Monday, June 27, 2011

Accessibility Basics (Part Two)

In the first article in our Accessibility Basics series, we defined four essential steps in planning for online course accessibility:
  1. Choosing file formats
  2. Chunking content
  3. Providing options
  4. Having backup plans

Commonly Used Formats

In this article, the focus is on step one, choosing file formats.  The file formats that faculty include in an online class vary widely based on a number of factors:
  1. Faculty technical skills – only a minority of faculty create html pages.
  2. Faculty field of expertise/subject area – some fields need special file types for special purposes.
  3. Faculty workload – a busy person will do what they are most familiar with

File Format Pros and Cons

Html pages are the most flexible, and can be made the most accessible.  This is the format the ITRC uses when building a course, because it can include other media and provide for accessibility. However, if you are a faculty member working on your own, this may be intimidating. The HTML Creator tool inside WVU eCampus, however, can allow easy, simple creation. While some subject areas use or require files in a specialized format, these are generally best used as specific demonstration pieces or elements of a homework assignment.

Since today’s faculty tend to be so busy, the most common choices are Microsoft Word documents, Microsoft PowerPoint files, and Adobe Acrobat pdf files.  A common danger with all three of these is that they can impede accessibility for students. To begin, having the primary content in a course consist of these types of files means that a student must download the entire thing to view any of it. If one .doc or .pdf or .ppt file is present for each lesson, then the entire thing must download before a student can view any piece. If that same lesson is broken into chunks, and placed inside a Learning Module, then the student can view and review the part they need. This is important for any student on a dial-up connection, as for example, a PowerPoint file with audio and/or animations can take quite some time to download.

Another problem is accessibility for those with visual, hearing, or other impairments. These file formats can become obstacles if care is not taken.  Here are quick tips for keeping your files as accessible as possible:
  1. Only create Adobe .pdf files from text documents, never from pages on a scanner. A pdf document created from a scanner contains nothing but big pictures, and a visually impaired individual with a screen reading device will not be able to access any information in such a file. Such files are also much larger than they need to be, and can take a very long time for students to download.
  2. Always include an alternative text transcript for any audio embedded in a PowerPoint or .pdf file.  A person with hearing impairments will not be able to access any of the information otherwise, and will completely miss out on the benefits of the lecture, interview, etc.
  3. Include text descriptions of any diagrams or images used in Powerpoint, Adobe .pdf, or Microsoft Word documents.
Food for thought: Text in general is the best format for the core of an online class. It is the most accessible to the largest number of people. Students with slow Internet connections can more easily access it, those with hearing impairments can read it, and those with visual impairments can listen to it with a screen reading device.

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