In this rush to go online, let’s not ignore Accessibility

Dipesh Jain March 31, 2020
We’ve been preparing to take education online for years now. EdTech Companies have developed a myriad of tools to help us get there. Today, we have
  1. Courseware authoring Platforms
  2. Content Curation and Distribution Platforms
  3. Assessment creation and distribution tools
  4. Tools to administer virtual tests and proctoring platforms to monitor them
  5. Auto assessment grading platforms
These tools and many others have been designed to fundamentally do two things
  1. To help teachers impart learning seamlessly
  2. Help students to absorb it and learn better.
Coronavirus will be their biggest test. Schools, Colleges, and Universities have been forced to go online overnight. What seemed like good to have tools once upon a time, have become must-haves now. Zoom has made the transition from a noun to a verb. This could, very well, be our transition to the era of digital learning. What we do now will define the future. It is easy to lose sight of the long term goal when the near future is in such a whirlwind. Today, more than ever before, we are in a position to support all learners. Technology has made it easy for us to impart and deliver teaching in a manner that could be grasped and understood by students of all backgrounds and abilities. In the era of print textbooks, a visually impaired student had to depend heavily on braille to make sense of what is being taught. While braille devices made it possible for them to learn and progress in life, the learning experience was not really up to the mark and this is just the visually impaired users we are talking about. There are students who have other physical, motor, & learning disabilities. Today, technology makes it possible for us to cater to them and provide optimal learning experience by making our learning products accessible.  
What is Web Accessibility
Web Accessibility means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them. Web accessibility encompasses all disabilities that affect access to the web
  1. Auditory
  2. Cognitive
  3. Physical
  4. Speech
  5. Visual
  6. Neurological
In addition to helping people with disabilities, Web Accessibility also helps other users who have temporary disabilities, ageing population, people with slow connectivity or expensive internet, etc. Accessible digital products help inclusion by making learning possible for these users. However, that’s not all. Accessible products are superior in terms of user experience and enhance the learning experience for every learner. Subtitles enhance our video watching experience. Right font sizes enhance our reading experience. Correct color contrast on images enhances our viewing experience. By enhancing our experience, they help improve our grasp and understanding of what is being taught.    
History of Web Accessibility & Current standards
In 1995, Dr. Cynthia Waddell published a web design accessibility standard for the City of San Jose’s Office of Equality Assurance. The list included, among many other things, a requirement that all images be accompanied by alt text, all audio and video elements be paired with text transcriptions, and a cap of only two columns per HTML table. While these might seem obvious and commonplace today, remember this is 1995 we are talking about. Since then, various tools and standards have been developed to regulate Web Accessibility and set common guidelines. Today, The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an apex body and an international community that develops and updates standards to ensure the long-term growth of the web. The latest Web Accessibility standards are WCAG 2.1    
Take action now
If you are a student using digital learning resources or a parent or teacher, ensure that the learning material you /your students use is accessible. You can ask your EdTech vendor or check on their website. You can also check for their VPAT report. VPAT stands for ‘Voluntary Product Accessibility Template’. As the name suggests, it is a voluntary report published by the product seller to help its users understand the Accessibility status of its product. This document might seem difficult to comprehend fully but should give you a good high-level idea of the status of Accessibility.    
EdTech’s contribution
The EdTech community has come together like never before in these unprecedented times to support students and teachers. From opening up their resources (and making them free) to supporting the increasing enrollments on their platforms, EdTech companies, and publishers have made this overnight shift possible. Over the years, they’ve developed tools and systems that can not only make online learning easy but also enhance the learning experience. Take for example the virtual simulations. By simulating the natural environment and enriching it with immersive media, students can learn concepts like photosynthesis, force, and even area and perimeter with ease and in-depth. In addition to that, by linking these simulations with a backend analytics dashboard, they’ve helped provide teachers an ability to evaluate student’s learning patterns and intervene wherever needed. Similarly, they’ve developed gaming tools, adaptive platforms, enhance ebooks, among others.  
Let’s address Accessibility
Accessibility of learning products has gained momentum in the last few years largely driven by requests and lawsuits filed by students and their parents. Only recently have companies realized the power of designing accessible products and are making the shift from remediating inaccessible products to designing ‘born accessible’ products. If there was ever a time to make this practice mainstream, it is now when education across the globe is going digital. What we do now will define the future of learning. Let’s do the right thing and not take shortcuts.      

Dipesh Jain

A Management professional with over 6+ years of experience in business development, Dipesh interacts with clients to craft solutions for our content offerings to help deliver next generation, digital-first publishing solutions that help empower information and knowledge transfer in the Education and Corporate environments.