2010 Conference: Promoting document accessibility for the Virtual Learning Environment by Kevin Murrow
This paper was presented at the 2010 conference of the Round Table on Information Access for People with Print Disabilities. You can read the full paper below, download the Word version, flip through the slides or listen to an audio recording of the presentation.
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Kevin has been employed by Disability Services at Massey University since 2002, and has been working in the position of Alternative Format Coordinator since 2004. In November 2009 he accepted the additional short term role of Accessible Guidelines Coordinator. In his role as Accessibility Guidelines Coordinator he was required to create guidelines to support academic staff create accessible material in the Moodle Virtual Learning Environment.
Universities and other educational institutes are increasingly making use of Virtual Learning Environments, also known as a Course Management Systems. These systems are usually “blended” with traditional teaching practices such as lectures and hard copy study material to create a hybrid learning environment. These Virtual Learning Environments provide an opportunity to improve the learning experience of the students by adding extra content to their courses and more importantly creating an environment where shared learning is used to construct knowledge. Such a system creates both challenges and opportunities for print disabled students.
Massey University of New Zealand has adopted an open source Course Management System known as Moodle to deliver a blended learning experience to its internal and distance students.
This presentation will examine the issues, opportunities and challenges that arise from Virtual Learning Environments such as Moodle in relation to the print disabled. It will outline an initiative by Massey University which aims to improve the accessibility of the material delivered by course controllers in its Moodle environment. This presentation will also detail and review a project that is being undertaken to train course controllers on how to produce accessible documents for the Moodle environment.
Promoting document accessibility for the Virtual Learning Environment
About Massey University
- 3 Campus in North Island: Auckland, Wellington and Palmerston North
- 33,000 students (18,000 internal and 15,000 study extramurally)
- 50 students registered with RNZFB
- 135 have identified themselves with a Specific Learning Disability
Virtual Learning Environments
- What is a Virtual Learning Environment?
- What is Moodle?
- What is Stream?
Components of Moodle
- Activities: Up to 19 modules that the student can interactive with. For example…
- Chat module
- Quiz module
- Resources: Content that is inserted by the teacher. Can included study material, lecture notes, web links and extra readings.
- Functionality: How well the environment can be accessed and utilised.
- Content: Accessibility issues that relate to the content that the Course Controller uploads onto the environment.
- UK Open University 2006
- Modified Moodle to address accessibility issues
- Randell Hansen 2009
- Testing Moodle on behalf of the CANnect consortium.
- “the vast majority of Moodle is technically accessible”
- but the details need more attention
- Recommendations of report currently being addressed
Content Accessibility Issues
- Course controllers can place any material at anytime onto the environment
- No guarantee that the material will be accessible to all students
- Alternative Format Coordinator would not be able to monitor and convert course material
Proposed solutions to content accessibility issues.
To encourage course controllers to author accessible documents and to give them the necessary recourses that will enable them to do it.
- Creation of how to guides
- Promote the adoption of accessibility guides by academic staff
- Easy to follow how to guides
- Interlinking HTML documents
- Format specific
- Authoring tool specific
- Cover major accessibility issues
- Working with existing academic teaching groups
- Incorporating accessible guidelines within Stream
- Accessibility compliance linked to performance review
- Lobbying various decision makers
- CADel: Centre for Academic Development and eLearning
- Stream 4 Staff
- Other developments
[end of slides]
Full paper: Promoting document accessibility for the Virtual Learning Environment
Virtual Learning Environments, also known as Learning Management Systems or Course Management Systems are increasingly being utilised by tertiary institutions. These systems are usually combined with traditional teaching practices such as lectures and hard copy study material to create what is increasingly referred to as “blended learning”. Blended learning seeks to improve the learning experience of students by adding extra content to courses and creating an environment where shared learning is used to construct knowledge. Such a system creates both challenges and opportunities for print disabled students.
Massey University of New Zealand has adopted an open source Virtual Learning Environment known as Moodle to deliver a blended learning experience to its internal and distance students. Massey has rebranded Moodle and given it the name Stream.
This presentation will examine the issues, opportunities and challenges that arise from Virtual Learning Environments such as Moodle in relation to the print disabled. It will outline an initiative by Massey University which aims to improve the accessibility of the material delivered by course controllers in Moodle/Stream.
Massey University has a student population of about 33,000, 18,000 of which study internally in one of three campuses located in Palmerston North, Wellington and in Auckland and the 15,000 are enrolled in extramural courses. We currently have about 50 students who are registered as being blind or visual impaired, 135 with specific learning disabilities and 28 with head injuries.
I am been employed by Disability Services at Massey University since 2002, and have been working in the position of Alternative Format Coordinator since 2004. Recently I have acquired the additional short term role of Accessible Guidelines Coordinator. In my role as Accessibility Guidelines coordinator I was required to…
“Create guidelines to support academic staff produce an accessible stream environment to enable all students to experience blended learning”
The term “blended learning” refers to the combination of traditional teaching practices such as lectures and hard copy study material with a Virtual Learning Environments such as Moodle. Moodle is an open source Virtual Learning Environment, also known as a Learning Management System or Course Management System. Moodle presents content through a modular delivery system. Each module represents an activity or resource which as a whole aims to create a richer learning experience. Modules can be described as activities or resources. Activities are usually modules that students can interact with. Some examples of activities include the following.
- Chat: The Chat module allows participants to have a real-time synchronous discussion via the web.
- Forum: The Forum activity is a place where group discussions can take place.
- Quiz: This Quiz module allows the teacher to design and set quiz tests.
Teaching resources presented in the Stream environment are primarily course specific and are therefore placed on Stream by the Course Controller. Content can included anything from assignments to complete Study Guides. Course Controllers can upload any kind of electronic file, link to any website or create content using an editing module in Moodle.
Massey University has adopted Moodle and rebranded it Stream. Stream is currently in its pilot stage but the plan seems to be to run it out to all internal students in 2011 and then offer it to extramural students. Throughout this document I have used the more general name Moodle instead of the specific name Stream.
Accessibility and Moodle
Accessibility issues related to Moodle fall into two broad categories. The first category relates to issues associated with the design of Moodle and how well all students and teachers can use and interact with the environment. The second category concerns the accessibility of teaching content that is delivered through the Moodle environment. Moodle allows Course Controllers to place any digital document, link or image onto their course. There is no guarantee that this content is accessible to students with disabilities.
Accessibility issues in relation to the Functionality of Moodle
To what degree the Moodle environment is able to be accessed and utilised by disabled students has so far been explored by two reports into Moodle accessibility. The UK Open University, who is a major adopter and contributor to Moodle and the CANnect Accessibility report by Randall Hansen.
In 2006 The UK Open University investigated the accessibility of Moodle. They found various accessibility issues with how Moodle was designed and the ability for students and teachers with disabilities to access the functions in Moodle. With the cooperation of Moodle core developers they modified Moodle 1.7 to meet their accessibility requirements.  In 2009, tests were carried out by Randall Hansen on behalf of the CANnect consortium which found that “the vast majority of Moodle is technically accessible” but the details need more attention.  Because of this study Moodle tracker issues were created for each of the 51 recommendations that Randall Hansen had list on his report. These issues are currently being resolved for Moodle 1.9 and Moodle 2.0 by members of Moodles development group. 
Moodle is constantly developing. Testing accessibility and fixing bugs is ongoing.
Accessibility issues in relation to the content placed on Moodle
Moodle allows the course controller to upload any kind of electronic file, link to any website or create content using an editing module in Moodle. This decentralised approach to the distribution of course material differs a great deal from the centralised distribution approach that the University has traditionally used.
Traditionally the University has relied on a paper based system to deliver study material to the student. The majority of this material was authored or compiled by the Course Controller, then published and distributed by a centralised department with the University. The material was published before the course began which usually allowed time for the material to be converted into an accessible format for print disabled students.
As material can be placed on the Module course by the course controller at any time and in any form there is no mechanism in place to guarantee that the material is accessible to disabled students enrolled in the course.
We identified this as an accessibility issue that need to be resolved, and have decided to deal with the problem by developing accessibility guidelines and encouraging and supporting Course Controllers to use them.
We wanted the guidelines to be complete and easy to implement. To achieve this we come up with the following requirements:
Requirements for Accessibility Guidelines
- Assist Course Controllers to improve the structure and accessibility of documents
- Be format specific and at least include the following formats…
- Word processing formats such as RTF and DOC
- Develop step by step instructions that are specific to the major authoring tools including the 2003 and 2007 versions of Microsoft Word, Microsoft PowerPoint and Open Office Writer.
- Include guidelines covering the HTML editing tool in Moodle/Stream.
- Be simple and easy to implement.
Although there are a number of good guidelines available on the web, it was decided that the only way to meet these requirements was to create our own set of interlinking guidelines. The guidelines have only recently been completed they consist of numerous HTML pages which are linked to each other through the use of hyperlinks. The author is required to identify which format they wish to produce and which authoring tool they plan to use and then they are directed to the appropriate guideline. The guidelines are in the form of step by step instructions that all user should find easy to follow.
Implementation of accessibility guidelines.
Academics work with a fair amount of autonomy so we cannot force the Course Controller to use these guidelines. But with the help of other organisations and individuals within the university we intend to pursue a number of approaches:
Approaches to the implementation of the accessibility guidelines.
- Targeting Course Controllers who are already interested in creating documents that are accessible to all their students.
- Advocating that accessibility compliance should be included in as an element within a Course Controllers performance review.
- Working with existing academic teaching groups.
- Advocating the incorporation of accessibility guidelines into the Stream environment.
At the time of writing this paper Massey University Virtual Learning Environment, Stream was still in its pilot stage. The accessibility guidelines had just been completed but have yet to be implemented. It is difficult to say how well the guidelines will be adopted by the Course Controllers but I can say that the process of encouraging and supporting the course controllers to create accessible content will be ongoing.
Although a Virtual Learning Environment such as Moodle can be designed to be accessible to all students, there can be no guarantee that the content of the course is accessible to disabled students. Course Controllers add content to their courses in a variety of formats by using a variety of authoring tools. Accessibility guidelines need to address these different formats and authoring tools. For accessibility guidelines to be useful they cannot afford to remain static they need to evolve and expand as the formats and authoring tools change and are updated.
Guidelines alone will not create accessible content, they need to be implemented. Convincing a Course Controller to implement guidelines will involve a variety of approaches and will take time. There is no guarantee that the guidelines will be adopted and the guidelines cannot address content that the course controller has included in their course that they have not authored themselves such as readings and articles. The Course Controllers’ ability to self publish any content at anytime makes the Accessibility Coordinators role to ensure accessibility unmanageable, but it should also be seen as an opportunity to empower the author to create accessible material themselves.
Hansen, R (2009, September 10). Testing Moodle for Accessibility. Retrieved 16/04/2010, from http://www.sloan-c.org/cannect/project3.html
Colwell, C., Cooper, M., Ellis, J., Gray, J., & Freear, N. (2006). Moodle Accessibility Specification. Retrieved 16/04/2010, from http://docs.moodle.org/en/Moodle_Accessibility_Specification
 The Moodle accessibility specifications for this project can be found at the following link.