Extract from paper co-authored with Andy Heath to be presented at m-ICTE 2009 (http://www.formatex.org/micte2009/):
In the last ten years there has been a burgeoning of systems for web based delivery of educational content, activities and services. Such systems are variously referred to MLEs (Managed Learning Environments), LMSs (Learning Management Systems) and VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments). In this post the term VLE will be used generically to denote all such systems. Most universities, colleges and increasingly schools in the UK deploy such systems and the picture is similar throughout the developed world. These VLEs may be commercial products, Open Source (OS) or in-house developments. Many VLEs adopt some degree of personalisation whereby what is displayed to an individual student at any given time is automatically and individually determined depending on who they are; what courses they are registered for; and what they are supposed to be doing at that time. This post describes an extension of such personalisation approaches that considers how the interface and content appears to the student depending on their personal need and preferences for computer interaction. This has great potential to increase access for disabled people to web based education as well as catering for students that may be working in different environments (e.g. hands free in a car or in a noisy environment) or working on different devices (e.g. PDAs, mobile phones, etc.).
Work is under way, since about the year 2000, to establish a new technological paradigm for increasing access to e-Learning for disabled people that embodies personalisation for accessibility. In delivering accessible interfaces and content it is inescapable that we must somehow match together very complex content and system characteristics with very complex individual requirements. However, there are different ways to approach that matching, some of which generalise individual requirements by addressing categories of disability and what a person fitting in each category might be supposed to need, some of which generalise technical requirements in the same way and some of which address the needs of individuals in an individualised way. It has to be said that a great deal of accessibility standards work to date has been focussed around what content and system producers can do without any specific knowledge of their audience – a one-size fits all approach. This is essentially a “push” approach. WCAG 1.0 and even to a very large extent WCAG 2.0 fit firmly in that category. The approach we describe here differs because it shifts the balance and responsibility for determining access needs of an individual away from the producer, supplier or author and towards the individual end-user and their supporting technological and human agents. What we will describe is a move towards a “pull” approach. The challenges here, including the very diversity and complexity of human requirements, the diversity of technology and the difficulties of mediating between the two, requires an intermediate representation to bridge in a cohesive way.
This intermediate representation is an information model encoded in a defined metadata vocabulary. In combination two complimentary sets of metadata PNP (Personal Needs and Preferences) and DRD (Digital Resource Descriptions) are known as the AccessForAll specifications have been defined. The AccessForAll work began at the Assistive Technology Research Centre in Toronto, was developed by the IMS Global Learning Consortium, led to an ISO standard “Individualized Adaptability and Accessibility for e-Learning, Education and Training” and is currently being integrated with the work of the W3C Ubiquitous Web Applications group in order to integrate the matching of resources and adaptations to both personal requirements and devices. In Europe the EU4ALL project is implementing it in a framework that will be available to universities, building code that extends the VLEs Moodle and dotLRN and which will be made available as part of those Open Source efforts. We have both been involved with the development of the work since its early days in IMS (c. 2000).This effort has achieved such a standardised intermediate representation. This then has been the basis of an implementation of the Content Personalisation (CP) approach that can be integrated to VLEs. The latter is the development of the EU4ALL project [http://www.eu4all-project.eu] which we participate in; Andy and I lead the Standards and Metadata work of the project.
There is a marked distinction between Content Personalisation for accessibility approach outlined in the conference paper (to be published April 2009) and Universal Access to a single resource typified by the WCAG Guidelines. (However the two approaches are complimentary.) The advantage of the CP approach is that needs can be individually met rather that attempting a “one size fits all” approach which is often unattainable especially in an eLearning context.
In summary the development of the AccessForAll specifications/ISO standard to enable the CP implementation in EU4ALL. The state-of-the-art is such that: first prototype implementations are currently being evaluated in the project but already demonstrate the successful realisation of the approach. Key work still to be done includes: creating the Core AccessForAll profile and harmonising this with the Device Profile metadata; resolving the granularity issue and addressing metadata roll-up when resources are aggregated.
Content Personalisation holds great potential for improved accessibility for disabled people in eLearning or more generally any web based delivery context. The EU4ALL project has demonstrated an implementation of CP for accessibility and will continue to develop and evaluate this to the project’s conclusion in September 2010. We look forward to a widespread uptake of the approach given this and the sound international standards basis for the work.