This extended abstract is a contribution to the Accessible E-Learning Online Symposium of 16 December 2013. The contents of this paper was not developed by the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and does not necessarily represent the consensus view of its membership.

MOOCs – The Web Science experience

1. Problem Description

A content management system (CMS) has been developed for the provision of MOOCs across the UK university network. There remains the necessity to develop standards, guidelines and tools to aid content developers and learning technologists to incorporate accessibility options and alternative formats for their materials and activities.

2. Background

During late summer of 2013 the University of Southampton Centre for Innovation in Technologies and Education (CITE) produced a Web Science Massive Online Learning Course (MOOC)[1]. The course was launched in November of the same year and is receiving largely positive plaudits from participants. Early comments revealed the 'differentiated' learning experience was good with informative summaries and professional multimedia presentations.

The participants come from many nations and some have been commenting on the fact that they would be unable to attend face-to-face courses on this subject.

"For many reasons I'm unable to take 'traditional' courses… This intro has been extremely helpful, and one of the best I've seen to date. If this standard is an indication of things to come, this should be a great course."

MOOCs have the potential to offer accessible teaching and learning for those who have disabilities[2] as well as providing 'extensive practice'[3] with online activities, videos and interactions with others. Peer and facilitator support, relating to technical issues and content have been shown to be more inclusive, as all participants can operate in a relatively incognito atmosphere[2]. However, close cooperation between stakeholders is required to enable a proactive universal design[4] approach to be established during the development period.

3. Strategy

One of the fortunate coincidences that occurred in the University of Southampton was the setting up of CITE as a group working within the same building as a team of accessibility experts and many of the content providers for the Web Science MOOC. This allowed for a free flow of information and questioning and testing of alternative formats and accessibility options. An example would be the ability to download slides when the embedded versions within videos moved too quickly for some users. Offering alternative formats provided other options such as further explanations for complex diagrams, but we are still developing a best practice workflow for creating accessible supporting material.

Good responsive design incorporated into the CMS allows flexibility to suit various user interfaces especially with built in assistive technologies (AT). However, accounting for all browsers used by participants was harder.

4. Major Difficulties

The short time provided for the creation of content was a challenge and work remains to be carried to offer additional features to suit all learners. Content providers and learning technologists had to develop materials that considered participant skills, internet connections, localisation and the practical side of some activities. Some ideas still need additional options, for example making flash cards as a digital exercise not just a paper based one.

Simple guidance notes[5] about most text based accessibility options were available to the CITE team members, but they did not cover issues encountered with Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematical (STEM) specific adaptations. PowerPoint was the main tool for the provision of slides with images and diagrams. It was found that some automatic elements such as Smart Art or Charts were not screen reader friendly. These features had to be turned into an inserted image and the 'format picture' feature used with the title and explanations in the description field. Once converted into a PDF, the image could be read aloud with screen reading applications but not all text to speech technologies - a dilemma of the type of AT used. It was also found that during the course of development MathML was not supported by all browser technologies - equations would need additional tagging where they could not be converted. Media players were also not accessible in every browser.

Maintaining up to date knowledge about changes occurring in browser technologies is a challenge as users can experience different presentations of certain types of content.

5. Outcomes

The Web Science MOOC launched a week before this paper was written. The facilitators have since received over five thousand comments. Having computer scientist facilitators on hand has allowed questions to be answered quickly and technical issues to be resolved. Improvements have been made in real time including the addition of further accessibility options.

6. Open Research Avenues

The analysis of learners' comments for future development of MOOCs will be essential. The way comments are collected with categories, tags and resulting themes and discussion with all stakeholders could provide a rich source of research.

The interrelationships between the accessibility of CMSs, the tools used for content presentation such as media players and PDFs and the way user agents such as browsers operate requires adherence to international standards and more guidance.


The authors would like to thank the CITE team for their help with this paper and their willingness to take on the challenges of STEM accessibility.


  1. University of Southampton Web Science MOOC (2013) (accessed 15 Nov. 2013)
  2. M. Scarlett, S.F.Hobbs and C.A. Dell (2013) Online education: Business as usual or the next, best thing? Critical Issues In Higher Education, Montana Professor, Volume 23, Number 1 Pg 6. (accessed 15 Nov. 2013)
  3. K. Swan (2003) Learning effectiveness: What the research tells us. In J. Bourne and J. C. Moore (Eds.), Elements of quality online education, practice and direction (pp. 13-45). Needham, MA: Sloan Center for Online Education. (accessed 15 Nov. 2013)
  4. D.H. Rose, T.Hasselbring, S. Stahl J.Zabala (2005) Assistive Technology and Universal Design for Learning: Two Sides of the Same Coin. In Dave Edyburn, Kyle Higgins, Randall Boone, editors, Handbook of Special Education Technology Research and Practice (507-518). Whitefish Bay, Wis.:Knowledge by Design.
  5. LexDis guidance notes for accessibility – web page (accessed 15 Nov. 2013)