How accessible is your campus CMS?

This is the first of a series of posts through which I will attempt to catch up on ELI 2007.

Mark Felix (Instructional Applications Support, The University of Arizona), Alan Foley (Learning Technology Liaison, University of Wisconsin System Administration) and Ken Petri (Director, OSU Web Accessibility Center, The Ohio State University) gave a really important presentation on web accessibility and campus course management systems. The title of the talk was “Improved Access to Learning for All: A Consortia’s Approach to LMS Accessibility,” and these three framed a discussion around the importance of developing a cross-campus consortia that begins to develop and define standards for campus web accessibility. Such a talk may seem to fall outside the logic of much of the “Sexier” teaching and learning technologies being presented at ELI this year such as gaming, 3d immersive worlds, podcasting, etc., yet the question of accessibility for all kinds of learners (whether for the learning impaired, hearing-impaired, visually-impaired, or economically disadvantaged) is a topic that is on many people’s minds these days (see here and here).

I think this idea of accessibility really struck home for me when Alan Foley suggested early on during his discussion that web accessibility is at its core a question of social justice. Wow, that’s it! Making all the unbelievably exciting virtual spaces we are exploring open and accessible is what makes this stuff exciting and relevant. Ken Petri went on to demonstrate the tremendous obstacles certain users face when doing something as seemingly simple as reading a web page. Using the screen reader JAWS to read a page in Ohio State’s CMS Carmen (powered by the Canadian-based company Desire2Learn), he illustrated what someone with a visual impairment would experience while browsing a page:

Computer voice reading: Navigation… space… navigation… space… frame…space.. navigation… home… frame… title… frame… (and just mutliple these words by about 20 or 30)

The demo was eye-opening -how can someone who is blind or has poor vision access the content of a course management system that spits out little more than undecipherable tags and titles? As the presenters noted, this talk was not intended as an indictment of Desire2Learn specifically (for the reps were there and seemed to be working closely with the consortia), but rather an expose of the shoddy architecture of accessibility that characterizes a majority of the Course Management Systems. Very few of these educational applications are using W3 standards, i.e., CSS-based styles and xhtml compliant code (shame, shame!), and with the prevalence of frame-based systems the content becomes that much harder for assistive technologies to read. Given the raison d’être for these web-based systems -wouldn’t making content accessible for all students be first and foremost on their list? That said, this is not simply an attempt to dump on proprietary CMSs, but rather a more complex series of relationships between a clear university policy on accessibility, vendor response, and a more-informed culture about the importance of accessibility on campus.

For my part, I am going to go back to UMW, catch my breath, and conduct a series of tests on Blackboard’s accessibility in relationship to other web-based teaching applications we are using such as WordPress, Drupal, and MediaWiki. I’d be interested to see where these open source solutions stand in relationship to the larger questions of accessibility and social justice. In my mind, if you are going to hack a virtual learning space, it better be accessible!

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