Usability is often talked about when it comes to e-learning. Usability refers to each learners’ experience with the learning material. Can learners engage with the material without any barriers? In other words, is your material accessible?
Accessibility in e-learning involves using technology and standards to create training content that can be used by all learners, regardless of their abilities.
Focusing on accessibility in your training programmes benefits not only employees but also your organisation as it provides a better user experience for everyone. Companies and institutions that demonstrate inclusivity in their e-learning are likely to outperform in various aspects – from their reputation and learner well-being to their sales and bottom line. Accessible e-learning also decreases your legal risk. European Union regulations – the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) – outline what it takes for e-learning content to be compliant with the law. The regulations require that anyone who works in the public sector, or who supplies services to the sector, has a legal obligation to make their e-learning products and services accessible.
Accessibility is commonly stereotyped and oversimplified. But as the World Health Organisation puts it: “Disability is not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.” Disabilities are diverse. Understanding that there are many diverse disabilities leads you to consider how you can cater for every type of learner.
It can be daunting to get started on making e-learning content accessible, but there are certain guidelines you can follow to increase the universal usability of your course. These start with thinking more consciously about how to design courses and set out the basic features of accessible e-learning.
Your course must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust (POUR).
Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive. This means that the content needs to be available to at least one of their senses.
Operable: User interface components and navigation must work with input methods other than a mouse or track pad.
Understandable: Information and the operation of the user interface must be clear and concise. Users must be free to explore content at their own pace.
Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of assistive technologies. This means using good, well-tested coding practices.
Here are some tips for designing universally accessible e-learning courses.
1. Audio and visual components
There are several disabilities that might call for a learner to require an audio or visual version of your course. It is therefore important to make sure all your audio content is also available as text, either via a transcript or closed captions, to cater for all those who are deaf or hard of hearing. When visuals are needed, make sure your content is compatible with assistive technologies (for example, screen readers). This can be done by adding captions, providing a transcript, or choosing your language carefully.
If you are including video or audio, ensure that you include an introduction before the video to introduce the content and inform the learner how to interact with it. Always ensure that you include subtitles with the multimedia content. This can be done either via closed captions or by including a separate transcript field. This way, individuals with visual or hearing disabilities can have an equally effective experience.
3. Image captions
If key information is included in your images that you need all learners to understand, then add a detailed caption to your images. Make sure you also include the text alternative (“alt text”) to explain what the picture is showing.
4. Colour contrast
Contrast is key to the readability of text. Ensure that contrast is high, either by using different tones or different colours. Consider boosting your text size too, to improve overall legibility. If you’re placing text on a background image, then use a coloured tint to knock back the image so the text stands out as clearly as possible – avoid placing text over busy backgrounds. Effective colour contrast will make any text far easier to read for individuals who are partially sighted or colour blind.
Certain interaction types are not fully accessible for all learners. For instance, some drag and drop, and sortable activities rely on a learner using (and being skilled with) a mouse, which will exclude anyone using keyboard navigation. Consider whether your content can be reworked to allow an alternative, more accessible interaction. If using an image explorer, consider switching the hotspots from icons to text labels to ensure they are not reliant on only the image and are clear for all users.
Epileptic and vestibular disorders can be triggered by animation and motion, causing seizures, migraines, dizziness, or vertigo for affected learners. This doesn’t mean you have to give up animation altogether – you can make web animation and motion safer for all users by keeping the following in mind: only use animation and motion with purpose; give users the ability to turn off animation; reduce flashing or blinking to less than three times a second; and use interactive video transcripts to give users control over their multimedia experience.
Dyslexia is a learning-based language disability that may affect close to 1 billion people around the world, and since it primarily affects a person’s ability to read and spell, one’s font choice needs to be factored in to ensure good readability.
In a study about which fonts are easier to read for people who have dyslexia, researchers have found that Helvetica, Courier, Arial, and Verdana (which are all commonly found on your machines) came out on top in terms of both reading performance and subjective preference. Another important fact from this study is that italicising any font severely decreases its readability.
Written by Rob Ewart
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