Having recently joined the CETIS-TechDis Accessibility SIG (Special Interest Group), I attended the 10th meeting of the group in York on 16 March 2005. The meeting was held in the very new (opened that week) Higher Education Academy Building on the University of York campus where TechDis now has its offices. There was in interesting mix of digital artists, metadata officers, lecturers, project staff and programmers from both universities and colleges, along with people from Becta, JORUM and Key2Access Ltd. There were three presentations and the day finished with a short discussion session.
Sal Cooke first gave a brief introduction into the aims of TechDis - to enhance provision for disabled students and staff in Higher, Further and Specialist Education, and in Adult and Community Learning, through the use of technology. She also mentioned the things that they don't do (e.g. develop standards) and then went on to discuss some current issues.
A report on accessibility guidelines and standards is in preparation; this will compare 13 different sets of accessibility guidelines, specifications and standards. Most of the guidelines are concerned with technology and do not cover the pedagogical aspects of e-learning. However, we need to remember that learning objectives can be achieved via a number of routes and providing an alternative accessible learning experience may, in some cases, be a better solution than attempting to make particular learning materials accessible.
There seems to be a particular problem over the Special Educational Needs Act (SENDA) with some fear of the legislation and potential litigation apparent in a number of institutions. TechDis have heard of a few cases where institutions are apparently telling lecturers not to use Word, Powerpoint, etc. as they are not accessible; there also appears to be a number of cases where institutions are reluctant to use e-learning as they do not think they can comply with the Act. So there needs to be more information out there to help dispel the misunderstanding and misinformation.
In passing Sal mentioned that newer versions of Word and Powerpoint do have some accessibility features but that not everyone knows what they are and how to use them; Flash can also be made more accessible. CourseGenie software converts Word documents into accessible HTML. She also mentioned SayPad, a freeware talking text editor. However, to make things accessible, you also need to look at the type of information to be passed on, the learning objectives and the needs of individual students.
There was also mention of the Dunn Report , which looks at the extent of accessibility within educational VLEs; this identifies problems and recommended solutions but notes that there is still some way to go.
The focus here was on the problems encountered and lessons learned in developing an accessible version of the Creation of Study Environments (COSE) VLE software . The COSE software is now available free in version 2.11, but is still being developed (hence the presentation title of 'Moving Goalposts'). Accessibility was not part of the original development, and has had to be added to the existing interface. Version 3 is planned and will be designed from the start with accessibility in mind.
COSE uses a Java client and Perl server scripts. There was mention of accessibility guidelines such as those of IBM and W3C; also the Sun Java Tutorial and the more general Sun Design Guidelines, and the IMS Guidelines for developing accessible learning applications. Sam and Ray emphasised the need for multiple testing (including guideline conformance, end user, usability and functionality testing with all types of assistive technology, together with the need to test throughout a project rather than just at the end).
Two tools were noted: Ferret, which shows accessibility information for text under the mouse cursor, and Monkey, which displays trees of assistive components and their equivalents.
This presentation looked at the implementation of the Progress Profile, which is part of the Accessibility for the Learner Information Packaging (ACCLIP) specification  at Loughborough College. A major factor in this has been the geographical proximity of Loughborough University, Loughborough College and an RNIB College resulting in a number of students transferring from the RNIB College to Loughborough College (e.g. to take foundation courses) and then on to the University.
The Progress File is used to record information about a student's progress. Students access their file via a home page; the first time they access the home page they can set display preferences. There is server-side recording of user preferences on text font and size, and colour or monochrome, so that every time the user logs on they see things in their preferred way. Tutors also have access to the files, but log on from a different page; they can also set their own display preferences.
Security was noted as an issue, not least because students in the 16-19 years age group are very helpful to each other - even to the extent of letting another student use their login and password on occasion. Loughborough College is also experimenting with text messages to remind students to check their email and update their progress reports; it seems that this age group uses mobile phones routinely and not email.
The Progress File is kept for 3 yrs (Data Protection Act) and students can request copies for job and course applications. The file can be sent as email, USB (memory sticks) or hard copy. Loughborough College is now trialling the transfer of information to Loughborough University in respect of its foundation students who move on there.
This talk generated a lot of discussion about the future of user preferences and possible ways in which users might be able to record their preferences for use across all sites.
There was brief discussion about the proposed joint CETIS Pedagogy Forum and Accessibility SIG meeting to be held on 23 May at the University of Wales, Bangor.
There was an overview of the contents of the TechDis AT (accessible technology) boxes, which are used for demonstrations. The boxes contain reading tools, screen readers, alternative input devices, recording tools, planning tools, writing tools, and communication tools.
Jenny Craven of CERLIM at Manchester Metropolitan University spoke about the European Internet Accessibility Observatory (EIAO) Project , which will assess the accessibility of European Web sites and is part of a cluster of projects to develop a European Accessibility Methodology.
This was an interesting and useful event. The meeting covered a lot of ground in the accessibility arena, and the breaks afforded good opportunities to meet a wide range of people. I hope to attend further meetings of the SIG, which are held four times a year in different locations. Official notes of the meeting have now been posted on the SIG Web site .