IMS Guidelines for Developing Accessible Learning Applications Section 1

IMS Guidelines for Developing
Accessible Learning Applications

version 1.0 white paper


1. Introduction

The evolution of the Internet and other technologies has led to tremendous growth in opportunities to teach and learn outside of the traditional classroom. Over the past decade, the Internet has brought learning "online" and offers many advantages: it is convenient, available at any time of the day, and can be accessed nearly anywhere in the world. Clearly, online, or distributed learning, offers tremendous potential to increase the availability and convenience of education. And if the technologies behind distributed learning are made universally accessible, it will also have the potential to reach a significant percentage of those with disabilities.

As with many types of products and technologies, including those used in online distributed learning, people with disabilities may be inadvertently excluded if accessibility is not considered and incorporated into products and technologies. If steps are not taken to incorporate accessibility into distributed learning, people with disabilities may be excluded from the many benefits offered by online technologies. However, accessibility is not only of concern to those with disabilities. The potential for online distributed learning expands when developers embrace the widest possible range of individual learning styles, preferences and abilities.

Accessible design grants a wider range of learners more options and greater flexibility in learning. Inclusive design strategies, also known as "universal design," can help meet the varying needs and limitations of end users, including limitations created by available computer power and bandwidth. Universal design can make stand-alone courseware, web-based e-learning systems, and other content more accessible to a larger population, including people with disabilities. Presenting educational material in a variety of formats will also provide benefits to those with differing learning styles (visual, auditory, tactile) and will allow people to learn in their preferred learning style.

The guidelines developed by the IMS Accessibility Project Group and presented in this document, will provide a framework for the distributed learning community. This framework will highlight existing solutions, discuss the opportunities and strategies for their implementation and will identify areas where further development and innovation are required to ensure education that is truly accessible to anyone, anytime, anywhere.

Other standards and guidelines currently exist, however the IMS Accessibility Guidelines are targeted at the distributed learning community and specifically address the challenges that exist in online education. The IMS Accessibility Guidelines are not meant to replace existing standards and guidelines, but instead to references to those resources and to provide additional information and solutions compatible with existing recommendations. That said, some topics addressed in this document, such as mathematic, scientific and music notation guidelines, do not yet have mainstreamed or widely adopted solutions. In these cases, this document offers suggestions and indicates the direction of current research.

1.1 Roles and Responsibilities

There are existing policies and laws that govern accessibility for people with disabilities. But they vary greatly from country to country, state-to-state, province-to-province and even from one educational institution to another. Even the motives behind the desire to address accessibility concerns vary from person to person and from company to company. Yet in order to make learning technologies accessible to everyone, all parties must share responsibility.

The stakeholders include:

  • courseware and software vendors
  • educational publishers
  • authoring tool developers/vendors
  • authors/content developers
  • educational institutions (including administrators)
  • educators/instructors
  • administrative staff
  • students

Each setting is unique, requiring its own mix of roles and responsibilities. Consider the challenge of achieving accessibility in a university delivering online education.

To begin, the manufacturer of courseware development tools must make the authoring environment itself accessible. Vendors must also provide tools within that environment to help educators and other courseware authors to meet universal design criteria.

Even if a vendor has made all features of an authoring environment accessible, and has provided the tools that support creating accessible courseware, there is no guarantee that an authoring professor will take advantage of them, and students with disabilities may still be excluded. Therefore, responsibility falls heavily on educators as well.

Educational institutions are responsible for following their own country's government regulations. Educational institutions can go further and create their own accessibility policies; in support of students, faculty, administrators, and staff with disabilities. These policies might include timeframes that establish the amount of advance notice a student must give that institution in order for the institution to be able to provide accessible materials. Polices can also establish just who must be informed of these needs and the procedures that students must follow in making their needs known.

Finally, students should also be considered a crucial part of this process. They must take responsibility for informing professors and school administrators about their particular needs and preferences and to do so in a timely manner. The school may establish limits within which students must communicate their accessibility needs and the student may be expected to work within those limits.

Making each constituent aware of their role is a responsibility shared by all. Creating courseware is a collaborative process and not all participants are aware that their contribution may have an impact on accessibility. By fostering an environment where accessibility is openly supported and discussed, institutions can help to ensure that all participants fulfill their individual obligations with accessibility in mind.

This document is targeted at the online distributed learning community that includes software developers, courseware vendors, educational publishers, content developers, administrators, educators/instructors, and students. It is intended to be useful to a wide audience, including readers with varying levels of technical expertise.

1.2 Issues with Learning Technologies for People with Disabilities

Teaching and learning materials are delivered in many forms: paper, audio and videotape, CD-ROM, television, and over the Internet. However, online education has become the preferred means of retrieving up-to-date information. With its characteristic speed and flexibility, online learning takes advantage of a variety of technologies to facilitate learning and interaction between participants.

Online education technologies include:

  • synchronous and asynchronous communication and collaboration tools such as e-mail, listservs, bulletin boards, whiteboards, chat rooms, videoconferencing, and teleconferencing.
  • interactive environments, such as simulations, immersive experiences and games
  • testing and evaluation tools including self-assessment and multiple-choice testing.

Today, online content is varied and can include: text on a website, digital audio, digital video, animated images, and virtual reality environments. This content can be created in a variety of ways, utilizing a variety of authoring tools.

As technology advances, accessibility questions proliferate. Video is everywhere, yet are all videos captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers? Do all videos carry an audio component that describes visual images for blind and low-vision users? Do all software applications offer keyboard equivalents appropriate for users with mobility restrictions or vision impairments. Do all images on websites have labels (alt-text) for users who access content with the help of screen reading software? How can blind students access mathematical equations presented as graphics, which cannot be read by screen readers? Are testing protocols flexible enough? Are administrative matters such as course listings and course registration accessible?

Not all of these questions have answers based in existing technologies. But we need to examine all accessibility issues in order to ensure access to online education for everyone. This document will lay out guidelines for accessible learning. These guidelines include:

  • common accessibility problems associated with each technology.
  • practices that learning system developers can implement to enhance accessibility for all users.
  • practices content creators and/or educators can implement to enhance accessibility for all users.
  • resources that provide best practices and solutions in use.

1.3 Acknowledgements

This project is supported by a grant awarded to the CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media from the Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnerships (LAAP), a program administered by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education.

Additional support is provided through participation and contributions from the following organizations:

Blackboard USA
CETIS (Centre for Educational Technology Interoperability Standards) UK
DEST (Department of Education, Science, and Training) Australia
ETS (Educational Testing Service) USA
IMS Global Learning Consortium USA
Industry Canada Canada
NCAM (The CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media) USA
The Open University UK
Sheffield Hallam University UK
UK eUniversities Worldwide UK
University of Toronto ATRC (Adaptive Technology Resource Centre) Canada

1.4 Nomenclature

ASL American Sign Language
ATRC Adaptive Technology Resource Centre, University of Toronto, Canada
AT Assistive Technology
CETIS Centre for Educational Technology Interoperability Standards (UK)
DEST Department of Education, Science, and Training (Australia)
DTD Document Type Definition
ETS Educational Testing Service
NCAM The CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media
SVG Scalable Vector Graphics
TTY Text Telephone
W3C World Wide Web Consortium
WAI Web Accessibility Initiative of the W3C
WGBH Boston, Massachusetts public broadcaster


WGBH   IMS Global Learning Consortium   FIPSE