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Dear Heroes,

I’ve been developing e-learning courses (and other forms of multimedia) for years. Just recently, my boss told me we need to start making our e-learning “accessible.” I said “Of course it’s accessible; it’s on the internet. Anyone can view it.” My boss says I need to go do some homework because apparently I’m missing something. Can you help get me started? What does he mean when he says “accessible”?

—Rob in California

Dear Rob,

You’re not alone when it comes to wondering about “accessible e-learning.” It’s a topic that covers a lot of territory, so I’m going to try to keep it simple and give you a few starting points. Let me begin by describing a typical e-learning situation, which is probably what you envision when you think of accessibility.

A Typical eLearning Course

Let’s visualize “Jane,” sitting at her desk in front of your typical computer; monitor, mouse, and speakers set up. Using her mouse, she logs on to the company Learning Management System (LMS) and selects an e-learning course to take. She turns up the volume and listens to the narrator speak, while images fade in and out on the screen. A few moments later, the course poses a question about the images on her screen. Jane uses her mouse to click on, and submit, her answer. To finish the course, she must also complete a drag-and-drop exercise.

What I just described is a pretty standard e-learning experience involving fairly common activities. This scenario is not the one your boss is referencing when he talks about accessibility. For him, “accessible” means the content is designed to reach a variety of learners.

Designing eLearning For a Variety of Learners

Say, for instance, Jane is hearing impaired. As such, what will her experience be when she takes this e-learning module?

Think about it. The course has audio narration. But can you add some type of captioning so Jane can understand the spoken information? Is there a notes/script panel she can use to read along? If not, she will simply see pretty images on the screen while missing out on the spoken track.

Now switch it up again and say Jane is visually impaired. The course also has information, images, navigation controls, and exercises on the screen. Can it be navigated by standard screenreader tools to help her out? Are the images specifically described by the narration, or do they have alt tags that describe them? The course also has a drag-and-drop activity. Will Jane be able to complete this activity if she can’t see the items on the screen?

These are just a few examples of how physical issues might impact access to an e-learning module, and just a handful of the many questions you need to answer and address when you’re creating accessible e-learning courses. Be forewarned, this topic can quickly snowball into other areas as well, including usability (font size, color scheme) and mobile design considerations.

In short, your boss is asking you to create courses that address the needs of a variety of learners. You must ask yourself whether someone who has visual, auditory, or other impairments will be able to learn the material as successfully as others.

Getting Started With eLearning Accessibility

Two terms you should become familiar with are “WCAG” (a set of accessibility standards for web design that can guide your e-learning accessibility efforts) and “508 compliance” (Section 508 is an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that requires that all federal information available electronically must be available in a variety of methods to address various disabilities). Section 508 contains 16 provisions to guide your course development.  Exploring WCAG and 508 topics is a great first step to learning more about accessibility.  There are also several free tools that can help guide you on your journey.

I hope this helps you start down the right path, and we’ll certainly do more posts on accessibility and related issues in the future.  In the meantime, should you or any other readers have specific questions about accessibility, please don’t hesitate to post in the community. You’ll find a lot of talented e-learning professionals ready to help you out!

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