Tag: elearning content

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Web Accessibility Issues and Options for eLearning Text and Images

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image of a laptop with a megaphone speakerIn response to my post on why web accessibility for elearning is important and how even small businesses can achieve it, I received an email from ReadSpeaker, informing me of their free WordPress plugin.  They tell me they’re working on a plugin for Moodle.  If it works as well as the WordPress version, I can’t wait!

This post addresses how to make text and images accessible to the vision impaired by use of a screen reader such as ReadSpeaker.  Since I’m going to talk about web accessibility as it applies to elearning content only – not any particular LMS – what I learned with the WordPress installation will also apply to Moodle and other LMS content. Obviously, other eLearning elements (such as forms, games, and flash) will be more or less accessible than text and images, depending upon the specific disability. These will be covered in future posts (as I have a chance to check out the options.)

ReadSpeaker was the only screen reader I tested and I tested only their free version.  It took me about five minutes to install on my other blog, Bee-Learn.com.  I was both pleased and surprised at what I found.

What I found with ReadSpeaker, which gives me a really good idea of how my content would be read by any screen reader:

How it treats text

  • In a post on the Lean 5S, the speaker read “fives”; it never occurred to me that it could be interpreted as a plural term.  I will make a point of putting a space in terms like that so that they will be read as “five ess”, which is how it is intended.
  • Slashes are read, which is ok because we would often say it.
  • It pauses at commas, periods, and line breaks.
  • Ellipses are not read, but do result in a pause.  I suppose that’s good because I wouldn’t want it to read “dot dot dot”, but a little meaning is lost… I am not sure how to compensate for this but at least I’m aware of it now.
  • “Cool” is read Coool. Cool!
  • mmmm… is read as Em Em Em Em Not good, but ReadSpeaker has a process for submitting mispronounced words.  Although eLearning is typically more formal than emails, blogs, and text messages, I can see enormous value in adding colloquialisms and acronyms to the screen reader’s vocabulary.
  • I know that acronyms and sounds can be added to the vocabulary because it correctly reads WYSIWYG.  That’s awesome!
  • The title of the page was never spoken.  Presumably this is because it is a different element of the page, although to a sighted person, it appears as part of the same page (by design).

How it treats images

  • The title of the image is read by the screen reader.  This is the stuff that pops up when you run your mouse over the image.  (Note: In WordPress this is typically the name/title of the image file; in Moodle it is the alternate text.  Most articles on this refer to the alternate text.  Test it out on your site, just to make sure you’ve got your description in the right place to be read.)  Because the screen reader can detect it, you can improve the experience for the vision impaired by creating alternate text that is descriptive of the photo.  For example:
    • In this post on the new Moodle navigation button, I originally had titled the image “beelearncoursehome”.  I changed it to “This image represents the original home navigation button on BeeLearn.com, from 2006”, which is read by ReadSpeaker.
    • In this post on Lean 5 S, I changed the title of the image of the desk to read “shown here is an antique roll top desk, piled high with a number of unrelated items.  There are flooring samples, shorts, shirts, books, baskets… It is a mess!”
  • Image captions are also read, so make sure they say something useful – and different – than the alternate text. In the above desk example, the title is read, then the caption; this is a huge improvement over my original version which had titled the image “desk5s”.
  • Since the screen reader doesn’t distinguish image alternate text from the rest of the text, I will make it a point to begin each title with something like “this photo shows…”

Writing carefully and appropriately describing images are things we should all do anyway.  They are also not the only things we can do to make our content richer for the vision impaired.  The good news is that for the most part, good instructional design principles are also good web accessibility design principles. Some advice to improve your content for everyone:

Avoid:

  • Content embedded in images, such as those produced by saving a PowerPoint file as jpegs and simply uploading them.  The individual elements (text, for instance) are not linkable and difficult to edit.  As far as a screen reader is concerned, an image is an image; there is no text on it.
  • Content residing in desktop applications (non-HTML) such as PowerPoint, Word, or PDF.  These documents have many drawbacks as online content ; they also have their own set of accessibility issues.  This will be covered in much more detail in a future post.
  • Long, scrolling pages of nothing but text.  This makes it difficult to follow, even for the most focused student without disabilities.
  • Low content to background junk ratio.  I’ve recently seen some examples of courses written in various LMS, where less than 25% of the screen was dedicated to learning content.  The rest was for navigation, warnings, frames, and even ads!  This sends a message to everyone that your content takes a backseat and it can make it difficult for a disabled student to focus on the real content.
  • Overriding CSS formatting.  Read this post on how theme and content are two separate elements.  Then read this Moodle tip on how simple copy/paste from a web page or a file can mess up your HTML formatting and override your CSS formats.

Do:

  • Build each course with all learning styles and disabilities in mind.  Even a person without a hearing disability may prefer to read about a concept than to listen to you talk about it.
  • Lay out each course and each page with those outlining skills you learned in school.  Headings make your content more sensible for everyone.  (Note: I always add a page title to the top of each Moodle page.  Moodle 2.0 will have this as an option, eliminating the need to retype the page name.)
  • Go ahead and use pictures, graphs, and even cartoons.  Keep your content rich.  Sure, there will be some elements that someone won’t be able to access.  But if you provide that content in more than one format, you’ll reach everyone.  For instance, use the alternate text option in photos to describe the photo, rather than just giving it a name.
  • Go ahead and use color.  But don’t rely on color to get your point across.  Color is highly effective for those who can see it; it is worthless for those who can’t.  Use color and at least one other distinguishing characteristic.

For more detail on designing for web accessibility, view this page at WebAIM.org.  On their site you will also find updated information on screen readers, research on web accessibility, discussions of various disabilities and how they are affected by technology.

Another great resource I found is this page from the University of Wisconsin.

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Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

Beyond the Course Outline: Making Your Courses Invaluable

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A few months ago I wrote a post on how to put together a course outline.  Since then, I have seen several courses - some still in outline format - that I would classify into two categories: The Abridged Google Search and The Project Calendar.  Even though both styles have fairly good outlines, they leave me (the student) thinking “I could’ve figured this out myself”.

“The Abridged Google Search” course design

These courses are similar in nature to those websites that are nothing more than a series of links to other sites.  A course that is nothing but a series of links to other sites on the subject is more like a bibliography than a course; it is simply a list of additional reading sources.  

Courses put together in this manner suffer from disjointed material; content written by several different people with different writing styles, audiences, and objectives.  It is next to impossible for the student to know what the teacher intended to be the salient points.  There is no natural progression from one page (web link) to another and no transition between them. 

“The Project Schedule” course design

This type of course probably teaches better than the “Abridged Google Search” because at least the core content was designed for instruction.  These courses go something like this:

  1. Week/Topic 1: 
    1. Read chapters 1-3 (or watch video #1)
    2. Hand in Assignment #1 (or take Quiz #1)
  2. Week/Topic 2:
    1. Read chapters 4 & 5 (or watch Video #2)
    2. Hand in Assignment #2 (or take Quiz #2)
  3. etc.

So, after I read all of this material, on my own, take a test, and spend a couple of hours on an assignment, the instructor will get back to me on whether I got it right or not?  I might as well just get the book and read it! 

Add Value to Your Content

I believe that learning takes place in all sorts of ways; never myopically.  It is a must to include references and external links as often as possible. But I also believe that a teacher should be more than a traffic cop.  Directing people to look here and look there isn’t really what a teacher does.  Here are some ways you can teach, while still using a book, a series of videos, and external web links: 

  • Paraphrase and Summarize – Rather than linking to all those external sites, create your course content as though it is a thesis or book report.  Write your own content, referencing those external sources.  Add your own graphics or even audio, video, etc.
  • Combine ideas – If you really are an expert, you must have thought of “a better way to do this”.   Tell your students how you would do it, not how everyone else does it.  Adding tips and tricks is a good way to do this even if your subject matter doesn’t allow too much variation in method.
  • Compare ideas – There are as many versions of the truth as there are people speaking it.  This is truer with some subjects than others.  Even with a topic as based in fact as physics, there are opposing view points.  Offer your students a comparison of each of the major ideas, with the merits and pitfalls of each.
  • Tell a story, real or not, that puts it all together – A picture is worth 1000 words and an example is worth even more.  Even if you can’t write a fable that illustrates your point, provide an example or two that will give some life to your content.  Stories are easier to remember than lists of unrelated concepts.

Last year I wrote about copyrighting content and that I feel that the real value is in the teaching, not the words on the page.  You can not be copyrighted and you can not be copied.  Adding value to your content makes your courses invaluable, just as it makes you invaluable.  As a consultant, a trainer, or a business whose product success depends on excellent training, you can’t afford to be anything less.

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Monday, September 27th, 2010

Demystifying Applications, Themes, and Content for Moodle, etc.

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Last week I used a hotel as an analogy to explain the concepts of account creation, authentication, enrollments, payments, roles, and permissions in Moodle.  In this post, we’ll stick with the hotel (a really nice place, in a location you love) to talk about applications, themes, and content of a website.  They are the major pieces of any website, overlapping and interacting to create what you see on your browser.  If you are not 100% sure of the definitions of a website, a webpage, and a domain name, read this first.

The Main Structure

The application that runs a website is much the same thing as the hotel building.  This includes the walls, the roof, the frame that holds them together, the plumbing, the wiring…things that are not easily modified and that take some specialized knowledge to maintain.  Examples of Internet software applications include WordPress, Drupal, QuickBooks Online, Zen Cart, and of course, Moodle.  This site is run by the application, WordPress.  Desktop applications include Word, Photoshop, and Quicken. 

Applications govern the functionality of the website: financial, learning, writing, shopping, etc.

Major applications that control the website have their own set of rules, so a plug-in that works in WordPress is not going to work in Moodle.  Plug-ins and modules are similar to electric appliance cords.  What plugs into and outlet in  the UK won’t fit in a Canadian outlet.  Many applications, such as PayPal, MailChimp, and Facebook, are offering new plug-ins every day that will work with various other applications, such as Moodle and WordPress, but each plug-in is specific to website application.

Desktop applications are not displayed through your Internet browser, so the user must have a device (computer, iPad, etc.) that has that application (or its viewer) installed on it. This can be a nightmare because of the different versions and formats that exist.  Also, it prohibits many types of device-users from accessing the document, such as from a public computer.  This is why I don’t build e-Learning where the content resides in linked files.

The Style

The theme of a website, much like that of a hotel, is the presentation…the style…the tone of the site.  It includes the carpets, paint colors, styles of furniture and fixtures. A theme controls the look and feel of every page on the website such as background image, bullet styles and colors, fonts, and much more.  In a hotel, a theme is intended to provide visual continuity and appeal to a targeted group of guests.  In a website, this is also true, but the theme has an additional benefit:  It tells the browser how to present (display) each page on the website, without having to repeat those instructions for each page.  This saves a lot of space and redundant programming.

WordPress has more flexible themes than does Moodle, in that the layout of a page (number and position of columns, footers and headers) is somewhat controlled by the theme.  WordPress is like a building where some walls are movable.  Moodle is more like a building that would require complete renovations to change the floor plan, but where rooms can be closed off to the public.

Back in the Stone Age (early 1990s), or maybe as late as Medieval Times (circa 2000), each page on the Internet had a full set of code:  every color, position, image, and font style for displaying the content plus the content itself was in the code for that page. 

Nowadays, themes are written in CSS.  The theme of this website is Blossom.  The content is separate from the theme.

Modifying the theme requires some knowledge of programming script, some artistic ability, and some courage.  It is very much like revamping the look of your house; it isn’t cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than building a new one (modifying the application).  More and more themes are being written by developers to include easy ways to modify them.  I expect that in a very short while, this will be the standard and no one will need to modify style sheets.

The Interior Decorations

The words and images displayed in all of the pages and posts are collectively known as the content.  These are the decorations and guests’ personal belongings scattered throughout the hotel.  It is easy to remove these and change them.  In a website application, there are some content items that regardless of what they looked like going in, they are presented by the theme in a particular manner.  The pink hyperlinks and bullets on this site are an example of that.  The theme tells the application what styles to apply for all of the content.

Adding, deleting, and changing content has been generally available to website owners and users for several years.  Every time you add a comment to a blog or a product review, you are adding content.  WYSIWIG editors are better and more prevalent with each passing day and can be highly effective for those who are less than comfortable “using a computer”.

The Final Product:  The Best Combination of Application, Theme, and Content

My words of advice to all small business owners to produce the best final product, especially when it’s a Moodle eLearning site:

  1. Concentrate on your content.  Make it the very best you can, whether it’s a course in table setting, a certification for nurses, or a blog on fun things to do with the kids. 
  2. Find a theme that can be easily modified to represent your business; make it your own.  If needed, spend a little money on a graphic artist.
  3. Choose a course designer, Moodle Partner, and/or a web designer who knows the application inside and out and is able to find the right plug-ins that meet your functional requirements without modification of the application.

 Good luck!  If you would like additional clarification, please contact me.

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