The LMS as Digital Ecosystem
At the hub of your online learning toolkit is a foundational bit of technology that is often taken for granted, the Learning Management System (LMS).
The LMS is a huge determiner of what kinds of content you can use as part of your online course. The ability to interact with data across different technologies while maintaining the security and privacy required for the modern world is a critical aspect of delivering online education.
Essential LMS Capabilities
In general, it is expected that a modern LMS should be able to provide a suite of basic functions:
- Storage of files
- Creation of HTML pages
- Various activities/modules for organizing content
- Assessment tools (Quiz/Exams)
- Forums/Discussion Boards
- Email communications
To name a few…
Accessibility has largely been built into the framework of most modern Learning Management Systems, most likely as a requisite element in getting the government-sponsored contracts with public school districts across the US.
That’s the beauty of Section 508, it requires you to buy the most accessible version of technology that delivers your business need, so all the LMS vendors basically have to deliver the same level of accessibility.
However, there is nothing so simple it can’t be undone with some third-party “enhancements”.
Accessibility in your online course may start at an acceptable level, but it is possible to introduce technologies that do not provide the necessary level of accessibility.
LMS Virtues and Weaknesses
Typically, the LMS provides an accessible structure you can build your course in. Issues like heading structure and accessible interactive elements are built into the interface, so theoretically your LMS is accessible. But this is mostly true when your course is empty.
As you build your course, your design decisions will influence the final measure of accessibility.
If you use the formatting features in your content creation tools to enable accessibility as you create content, then your course accessibility remains intact.
If you introduce content that does not provide the formatting required for accessibility, you actually take away from the overall accessibility of your course.
It doesn’t matter if the LMS framework is accessible if you put an inaccessible file inside it, the file is still inaccessible. Information doesn’t automagically become accessible by virtue of being loaded into the accessible LMS.
There is no accessibility through osmosis or association.
WWW – World Wide Web, or Wild Wild West?
Each and every piece of content needs to be formatted for accessibility – if not by the original author, then by you.
This includes the world outside of your LMS – the Internet. When you link to a third-party website, you should check the website for basic accessibility. Remember, it is often easy to copy and paste the educationally significant information into an accessible LMS page, if necessary.
Don’t assume that a content pack you purchase from a textbook publisher is automatically accessible. Even if the sales rep assures you it is.
You need to verify the accessibility of ALL the features of the content and technology you attach to the LMS and expose to your students.
Ask the sales rep to cover the cost of accommodating any students with disabilities if their product is found to be inaccessible and see how they react.
There is much of the world of online education that is not yet accessible, but plenty of sales people who will try to sell you a problem waiting to happen.
Now you know better, and you can choose content more responsibly for the good of your students and for your success as an educator.
Be wary of people selling accessibility checkers for your LMS. Often these tools can be useful additions to your online tool kit, but so far none of them are capable of addressing all the accessibility challenges in your course.
Always ask about the capability of accessibility checkers to test individual documents such as MS Word, PDF, PowerPoint, Excel, etc., as well as websites you want to link to from your course.
Ask if they can test different quiz questions.
Ask if they can test the LTI cartridge you want to integrate into your course.
Unfortunately, the range of true help available from most accessibility checkers remains rather limited.
As they say, “Some assembly is required” in building an accessible learning experience for your students. Slick shortcuts and ready-baked solutions are rarely accessible. Often these are just bright shiny broken things that interfere with education for your students with disabilities.
Accessibility through Phones and Tablets
It is important to verify that all the different aspects of your LMS and your online course are also accessible when viewed through a phone or tablet using a mobile operating system such as Android or iOS.
There are many happy examples of accessibility functioning across technology platforms and operating systems, but it is not a safe assumption that everything automatically works.
Verify, and adjust your workflow as necessary to ensure information is accessible for all users in as many contexts as possible.
Support in Different Browsers
It is also a good idea to check out the accessibility of your course and LMS in different internet browsers.
Surprisingly, many LMS vendors can only claim accessibility in certain browsers using certain assistive technologies.
These LMS vendors get away with this lack of capability simply because your administrators continue to sign the contracts instead of requiring better support for accessibility.
But that is the topic for a different blog post. The point here is to be aware of any limitations that you can advise your students about before they flood your inbox with emails about broken content in a certain browser.
Portability of Content
While the LMS is a great tool for delivering online education, sometimes a student really needs the information presented in a special way to be most accessible and usable.
It is a good idea to become familiar with the export capabilities of your LMS.
Especially valuable is any ability to export course content as an ePub document.
ePub is a rich data format that is capable of presenting multiple media formats in an accessible file that is compatible with different assistive technologies.
ePub can also be loaded onto many reading devices, increasing the options for your students to be able to engage with content and study on their terms.
That’s half the joy of taking an online course, after all.
These are just some of the things you can keep in mind to make your online course more effective, truly engaging, and as accessible as possible.
Thanks for reading!