Accessible e-learning - practices and research in the Polytechnic Institute of Leiria (Portugal)
- Manuela Francisco. Polytechnic Institute of Leiria, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Josélia Neves. Polytechnic Institute of Leiria, email@example.com
- Norberto Sousa. Inclusion and Accessibility in Action Research Unit, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rita Cadima. Polytechnic Institute of Leiria, email@example.com
- Cláudio Esperança. Polytechnic Institute of Leiria, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Vitor Rodrigues. Polytechnic Institute of Leiria, email@example.com
- Nelson Jorge. Polytechnic Institute of Leiria, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Carina Rodrigues. Polytechnic Institute of Leiria, email@example.com
- Joana Mineiro. Polytechnic Institute of Leiria, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Sandro Costa. Polytechnic Institute of Leiria, email@example.com
- Catarina Maximiano. Polytechnic Institute of Leiria, firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Problem Description
Whereas e-learning involves platforms, content, pedagogy, and people, accessibility needs to be addressed in a holistic manner involving all these e-learning components.
From a pedagogical point of view, an issue that arises is the definition of a model for accessible e-learning that combines the diversity of tools, content and activities that exist in a virtual environment and the functional diversity of people that take part in the learning community.
From a technological point of view, the challenge that arises is to ensure that all the platform features are accessible to all. This purpose is extremely complex since there are technological incompatibilities between platforms, browsers and assistive technologies. Besides technological incompatibility there is also a diversity of features related to specific scientific fields that in the course of adaptation may be altered or removed – e.g. simulators, 3D immersive environments and augmented reality.
When considering contents, we found that the WCAG, even if essential, are not easily understandable and intuitive for those who produce content. We also found that many of the web 2.0 authoring tools do not follow the ATAG recommendations and that most of them do not allow exportation to HTML. However, even when we export to HTML there is no guarantee of accessibility and it is, therefore, necessary to validate the final product. An important accomplishment is to gather a set of free authoring and collaborative tools and to develop a set of models complying with ATAG that will ensure a final product that is simultaneously accessible and compatible with the different technologies.
Another issue is related to "spontaneous contents”, those contents that are created during learning processes. Interaction between students, particularly asynchronous communication, is the hub of a collaborative or corporate learning model. The actors’ communication through forums allows for the use of text, images, sound and videos. The same happens in group work or individual e-portfolios, and when documents, blogs, wikis or other Personal Learning Environments (PLE) are shared with the class. These spontaneous contents are not prepared in advance, so it is difficult to ensure their accessibility.
The “For All” concept
The “for all” concept marked the turn of century as new attitude on how we see inclusion, particularly of people with disabilities, in different social spheres. The concern with inclusion was particularly noticeable after the Declaration of Madrid, in 1987, which, in Portugal, led to a period of positive discrimination. With the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) passed in 2004 by the World Health Organization, the approach shifts towards the body's functions and the limitations imposed by the environment, the term "disabled" is replaced by "person with a disability”. With the evolution of terminology, the concept of "inclusion" is moving away from disability, emphasis to be placed on the context and diversity. This means that an inclusive society is one that focuses on each individual’s profile, and there is a need to create conditions so that everyone can participate actively in the community they belong to. To create conditions means allowing for the participation of all and for all in different contexts, considering the existing technologies and each individual’s profile. In the specific context of the web, which has grown massively since the first decade of this Millennium, accessibility is a fundamental aspect for the inclusion of all citizens, in particular of people with disabilities.
Aware that the term "inclusion" is very wide and the concepts of "accessibility" and "usability" are not self-enclosed, these should be clarified in the context of the topic here to be addressed – the web and education in higher education. Although there are many definitions, we consider that, in this context, the concept of accessibility that applies is the one proposed by the W3C Consortium (2005): ”Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the Web. More specifically, Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web.” As for the concept of “usability” we take as our own the definition proposed by Nielsen (2012): ”Usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. The word "usability" also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process.” These concepts may seem simple and easy to implement, yet they are still seen as a problem, not only for the lack of knowledge on how to implement them but also for the lack of universal standards and laws that would enforce their application.
Legislation in Portugal
In Portugal, on its official website, the Instituto de Informática (Institute of Computing) set forward a list of European standards on information technologies to be applied to specific situations. This list includes several sections of CENTC, ISSOTC, ISOIEC JTC 1SC and WCAG accessibility guidelines. In 2007, the Portuguese Government sought to regulate the implementation of WCAG - level A standards to the sites of Public Administration Departments, through the document RCM nº. 155/2007 (2007). In 2012, the Portuguese government went further with law nº 36/2011 and RCM nº. 91/2012, where it is stated that the Government is obliged to meet level "A" of the WCAG on all the information provided on the internet and the "AA" level for the services made available on the internet. However, studies on public sites, carried out by Fernandes (2011) and UMIC (2010), report that the majority does not conform to the WCAG 2.0 and highlight the most common mistakes: images without a caption; no direct link to the main body of the page; videos without subtitles; menus that are only navigable with a mouse, moving texts and automatic update. According to Fernandes, quoted by Exame Informática(2013), it is essential that a regulatory body oversees compliance with the law, not only in the public but also in other key areas such as banking and commerce.
Accessible e-learning Models
Accessibility in e-learning can have different approaches that may be dependent on the pedagogical model used and derive from the very concept of accessibility to be implemented by the institution. Some authors, such ase Lee, Kumar & Barker (2010) and Musamba, Oboko & Nyongesa (2013) are advocating a user-centric model where the platform's interface and the contents are presented according to the definitions applied in the user profile. This approach could be particularly interesting when a self-training pedagogical model is adopted. In the Polytechnic Institute of Leiria (IPLeiria) we tested this model under the EU4ALL project, where 20 participants with different types of needs were involved: 2 blind (1 was a teacher), 1 low vision 2 deaf, 3 cerebral palsy, 4 dyslexia, 4 learning difficulties and 4 participants without disabilities (1 was a teacher). The greatest difficulty reported by students and teachers of the pilot course was the complexity of the profile and the content forms, since they had too many options. What appealed most to attendees was the variety of formats for the same content, i.e.the multiformat slant.
Another approach that can be associated with accessible or inclusive e-learning is based on the premises of a pluralistic learning model championed by authors, such as Berner (2012) or Giselbrecht (2009). This student-centred model bets on diversity: from that of cultural diversity to different learning styles. The paradigm of the pluralist model applied to e-learning is based on the diversity of content, diversity of pedagogical strategies, student diversity and diversity of technologies. This approach could be particularly interesting when applied to a pedagogical model with an emphasis on collaborative learning communities. There are several authors, among whom Hiltz (1998), Palloff & Pratt (1999), Harasim (2002), Rovai (2002) and Garrison & Anderson (2003), who consider it essential to create a learning community that promotes dialogue, discussion, critical thinking and collaborative work. This leads us to believe that the discussion and the construction of knowledge will be enriched with the diversity of the learning community.
The pedagogical model adopted in IPLeiria for e-learning is fundamentally collaborative, based on activities that promote interaction and sharing between the students and where communication is fundamentally asynchronous (Costa et al., 2012).
However, we still haven’t defined an accessible e-learning model, but we have taken a pluralistic approach, with a standard student profile on the LMS platform that allows students to configure features but not the suitability of content. This means that all students and teachers have all content available regardless of the functionality to be defined in the profile set up on the platform. This gives access to all the content versions from which each person can choose what might be most appropriate to each individual profile, at a given time, or to the technology by which each one is accessing the content.
First experience in IPLeiria
In line with the above mentioned assumptions, the Polytechnic Institute of Leiria (IPLeiria) took on a policy of true inclusion by setting forward a proposal for an accessible e-learning model, based on the socio-constructivist theories and respecting functional diversity. This initial model was materialized in a first course on Entrepreneurship, in May 2007, which comprised of two groups of participants, among whom there were 2 blind and 1 deaf student.
As stated by Costa et. al (2007) and Francisco (2008), the fact that it was the first course in Portugal to be created from scratch for e-learning with inclusion and accessibility criteria, took the risks of pioneering. This meant there were no role models and no formulae to be applied, so there was a need to develop an intense research process that consisted in identifying needs; surveying and evaluating possible solutions based on different methodologies and materials linked to teaching-learning contexts and virtual environments; evaluating the viable solutions; implementing strategies; testing those strategies; and the will to restart at each stage. In addition to the technical conditions which we tried to set up, we focused specifically in creating accessible content. To achieve this we gave special attention to the instructional and graphic design, making sure we followed closely some of the basic criteria proposed by Clark (2002) and the WCAG 1.0.
We proceeded to making Blackboard 6.0 platform adequate, by implementing a simplified graphic design with high contrast; we selected the tools that guaranteed the navigation by keyboard; we created a virtual environment design that was appealing and intuitive; we created content in different formats, i.e.,the same content was presented in text, in sign language, video and in audio. The instructional designer's role was essential in the creation of the text content. This member of the team sought to ensure the usability and readability of the documents, by using clear language and colloquial tone; by providing pauses in the information for moments of reflection; and by adding headers and highlighting specific and important information. The video contents were subtitled and where applicable, provided with audio description. Some of the contents were made available in sign language. An audio version of the textual content was also provided.
Despite all the efforts for making this course fully accessible, we realised that the Blackboard platform did not offer a simple navigation, particularly in the forums. Participants also commented that, when they moved between contents and activities, they lost the context reference. It was also noted that the tests did not allow for an accessible navigation.
After this first course, the provision of distance education was extended to undergraduate and Master courses, where the same model for distance learning was followed. Given the enormous amount of content to be made available the multiformat approach had to be left and an option was made to concentrate mainly on the textual content.
These initial experiences have been very important to the research that we have been developing in the distance learning unit of IPLeiria, together with teachers and with researchers from the iACT Research Unit. Beyond our institutional walls various other projects have taken place with national partners and we have contributed towards European projects, among which, the EU4ALL and ADLAB projects.
Despite the widespread use of Moodle as a tool to support the educational content of the courses taught in several schools of the IPLeiria, in 2007, with the creation of The Distance Education Unit, the IPLeiria adopted Blackboard 6.0. It was common knowledge that Blackboard complied with section 508 (Blackboard, 2006). However, this platform presented accessibility and usability issues for screen readers users. This platform emphasized the contents and did not value the Community (profiles without photos, absence of spontaneous interaction features, i.e., there's no such thing as a block with the list of participants with communication features without being defined by professor). In addition, the fact that we were dealing with a commercial platform that allowed for the extension of features and customization of the graphical interface made it attractive. Yet, the development of building blocks was not simple and efficient and entailed additional costs that didn't make sense given the high cost of this platform. So three years later, in face of the need to renew the Blackboard license, we decided to return to Moodle platform. By that time, we had examined the features of Moodle 1.9 and we found that the platform had significantly increased its degree of accessibility and usability. Because it is an open source tool, with a modular set-up and a very active support community it therefore allowed for an enormous flexibility and the possibility of developing new features and the customization of its graphics. In addition, due to the severe economic situation that the country was going through, the fact that it is a free platform became more attractive than using Blackboard.
In 2013, for internal reasons, there was a need to upgrade our e-learning platform. We then installed the Moodle 2.5, developed a new theme, disabled some features (badges, blogs, RSS) and integrated a web conferencing platform, the BigBlueButton.
Once these changes were in place, we have had tests for accessibility on various pages. The platform went through manual validation and automatic analysis, by putting it through eXaminator validators and AccessMonitor. According to Freire (2012), the development of digital content and tools requires a manual analysis with assistive technologies, because the automatic validation using accessibility validators is insufficient to ensure that the end result will be genuinely accessible. For manual analysis to be effective, it must be carried out by real users, with different profiles. This idea reinforces the ineffectiveness of using automatic validators without the complementarity of a manual review. Automatic validators, such as the Portuguese AccessMonitor, present quantitative evaluation on a scale 0 to 10, stating the grade attained and highlighting the errors detected. Even though these automated tools recognize, for example, if an image contains description, it cannot interpret whether the description is appropriate. The same applies to navigation. Validators can identify whether the hierarchical structure of the headers is correct, but they cannot identify whether the headers are set in the right place and with the proper hierarchical level or if there are titles that are not defined as header. In the case of the content, it is common practice to highlight the font formatting titles instead of using the headers H1-H9; most images are placed without description, with <alt-text> null or evicted; and complex tables, among other content is offered with confusing text and poor readability. All this defers the the possibility of screen reader users to navigate quickly in the document and to understand it easily. Although the validators list the errors to be found and alert towards possible accessibility gaps of a website through alerts, most Web developers do not have the skills to test with assistive technologies and apply the appropriate patches.
In the tests that the IPLeiria ran on the Moodle 2.5 platform all these problems were detected in the manual evaluation. These were carried out by 3 screen reader users and other standard profiles users, and some of the problems singled out were also listed by the eXaminator and AccessMonitor validators. For the manual evaluation, users was requested to perform a set of tasks and to register the problems, in a text file, and to make comments on the faults or to suggest improvements and to register other occurrences or thoughts that could improve the efficiency of the platform and of the contents. After these tests, users filled out a survey with a checklist using the WCAG 2.0 guidelines. These participants used Safari 6.0.5 with VoiceOver 6.0 or IE 10 with Jaws 10, 13, 14 and 15. The tasks proposed in the script consisted in giving access to different types of resources and in carrying out the various activities. The results obtained show that uploading files is a complex operation for screen reader users - only one managed to upload files with Jaws 15. It was also identified that some features of the platform become “noise” instead of being an "added value", because information became redundant. The most common situations where this noise occurs are the features of “hide – expand” HTML blocks - it could be included in the header of the block, as well as in the symbols corresponding to items of different resources and activities that can be considered simply decorative images – it should have null <Alt-text> instead of presenting the same or similar text as the item link text, e.g.: Assignment symbol item as an Alt="Assignment" and the text of the Link “2nd activity Assignment”. As for the Quiz, the 4 types of questions presented were: 1-multiple choice, 2-short text answer, 3-true/false answers and 4-long text answers. There was no problem with the 3 first questions, but when the user got to the 4th question the screen reader did not read the text question and jumped into the edit box (answer to question) directly. Another problem found with the test relates to the existence of a H3 hidden header with the information "question text". This text is constant and appears at the beginning of each question as a header and the effective question text, that should be header, appears as a paragraph. As regards to the Grades, despite having been simplified and configured to show only the columns - Grade item, Weights, Grade and Feedback, the table that is shown to the student is complex (inside the main table there are other tables) hindering navigation. It was also pointed out by one of the users that the screen reader was reading a column with blank cells that were left empty for Layout purposes..
When analysing the results obtained through the WCAG checklist, it turns out that there are problems in the navigation structure and a lack of links clarification. The following list presents the checklist items that were highlighted as not being in compliance with the WCAG:
- Links with the same text that direct to different locations are contextualized;
- Several ways to find the pages on the website (list of pages, site map, etc.);
- The headers, titles or tags are not repeated, or if there is repetition, these are properly grouped and context
- The contents with a different language of the page is identified;
- Ambiguous words and abbreviations have explanatory text;
- When a page element receives focus, there is no substantial graphical change of the structure of the page that confuses or leads the user off track;
- Repeated Navigation Links on different pages retain the same order of navigation.
In the analysis done with the eXaminator and AccessMonitor validators, the average index of pages reviewed, was assigned 7.7 by the eXaminator and 8.5 by AccessMonitor. The errors pointed towards those identified in the manual evaluation–tests and checklist. Some problems could be solved in the theme developed by IPLeiria, however the structural problems were shared with the Moodle community.
The research that we are developing in the area of cloud computing, as an emerging technology to support e-learning systems (Zhang et.al, 2010; Pocatilu, 2010) can also come to contribute towards the identification of other problems and to proposals for the improvement of accessibility and usability in e-learning systems. These improvements will be particularly related to document portability, ease of content adaptation for different devices, the simplification of interfaces, interoperability and integration of different platforms and changes at the level of interaction between users and tools in ubiquitous systems.
Despite our defence of multiformat communication strategies it is no easy task to keep up with the high amount of contents that are made available on the e-learning platform. Sometimes there is also the temptation to build a distance learning or e-learning course by carrying over the same face-to-face course materials without specific adaptation. According to Forsyth (1998) and Holmberg (2001) the adaptation of classroom content for distance learning implies a pedagogic and didactic adjustment of materials to a digital and multimedia format. The instructional designer proposes the segmentation of course contents into small units of knowledge or topics, with explicit and reasonable learning objectives, able to facilitate learning (Clark & Mayer, 2008). This content type is called learning objects (Wiley, 2001) that we take to be "any digital resource that can be reused to support learning". In addition to this process of adaptation, the instructional designer calls teachers’ attention for the accessibility criteria of their resources, so that they meet the WCAG recommendations. But all of these factors depend on the tool used to produce them.
Given the learning potential of Web 2.0 tools, as mentioned by several authors, among which we highlight Downes (2005), Alexander (2006), Beldarrain (2006), Seitzinger (2006), Anderson (2007) and Jorge & Morgado (2010), we have been exploring some of the tools that allow teachers to create content and contexts that can be used in the collaborative activities. Over 4 years we analysed more than 100 Web 2.0 tools that enable teachers to produce tutorials and demonstrations; create comic strips and books; publish documents and books (e-books); produce SCORM content; create and make available online questionnaires; record, edit and publish images, audio and video; edit and share information; carry out synchronous communication; transmit and broadcast video; select and annotate information sites and documents. When testing Web 2.0 tools, we found that the majority is not accessible because the contents are made in flash or because they use tables in CSS definition. For the production of HTML or SCORM content we suggest teachers use the eXelearning authoring tool; however, some features cannot be used (the ones that require Flash) and we suggest they follow the recommendations to create accessible digital documents. We also suggest installing the Writter2ePub extension for LibreOffice that allows teachers to create accessible e-books, that go beyond the traditional PDF.
In spite of this effort, we remain unable to respond efficiently in mathematics-related content. In these cases, considering that most teachers use LaTex, we advise the conversion to ASCII Math through free online converters. However, for students and teachers to communicate through a mathematical language, it is necessary that both dominate ASCII Math. This requires time for learning this language and this is not part of the curriculum of the courses students are attending. Other areas that present a great challenge are the artistic expressions that have a strong visual component, as well as the laboratory practice (e.g. chemistry, physics, health).
There are still the contents that emerge in virtual learning environments produced by the community. These contents, designated as Learner-Generated Content (Lee & McLoughlin, 2007) or User-Created Content (Chang, Kennedy & Petrovic, 2008) arise in the context of web 2.0 and the premises of collaborative work. Based on these concepts, we call this kind of content "Spontaneous Content". These are mainly the messages that are placed in the forums by students and teachers, documents, web pages, videos, and other content produced individually or in groups by students throughout the teaching-learning process, both in the LMS platform or in other personal learning environments. Being spontaneous means there is no prior preparation or the use of models that may lead to making such contents accessible. For this reason, we provide teachers and students with tips for creating accessible documents, how to apply the WCAG, how to describe pictures, and how to create texts for the audio description of videos. However, due to the cultural context that is based on visual representations of the world, for most people, it is not a simple process to take visual information into textual information.
Training and awareness of the academic community
Since 2007 we offer teachers an online course with the objective to make known the e-learning platform and the appropriate methodology for distance education. With this course we also want teachers to acquire experience as distance students, meet different types of activities, different approaches and strategies that they can adopt in their disciplines. This course lasts for 8 weeks where pedagogical issues and technology are addressed, and is specifically aimed at teachers who teach on distance learning courses. In addition to this training, we offer the entire IPLeiria community workshops on educational tools and how to produce accessible digital documents based on the WCAG and the accessibility features and affordances of different software.
We also support the community by creating accessible online forms and accessible web sites. One of the websites (http: iact.ipleiria.pt) created by the Distance Learning Unit team, offers the maximum level of WCAG conformance, both by the AccessMonitor validator, and through manual review. In all cases it was presents a success rate of almost 100%, even by successful validation on mobile devices. This demonstrates the technical expertise of the team that conveys credibility and confidence in the academic community.
We found that, over these 6 years, the interest of the academic community towards the theme of accessibility has increased. In the 2012-2013 school year the IPLeiria took “inclusion” as theme of the year. During the academic year the project involved not only the academic community but also several national and international institutions, in a total of 336 subprojects in all the fields in which the institution works. The outcomes of the project were disseminated in a conference, INCLUDiT bringing together over 250 experts to discuss research and instances of good practice. Despite the interest people show in the themes of "accessibility" and "inclusion" changing people’s habits and practices is much slower. Regardless of all the efforts that both the Distance Learning Unit and the iACT research unit have made, we are still unable to ensure that the digital information and the services made available on the web, particularly in the context of e-learning, are accessible to all user profiles. We feel that there is a need for more training, for laws and regulations, for norms and rules, examples and models demonstrating that accessibility is not complex, and does not necessarily mean a lack of aesthetics or working overtime.
We are currently in the process of evaluating distance education at IPleiria. Even though we don't have results as yet, and only based on satisfaction questionnaires and informal feedback from students, we have indicators that the pedagogical model adopted enables students to acquire new skills. It is also clear that networking and collaborative activities make learning more effective and reduce the feeling of distance and isolation. As far as the LMS platform goes, most teachers and students prefer Moodle, compared to Blackboard 6.0. They consider it more intuitive while favouring more collaborative work and the community interaction/communication. It is also appreciated for allowing you to easily integrate various web 2.0 tools and other free platforms. Given the present financial situation, the institution has had to take measures towards cost reduction. The fact that we use free tools makes e-elarning possible and more accessible to all.
Some students add that another strong point in Moddle is the fact that they can access the e-learning platform through mobile technologies without incompatibility issues. With regard to content, we feel that this is the great challenge. Most students mention a surplus of textual content, suggesting we use more videos, recorded lessons and simulators. Yet, students with visual disability are grateful for the text-based approach even though they consider that the textual content should be more succinct and go to the point.
The feedback from teachers about the model and the platform is positive, though some complain they spend much more time in online education. They tend to feel some difficulty in adapting face-to-face resources to different formats and ensure they are really accessible. Despite the support given to video editing, multimedia production, accessibility review in textual documents and presentations, teachers have to develop the scripts and the base content, describe the images or draw up the texts for the audio description. This is not a simple process as it requires a lot of time, knowhow and technological expertise to apply the WCAG guidelines which are not easy to understand for people who don't have much technical skill.
As already mentioned the contents are provided by teachers but also by the entire virtual community, through forums or other tools used to send and receive students’ work and projects. In classes where students were given explicit indication to describe the photos and other images used in the forums or assignments, as well as other recommendations to produce accessible documents, the feedback given by blind students was very positive. They were particularly keen on reading the descriptions of the community profile pictures.
We believe that the evaluation process to our e-learning courses will be essential for the development of more effective strategies and the success of students in distance learning, as well as for accessibility in e-learning.
5. Future Research
The research that we are currently developing is essentially related to the content and platforms.
We question whether the description of images can be parameterized and, one of the team technicians is currently developing a doctoral study where she is testing different approaches to the description of images with describers and blind people. If it is proven that the description of images can be parameterized, it is our wish to create a Bank of images with their respective descriptions so that they can be used in several contexts and contents.
Together with European partners we are examining the problems of audio description and seeking to define a set of norms, recommendations and best practices that are appropriate for videos, art and extended to e-books. In this domain, specific recommendations for e-learning are in order.
Cloud Computing can also bring new contributions to the problem of platforms, notably interoperability between systems and the ease of access services and content through mobile devices in ubiquitous systems. One of the team technicians is working at PhD level in this area.
We also think that it is vital to find a set of specific recommendations for accessible e-learning that comply with the WCAG as universal standards. One needs to keep in mind that this area has complexities of its own. Accessibility in e-learning involves platforms, instructional design, content, models and pedagogical strategies, communication and interaction, and multiple virtual environments. In the end, making accessible e-learning environment will be beneficial to all. In the name of making access possible to some, we will be making life easier to all.
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