In theory, e-learning can offer disabled learners new alternative ways to learn because it can be easily adapted to different learning styles, speeds and communications formats. You can learn at a pace, location and time that suits you, use your preferred choice of media (video, audio, text) and replay sections until your confidence and understanding has been built. In this way, e-learning can create parallel paths to the same learning outcomes tailored for specific audiences, such as disabled learners.
But why is this issue relevant to employers? Given the growth in numbers of people unable to work, demographic changes creating a shrinking talent pool and an ageing workforce, and the ongoing development of disability legislation in the UK, this subject is growing in importance for training practitioners. All training must now be designed with matters of disability and accessibility in mind. And apart from the clear moral and legal obligation to provide effective training to disabled people, there is also a vast untapped potential for employers, which could go a long way towards meeting some of the skills gaps that many industries are suffering.
Making e-learning accessible is likely to benefit everyone, not just those with disabilities. We all have different ways we prefer to learn so an inclusive strategy where learning resources are provided in different formats will provide more effective learning for everyone. If organisations want to gain maximum value from the training they offer, surely providing truly accessible and usable resources is a good place to start.
Being proactive in regard to accessibility issues also protects organisations from accusations of discrimination and demonstrates a commitment to acting in an inclusive and socially responsible manner. Surely, even without the need for specific legislative action these arguments are enough to make employers sit up and take note.
However, the potential of e-learning can only be realised if e-learning is well designed and the needs of disabled learners are carefully thought through. And this seems to be the main stumbling block. Although, e-learning has rapidly increased in use in recent years, it already has its own demons to confront. Minimal and often disappointing experiences of e-learning have frequently been reported. It therefore seems that before e-learning can be touted as ‘ the solution’ to providing accessible learning, some fundamental challenges connected to the effective design and development of e-learning need to be addressed. These include providing attractive and high-quality content, maximising learner motivation and providing effective support to learners.
Furthermore, there appears to be a widespread lack of awareness of accessibility issues, especially at leadership level and among the developers and buyers of e-learning. And this seems to be particularly the case with the implementation of existing legislation and guidelines. The UK is yet to take specific legislative action on online accessibility and instead defers to the guidelines offered the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). But this system of unenforced guidelines means that the issue of accessibility is often downplayed and overlooked. How do you measure compliance with the guidelines? And how do you ensure organisations spend time and money testing their e-learning?
The Government surely has a role to play here. E-learning can potentially have a valuable input in the successful implementation of initiatives, such as lifelong learning, social inclusion and increasing the participation of disabled people in the workforce. But this can only happen if the Government takes a stronger and more proactive role.
Raising awareness of this issue is happening too slowly and practical recommendations, information and support are lacking. The drive for improvements needs to come from the procurers of e-learning, who are in a position to demand that certain accessibility standards are met. And this is where the Government must get more involved. As a major commissioner of e-learning, they can set the standards for best practice and exert pressure on developers to design truly accessible e-learning.
Improving the accessibility of e-learning need not involve a large amount of money and resources.
Many current barriers are easy to avoid and often just require a good understanding about accessibility by e-learning designers. By making a little extra effort, benefits will be realised for a large number of your employees, not just those with disabilities.
Inevitably, over time, legislation will enforce the accessibility of e-learning, but this is likely to be piecemeal and fairly long term. Since it is an issue that affects us all, a more sustainable approach would be for organisations to exploit an accessible e-learning strategy now, to ensure their practices comply with legislation, to gain competitive advantage by retaining and having access to a larger talent pool as well as behaving in a socially responsible and equitable manner.
The CIPD research: Inclusive learning for all: why accessible e-learning makes business sense can be downloaded from the CIPD website www.cipd.co.uk/changeagendas
Jessica Jarvis is adviser, learning,training and development at the CIPD
E-learning accessibility review:
The Inland Revenue
The Inland Revenue has carefully reviewed the accessibility of its e-learning programmes resulting in a set of guidelines being drawn up to ensure that future e-learning programmes are fully accessible. These guidelines cover three main areas:
- Design principles
- Layout and navigation
During the review, every potentially inaccessible screen interaction was reviewed and an alternative accessible option was proposed. For example, the ‘drag and drop’ action is practically impossible to use with a screen-reader, or without a mouse, so either an alternative, accessible version was provided (for example, a series of multiple-choice questions) or they were avoided completely.
Extra information provided by Judy Maxwell, e-media team at the Inland Revenue.