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Accessible e-Learning Platforms, Hopes and Challenges!

Technology has great potential to overcome physical barriers. It could improve access to learning for students with disabilities. The increased use of ICTs in most sectors of society and recent developments in adaptive hardware and software have allowed individuals with disabilities to do things that were difficult or impossible for them to do in the past.
There is some empirical research on online learning for students with disabilities, but it is not sufficient, leaving educators with many questions but no consensus about how best to serve such students in accessible content and an online environment.
The key element of e-Learning and accessible content is how to ensure that online learning is accessible to the broadest spectrum of learners with disabilities, and whether the lack of the proper environment represents a denial of a student’s legal right to a free and appropriate education.
UNESCO Global Report, 2013 indicates that people with disabilities face a wide range of barriers, including access to information, education and a lack of job opportunities. However Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) can be a powerful tool in supporting education and inclusion for persons with disabilities. 
Accessible eLearning as web-based courses can be taken and completed successfully by learners with disabilities. Accessible e-Learning creates an online learning experience that includes as many people as possible regardless of their limitations whether physical, sensory, or cognitive, but the challenge of developing accessible content is develop e-Learning for a corporation, academic institution, or government agency, so we need to follow best practices when developing e-Learning that is accessible to learners with disabilities. In fact, following accessibility best practices will also help to create more usable courses for all learners. There are requirements for making electronic resources and information technology accessible to students with disabilities. These standards are based on guidelines originally developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative and known as WCAG2.0 and Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG)2.0

In this context, how disability is activated differently online and the impact of this on learning and teaching through the internet and the accessibility of two of the most popular learning management systems.
Accessibility problems are not just about online teaching platforms. As Guglielman (2010, 1) observed, e-Learning needs to address accessibility and inclusion from both the perspective of technology and pedagogy. This is particularly true for students with disabilities.
Accessible content is effectively used by people in the following disability groups: Blind or visually-impaired, deaf, mobility impairments and learning with disabilities students.
Good accessible design makes e-Learning more accessible for everyone, conversely, poor design can make content hard to access for all students with disabilities. There are a number of areas in which e-Learning can work to the advantage of students with disabilities when studying in education context. These revolve around the three areas of accessibility, flexibility, and disclosure (Kent 2015, para 11). Online information can be made available in a variety of formats to best suit the person accessing it, whether this is visual through a screen displaying images or text, audio as spoken words and sound, or touch devices. For specific information on accessibility features and more about a usable and accessible platforms see examples Blackboard, Microsoft Lync, Second Life .
According to the Americans ​with Disabilities Act, online courses should be made accessible to students with disabilities. But since the ADA has not provided any specific accommodation standards, it's up to each school to decide to what extent it will serve its students with disabilities.
In a perfect world, online courses should be created using the concept of universal design, the idea that all course material should be accessible in different ways, be it through audio or video or text, says “Vickie S. Cook”, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at University of Illinois—Springfield.

e-Learning holds many possibilities for inclusion for people with disabilities, however the online platforms utilized must provide access for all students.
Given this, making e-Learning accessible should be a priority for schools and universities. the current rising rates of online learning in education.
Many choices for accessibility in the e-Learning we need to make to design courses that meet popular accessibility standards, such as Section 508 and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. There are a set of questions should be in consideration:
What are Section 508 and WCAG? How do they different?
What tools can you use to make your e-Learning courses follow accessibility best practices and adhere to the law?
Have you ever thought about how someone with a disability experiences the online courses you create?
What if your target audience includes people who are deaf or hard of hearing, color blind, visually impaired (partially or totally), or have limited mobility? Shouldn’t they be afforded the same learning opportunities and access to your courses?
For example, courses should be design in navigating with keyboards, include in alt text, images and text on screen for clarity, create highly-usable course navigation, considerations  when including audio and video in courses and ensure screencasts are totally accessible.
Accessibility of e-Learning and free courses, introduces the challenges for students with disabilities who may use computers in different ways when taking part in e-Learning or may need alternative teaching methods. It covers the technology and techniques used by students with disabilities, the adjustments to teaching methods that might be reasonable, design decisions which affect the accessibility of e-Learning tools and strategies for evaluation. Many online courses are not designed with accessibility in mind (Roberts, Crittenden & Crittenden 2011). This means that students who do not disclose that they have a disability maybe disadvantaged. It also means that when students do request accommodation to access the learning environment it requires a process of design-redesign to accommodate the students, adding additional costs, so we need to understand the main challenges facing students with disabilities in eLearning and understanding of the types of technology used by students with disabilities.
Courses should be designed to be accessible from the beginning and implementing universal design principles at the outset avoided costs caused by the need to engage in a digital retrofit, also, design learning platform includes multiple learning modalities could very well be superior to in-person education for students with disabilities.
Here are six basic principles to consider when making an e-Learning course accessible:

  • Ensure that courses should be access using a screen reader and keyboard;
  • Use HTML heading tags correctly;
  • Provide transcripts or captions for video and audio content;
  • Ensure that content has good colour contrast;
  • Create ALT tags to describe each image or diagram;
  • Use inclusive language.

In addition, it is important to understand basic principles of accessibility

  • All contents should be understandable in more than one perception stream. 
  • Users should maintain controls on video speeds and simulations. 
  • Information in imagery should not purely be conveyed in color. 
  • Simulations and videos should also avoid “strobe effects” which may trigger seizures in some people
  • Information structures should be made clear to those using text readers
  • Sites have to be understandable even if a user has shut down all imagery.
  • Live online events and conferences would benefit from live captioning (if available). 
  • Tables should be created in a way that is easy to understand. 

Most available e-Learning systems for learners with disabilities are limited to deliver accessible learning contents. However, the learners with disabilities need the whole accessible.

Online education can seem like a promising alternative for students with disabilities, but even the most accessible online programs can still pose challenges for them, since not all online programs are equal when it comes to their resources for students with disabilities.

Author: Nabil Eid
Tlecentre Foundation
RCC@TCF, ICT Accessibility consultant in the MENA Region
Twitter: @nabileid1

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