Web Tool Accessibility Update

My colleague, Rosemary Capps, CETL Assistant Director, and I briefed a group of faculty on Universal Design several weeks ago. Our particular focus was how third-party eLearning vendors are starting to make their educational web tools more ADA/Section 508 compliant. I thought in this blog post I would share some of what she and I researched and presented regarding a variety of these web tools.

First, it should be stated that while third-party companies are starting to take ADA compliance more seriously, and have made some progress, none of these tools is perfectly accessible to everyone with a disability. But the fact that they are making significant in-roads into e-accessibility is quite promising.

The first tool we talked about is Piazza. Piazza, for those that aren’t familiar with it, is a (completely free) revolutionary forum/discussion board tool whereby students (or instructors for that matter) can ask a question and then receive either a student answer, instructor answer, or instructor-endorsed student answer that everyone else in the class benefits from. This only barely scratches the surface of what it can do, but that is for another post another day. Suffice it to say that it’s a good web tool that can be used in an online, hybrid, or face-to-face course to increase student engagement. Several instructors are trying it out here at UCD and I encourage you to check it out as well.

The downside is that it is a very visual tool, something that would be very hard for someone with visual difficulties to use. However, Piazza has created a “lite” version of its tool that completely strips away all of the visual formatting. Now, someone with limited or no vision can use Piazza in conjunction with a screen reader, and/or someone with motor impairments can navigate the site solely using a keyboard. Individuals with these difficulties can visit http://piazza.com/lite or opt-in for Piazza to always display content in this manner by adjusting their settings. By doing so, they can participate in almost everything for which Piazza allows: posting, answering, navigating, reading, etc. It does look like it may have a bit of trouble with the tagging functionality in Piazza, but still it’s a great example of a company who is working on improving their product for use by all individuals (i.e. universal design).

Another tool that faculty are starting to use is called VoiceThread. They have a lot of videos on their site demonstrating what it is and how to use it, but like Piazza, it’s an innovative web tool that encourages students to participate more actively in discussion. The difference is that it helps to create a discussion around a particular piece of media (text, audio, video, image), whereas Piazza creates discussion around particular questions and topics. It’s free to try up to a certain number of students, but is actually fairly reasonably priced for a year’s subscription at only $99/year for an individual (they also have department licenses available).

Much like Piazza, VoiceThread is a very visual tool. In fact, it’s even more reliant on visuals than Piazza due to its heavy reliance on various forms of media. In order to allow students with visual and certain cognitive disabilities to more easily participate in VoiceThread discussions, the company has created an alternate form of their site called “VoiceThread Universal,” which, like Piazza, completely strips away the visual elements and provides a text experience to enable those with screen readers to more fully participate. You can check out their website for more information on their accessibility efforts, and if you want to see VoiceThread Universal in action, you can visit http://voicethread.com/universal/.

These are but two examples of how the Universal Design movement is helping to shape e-accessibility around the web (for another example, check out Google’s efforts here). Many other companies that develop eLearning web tools are starting to recognize the need and are learning how to better serve the population who rely on assistive devices like screen readers to participate more fully on the Internet. Technology has the potential to significant increase communication and learning opportunities for all individuals, as long as it is used and designed appropriately.

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