American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Winter 2017 TECHNOLOGY
by Deborah Kent Stein with John Baker, Janna Cameron, and Clara van Gerven
From the Editor: With the proliferation of electronic learning materials, today's classroom presents exciting possibilities and daunting challenges for blind students. The electronic revolution has the potential to bring equal opportunities, but inaccessible platforms and content too often pose barriers instead. One company that has made a lasting commitment to accessibility is D2L (Desire2Learn). D2L serves as an example of what can be done by a company that makes accessibility one of its ground rules. In 2013 D2L was honored with a Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award, the highest award presented by the National Federation of the Blind to organizations and individuals whose innovations have enhanced the lives of blind people.
When CEO John Baker founded D2L in 1999, he had no firsthand experience with blindness. However, he recognized from the outset that all students and teachers must be able to access materials used in the classroom. From the beginning he established accessibility as a cornerstone of the new company's commitment.
D2L is a Canadian company that serves clients around the world. It builds learning management systems for schools and universities. Learning management systems, or learning platforms, are the technological underpinnings that deliver educational content online and in the classroom. Learning platforms support syllabi, assignments, assessments, classroom discussion boards, and communications between students and teachers. Schools and publishers provide the actual content, but it is delivered by the underlying D2L platform.
"People kept bringing access issues to our attention," John Baker recalls. "We wanted to break down barriers for everybody, such as people who can't attend traditional classes due to a medical condition, people who can't hear the audio portion of a video, and people with hand limitations who have trouble using a mouse or a keyboard. Our team brought access for the blind to my attention, and it became a key challenge."
D2L established three criteria for its platforms. These "Pillars of Success" are:
1. Enjoyability. For students and teachers using the platform, navigation must be easy, content must be understandable, and communication of ideas must flow smoothly.
2. Accessibility. The platform must provide course templates with easily employed accessibility features. Such features include high color contrast and captioned images.
3. Universal design. When universal design is employed, the desired outcome can be achieved by several alternative means.
D2L works with the schools and publishers that create actual educational content. Its Course Uplift Service helps clients ensure that their materials are fully accessible. For example, the team shows content providers how to design charts and tables that can be read easily with a screen reader, and it teaches them how to create extended captions for pictures and diagrams. D2L is working with organizations and companies in the United States and overseas to develop international accessibility standards.
Platforms such as D2L encourage personalized learning. Students and teachers can hold private conversations about course material, and groups of students can work together on joint projects. Students can post their questions and ideas on class discussion boards for feedback from peers and instructors.
In 2007 at the CSUN Conference (International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference at California State University/Northridge) John Baker connected for the first time with innovators in access technology from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). D2L quickly became one of the Federation's SNAP partners. SNAP stands for Strategic Nonvisual Access Partners. Through SNAP D2L receives feedback from blind testers on a regular basis. D2L has also added a blind screen reader user to its team.
"We know that it is a snap to ensure accessibility when websites, products, and services are developed properly from the start," says Clara van Gerven, the Federation's manager of accessibility programs. "D2L really gets it about accessibility being important. They're a star example of what can be done."
D2L systems are used in fifty countries, but the company is still relatively small. About 15 million students worldwide use D2L platforms. In the United States D2L systems have been adopted by the online program <virtualhighschool.com> and by several institutions of higher education, including Michigan State University and the University of Colorado. "I hardly ever had any accessibility issues," says Ellie Kemezis, a blind student who used D2L at Oakland Community College in Michigan. "Once in a while after an upgrade I'd run into trouble, but they always fixed the problem right away. D2L was great—I could use the website in the same way my classmates used it, without needing any accommodations."
No matter how accessible the learning management system may be, it won't work for blind students unless publishers and instructors post accessible content. "We still have a way to go in developing greater awareness," John Baker states. "Content providers need to understand their options. We're still just getting started." To encourage the efforts of schools and publishers, D2L presents an annual award to content providers who work to ensure that their material is fully accessible.
"Ninety-five percent of the time accessible design is good design," Clara van Gerven points out. "It provides a whole host of fringe benefits. It will cover lots of people with disabilities, and it also helps English language learners and people who prefer to use the keyboard rather than the mouse."
"We still run into resistance at times," admits John Baker. "In some cases making things accessible adds one or two extra mouse clicks. Some content providers see that and automatically rule us out. They tell us, ‘Clicks matter.' They don't get it that accessibility matters, too. A couple of clicks is a small price to pay."
"Once a school adopts an accessible learning management system, the teachers have to be trained to use it," says Clara van Gerven. "It takes an investment of time at the front end. If teachers post unlabeled graphics and handwritten notes, the material is still going to be inaccessible for blind students. They have to learn to think about access throughout the process. Once they get it, things fall into place."
In some areas both content providers and the creators of learning management systems still search for solutions. Nonvisual access to maps, diagrams, and pictures remains severely limited, and there is still no effective electronic means to represent mathematical formulas spatially. "It's daunting," says van Gerven, "but we must remember that the goal posts have moved. Tech companies that work with institutions of higher learning are telling them they need more access features. The technology in higher education is getting better all the time." Regarding the issues around math and diagrams she adds, "When I started here, tactile graphics was barely a consideration; there were too many other big problems. Now it is much more part of the conversation. Expectations are much higher. ‘Separate but equal' is a refrain I rarely hear anymore."
Despite the exciting progress at the university level, great challenges remain in the K-12 school setting. "One place to start is to let school administrators know that accessible learning platforms such as D2L are out there," van Gerven advises. "Parents and teachers should encourage schools to invest in learning management systems that will work for everyone. They will be in compliance with the laws, and in the long run the work will be exponentially easier."
D2L, <www.d2l.com> — The official website of D2L presents the company's learning management systems and explains how they are used to transform learning in a variety of settings.
Web Accessibility Initiative, <https://www.w3.org/WAI> — The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has developed a variety of strategies, guidelines, and resources to make the web accessible to people with disabilities. It develops guidelines widely regarded as the international standard for web accessibility and welcomes participants from around the world.
Strategic Nonvisual Accessibility Partners (SNAP), <https://nfb.org/national-federation-blind-strategic-nonvisual-access-partner-certification> — The Strategic Nonvisual Accessibility Partners certification website is dedicated to helping ensure that websites and applications are accessible to the blind. The goal of the SNAP program is to increase the accessibility of technology by developing ongoing partnerships with organizations in an effort to assist them with infusing accessibility into their corporate cultures.