LMS accessibility – Is ATAG the answer?

The evolution of Learning Management Systems (LMS) has been a fascinating one. Initially touted as being the future of education, moving courses online offered many benefits: 24/7 availability of content for students, time stamping for assignment submissions, the ability to confirm how much engagement students have with a course, and convenience for the lecturer in being able to tweak content as required rather than redoing the whole thing each intake.

However, as noted in Phillip Dawson’s article ‘The Failure of MOOCs’, simply making something available online doesn’t equate to ‘mission accomplished’ when it comes to education.  With most people who start a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) dropping out before the course has been completed, the point is made that the benefits of online education can only be recognised if someone actually cares about student learning outcomes, and that care needs to be obvious and ever-present regardless of how the course is delivered.

In many ways, the argument for engaging people with disabilities in online learning is similar. The benefits are also profound, especially in reducing the need for travel, and if the online learning portal is accessible it can offer significant improvements to face-to-face learning as there’s no more fear of that inaccessible last-minute handout or feedback on an assignment scribbled in illegible handwriting on the back page of your work. Yet, like MOOCs, where it can become quickly apparent that you’re just reading content with no engagement, for a person with a disability presented with an inaccessible LMS interface, the feelings are the same – if a tertiary institution can’t be bothered to make the interface accessible, with captioned videos, text alternatives on images and accessible lecture slides, then what does that say about how supportive that lecturer, institution or LMS provider is for that student?

In the online course I teach, we’ve made every effort to make the LMS interface as accessible as possible, and indeed we have had screen reader users successfully complete the course. But accessibility gremlins do creep in depending on two things: how accessible the LMS itself is, and how the content is published. It’s these two things that are continually highlighted by students as points of frustration, and that’s why I’m covering this topic here.

Frustrations and the upgrade cycle

As part of a Federal Government grant I was recently contracted to assess the accessibity of a number of courses across major Australian universities using a variety of different LMS platforms and versions. What became quickly apparent is that there are many accessibility issues within the LMS itself, and in these instances there’s very little the universities could do to address them. Particular examples in older versions of Moodle included editing windows with inaccessible controls and buttons that disappeared in high contrast views, and on the Blackboard side of things the ongoing frustrations over the drag-and-drop system which is ‘technically’ accessible by keyboard but few could master it in practical terms. In our own course we use a relatively old version of Moodle by today’s standards because of the university’s understandably cautious approach to upgrading due to security and stability concerns. While we’ve made the best of what we’ve got, accessibility issues remain.

Interestingly though, when comparing the current LMS with newer versions such as Moodle 3.x, many of the accessibity issues have been addressed, a credit to the development community who are working through these issues. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that students in many of the courses across Australia, and I daresay in other places, are unlikely to receive these benefits for some time, and while it’s encouraging to see accessibility benefits in this instance, not all LMS are considered accessible at this point in time.

ATAG 2.0 to the rescue for developers

One possible answer for LMS developers is to consider the benefits of the relatively recent web standard Authoring Tool Accessibility Guideline’s (ATAG) 2.0, formalised in September last year. While there is some debate as to whether an LMS is an authoring tool, I would argue that it’s broad definition of:

… designing web content authoring tools that are both more accessible to authors with disabilities (Part A) and designed to enable, support, and promote the production of more accessible web content by all authors (Part B).

…certainly applies here when considering that a person with a disability should be able to use the LMS to publish content and the resulting content should be accessible. With ATAG 2.0 a formal recommendation, now is the time for LMS developers to check their products against a great new standard and confirm if indeed the controls for administering and publishing content are accessible to a person with a disability, and if that content will turn out accessible. The former is vital for academic and administrative staff publishing information and students posting comments, and the latter is highly significant in making sure that materials can be effectively used by every student with the same level of equity in achieving the highest level of learning outcomes.

What about the content producers?

In my view it’s fair to say that if the underpinnings of an LMS aren’t accessible, it’s always going to be an uphill battle to provide students with an accessible learning experience. However, it’s also true that the most accessible LMS available won’t work very well if the content itself is not produced in an accessible way. It’s been my observation in discussing accessibility issues with tertiary institutions that students will get a little frustrated when the LMS itself is inaccessible with no obvious solution. The frustration scale goes off the chart though when it’s apparent that their education is blocked because of a content-related issue that could be fixed easily but, due to the lecturer either not knowing about accessibility, which is quite common, or not caring, which is less common, the issues remain in each intake of the course. In some cases there are fundamental changes in processes that need to be changed before accessible content will reach the LMS portal, such as captioning the lectures, but in other cases accessibility could be addressed in a relatively straightforward manner, such as by using descriptive links or adding alternative text to images.

The need here revolves around training – ensuring that content producers such as academic staff have the knowledge and resources available to ensure that all content published in an LMS for students is as accessible as possible. Due to the LMS it may not be possible to make everything accessible, but if content is made as accessible as possible then it will ensure that students with disabilities will at least have a fighting chance to access the course content. And, as LMS accessibility improves, hopefully with the support of ATAG 2.0, the whole online education experience will improve to a point where accessibility issues start to melt away.

Demanding action: policy versus practice

One of the interesting things about looking at LMS accessibility is that it’s hardly a new topic – even within most tertiary institutions. In most cases a university will have some form of Disability Access and Inclusion Plan (DAIP). I was initially involved in the development of Curtin University’s DAIP and there was certainly discussion on the importance of making course content accessible and WCAG 2.0 compliance. On this basis I’m confident that the issue here is not about getting policies in place, but rather getting the practical implementation of these policies to happen in the form of regular LMS updates and putting accessibity at the heart of training processes for content producers such as the academic teaching staff responsible for creating and publishing course content.

If we can get online courses to a point where the LMS is made accessible, that accessible LMS is rolled out quickly, and the relevant course content is also produced and published with accessibility in mind, it’s likely that people with disabilities will continue to flourish in the online learning environment with the knowledge that the education of all students has been considered and supported.