Accessibility is a topic that not many of us pay much attention to - especially when it comes to digitization. We tend to think that with digital devices, apps, text-to-speech applications and so on, everybody has the same chances of taking part in online courses, digitized work environments or private activities.
With Covid-19 being a part of our daily lives (and still, in some cases, heavily affecting us) for over two years, we want to look back at how digital accessibility was implemented during the course of the pandemic. We also will give our opinion on how digital accessibility can be promoted even further and where we see chances for new developments.
Online education is a part of our daily lives
Online courses are not a new thing: with their help, working adults who strive to improve their career were able to take part in educational programs even before COVID-19. Students, too, can access additional online lessons, for example to receive inexpensive tutoring.
Especially for non-disabled people, these options were already a huge part of their lives, since they usually have no problems in accessing the internet or to process the course content. Online courses are often regarded as a simple and easy way to get information and to achieve career goals.
But this is not true for everyone: people with disabilities, such as deaf or h-o-h (hard of hearing), as well as visually impaired or blind people or people with processing disorders are often not considered when online courses are created.
This problem was widened during COVID-19 when educational institutions like schools or universities were rapidly forced to switch to online learning programs.
While schools, colleges and universities are obligated to meet the needs of these students in personal courses and lessons, they often don't have the time, resources and skills to do so in an online environment. As Russ and Hamidi (2021) put it in 2021: “School districts and teachers have been tasked with creating virtual learning lessons without awareness, preparation, or training.”
This of course poses a big challenge to make digital learning environments accessible for everyone. Students long have returned to universities or schools (even if it's only partially in some cases). But this leaves us with the following question: what will we do to prepare for virtual learning in the future?
Online learning is a chance to make our society as a whole more accessible. Participation and not separation is what we should strive for when we talk about inclusivity.
To achieve this, it is necessary to be honest and clear about the missing accessibility of many online courses and it’s important to recognize that we all can profit from more accessible content, since in Germany alone there are 10.4 million people living with disabilities. The majority of them got a disability later in life, though: either through old age, accidents or illness.
That means that none of us is actually guaranteed to live their whole life “unbothered” by disabilities. Imagine if you were excluded from the online content you actually want to use -
accessible online content will help to keep their quality of life as high as it was before.
How can we make online education more accessible?
Schools and universities use a variety of virtual learning environments (VLE) such as the Google Classroom, Schoology, Moodle or the Apple Classroom to deliver their virtual content and teach lessons.
To make the content accessible for every student, some web content accessibility guidelines are usually applied. In Germany not only a german regulation is applied, but also a EU law, which is supposed to ensure that digital content is accessible for everyone.
In general, the VLEs and the content should be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust.
The reality might look different though:
Having only a small time frame aside from their usual workload and only limited support, many teachers are struggling with incorporating accessibility measures in their courses. Some things that most of us use naturally and quite often when creating content are posing problems for some students. Icons, for example, might be difficult when there is no alternative text added to them.
Courses often contain many different types of media, like web content, PDFs, videos, texts, images or slide presentations.
There are multiple ways to make each of these media types more accessible. The best solution is to get competent counseling on how to create accessible online courses from the start, but also how to improve already existing content. The German Bildungsserver offers a helpful list of links for this. You can also visit our Instagram channel to learn about this!
In a study conducted with US students, Kumar and Owston showed that most of the problems that students encounter are in fact due to inaccessible design and not because of the course platforms. PDFs proved to be a common source of grief, since they were often not adapted to be used with a screen reader. Another thing that is often not even considered is the font that is used in the documents. For example, an italic font is less readable even for people without dyslexia, as an eye-tracking study concluded.
Of course, it takes time, understanding and knowledge to prepare or adapt course materials for learners with disabilities. And often teachers might lack these traits, simply because the awareness has not yet fully arrived in their institutions and might not be part of their education as well.
Usability and accessibility in online education
One way to help teachers become more skilled in creating accessible online learning content can be to provide them with examples of “good” (meaning accessible) and “bad” (meaning inaccessible) designs.
Speaking of designs: usability is of course a major part of every website we look at and every content we consume. But only because a website or a document abides the laws of good usability, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is accessible too. You need only to think of modern websites that contain no more than a few words with animated backgrounds. While accessibility might not be such a big issue when it comes to visiting websites in one’s freetime (although, frankly, it is) it most certainly is when accessing educational content. Offering more flexible ways of usage is only one improvement that can be done.
The effort of producing content that is more accessible is paying off too: naturally, students with disabilities reach better results and study successes.
On the other hand, though, students with mental health issues are harder to include, since their symptoms often worsen when they have to take part in online learning courses over an extended period of time. Many of them report feelings of isolation, anxiety and fear. In some cases depressive symptoms worsened to the point of hospitalization.
That shows that it is still fundamentally important to offer both: personal contact and support as well as online sources for those who need (or want) to access the courses from home.
Combining Usability AND Accessibility is generally summarized with “universal design”.
It follows seven principles, which you can learn about in detail on our Instagram. One principle for example is intuitivity of usage, which means that a person doesn’t need to learn how to use a device or a platform, but that it's self-explanatory. Applying these principles actually helps all students - but also second language speakers. It is also very important to think accessibility from the start and incorporate it directly when creating content and designs. This is much easier to do than adapting the content afterwards.
Despite having 10.4 million people with a disability living in Germany, accessibility is not a very visible topic. That might be because most of us think it doesn’t or won’t affect us at all. But you need only to break a leg to see how hard life with decreased mobility can be, not to mention other impairments.
In other words: we need to foster a favorable culture towards accessibility, so that it becomes natural to always keep in mind. This would also mean having a positive and more welcoming culture around disabilities. We should start to see what people can do and how successful they can be - if they are given the right accommodations.
The goal: accessible online courses for everyone
The COVID-19 pandemic showed us many flaws and gaps when it comes to digital learning processes. Especially when we talk about inclusion of people with disabilities in online courses, accessibility is still not reached everywhere. Having to adapt rapidly to a new situation as it was in 2019 cannot be an excuse anymore. The need to make the courses more accessible is in fact there - and big as ever. But unfortunately it has become clear, with inclusivity not being a priority in politics or companies, that not much has changed on a grand scale. There is much room for the online content to be improved. Besides the courses, also the devices need to be made more accessible, for example by simplifying the usage with an MDM which can hide unnecessary apps in KIOSK Mode. By reducing the complexity of devices, applications and so, we can make sure that everything is available for everyone.