In the world of online education, there is a wide-ranging spectrum of digital media being used to engage with students. Surprisingly, there is a simple and singular solution for multimedia accessibility.
The domains of knowledge that we can teach our students are comprised of facts, concepts, principles, procedures, and attitude/affectation. None of these types of information rely upon a specific type of media to be communicated effectively.
A primary concept of accessibility is that any message you are trying to communicate via digital media can either be enhanced or effectively communicated through alternate media formats. For example, if the medium was utilizing visual information, there can be a digital transformation to render the message into an audio or tactile media format for someone with no sight.
Ultimately, digital media is currently able to reliably communicate through visual, auditory, and tactile means. The senses of sight, hearing, speech, and touch determine our ability to perceive and transmit information through digital media.
When an individual has a different or limited ability of one of these senses, the delivery modality must either be enhanced, or communication must happen through one of the other sensory pathways.
The message doesn’t change, but the media form it is transmitted through does.
Different Media for Different Senses
A key aspect of digital accessibility is that the message is available and usable, even while the delivery medium is malleable.
Whatever type of media you originally create, your students can be interacting with an entirely different form of digital media while still getting the point of your communication.
Providing the message through a different media format than originally intended is referred to as using Alternate Media.
Alternate Media strategies rely on translating a message into different media formats based on the needs of the end user. Whatever senses your students may use, their technology will be able to use the digital media you create, as long as you have prepared the information appropriately.
This process relies on all digital content being represented as text at some point in the process. Digital text is the only form of electronic information that can be automatically rendered into visual, auditory, and tactile information – the sensory capabilities of our audience.
It may seem redundant to provide textual descriptions for multimedia, but this allows for the most effective materials to be used for all students.
Alternate Media Access Strategies for Digital Communication
Here are the essential access strategies for accessible digital media:
- Text – Provide large, easy to read text, and apply structure through formatting, semantic styles, clear layout, etc.
- Audio – Provide a Text Transcript.
- Video – Ensure Captioning is in place.
- Interactive – Section 508 standards and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)*
- Complex/Combination – Use all of the above.
* Section 508 and WCAG are technology standards and guidelines for digital content on the World Wide Web that address the comprehensive considerations for complex and interactive media.
While digital accessibility requires textual descriptions to accompany multimedia, this doesn’t mean that accessibility is only text-based. There’s much more going on – and the goal is not to only use digital text.
Use all the media that is appropriate to engage and inform your students. Just make sure you don’t use one form of media exclusively.
When you use an image, back it up with a text description.
If you use an audio file to share a moment of history, make sure there is also a text transcript available.
Videos can provide powerful instructional capability – just make sure they are also captioned and have narrative descriptions.
In essence, please use multiple media in your online teaching, and make your materials as interesting and engaging as you can. Just ensure that for each of your instructional materials, the core message is also represented as digital text.
The idea is to enhance and maximize the essential capabilities of every medium, so it can communicate optimally, and back it up with text as a failsafe.
Access Strategies for Interactivity
When you design interactive online instructional materials, things get interesting quickly.
Whatever the specific interactive media might be, the access strategy is to ensure that every interactive control is labeled (yes, through digital text), and that the interaction is possible with the keyboard in addition to any other input devices such as a mouse, touchscreen, track-ball, custom switch, eye-tracker, etc.
Thankfully the Section 508 standards and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) from the World Wide Web Consortium have done a great job of covering the different aspects of accessible interactive content.
Standards and Guidelines for Accessibility
Section 508 and WCAG represent the collective wisdom and effort of several decades of research and work to identify the best practices for creating electronic and web-based information that is accessible for individuals with disabilities.
Typically, the documents that comprise Section 508 and WCAG are not considered fun reading. Fortunately, the concepts and principles have been distilled and engineered into our technology to the point where you may never need to actually read the documents.
With most modern authoring tools, you can ensure the access strategies are fully implemented in your content just by using the tools properly.
This is because the manufacturers of assistive technology, and the manufacturers of your authoring tools, are also working according to the same standards.
This means that you can focus on creating the materials you need to teach with, and the technology used by the students will meet you halfway and deliver the media to the student as the student needs it.
You don’t have to know anything about the student and what technology they are using to interact with your content. When you create accessible media according to the standards and guidelines, you can create the way you want to, and all of your students are free to use whatever technology works best for their needs.
Equity and Perceptions of Disability
One of the liberating ideas of online education for students with disabilities is the idea of just being another student and not being defined by their disability.
It can be very discouraging and demoralizing to always be identified as “the blind guy”. People tend to discriminate and interact differently with people who are visibly or significantly disabled in some way, often unknowingly, and for a variety of reasons they might not even understand.
When you design your course materials to be accessible, you can help remove unintended and unwitting bias against students with disabilities.
When you do it right, you may never know if you have students with disabilities in your course at all – and that is exactly the point.
Your students with disabilities may finally have the chance to interact with you and other students on equal terms, and to only be judged by their character, personality, and academic ability.
This can result in an educational experience that is more effective and rewarding for all involved, and with far-reaching benefits.
Thanks for reading!