Making digital resources in further and higher education more accessible – in order to comply with new regulations – can improve disabled students’ learning experience and help get more disabled people into work, according to a new report.
‘Accessible Virtual Learning Environments’ was published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology (APPGAT) and cross-party think-tank Policy Connect, and written by Robert McLaren, Head of Industry, Technology and Innovation at Policy Connect. It sets out a series of recommendations on how institutions can make their digital content more accessible for students, particularly those with a disability.
The report has been produced to coincide with new legislation that came into force on September 23: the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018. The new rules detail how organisations – including universities and other further and higher education institutions – need to comply with the EU Directive on the accessibility of public sector websites and mobile applications. Any new public sector website launched after this date must comply with the regulations by September 2019, while existing sites have until September 2020 to comply (Read more about the EU Directive in e-Access Bulletin’s previous coverage).
Almost every further and higher education institution will have its own virtual learning environment (VLE), broadly defined as a digital space where learning resources and other information are stored for students and staff. Almost all content on VLEs will fall under the new regulations and so will need to meet accessibility requirements.
Current VLE accessibility varies widely. In the Policy Connect report, Piers Wilkinson from the National Union of Students’ Disabled Students’ Committee highlights that inaccessible VLEs can be a barrier for some students, rather than a learning aid. A statement in the report from a visually impaired student supports this, pointing out that documents uploaded to VLEs “are usually intended for sighted users. The formatting of a document can therefore be difficult to navigate at times … with a visual impairment.”
The report goes on to explain exactly what is required of institutions in terms of the new regulations, before setting out recommendations, such as implementing training for those who develop and build VLEs.
Highlighted in the report is the fact that “digital accessibility in VLEs makes for good teaching for all students,” using the example of course texts being available in a range of formats. This immediately helps students with, for example, visual impairments (who may require an audio file or HTML version of the course text), but it also extends that choice to others: “It gives students the choice to engage with the content in the way that suits them best,” the report states.
Improving digital accessibility in this way will benefit all students, the report claims, and will help the government’s efforts to tackle the disability employment gap and meet its target of getting one million more disabled people in wok by 2027. The report states that “Providing a variety of learning tools suitable for all students – whether disabled or not – will allow us to both close the skills and disability employment gap and provide all students with a better opportunity to succeed in education and work.”
Download the accessible VLEs report in full at the Policy Connect website.
Read the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations 2018 in full at Legislation.gov.uk.
Read Government guidelines on making public sector websites accessible at the Government Digital Service website.