Leveraging the Accessibility of your LMS

woman studying books in front of a computer and cell phone.
Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

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
  • Gradebooks

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.

Publisher Problems

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.

Accessibility Checkers

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!

Accessibility through Assimilation – Bring it into the LMS

Slate with the words "You've got this" sitting on top of a laptop with headphones next to a cup of pencils.
Photo by Emma Matthews Digital Content Production on Unsplash

Sometimes you find a novel or impressive way of communicating information out in the wild west of the World Wide Web. You find some form of content that would be a great addition to your online course – but you quickly find that it has some critical accessibility failing that makes it unacceptable.

If you’re thinking that you can’t use this otherwise impressive content because of the lack of accessibility, consider another option.

Sometimes you can bring a problem out of the rough and sink it into the nice manicured green of your LMS.

Admittedly, this is not always possible, as some content may require complete re-programming to address the accessibility problems it contains. However, for certain media you can recreate the essential aspects of what is being communicated as an HTML page within your LMS.

Essential Accessibility Concepts of WCAG – POUR

When considering content that can be improved upon, remember the four guiding principles of WCAG, POUR:

  • Perceivable
  • Operable
  • Understandable
  • Robust

Ultimately, the WCAG nails accessibility down in simple terms that are easy to remember and apply to content you are teaching.

Perceivable

Perceivable content is styled and represented in a way that allows it to be presented to at least one of the human senses.

No content is invisible to ALL of the senses, there must be a representation of the content that is perceivable by whatever capability a user possesses.

Operable

The interface menus, links, and functionality must be operable by all users. Keyboard control is one of the easy tests to see if content is operable, but it is just a beginning.

Understandable

The content and the intended use and operation of the interface must be understandable. As an educator, this should be an easy one to discern and improve upon, if necessary.

Robust

Content needs to be adequately formatted and designed so there is enough information for a variety of different user agents to make sense of it. Over time, the information should retain the core meaning and capability of being expressed through evolving technologies.

Having thorough text descriptions and formatting content with semantic styles like headings and lists is a great way to make content more robust.

When you find digital media that can be improved upon, follow the WCAG concepts of POUR to enhance the message as much as possible.

Essential Interactive Elements

Moodle activities and resources you can create in the LMS.
Moodle activities and resources you can create in the LMS.

Your LMS can be used to create many of the interactive elements used by digital designers. From basic HTML pages to more sophisticated content packages, today’s modern LMS offers the capability to create several types of accessible interactive content.

Consider mapping out just what kind of interactivity is present in the content, and see if you can duplicate it within the LMS.

Undescribed and Unlabeled Content

It is very easy to provide alternate text descriptions for images within your LMS.

Image Properties from Moodle.
Image Properties from Moodle.

If the only accessibility issue you find is missing or inappropriate alternate text, then copy and paste the images into your LMS and provide appropriate descriptions for those images.

Remember that form fields require text labels as well.

Inaccessible polls and surveys can be recreated accessibly with the assessment and feedback tools of your LMS.

Bad Contrast

If there is bad contrast between text and background, that is another issue that is extremely easy to fix.

Copy and paste the text into your LMS and apply appropriate colors for WCAG-compliant contrast ratios.

Likewise, if the focus indicator has been styled to be invisible or difficult to see via linked CSS, you can copy and paste the content into your LMS. The styling for the focus indicator will be formatted according to your LMS CSS settings.

Bad Instructions and Layout

Sometimes good content comes with bad instructions, explanations, or just a confusing or cluttered layout. Redesigning a problematic page for easier readability is a valid activity for accessibility and a great use of the LMS.

Bonus Lessons

Another benefit of fixing accessibility issues by redesigning the content within your LMS is the opportunity to demonstrate to your students how to responsibly synthesize information into new forms of media, and how to properly cite sources when using other people’s content.

Reproducing content within the LMS can provide a simple means for addressing basic accessibility concerns, and it can also be a great way to focus user attention and keep students in the LMS.

You’ve learned not only how to assess content for accessibility, but how to make content better for accessibility and learning. Now when you encounter inaccessible content, it doesn’t have to be a dead end – you can create options and improve the situation for everyone.

Thanks for reading!