I have been a systems engineer for over 25 years now, the last 15 working on enabling technology for people with disabilities and the last 11 in education. This post relates to a systems response to accessibility and as such is applicable to the design and management of web systems mediating large amounts of diverse content to a mass audience. I have been working in international teams developing metadata standards to enable this approach since 2000. This has been largely within IMS (http://www.imsglobal.org/accessibility/) and the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (http://dublincore.org/groups/access/). This post is adapted from a recent internal Open University report I wrote for senior management and the Enterprise Content Management project here. I use illustrative facts from the OU context but the approach has a widespread applicability. Discussion of the technical and metadata issues that impact on implementation of the use cases outlined here is outside the scope of this post. This post sets out the top level concepts and the business case.
Background notes on the OU context and its provision for disabled students
• The OU has around 150,000 undergraduate and more than 30,000 postgraduate students. 10,000 of our current students declare a disability
• The OU offers over 600 courses; all with an online presence many making extensive use of the web in their teaching and learning, some delivered wholly online
• The Open University’s style of teaching is called supported open learning
• Nearly all students are studying part-time
• Most OU courses are available throughout Europe. Some of them are available in many other parts of the world. More than 25,000 OU students live outside the UK
• A third of our UK undergraduate students have entry qualifications lower than those normally demanded by other UK universities
• The OU’s mission “Open to People” means being inclusive of the access needs of disabled students
• The OU is a longstanding national leader in provision for disabled students
Possible roles for Enterprise Content Management Systems in accessibility provision
Provision of Alternative Formats
A key role for the ECMS identified at the OU is in improving the efficacy and efficiently of the management of the provision of alternative formats for disabled students. The OU routinely provides a range of alternative versions of teaching materials to meet the needs of disabled students. These include:
• Electronic versions of printed material (PDFs, RTF or Word documents)
• Audio versions of printed or online resources (We are moving towards the provision of eBooks in DAISY format. We currently have an in-house format for this DREAM and also provide recordings on CDs or audio cassettes)
• Transcripts for video and audio assets
All of these present a common challenge in that there is a resource intended for mainstream provision and one or more alternatives that need to be associated with it. At present that association is largely managed manually. However appropriate use of metadata in an ECMS would enable this association to be managed more efficiently with a number of key benefits:
• The possibility exists then for automatically providing individual students the versions they require to meet their access needs via the VLE (Content Personalisation)
• Revisions of original assets could prompt for possible revisions required in the alternatives
• Automated auditing of the provision of alternatives at module, course and programme level would be possible
• If assets are repurposed for a different course the alternatives would automatically follow them
A recent internal accessibility workshop under the sponsorship of senior management had the following aims:
• To reduce cost and time of course design and development
• To improve access to the curriculum for disabled students
Three of the priority areas for action listed at the end of this workshop were:
1. Improvements of accessibility information availability
2. Design approval and accessibility review to support audit
3. Long Course Descriptions to reflect accessibility
These are recognised by many staff within the OU as long standing systemic problems. Solutions to these would be strategic and are pressing. The ECMS has a role in the addressing each of these:
For 1. Improvements of accessibility information availability:
If accessibility issues and the availability of alternatives were documented in an associated document and/or the metadata of a resource then this information could be interrogated by anyone who needed it. A key use case for this would be when a prospective student who has a disability asks if a given course would be accessible for them.
For 2. Design approval and accessibility review to support audit:
The ECMS it could usefully employed in managing the documentation associated with design approval. The information referred to in 1. would also be useful in accessibility audits and to support quality assurance processes.
For 3. Long Course Descriptions to reflect accessibility:
Long Course Descriptions, the information that is made available to students and enrolment staff about a course, needs to be an evolving document as courseware is developed and edited. The ECMS could facilitate this by maintaining the association between the Long Course Description and the course assets, by providing a user friendly interface for the development of the Long Course Descriptions and by providing course audit information as already outlined.
Benefits of the ECMS in the OU Context
The ECMS potentially holds significant benefit in both the production and distribution of alternative versions of learning and other resources.
In the production process the ability to associate accessibility information with assets as they are developed and make this information available to staff across the university will address a number of key issues:
• It could facilitate prompts for the recording of this information at the point in the development process when it is known
• It would enable the aggregation of this information from all assets that constitute a course or a programme of study
• It would support the process of commissioning specialised alternative versions where these are specified by the course teams
• It would enable the efficient management of alternative activities where these are deemed a more appropriate provision than a direct alternative to the resource
• It would facilitate accessibility audits either in the production process or subsequently
• It would significantly contribute to a university wide system to enable registration and regional staff to adequately advise prospective students on the accessibility of specific courses or programmes
The storage of metadata that indicates what alternative versions are currently available for what assets and associating them throughout the production and presentation processes yields several key benefits:
• The various units that need to interact with this information can do so in an integrated and computer supported way leading to process efficiencies
• Content Personalisation for disabled students in their use of the VLE, Student Websites, etc. becomes possible
• This is also a key component of the information that needs to be made available in summary form to disabled people inquiring about the accessibility of particular courses or programmes
• This information too constitutes an important component of accessibility audits
Providing effective accessibility provision at the scale the OU operates requires well designed technology supported systems and processes. The ECMS holds a significant potential to both make more efficient existing processes and facilitate new processes that would substantially improve our accessibility provision and do so in a cost effective way. The same would apply in other contexts using the web to mediate extensive resources in diverse formats.
To yield these benefits appropriate metadata specifications and technical approaches need to be adopted in the ECMS. Many enterprise content management platforms have the technical specification to enable all the benefits outlined to be yielded but they are not available “out of the box”. Thus specific development and implementation work needs to be commissioned and resourced.
23 April 2009
(OU’s 40th Anniversary)