From Outer Edge to Leading Edge. Deakin University.
Guidelines for curriculum, teaching and assessment practices for students with a disability in Higher Education (PDF document available on request from Educational Products and Services) (adapted from Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, Code of Practice for the Assurance of Academic Quality and Standards in Higher Education: Students with disabilities, UK, accessed Nov 2000; Barrie O'Connor, Rhonda Watson, Des Power, Judy Hartley, February 1998, Students with Disabilities: Code of Practice for Australian Tertiary Institutions; DETYA, Consultations on the Draft Disability Standards for Higher Education, accessed Nov 2000; Griffith University, Policy for students with disabilities, accessed Sept 2000; Strategies for teaching university students with disabilities, TPID, June 1993)
How to make pdf files accessible: http://access.adobe.com/ [verified 16 Aug 2002]
e-learning innovation studio, IBM Learning Services: http://www.can.ibm.com/services/learning/ [verify attempt failed 16 Aug 2002]
The National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) has an extensive set of production guidelines for making learning software usable by those who have low or no vision, impaired hearing, or impaired manual dexterity. According to NCAM, the guidelines promote many content and architectural strategies similar to the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), including text descriptions of images, multi-voice descriptions for layered graphs and experiments, keyboard navigation, closed-captioning for multimedia, and math equations made readable by screen-reading programs. Below is the link to the guidelines: http://main.wgbh.org/wgbh/pages/ncam/cdrom/guideline/index.html [verified 16 Aug 2002]
Blackboard Accessibility Initiative: http://resources.blackboard.com/scholar/general/pages/iccontent/accessibility.html [verified 16 Aug 2002]
WGBH's National Centre for Accessible Media Publishes Guidelines for Making Software Accessible to Deaf or Blind Users Print and Online Versions Available Free of Charge: http://ncam.wgbh.org/cdrom/ [verified 16 Aug 2002]
Macromedia Accessibility Resource Centre: http://www.macromedia.com/macromedia/accessibility/ [verified 16 Aug 2002]
Microsoft's Accessibility Pages: http://www.microsoft.com/enable/ [verified 16 Aug 2002]
The description link provides a link to an alternate page that describes the image more vividly. Any medium that required an alternative that could not be expressed in a sentence would have the link. The page that described the object would also provide access back to the previous screen.
Description links were also added to medium such as video and audio files, whereby the description would resemble a movie script. This added further understanding to the medium by providing exactly what was seen and said in the video/audio. Additionally, information was included as to how long the medium would take to download and consequently how long the user would have to wait.
An extra page entitled 'About this website - accessibility' was added to the site. The purpose of which was to inform the user of what technologies were used in the site, what software and equipment they needed to have available to them, and a list of the icons that had been used throughout the site, with an explanation of why they were used and their meaning.
All links in the site were given a title attribute. This provides users who are accessing the information via a text reader with information on where the link will take them. Additionally the wording of all links was checked to ensure that they reflected the destination of the link.
Colours throughout the site were also tested to make sure that they were contrasting.
Tables that were used for layout and presentation rather than statistical/tabular data were removed. Tables that needed to be kept were given 'summary attributes', 'table headers' and if need be, a description link for further explanation. Colours in the table that were not contrasting were also changed. The sizes of the tables were made as percentages to appear proportionally to any browser window size.
Navigation of the site was modified from being a sequential PowerPoint type of experience to a more interactive 'hierarchical' feel. Originally the site had links that only took users to specific pages and therefore did not give the user a sense of positioning in the site. There were 'dead ends' and aspects of the site that resembled a maze (for example, if you clicked off in one direction it could be hard to get back to where you came from). The modification of the site made the navigation hierarchical and used the language of 'modules' and 'topics' to distinguish the importance and location of the learning objects.
On the whole, the proportion of text to graphics in the site increased, making browsing more accessible, however users wanting to experience the non-textual elements could do so just as easily as before.
|Authors: Cheryl Brown is Team Leader of the Multimedia Development Team at Griffith University. She has worked at Griffith for the past 4 years as an Educational Designer focusing particularly on designing online resources to support Flexible Learning. Cheryl has previously worked in the area of Academic Staff Development and was involved in setting up Griffith University's Adapt (Academic Development and Professional Training) Program.
Cheryl Brown, Team Leader (Multimedia Development Team)
Educational Products and Services, Flexible Learning and Access Services
Griffith University, Logan Campus, Queensland 4111
Ph: (07) 338 21299 Fax: (07) 338 21333 E-mail: email@example.com
Location: LOGAN ISL 3.37
Jacqui Limberger is an Education Project Officer in Flexible Learning and Access Services at Griffith University. Jacqui has worked at Griffith for 8 years, originally in the area of Open Learning, and later as Coordinator of the Print Production and Distribution section of Griffith Flexible Learning Services. Her recent experience involves the management of flexible learning projects offered in both print and multimedia modes, with a particular interest in equity-related initiatives for the University.
Jacqui Limberger, Education Project Officer
Educational Products and Services, Flexible Learning and Access Services
Griffith University, Nathan Campus, Queensland 4111
Ph: (07) 3875 6415 Fax: (07) 3875 6585 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Location: NATHAN WCN 0.02
Please cite as: Limberger, J. and Brown, C. (2002). Accessibility of flexible learning resources: A proactive approach to providing equitable access for students with disabilities. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/2002/limberger.html