How to Design Accessible Cyberlearning

November 15, 2019 BY SAMANTHA SAULD
Updated: April 6, 2021

In the latest webinar, “Designing Accessible Cyberlearning: Recommendations and Lessons Learned”, Sheryl Burgstahler, Founder and Director of the DO-IT Center and UW Access Technology Center at the University of Washington, provides recommendations on how cyberlearning researchers can address accessibility issues and how instructors and designers can implement accessible technology and pedagogy in their practice. 

Sheryl gives practical advice on how to solve challenges with cyberlearning technologies, best practices for instructors and designers, and discusses outcomes from the AccessCyberlearning 2.0 project for those interested in accessible cyberlearning.  

Below is a summary of the main takeaways. 

 Watch The Full Webinar  ➡️

What is Cyberlearning?

book with different educational subjects

Cyberlearning is a terminology used by the National Science Foundation. It’s the intersection between education and technology and can be used interchangeably with digital learning. 

For any IT accessibility team, it’s important to focus on helping students with disabilities access the same content as any other student. 

AccessCyberlearing is a project funded by the National Science Foundation to make cyberlearning or digital learning tools in the next generation more inclusive for people with disabilities. It also helps in researching the most effective practices for cyberlearning, including pedagogy that teachers might use. 

But what does it really mean to be inclusive? An inclusive online environment means that everyone who’s qualified, or fulfills the prerequisite of the course, should be able to participate – even if that means needing accommodations. 

It’s imperative that online courses create an open space so that all students feel welcomed and engaged, which includes creating accessible content. 

Projects like AccessCyberlearning are important for many reasons. Some of these reasons include: 

  • A demand for innovators
  • An underrepresentation of people with disabilities: 
  • A potential for individuals with disabilities 
  • A potential of design informed by access issues
  • Legal issues (i.e. the ADA and Rehabilitation Act) 
  • A need to increase knowledge of resources for instructors, researchers, and employers 

There can be a number of reasons why students with disabilities don’t have access to cyberlearning. 

Environmental: look to the environment to see if it’s causing it to not be accessible for people with disabilities. Diversity: look at it like a diversity issue - not just a separate issue that requires accommodations. Universal Design Framework: Look to see how to design your courses better so that a person with a disability can engage with your content. Student-Centered Community Building Framework: Look at all the stakeholders that contribute to the success of students with disabilities.


Frameworks for Providing Access

In the Access Cyberlearning project, Sheryl and her team came up with a frame for providing access. Instead of just going out with the intention of making things accessible, Sheryl recommends asking some key questions. 

  • What does accessibility look like?
  • What are the pieces of a framework?  

The format below is used because essentially, there are principles, guidelines, and processes for applying universal design.

triangle with a list of what to apply to universal design: scope, definition, principles, guidelines, practices, and process

Accommodation-Focused Approach

An accommodation is an adjustment to an existing product or environment for a specific person. 

There are a couple accommodations are that primarily used in cyberlearning – remediating inaccessible documents and captioning videos. 

Most documents that are inaccessible tend to be PDFs. It is typically one of the most expensive accommodations for students who are blind, low vision, dyslexic, or other reading-related disabilities. Many PDFs are just scanned-in images so screen readers can’t access the text to read it aloud. If faculty members use accessible PDFs, it would be a big benefit to people with disabilities.

When people caption videos, they often use the captioning capabilities of YouTube. What many people don’t know is that those captions are meant to be drafts. If you own the video, you can edit the captions – correct punctuation, spelling errors, etc. If we could just get people to make their captions more accurate, we would be a long way toward accessibility. 

Universal Design Framework

According to the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State, universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.  

In this definition, it doesn’t mention disability. It simply talks about all people because universal design doesn’t only benefit people with disabilities, it benefits everyone. 

Did you know? 80% of people who use captions are not deaf or hard of hearing.

The impact of taking more of a universal design approach to a cyberlearning program is you have a more accommodation-focused world. Accommodations are a part of universal design because we can’t create perfect designs. However, if you take a universal design approach, the accommodations you provide should be a smaller subset of your universal design practices. If you build for everyone, you won’t have to provide an accommodation. 

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You lookf or reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun…” - Thích Nhat Hanh

Just like universal design, you look to the environment first for any access issues. 

Principles of Inclusive Cyberlearning

The Center on Universal Design came up with the following principles to ensure universal design: 

  1. Equitable use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Simple and intuitive use
  4. Perceptible information 
  5. Tolerance for error
  6. Low physical effort 
  7. Size and space for approach and use 

For the actual curriculum and pedagogy that’s in a course, this particular set of principles, the Principles for universal design for learning (UDL), are useful for educational applications and academic work.

  • Multiple means of representation
  • Multiple means of engagement
  • Multiple means of action and expression 

The third set of principles to underpin this universal design framework are the principles for the universal design of information technology called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, otherwise known as WCAG. In order to abide by these principles, digital tools/content should be:

  • Perceivable
  • Operable
  • Understandable
  • Robust 

Watch the full webinar below 👇


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