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Organising your space accessibly

All people learn differently. Organising your space in a way that supports the learning needs and styles of all users can be a difficult task. Your learning materials need to engage, educate, evaluate and accommodate people effectively.

In this topic we discuss a number of design decisions you can make to help ensure your space is accessible to all users.

  1. Set clear space expectations
  2. Make time limits and deadlines flexible
  3. Provide alternative learning materials


Set clear space expectations

When you set up an online space it is important to remember that for many students it marks a big change from a traditional classroom. This can be challenging for students with physical or learning disabilities as they can feel disconnected from their instructor and other support systems.

Furthermore, VU Collaborate provides space designers a lot of flexibility in how they set up and organise their space materials. Although there are many benefits to this flexibility, it can be daunting for students with learning disabilities and students who rely on assistive technologies to navigate pages to find all of your space materials and assignments.

There are some easy design decisions you can make that will help all students use your online space effectively:

  • Use Unit/Course Home to help familiarize your students with your content.
  • Create a news topic on Unit/Course Home that introduces yourself (the space instructor) and any teaching assistants. Include relevant contact information and a note encouraging students to contact you if they have any questions, concerns, or additional needs.
  • Include your unit syllabus as a news topic (or a link to your unit syllabus) on Unit/Course Home. This helps all users clearly understand your space expectations up front. Make each syllabus item a Quicklink to the actual item in your space. This provides a navigation shortcut to important content and helps students with learning disabilities clearly see how content relates to space expectations.
  • Include a news topic on Unit/Course Home that highlights some of the personal tools available to students, especially the My Grades tool and User Progress tool.
  • Build redundancy into your space by repeating space information within different tools. For example, include all space syllabus information in the space calendar and include information on how much a quiz, discussion topic, assignment, etc. is worth in the description of that item. The more clearly space expectations are communicated through your space design, the more students can focus on learning content.
  • Set up enumerations in the Content tool's Settings to establish a clear hierarchy in your content. Well-defined space structure is easier to navigate for screen reader users and students with learning disabilities.

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Make time limits and deadlines flexible

Many space designers create materials that put users with learning and physical disabilities at a disadvantage without intending to. Usually disadvantages result from users not having enough time to complete tasks or not having appropriately designed resources.

Here are a few things to consider when organising space materials in a time-sensitive manner:

  • Use the Discussions tool rather than instant messaging tools (such as the Chat Room tool) for user participation and reflection. Instant messaging tools can be difficult for users with visual, motor, or learning disabilities because they require users to process and respond to information quickly using technology that does not match their needs. Discussion areas give all users time to reflect. If you use instant messaging, be aware that some users may require an alternative solution such as phone or face-to-face contact. Also consider the accessibility of the instant messaging interface, the VU Collaborate Chat Room tool is specifically designed to be accessible by keyboard and screen readers.
  • Provide readings and assignments well in advance of deadlines so users can work ahead and prepare. Many students need the extra time to organise extra help and to read through content multiple times. If you use tools such as the Conditional Release tool to release content on a module by module basis, make sure you give students plenty of time to complete each component. See the Setting release conditions and special access to support users with different needs topic for advice on setting release conditions in a unit.
  • Traditional examinations usually have a time limit in which students must prepare their responses. This can be difficult for students with learning or physical disabilities as they often need more time to articulate or record their responses. As an instructor you should be aware of the limitations that timed examinations place on students. Consider whether strict time limits are really necessary for your unit material. If these time limits are necessary, ensure students are aware that they can request extra time if needed. See the Setting release conditions and special access to support users with different needs topic for information on setting up alternative time limits.

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Provide alternative learning materials

One of the most effective space design decisions you can make to improve student engagement is to offer materials and assignments that appeal to more than one sense. For example, the same material or assignment can have an audio, video and text component. This type of redundancy helps engage students with different learning types, reinforces important concepts, and helps ensure that users with physical disabilities can access content in a suitable format.

  • Use the Content tool for readings and space material. HTML code is easier for assistive technologies to interpret than application based files such as MS Word. Follow web standards, such as those described in the Meeting web content accessibility standards topic, when creating your content.
  • If you need to use PDF files for additional content, use optical character recognition (OCR) if you are scanning documents so the text can be read by screen readers. Also consider adding tags to your documents to enable screen reader users to navigate them more easily. For more information about PDF accessibility, go to http://webaim.org/techniques/acrobat.
  • If your readings and lecture materials use many graphics, tables, videos, or audio recordings, provide a text-only alternative. Text-only material should supplement, not replace, other delivery methods. Videos, graphics, and audio files are a great way to generate interest in a topic, present material from different perspectives, and help students with learning disabilities through redundancy. Make the text-only alternatives easy to compile for print so that all students can use them as study aids at their leisure.
  • Allow students to demonstrate learning through different assignments associated with the same grade item or competency activity (for example, a written reflection, a recorded interview, or a slide show presentation).
  • Set up discussion areas that encourage peer-to-peer support. Regularly review information in the forums and adjust your content appropriately.
  • Use the Equation Editor in combination with written descriptions of the formulas. Although the Equation Editor supports accessible equations through MathML, these standards are not supported by all browsers or assistive technologies. Written descriptions help all students interpret what they need to do to complete the equation.
  • Use a vertical layout for quizzes so that only one answer/concept appears per line. Screen readers will interpret the order of the material easier, it will minimize formatting problems when text sizes are adjusted, and most students will interpret their options quicker.
  • Do not convert PowerPoint presentations to images in Virtual Classroom if you have visually impaired students because screen readers won’t be able to read the content and participants won’t be able to resize the text or graphics. PowerPoint slides are converted by default; you will need to clear Convert Word documents to HTML and PowerPoint slides to images on the Create File Resource pop-up page. Alternatively, make it easy for users to request the originals so they can adjust and print them as desired.

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