Can anyone help me understand how you assess the accessibility of an e-learning course?  I'm trying to find guidelines that are specific to e-learning but I seem to only be able to find guidelines relating to web design.

 

Also, what should be the evaluation criteria for assessing usability in e-learning courses that would be sensible and practical?

 

All help will be very gratefully received!  Thanks.  Julie.

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Hi Julie,

The accessibility standards for elearning are exactly the same as web design. You need to follow the W3C WAI guidelines and criteria.

With usability, there are no hard and fast standards, but, again you should follow general web conventions (which I'm afraid most elearning materials fail spectacularly to do). Jakob Nielsen's site is a good place to start - although follow what he says, not what he does.

At this point, I'm going to quote from Stephen Downes superb essay on Principles of Effective Elearning. It's five years old, but still entirely valid:

Usability Most people are familiar with usability through the writings of Jakob Nielsen or John S. Rhodes. Design purists are probably familiar with Jeffrey Zeldman. But probably the greatest usability experts are found in the design labs of Google and Yahoo!

There is no denying that these are two of the most successful enterprises on the web. But what made them successful was not that they were large or had great products - after all, Microsoft has both and yet nobody classes Microsoft's online presence ion the same category as these two. No, what made these companies successful is that they solved the usability problem.

Yahoo! and Google, though both ostensibly search sites, take completely different approaches to serving their clientelle. Yahoo!, which came first, evolved as a portal site. This meant that it would have to solve the problem of navigation through complex and rich information. Google, by contrast, approached its challenge as a search engine. This meant it has to offer the most direct access to its powerful technology possible.

Between the two sites, designers have hit on what are probably the two essential elements of usability: consistency and simplicity. The two, indeed, go hand in hand: it is not possible to be consistent without being simple, and it is not possible to be simple without being consistent.

Simplicity is the feature that strikes the user first. Many of us probably recall Google's debut on the web. At that time, it was little more than a text form and a submit button. Results listings were unadorned and easy to follow. At a time when websites were getting more and more complex, Google's design was a startling change of pace. But an effective one, and users soon began using Google in droves, lured by the site's simplicity and retained by its effective search engine.

Fewer people remember the early days of Yahoo!, but this company too hit on a design that would become a standard. Yahoo!'s early design was nothing more than a set of links pointing to different categories. Through a process of selection, users would delve deeper and deeper into Yahoo!'s hierarchy of search categories. There was nothing to learn about the use of Yahoo! - simply click on the link. The 'Yahoo! portal' soon became the standard to which other portal sites aspired.

The list of other online enterprises that broke away from the pack through simplicity is too long to list. Amazon made buying books online simple. eBay made hosting an online auction simple. Blogger made authoring your own website simple. Bloglines made reading RSS simple. The web itself is actually the simplification of earlier, more arcane technologies - the web does no more than what was already enabled by the holy triumverate of Gopher, Archie and Veronica, but it did away with the typing and allowed documents to link directly to each other.

The concept of consistency is less well understood but to get an idea of what it entails take a look at the links on both Yahoo!'s and Google's cureent sites. What you won't find are things like dropdown menus, fancy icons, image maps and the other arcania of the typical website. Links on both Yahoo! and Google are not only simple, they are consistent: they are the same colour and the same type throughout the site, for the most part unadorned. They use the ultimate standard of consistency: words - a system of reference with which readers are already familiar.

Contrast the navigation offered by these two sites with the navigation offered by the typical e-learning offering. Students are presented with a dizzying array of mysterious icons, expanding and collapsing file-manager style lists, dropdowns, forms, buttons, and more. Frequent are the columns and articles advising that students be trained in how to use the learning management system before the course commences. Had Yahoo! or Google depended on this mode of design, they would be out of business. The website must teach the user how it functions as the user uses it.

There is one more advantage of both consistency and simplicity: speed. Both Yahoo and Google are fast-loading sites, because they rely on a minimum of extraneous content. They are also able to rely on the user's browser caching elements that are repeatedly used (Google has advanced this to a high art, it's cached Javascript engine running Google leading to the now popular Ajax website interaction engine). Other sites that could be fast are bogged down with downloads that are not required, browser rendering that adds nothing to beauty and functionality, bells and whistles, as they are so often called, that do nothing but make noise.

The principle of simplicity applies to more than just web design and navigation, of course. The mantra must be repeated in all aspects of the learning material. Is it easy to access? Is it easy to understand? To use? As Stanley Fish says, "Answer the question as precisely as possible and then stop. Don't complicate, don't explain, don't pontificate, don't muse, don't speculate, don't be reflective, don't be creative, don't take offense, don't be defensive, don't take anything personally, don't take anything in any way." There may be more elegant was to write and to design, but it is unlikely that there are more effective ones. ( http://chronicle.com/jobs/2004/06/2004062501c.htm )
Wow Mark, thanks very much. I had found Donald Norman and Jakob Nielson's stuff so I am glad I was in the right area and kind of relieved that there are no models for e-learning for usability and accessibility that were blindingly obvious. The article is great and I will digest it slowly to get the best out of it.

I have to write up my findings. As a thank you would you like me to share them?

If anyone else has any information they can add to this as well I would still be very grateful.

Many thanks J.
Hi Julie,

Anything you can share would be great. Let me know if I can help in any way. Most of the stuff we do has to pass a battery of accessibility tests, so we've built up quite a bit of expertise in this.

Cheers,

Mark
Hi Mark

If you have an example of your accessibility tests or testing framework/guidelines that would be really helpful to understand what is required. I'm no web designer and alot of the stuff is difficult for me to see the relevance of, although ... I'm learning .... FAST!

thanks in advance

J.
Hi Julie,

Some useful links:

http://www.w3.org/WAI/ : The source of web accessibility standards. Start with: http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/accessibility.php

You need to focus on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2. See: http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/wcag.php#whatis2

http://achecker.ca/checker/index.php : Checks individual URLs or files

Another web-based tool : http://www.cynthiasays.com/ - We use the desktop version, which allows checking of whole elearning packages offline: http://www.hisoftware.com/products/accverify.html

Also, look at the RNIB pages on accessibility, and the Shaw Trust. Both of these provide services that will help you assess your content for accessibility - although the Shaw Trust is more general, as it includes testing with people who don't use a mouse/trackball.

Cheers,

Mark
Hi again Mark,

The link at the bottom to the Chronicle doesn't work from here. Any chance you could redo it?

Thanks,

J.
Ah - looks like it's moved.

Here you go: http://chronicle.com/article/Minimalism/44675/

Mark
Brilliant, Thanks Mark for all of this, I am sure it is going to help me so much.

Cheers

Julie.
Hi Julie,

One thing to note here is that most elearning is built using Flash so while some of the WCAG guidelines will apply, the WCAG 2.0 guidelines that apply to Flash are so vague that they practically of no use at all.

Flash can be made accessible, and there's a good overview of all the things you need to consider here: http://www.webaim.org/techniques/flash/

It can be a lot of work to make elearning truly accessible, you may be better off gathering specific requirements and working to those than trying to achieve true universal accessibility (with Flash that is, HTML, CSS and javascript are far easier).

Hope that helps.

Owen
Great Owen thanks for the advice and the information. I think I'm going to need the weekend to study all of this and work out, as you say, what is relevant to what I am working on and what is not. I had not understood there were different requirements for Flash, so that is really helpful information.

Many thanks,

Julie.
Hi Julie,

It's not that there are different requirements for Flash. It's just that it's so hard to make Flash meet the WAI requirements.

The Xerte project has made a very good go of creating an authoring tool that produces accessible Flash content: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/xerte/ (See link on RHS for a demo of the accessibility features).

However, if you want properly accessible content it's far easier to leave Flash and stick with HTML, CSS & Javascript. You'll probably need to hand-build, as I don't know of a tool that will create fully compliant content.

Mark
Mark's spot on about the requirements and I'd also agree that properly accessible content is best developed on the open web standards he mentions.

Again, you may be able to avoid this is you get a good picture of your audience's specific needs rather than trying to cater for accessibility challenges you don't need to.

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