Accessibility, inclusivity, universal design – notes from the reading group

Naomi looked at the Accessibility of e-learning OU Course, and read the 10 key points from the UCL Blog

The summary comments written by Jessica Gramp summed up the OU course and gave a good overview of what the course covered, as well as an idea of how wide the disability scope is. It was an interesting read for someone who’s knowledge of accessibility in e-learning is quite limited.

The post gave information on how there are two views of disability. The Medical Model, describes ‘the problem of disability as stemming from the person’s physical or mental limitation.’ And the Social Model, ‘sees disability as society restricting those with impairments in the form of prejudice, inaccessible design, or policies of exclusion.’

The idea of society restricting those with impairments through inaccessible design was interesting, as it is something most people have done, but often give little thought to.  We often like to design things to look ‘pretty’ but give little thought to those using screen readers or think about how we would describe an image for example. What is also mentioned in the post is how accessibility is about both technical and usable access for people with disabilities. Jessica gives the example of a table of data. Although it may be technically accessible for someone who is blind, the meaning of the data would be lost on a screen reader and would no sense and be unusable to the user. The post and course both talk about evaluation accessibility, but for me it’s something that needs to come right at the beginning of the design. There is no point designing something that uses spreadsheets for example if screen readers won’t produce the correct data and meanings to the users.

The last point Jessica makes, which I really liked, was that accessible learning environments help everyone, not just those with disabilities.

“This last point reflects my own preference for listening to academic papers while running or walking to work, when I would be otherwise unable to “read” the paper. As a student and full-time employee, being able to use this time to study enables me to manage my time effectively and merge my fitness routine, with study time. This is only possible because my lecturers, and many journals these days too, provide accessible documents that can be read out loud using my mobile smartphone.” – Jessica Gramp

A thought-provoking blog post that gave me a lot to think about and made me put more thought into the work I create online.

Whilst reading this I also came across on article on Twitter from Durham’s student paper The Palatinate. This talks about how Durham University have introduced lecture capture to their lectures. However, the English department have opted out, citing changes to the teaching relationships, and a ‘lack of credible evidence that lecture capture improves academics attainment.’ In the departments’ email, they talk about the ‘danger of falling attendance, and the potential compromise of the classroom as a safe place, where controversial material can be discussed.’

These are all good points, but the writer of the article points out that accessibility needs may be more important than these factors. With such a wide range of disabilities, lecture capture could provide help in lectures to those that need it. The question also needs to be answered that if they aren’t going to use lecture capture, what are they doing to help their students with disabilities?

It was an interesting article that makes us think about how much accessibility weighs in within teaching and learning. It should be at front of what we are thinking when we first start designing how we are going to teach, or present data. But there is often a stigma and it can also cause tensions and challenges. Going forward, these need to be addressed, rather than be ignored.

Suzi read Applying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Principles to VLE design from the UCL blog. A short, but very thorough and clear post, written as part of UCL’s Accessible Moodle project. For the main part this is, reassuringly enough, a re-framing of things we know make for good accessible web design (resizing text, designing for screen readers, etc). However, it did include the following:

“The VLE should also offer the ability to customise the interface, in terms of re-ordering frequently accessed items, placement of menus and temporarily hiding extraneous information that may distract from the task at hand.”

Not suggestions I have seen before in an accessibility context, possibly because they are more difficult to implement. In particular, the idea of limiting distracting information – that being an accessibility issue – seems obvious once it’s been said. It’s something that would be welcome for a wide range of our students and staff.

Suzi also read Advice for making events and presentations accessible from GOV.UK. Again this is very clear, straightforward advice, well worth being aware. The advice is for face-to-face events but covers points on supporting a partially remote audience. Some of the points that I had not thought of included:

  • Ask your participants an open question about their requirements well before the event. Their wording is “Is there anything we can do to enable you to be able to fully participate in this event?”
  • Don’t use white slide backgrounds because of the glare. For example, GOV.UK slide decks use black text on grey or white text on dark blue.
  • Give audio or text descriptions of any video in your presentation.

There are also some interesting suggestions in the comments. I found the comments particularly interesting as they seem to be individuals speaking directly about their own needs (or possibly those of people they work with) and what they would find most useful. Suggestions include ensuring there is good 3G or 4G coverage, as wifi might not be enough to support assistive technologies, and opening with a roll call (because as a blind person you can’t just glance around the room to see who is there). One commenter suggests you should always sing the key points from your presentation (to an existing tune, no need to compose especially) – an idea I love but not one I’m up to implementing.

Chrysanthi watched 2 videos from the list 15 inspiring inclusive design talks:

When we design for disability, we all benefit | Elise Roy

In this talk, Elise Roy gives examples of inventions that were initially inspired by/ for people with disabilities, but turned out to be useful for people without as well. These include:

  1. Safety glasses that visually alert the user about changes in pitch coming from a tool (which can mean the tool will kick back) before the human ear can pick it up (theirs).
  2. A potato peeler that was designed for people with arthritis but was so comfortable that others used it.
  3. Text messaging, which was originally conceived for deaf people.

Her suggestion is to design for people with disabilities first, rather than the norm. This could mean that the solution is not only inclusive, but potentially better, than if it was designed for the norm. So rather than “accommodate” people with disabilities, use that energy to come up with innovative solutions that are beneficial to all.

Derek Featherstone: Accessibility is a Design Tool

Derek Featherstone makes a similar point to Elise Roy, that designing for accessibility can help everyone. Looking at how outliers/ people at the ends of a spectrum will be influenced by a design decision can also help understand how the average person will be affected. “If we look at the extremes, everybody else is going to be somewhere in the middle”. Between no vision and perfect vision, between no hearing and perfect hearing etc.

The main points to consider for accessibility as a design tool:

  1. People with disabilities may have needs for specific types of content, on top of the content everyone else gets, in order to make decisions: e.g. to choose a health provider, they don’t just need to know how far away the provider is, but perhaps where the wheelchair ramp is at the practice, as that might affect whether they choose to go to this one or choose a different one. Designers should find out what kind of extra content they need. Other examples: Are there captions for this film I am considering watching?
  2. When trying to make something accessible, it is important to consider why it is included in the first place, rather than just what it is. That could be the difference between providing a confusing textual description of an element, and a clear one of how the information the element portrays affects the people accessing it. E.g. instead of trying to textually describe a change of boundaries on a map, give someone the ability to look up their post code and see if they are affected by that change.
  3. Proximity; this known design principle of grouping related items together (e.g. images to their textual explanations, instructions to the parts they refer to etc) is even more important for people with certain types of disability, like low vision. This is because it is much easier for them to lose the context, as they see much less of the interface at a time. Derek suggests getting an understanding of this by examining an interface looking at it through your fist, like holding a straw. Actions, buttons etc should be placed in a way that the desired action is located where the person would expect according to the patterns of use that have been established already. If so far, the action is on a specific part of the screen, changing that will be confusing. Buttons should be distinguishable from each other even without reading, so e.g. for buttons previous & next, using the exact same colours, font, sizes, etc means the user needs to read to distinguish.

Finally, it is important to not get so caught up in the technical requirements of making something accessible on paper, that we forget what it is we are trying to achieve.

Suzanne read New regulations for online learning accessibility (WonkHE, 23 Sept 2018)

Published in WonkHe in September 2018, this article by Robert McLaren outlines the new regulations for online learning accessibility. McLaren works for the think-tank Policy Connect, which published a report in collaboration with Blackboard Ally after the government ratified the EU Web Accessibility Directive on the 23rd of September. This directive clarifies the position of HE institutions as public sector bodies and thus includes them in the requirements for web accessibility. This means that VLEs, online documents, video recordings etc are all counted as web content, and need to meet the four principles of accessible web design: that it is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Additionally, VLEs will also have to include an accessibility statement outlining the accessibility compliance of the content, directing students to tools to help them get the most from the content (such as browser plugins), and explaining how students can flag any inaccessible content. As McLaren notes, this has long been considered good practice, and isn’t really anything new, but is now a legal duty.

The article then outlines several areas which may still need addressing in VLE content. The first is ensuring content is usable. The example he uses is the prevalence of scanned pdfs which are hard or impossible to work with (as they appear as image, rather than text) for disabled students, but also for non-disabled students and those working with mobile devices. From this point, McLaren moves to discuss briefly the idea of universal design, which he defines as “educational practice that removes the barriers faced by disabled students and thereby benefits all students.” In the article, he claims that the rise in universal design has in part been fuelled by cuts to Disabled Students Allowances and the increasing shift in focus to universities to remove barriers for disabled students rather than DSA and other measures which work to mitigate these barriers once they are in place.

The article then suggests a model for ensuring the change required to meet these needs: “We recommended a cascading approach. Government should work with sector organisations to provide training for key staff such as learning technologists, who can in turn train and produce guidance for teaching staff.” As the report was sponsored by Blackboard Ally, it is perhaps not surprising that another side of their solution is to provide a range of usable and flexible resources, which Ally helps users ensure they are providing. The final remarks, however, surely stand true no matter how achieved (through Ally or other means): “An inclusive approach allows all students to learn in the ways that suit them best. If the sector can respond effectively to these regulations, all students, disabled and non-disabled, will benefit from a better learning experience.”

Suggested reading

Wellbeing – notes from the reading group

Roger read: Curriculum design for wellbeing.

This is part of an online professional development course for academics, produced by a project run by a number of Australian Universities co-ordinated by the University of Melbourne. It aims  to build the capacity of University educators to design curriculum and create teaching and learning environments that enhance student mental wellbeing. There are 5 modules: on student wellbeing, curriculum design, teaching strategies, difficult conversations and your wellbeing.

I focussed on module 2 which is on curriculum design. It starts by stressing the importance of students, through the curriculum, experiencing autonomous motivation, a sense of belonging, positive relationships,  feelings of autonomy and competence (M-BRAC). All of these are aspects of good practice in curriculum design.

It goes on to consider how elements of curriculum design support student mental wellbeing, covering alignment, organisation and sequencing of content, engaging learning activities and a focus on assessment for learning.

For example, aligning ILOS with assessment and learning activities helps student autonomy as they understand how what they are doing contributes to their goals and they develop their knowledge and skills, including self-regulation, to achieve the ILOS. Assessment for learning plays a key role here. Clear organisation and sequencing of content contribute to effective learning. Both alignment and structure help to build students’ sense of competence.  Engaging and meaningful learning activities can increase student motivation and encourage peer interaction, which can contribute to building relationships and a sense of belonging.

It suggests that when reviewing the curriculum one should ask:

  • How will the curriculum be experienced by my (diverse) students eg international students, mature students, “first in family” students?
  • Will the curriculum foster or thwart experiences of M-BRAC

The module then has a number of FAQs you are asked to consider, with suggested answers. These were really useful as they tease out some of the complexities, for example “Is setting group assignments in the first year a good way of helping students develop positive peer relationships, and feel a sense of connectedness or belonging?”  Here they recognise that if not well-designed or if students are not supported to develop group work skills it can have a negative impact.

The module ends with a set of case studies illustrating how curricula have been re-designed to better support M-BRAC.

Amy read: Approach your laptop mindfully to avoid digital overload.

This was a short article that recognised the ever-increasing belief that we are being constantly bombarded with masses of new information which, in turn, means that many are suffering with stress-related diseases, anxiety and depression. The reliance on digital devices to provide constant streams of information in the form of news articles, social media feeds and messages mean that without these devices we feel lost without them. A full digital detox is suggested at the beginning of this article, though this may be a short-term solution and often an impractical one.

The authors of this article suggest introducing the practice of mindfulness into our lives to combat this. They describe mindfulness as ‘a moment-to-moment attention to present experience with a stance of open curiosity’. Mindfulness has been studied extensively by the medical community and has shown to help with stress, anxiety and depression in individuals. One can ‘reprogramme’ their mind to deal with stresses more easily by training it to be more present. The authors suggest two key ways they suggest to introduce mindfulness into our use of digital devices to reduce the pressures they can put on us.

One of the methods they suggest is ‘mindful emailing’, which includes practices such as taking three breaths before responding to a stressful email and also considering the psychological effect that the email will have to the recipients.

The second method they suggest is the mindful use of social media, citing ‘checking our intentions before uploading a feed (post?), being authentic in our communications and  choosing the time we spend on social media, rather than falling into it.’

If you haven’t tried mindfulness before take a look at these tips and short audio meditations.

Chrysanthi read: Designing a product with mental health issues in mind,

This article – true to its title – talks about including technological features that aim to help the vulnerable users. While the examples given are taken from a banking application context, the suggestions can be applied to other contexts. More specifically, the article mentions positive friction and pre-emptive action. Positive friction goes against developers’ usual desire to make everything easier and faster and aims to put some necessary obstacles in the way instead, for users that need it. The example used is allowing certain users with somewhat “impulsive” behaviour to check their recent purchases and confirm that they indeed want them. This would help eg bipolar disorder sufferers, who overspend in their manic phase, often at night, and slip into depression in the morning because of their irreversible mistake. In the specific app, this is still a speculative feature.  Pre-emptive action aims to prevent trouble by anticipating certain events and acting on them, eg perceiving a halt in income and sending a well timed notification to start a conversation so the person doesn’t end in debt (and therefore create more stress for themselves). Also, allowing vulnerable customers to choose their preferred time and form of communication (eg phone might be anxiety inducing or email might seem complex).

In an education context, positive friction could be relevant in cases where students are repeatedly doing things they no longer need to do. This would help when – under the illusion they are still learning – students are focusing on redoing exercises they already know how to do – which might help them feel accomplished but doesn’t add value from some point on – or on consuming more and more content, even when they haven’t actually digested what they have learned so far. It isn’t very clear how this could be applied during exam period, though. Pre-emptive action is perhaps easier to translate in an educational context. Any action (or inaction) that is either outside the student’s usual pattern or outside a successful pattern, might be a conversation starting point, or a trigger for suggestions for alternative ways to handle their studies. Also, allowing them different options to learn and communicate with their professors and peers.

Chrysanthi also read: E-mail at work: A cause for concern? The implications of the new communication technologies for health, wellbeing and productivity at work.

This paper explores the potential negative implications of using email at work. The email features they consider as potentially problematic are: speed, multiple addressability, recordability, processing & routing. Essentially, email as a message that can be instantly transmitted to several people at once, automatically stored, easily altered and different versions of it sent to various people, not all of which necessarily visible on the recipient list. According to the authors, emails may increase stress by increasing workload and interruptions, adding difficulty to interpretation of the message and tone, increasing misunderstandings and groupthink, reducing helpful argumentation and social support, increasing isolation and surveillance – which increases discontent, offering a new ground for bullying and harassment, or hindering the processing of negative feelings. Having established these potential negative implications, the authors point out that more research is needed to understand the optimal ways to use email at work, for effective communication and humane workplaces.

Naomi read: Did a five-day camp without digital devices really boost children’s interpersonal skills?

This article was about a brief study led by Yalda Uhls in Southern California. It studied two groups of pupils ‘who on average spent 4.5 hours a day ‘texting watching TV, and video gaming’. Half of the children were sent on a five-day educational camp in the country side where all technical devices were banned. The other half stayed at school as usual. Emotional and psychological tests were carried out on the students before and after the 5 days were completed.

There was a small amount of evidence to suggest the children who had spent time away from devices improved psychologically over the five days. However, because there were several small problems with the study no firm answers can be taken from it. Its suggested the children who went away for the five days only looked like they improved on the tests because they started at a lower level then the children who stayed at school. It was also suggested that the children who stayed at school tests deteriorated because they were tired from doing a week’s work.

As it suggests in the article, the results of this study weren’t particularly hard hitting but it does raise the question of how much the younger generations are using their devices throughout the day. Uhls does admit in the article that there were shortcomings to the study, but they suggest that these findings relate to the ‘wider context of technology fears’ and hope their paper will be ‘a call to action for research that thoroughly and systematically examines the effects of digital media on children’s social development.’ Although the study needed a more comprehensive approach the ideas behind it are interesting and relate to several issues that we see in everyday life – is it good for us to spend so much time on our devices, or is it integral to how we live now?

Suzi read: Learning in the age of digital distraction

This interview with Adam Gazzaley, a neurologist, is a plug for a book called The Distracted Mind in which he and and research psychologist Larry D Rosen talk about the way our brains are wired influences how we use technology.

They suggest that information-foraging is a development of our evolved food-foraging mechanisms, and so is to some extent driven by our very basic drive to survive. Because of this it is hard to prevent it from distracting us from our ability to set and pursue higher-level goals.

Information-foraging doesn’t just impact on people’s ability to focus, it can cause anxiety and stress, and affect mood.

Suggestions for possible ways to combat this include:

  • accepting that we need to (re-)learn to focus (they are also developing brain-training video games)
  • using play in education (but this was only very briefly mentioned I wasn’t clear if this was playfulness or gamification)
  • physical exercise
  • mindfulness
  • sitting down to dinner as a family, or otherwise building in device-free interaction time

Suggested reading