Using Web-based Tools in Online Learning – #A11y

Post #11 of 12 in the series of posts about improving the accessibility of online courses.

Let’s say that you’re doing everything right. You’ve improved the accessibility of your HTML course content pages, your Word docs, your PPT files. You’ve ensured that you’re using course videos with good captions and that all your images have useful and accurate alternative text. Everything in your online courses can pass a web accessibility test…right?

And then you decide to add a new assignment and have your students create a learning artifact using the hottest free web-based tool that’s all the rage in your social media. And boom, your fabulous accessibility goes down the tubes. Why? Because many (actually most) of these web-based tools have serious accessibility issues.

Mea Culpa

Let me start with an apology. For years I made conference presentations that basically encouraged the problems that I’m trying to address in this post. My most popular presentations from 2004 to 2012 were about using free tools in your online courses. I mostly ignored the many issues related to web accessibility with these tools. In my defense, most other people also ignored these issues. My motto was, have embed code, will travel. If I could build something (or have students do it) and if there was an easy embed code for me to post it into an online course – then I said “DO IT!”

That was wrong then, and it would be even more wrong (if that’s a thing) now. Longer version of my mea culpa.

What Are the Accessibility Issues?

Accessibility Issue #1

If you are using a web-based tool to:

  • create pieces of course content for student use
  • embed a web object into an online course for your student to use
  • communicate with students using an external tool

Then you must ensure that these items are accessible to students using Assistive Technologies (AT). Very many of them are not accessible. An example: you create an animated comic strip that is a clever representation of a particular learning outcome that your students need to master. Sadly, anyone using a screen reader cannot navigate through the animation to learn the relevant content. Doesn’t matter how clever it is if it’s inaccessible.

Accessibility Issue #2

If you are having students use web-based tools to create class-related work:

  • are the web-based creation tools accessible to them if they use AT?
  • if they are able to create an object, are they able to take it and communicate it to you in an accessible manner?
  • are you prepared to give alternate assignments that allows them to use AT, if needed?

To clarify, you decide to have students use a web-based tool to create an online presentation, or a video, or some other artifact that represents their learning on a topic. You decide that they should all use Prezi to create a presentation instead of writing a term paper. Writing a term paper is highly accessible, but creating a Prezi is not accessible at all. I wrote about the accessibility of Prezi in a previous post.

Accessibility Issue #3

This one is all about you. If you, as instructor or designer, rely on assistive technology (AT) to do your work, will these sites work with your needed AT? If you rely on a screen reader and keyboard-only controls, then you also won’t be able to create a Prezi for your students to learn from. There are many other free sites that you also won’t be able to use if you rely on AT to get your work done.

How to Deal with Inaccessible Web-based Tools

Should we put a moratorium on using any tools that don’t pass muster with #a11y? Is this an absolute Stop Sign saying that we should not use them at all?

All-way Stop Sign

While still keeping an eye on making accessible online courses, I’ll argue that a complete moratorium is not what is needed. So, instead, let me propose something more like the next sign…

Yield sign as seen on the street

Saying YES to accessibility does not always mean saying NO to inaccessible items in your course. There is power in alternative methods and alternative assignments.

Providing Flexibility Through Alternatives

Hypothetically speaking, let’s say that you’ve fallen in love (not literally) with Padlet. You want to create an assignment for your students to each “add a pad” to a Padlet to share their thoughts, or website URLs, or photos, or videos, or whatever. Sounds great, right?

However, you have one or more students who need to use keyboard navigation as their only way to access a website. First, for the initiated, a little primer from WebAIM:

Keyboard accessibility is one of the most important aspects of web accessibility. Many users with motor disabilities rely on a keyboard. Some people have tremors which don’t allow for fine muscle control. Others have little or no use of their hands, or no hands at all. In addition to traditional keyboards, some users may use modified keyboards or other hardware that mimics the functionality of a keyboard. Blind users also typically use a keyboard for navigation. Users without disabilities may use a keyboard for navigation because of preference or efficiency.

WebAIM Keyboard Accessibility

Keyboard-Only Navigation Example: Padlet

Here’s what Padlet says about keyboard-only navigation: “Currently, you can navigate the login page and the dashboard using only your keyboard. Padlets can be viewed, but settings cannot be changed. We are working on keyboard compatibility for settings, post creation, post editing, and post expansion.”

So, you can “view” a Padlet (which means a screen reading platform can read the Padlet text out loud to you) but you cannot post a Padlet of your own using the keyboard (so, mouse required). That’s a problem for you assignment of having students post Pads to a Padlet.

As I said previously, I don’t think this means that YOU CANNOT use Padlet, and I suggest that you ponder the answer to these questions as you make this assignment:

  • Can you imagine another way that the keyboard-only student could arrange to have their thoughts posted to a pad? In other words, what’s the work-around?
  • Can you imagine an alternate assignment for the students unable to use Padlet?
  • Can you imagine a totally different assignment (for everyone) that will still meet your learning outcomes but without using inaccessible technology?
  • Can you keep the same assignment but find an accessible tool that you could use instead of Padlet?
  • There are definitely more questions to ponder here, feel free to add your own.

Before I leave Padlet in the dust (in this post anyway), let me share the following Padlet with you. Yes, I know it’s a bit ironic, but as Padlet says, readers using Assistive Technology can at least view a Padlet, so here goes.

A screenshot of a Padlet made specifically for this blog post with links to many resources about accessibility, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, WordPress, etc.
A Padlet about accessibility concerns of some popular web-based tools

The Padlet shown above is a collection of several links to resources detailing some of the accessibility concerns and/or features of commonly used web-based tools. By visiting this site you might find some links that are of interest to you, and you’ll also be able to experience a Padlet first-hand to consider any #a11y issues that might be apparent to you.

Some Other Web-based Tools Commonly Used in Education

Prezi – the PowerPoint Killer

I previously wrote about the accessibility abomination that is Prezi. Much of what I wrote is still true, but they are finally starting to make some improvements in their total lack of #a11y conformance (and I do mean …….at very long last). They recently published their first VPATs, one for their Video View page, one for their Design View page, and a third VPAT for Video Quick Record (these are all PDFs).

Although Prezi’s #a11y information page is better than nothing, it is still pretty close to nothing. For example, under the heading of “How to create accessible content with Prezi” they say the following: “Be more inclusive by planning for viewers with disabilities while creating your presentation, video, or design. These articles will help you in creating content that is easier to follow for audiences with permanent or temporary disabilities. Please note that this section is in progress, with more articles to come.” As of this writing on 9/8/22, there are ZERO articles in this section.

The heading for this section is intended as a joke. Many people were calling Prezi the PowerPoint killer when it was first introduced. People were fascinating by the non-linear possibilities of a Prezi presentation. Less fascinating is the almost complete lack of web accessibility features of the tool. Since PPT presentations can be made highly accessible, it’s a wonder to me that Prezi gets used at all.

Below you see a screenshot of an embedded Prezi in Brightspace. Think twice before using Prezi for your course content. Going back to the yield sign above, you could use Prezi if you feel that you must, but then you also MUST provide all the same learning content in an accessible format.

Embedded Prezi on the homepage of an online course using Brightspace.

VoiceThread for Threaded Audio Discussions

Not all web-based tools have a horrible track record for accessibility. But even those that are working to improve their web accessibility still usually have some issues that they haven’t conquered yet. VoiceThread is a good example.

Voicethread is increasingly being used in education at all levels. Some of their features (from  their website) include:

  • Creating: Upload, share and discuss documents, presentations, images, audio files and videos. Over 50 different types of media can be used in a VoiceThread.
  • Commenting: Comment on VoiceThread slides using one of five powerful commenting options: microphone, webcam, text, phone, and audio-file upload.
  • Sharing: Keep a VoiceThread private, share it with specific people, or open it up to the entire world.

Although better than many other free web-based tools, VoiceThread does still have a few accessibility issues to be aware of.

Voicethread provides for both audio and text comments. It is one of the most accessible Web 2.0 platforms that you will find. 

You can learn more about both the good and the not-so-good in theseresources:

SlideShare for Webifying your PowerPoint Slides

One tool that I frequently have recommended over the years and used myself is Slideshare, which is now part of LinkedIn.

For a long time there were inherent problems with using PowerPoint slide decks on the web. Sure there were various ways to do it, but none of them were great. That’s not quite true, because there were some great tools, but they weren’t free; which was another aspect of the tools that I shared in my presentations. They needed to be free, and easy to use. Web accessibility was not one of my criteria, but it is now.

When Slideshare came on the scene, I became an early user and started including it in my presentations about using Web-based tools inside the LMS. Here, for example, is an embed of one of my old slide decks (use your imagination and envision this embedded into an online course, instead of this blog)

You can view the Slideshare transcript (opens in new window) at their site, but these slides were not constructed to be accessible. Thus, the transcript is not very useful to the unsighted user. There is a great deal of information in the slides that they would not have access to.

The easy to find, easy to use embed code was one of the reasons why I liked Slideshare. Webbifying the otherwise bulky, clumsy PPT slides was so much better than trying to get native slides to play nicely in the browser. But what about accessibility, you ask?

You can make PPT slides that conform to most of the a11y standards (or good practices, if you prefer). Wouldn’t it be great if your accessible PPT slides could be uploaded into Slideshare and still be accessible? Sure, that would be great. Sadly, that’s not how it works. At least, it won’t work that way without you planning ahead to make it so and then jumping through a couple of extra hoops.

There are quite a few a11y issues with using Slideshare. You can read much more about using SlideShare inside the LMS in one of my earlier blog posts.

I’m going to stop here, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of web-based tools out there that you might be tempted to use. I encourage you to do a fair amount of research on these tools regarding their accessibility features. You’ll likely find that most of them have very serious issues and present high hurdles for you and your students to overcome.

Directory to posts in this series:

  1. Improving Accessibility of Online Courses – the why
  2. What do Educators Need to Know about VPATs?
  3. Alt Text for Simple Images in Online Courses
  4. Complex Images – Going Beyond Simple Alt Text
  5. Finding Videos with Good Captions
  6. Captioning Videos for Your Online Courses
  7. Improving the Accessibility of your HTML Content Pages – Part 1
  8. Improving the #A11y of Your HTML Content Pages – Part 2
  9. Making Word Documents Accessible for Online Learning
  10. Making PowerPoint Files Accessible for Online Learning
  11. Using Web-based Tools in Online Learning – #A11y
  12. Six More Tips for Making Online Courses Accessible