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Courseware Evaluation 1999 - Background, Descriptions and, Rationale

  1. Background
  2. Designer Controlled Utilities
    1. Access Support
    2. Information
  3. Inherent Courseware Features


Today's educators of college and university students face new challenges related to the increasing demand for provision of course related resources and documents via the Internet. Use of the Web for delivery of distance learning is finding an audience in the current "just-in-time" education environment, where customized educational programs and convenient professional development opportunities are valued by today's lifelong learners. In addition, students in traditional facilities-based courses are also asking for the convenience of access to course resources, information, and communication with their instructors via the Internet. Now, as we stand at the beginning of a new era in education, we must take steps to ensure the accessibility of online educational resources to users of adaptive technology, or learners with disabilities. To this end, it is essential that educators and administrators are astute in their selection of courseware tools, and their development of web-based instructional strategies. The provision of access support and information (described in more detail below) via courseware and web authoring tools supports the principles of universal design and access to education for all learners.

Until recently, only a few enterprising educators found the time, resources and energy required to prepare materials for distribution via the Internet. These pioneers have been technology generalists, self-taught web-masters who have found their own way. Meanwhile, many instructors have chosen to continue with traditional media - primarily print-based, with the addition of e-mail for communicating with colleagues, and perhaps occasionally, students. In the past few years, many educators have felt pressure to move beyond these traditional strategies, pressure from both the administrators who manage their institutions, and the students whose learning needs to include informed access to a world wide collection of knowledge available through a modem and phone line. Administrators are seeking more efficient use of time and resources, as well as a future-oriented approach to student services in order to stay "competitive" in the education sector. Students, who have grown up using personal computers, and tend to be Internet-savvy as well, expect the convenience of web-delivered information and resources. Internet related skills are valued in themselves as essential to success in the current job market. The potential benefits to learners who use adaptive technologies are many, as the electronic delivery of information and resources permits translation into a variety of modalities and formats. Rather than retrofitting these resources to allow access by students with disabilities, educators and web authors must be encouraged to create materials in accessible formats from the beginning.

This study is based on the simple principle that authoring tools are the best place to start to improve the accessibility of the Web. Seven course-authoring products (courseware) have been assessed.

Analyses have been conducted in terms of access for students taking a course over the Web. Accessibility for designers with disabilities has not been considered. Both designer controlled utilities, and courseware inherent features have been included and are explained next.

  1. Designer Controlled Utilities
    1. Provide no way to add ALT text
    2. May provide a way to enter ALT text but either as a secondary step, or hidden away in a field on a secondary window
    3. May provide a field to enter ALT text just below the field that identifies the image
    4. May prompt the designer when ALT text has not been entered or requires the designer to include ALT text before continuing
  2. refers to functions which provide choice, selection, or input utilities for creating course content by the course designer/instructor. For example, an interface may be available which allows insertion of an image on the course home page. To make that image accessible to a student who is blind an alternative text description is required. A utility for including ALT text can be prominent and well explained, it can be hidden away in secondary levels of the interface, or it may not be present at all. The ease to which a feature, such as an ALT text field in an image insertion utility, is accessible during the authoring process has been referred to as Access Support. The extent to which these utilities are explained, both in terms of their functionality and their purpose within the product's help system has been referred to as Information.

    Access Support

    Access Support refers to a tool's support of accessible authoring practices. Several levels of Access Support can be identified. Continuing with the ALT text example, an image tool may:

    Maximum points are awarded for Access Support to products that require the implementation of accessible authoring practices (4). If the accessible authoring practice is supported as an option, a score of 2 or 3 is awarded based on the prominence of the feature in the design interface. If accessibility is not supported a score of 1 is awarded. If accessibility is not an issue because a design feature is not present, a score of 0 is awarded. The latter has the effect of entering a 0 score into the functionality for that feature. For any score other than 0, four points is added to the functionality score

    Because all courseware packages assessed did not possess the same features, support of accessible design must be assessed based on the overall complexity of the product; when a feature is supported in a product, its accessibility is analysed. The Access Support-Functionality Ratio has been calculated to represent the number of design utilities and their support of accessible authoring practices.


    Educating the designer about accessibility carries as much weight as including provisions in the design interface for creating accessible Web documents. Making designers aware of barriers faced by persons with disabilities will prompt them to create accessible pages, not only for those with disabilities, but also for those using older technology. Where a product does not provide an interface to add a particular feature, say images, a description of inserting images with ALT text -- in the help files -- will educate the designer who chooses to add HTML outside of the products interface -- perhaps in a text editor. Despite not providing a particular feature, such as a utility to add images, a product is awarded information points if it discusses accessibility in the help files, or in this case, a description of how to include ALT text when image tags must be coded manually. This would not apply however, if an image addition utility is present without an ALT text field, but a description of how to include ALT is present in the help files. Since it is much easier to include information in the help files than it is to create a utility for promoting accessibility, products that include information but not the utility to promote accessible authoring practice, recieve no points.

    Information refers to the presence of help files, explanations and examples that describe techniques to increase the accessibility of Web pages. Information may also come in the form of context sensitive help, or explanations given in alert boxes or prompts.

  3. Inherent Courseware Features
  4. are design elements that are pre-determined by the software developers, and cannot be changed by the course designer. Continuing with the ALT text example, if a product automatically includes ALT text with all meaningful images generated by the courseware (as opposed to the designer), it receives full points for Access Support (4). If all meaningful images are not accompanied by ALT text a relative score is awarded based on the proportion of images that include ALT text (2 for some-3 for most). If no images include ALT text a minimum score is awarded (1). If no images are included, a score of 0 is awarded.