CHALLENGES IN CREATING SOFTWARE AND CONTENT FOR DISTANCE LEARNING
Paper Presented at CSUN, March 2002
This paper will discuss the challenges faced by those who are creating both the software to produce distance learning courses and the challenges faced by those who are producing the courses. It is based on the experience of the authors as systems analysts working in the field of developing software to create distance learning content and their experience working with the content authors of distance learning coursework. While it will concentrate on the barriers that the authors encountered, it should be noted that many developers are working very hard to overcome these barriers.
It will be divided into two sections, Software Creation and Content Presentation. These sections will discuss the challenges specific to the creation of the software that produces distance learning content and the presentation of the content itself. While the challenges may have some similarities, there are distinct differences.
There are several major issues encountered while working with developers to produce software that will produce accessible distance learning products. These issues are to be found in all development projects where software is concerned but hold special importance in the distance-learning environment as it becomes more pervasive in the venues of training and education.
Awareness of Accessibility Issues
The most important issue is that most developers are not even aware that people with disabilities have accessibility problems. Developers like many other people have not even given this a thought. Unless they have personal experience in this area they usually are not even aware the issues exist, let alone what they are.
Many developers look on this as a challenge and embrace these issues and the needed solutions with great enthusiasm. Others will aggressively maintain either there are no issues, that they can solve them easily without knowing what they are, or that they have no issues as their software is of course producing accessible output.
Developers who do not realistically approach these issues are of course mammoth problem. The denial that there is a problem or failure to address it realistically is one of the biggest problems the author encountered. Just getting the developers to admit their may be a problem is a major hurdle.
Much of this is due to the failure of the designers of the software to take accessibility issues into account in the design phase of the project. This a common problem that is seen in web site development and it is no less common in this venue as well.
The solution to this is of course to raise awareness of the developers before the projects start. In cases where the project has already begun the developers may have to do heavy retrofitting on the software, which can be quite expensive. There are some things that may alleviate these problems. One of these is if the developers have followed standard API's when developing instead of writing their own code which does not implement standard features of the operating system.
Implementation of Software Features in an Accessible Manner
Even if the developers have never heard of accessibility, there are some design practices that can assist in implementing accessibility after the project has started.
In operating systems that have accessibility features as an integral part of the operating system, there is a much better chance that these features can be incorporated into the software if the developers have stayed within the bounds of the standard operating system features and APIs. This will insure an much better chance that software built in this manner can incorporate accessibility features even though they may not have been included in the original design. Unfortunately many developers feel the urge to stay outside these boundaries and demonstrate their creativity by developing their own solutions to problems. This unfortunately can cause huge problems. The authors of this paper have encountered software that will not allow screen readers to read either the software development tools or the output of these tools. This was only the visible problem, there were other issues that surfaced because of the use of non standard programming techniques that made the software almost unusable by people without disabilities as well.
The solution is to require programmers to stay within the bounds of the operating system features and not to over ride these features with the application software features.
Understanding of Solutions to Accessibility Issues
It is useful for programmers and software developers to understand that there are standard accepted solutions to accessibility issues. Once they understand this and how to use these solutions, they may well decide to solve these issues in new and innovative ways. This should not be discouraged. It is, however, critical that the developers understand that solutions do exist so they can build upon these solutions or use them in the appropriate situations.
It should be further noted that the tools themselves must be accessible as well as the output from the tools. This is something that is often overlooked. The problem is of course if the tool is not accessible then the authors of the content will be limited to those who can use the tool. This will not allow those who are the most familiar with various accessibility issues from using the tools of their choice and will severely limit the perspective of those producing distance learning course work, as authors with disabilities will not be able to use inaccessible tools.
Authors who are producing content for distance learning have similar but somewhat different issues that they must deal with in the production and presentation of content for distance learning. There are many types of content that an author may choose to present in their course, as such they must take many accessibility issues into account. Many authors are not even aware that these issues exist.
Awareness of Accessibility Issues
Once again the biggest issue that content authors face is that they are not, in many cases even aware that there are issues to be faced in presenting content to their audience.
This can and does create major problems even when the facilities are available to create accessible presentation of content. This issue is a multifaceted issue and will need more than one solution is warranted.
The first part of the solution is going to be to make content authors aware of the issues so when they design courses the presentation of the content will be usable by the largest audience possible.
Just as important as making the content aware of accessibility issues is providing tools that can easily produce accessible content for distance learning. Tools that will facilitate or even require accessible presentation should be developed and their use encouraged.
Usage of Software Features and tools to Solve Accessibility Issues
Ease of use of accessibility features in content production tools is a serious problem...If it is difficult to use these tools in general, or it is difficult to use the accessibility features of the tools, authors will become discouraged and will not take full advantage of the features available to them.
This is more of a usability issue than an accessibility feature, however, it is important to note that tools that do not have a high degree of usability will not have a high rate of usage. It is to the advantage of all for these tools to have both the features that will produce content that is presented in an accessible manner, and features that are easily used.
Raising awareness of accessibility issues is critical for both content authors and software developers. Without this awareness, little progress is going to be made in producing distance learning coursework that is accessible to an audience that is as inclusive as possible.
Software developers involved in building tools to produce accessible content must be aware of these issues so both the tool and the content it produces are accessible.
Authors must be aware of accessibility issues so that the content they produce is accessible, and so they are aware of how to use the features in the tools they use that will facilitate the production of accessible distance learning coursework.
Tools that meet this need are being produced, and many content authors are becoming aware of these issues. We must all however be committed to raising our own awareness and the awareness of those around us.
Copyright ©Michael R. Burks, Mark D. Urban 2002
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