Accessible Cyberlearning: Q&A with Sheryl Burgstahler

November 18, 2019 BY JACLYN LEDUC
Updated: April 6, 2021

Sheryl Burgstahler is the Founder and Director of the University of Washington’s DO-IT Center and Access Technology Center, and she knows a great deal about accessible technology for cyberlearning materials.

In the webinar, Designing Accessible Cyberlearning: Recommendations and Lessons Learned, Sheryl shares recommendations for how cyberlearning researchers can address accessibility issues in their research and for how instructors and designers can employ accessible technology and pedagogy in their practice.

Below is a snippet from the Q&A portion of the webinar in which Sherly addresses multiple accessible options for cyberlearning materials such as videos, images, and animations. She even discusses what to do to help shift perspectives to include people with disabilities in the diversity conversation.

What is an accessible alternative to a PDF?

SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: Word is easier to make accessible. You basically just make sure the headings are in a hierarchical system using styles, rather than just selecting text and making it bold.

If there’s an image, it needs to be described. There are some other issues if you have tables, and so forth. But generally, a Word document is fully accessible. So that would be one alternative to using a PDF.

Another way, if you’re using an online learning system, is you can copy the text and put it right in the window of each page that’s in your learning management system. There, you then would use the hierarchical structure of the headings provided within the learning management system.

These two things would be the easiest way to avoid an inaccessible PDF. You can go through the instructions to make a PDF accessible. It is very complicated to remediate it if it’s not fully accessible, though. That’s something to be cautious about.

Is there a cyberlearning tool with the capability to include accessible videos?

Instructor teaches a student in a classroom.

SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: As far as making your videos accessible, like I said, if you use YouTube and then edit the captions, that’s one way.

Our videos on campus, often we use 3PlayMedia because we have a contract with them. And so we do a lot of it that way.

There are tools out there. For instance, there’s Amara. it’s one of several tools, where you can take a video that is not your own, that’s commercially available, let’s say, and it’s not captioned. Well, you could put some captions on it. You can even have different languages.

How can we shift the culture so that students with disabilities become part of the diversity and equity conversation?

SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: In many of the grant proposals I help write, we will really present the idea of disability being a diversity issue. That’s been very effective at times because the funding agencies hadn’t heard of that idea before or had been looking at it that way, but they liked it so they funded our project.
It’s a tough sell for a lot of people. It’s actually harder than I thought it would be. It’s something that’s very slow-moving. So I don’t have a great answer for you, except to just keep doing it. If you’re on a post-secondary campus, bug people by making sure that if there’s a diversity statement, it includes people with disabilities and so forth. It’s an ongoing challenge.


➡️  Creating Inclusive Cyberlearning Environments: What You Shoud Know 

How do we make educational images accessible to those with low vision or blindness?

SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: When someone is low vision– often, the student will have a tool– or it might even be in their operating system– where they can do the magnification of those images. If the images are in electronic form, then they can magnify them. They don’t maybe get all the image on the screen, but these individuals will probably be using a very large screen. And they might have to move around to look through the image.

Boy takes his schoolbooks to his desk.

As far as for students who are blind, that’s a tougher issue. The short answer is, for the images, you could provide alternative text that describes those images, but I would guess that the images are quite complex. The first thing to do is to look through all of them and say, could I provide alt text or a text description for this?

What I would encourage you to do is pretend you’re on the telephone. Could you describe that image to the person on the other end of that line? Could you describe it enough so that they would get what the concepts are?

My guess is that there are several of those images where that’s the case. Some images, maybe, are going to require that they get some external tactile versions of it. There are printers that can print images, like a Tiger Printer that allows you to create embossed images.

I think, in this case, you can do your best with alternative text, but maybe you can’t do all of it. That is where you might have to rely on accommodation if a person who is blind takes that class.

Do try to make images as accessible as possible without someone needing an accommodation. Don’t create an inaccessible syllabus, for instance. Make sure that is accessible, and for the first few lessons, do image descriptions. Then evaluate how that student is doing with the coursework. The Disability Services Office then can get involved in that process if needed.

Do you know of any educational tools that are accessible for animations and Flash-based content?

SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: Flash is not very accessible. It’s a primary reason it’s not used much for home pages and so forth anymore. I don’t know of any specific tools that can help you with making Flash accessible.

There’s a group that I belong to that is exactly the group you’d want to post that question to. It’s called ATHEN. It’s for people that support accessible technology on campuses around the country. They’re dealing with these complex accessibility matters, and an animation inquiry would be one in that category.

Join the ATHEN list, and then pose a question. I bet you’ll get three or four really good answers from people who have actually done what you’re talking about.

Watch the full webinar on accessible cyberlearning with Sheryl Burgstahler below.


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