e-Learning Accessibility & Usability

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Written by: Kim Phillips

After 18 years in the field of e-Learning and as a doctoral learner in instructional design and online learning, I am intrigued by the intersection of usability and accessibility in the many delivery options offered by the online learning environment. Many terms define and describe the online delivery environments, and as these options expand the audiences and learners also grow more diverse. The downside to the exponential growth of e-Learning is that the more e-Learning expands around the world, the more disparate the usability and accessibility becomes, leading to more incongruent learner experiences.

I mean, how many of us have been to websites that just don’t work well? How many times have we just given up when trying to locate information because it wasn’t clear where to navigate or just took too long to find? Even worse, how many of us have taken online training that frustrated us with poor or inconsistent navigation, or led us to a dead end where we couldn’t complete the course? Frustrating, right?

Usability and accessibility do somewhat overlap, but have very different impacts on the learner. For those of us without a disability, not being able to get to course content easily or finding the course not useable may generally create a nuisance, a frustration or an inconvenience – this is a usability issue. For individuals with disabilities such issues are not just frustrating, they may create barriers to learning – an accessibility issue.

Yates (2005) emphasizes that usability and accessibility are not one and the same; a website might be useable, but not accessible (p.182), or vice versa. Combining usability, or the ease of use for a web site (p. 183), and accessibility, the extent a web site removes barriers to individuals with disabilities (p. 184), equals an enhanced user experience for all. Examples of similar or like aspects of accessibility and usability include consistent navigation, the ability to change screen font size and links that are labeled to indicate where they lead. Attention to the nuances between accessibility and usability have a positive impact on the design of a good online learning experience, allowing ease of use for everyone, and access for individuals with disabilities.

Addressing usability and accessibility for online learning does not just stop at the technical side of development. Rose and Meyer (2002) accentuate the importance of not only providing physical access to learning, but providing access to learning itself for all learners, and special needs learners through application of Universal Design for Learning principles to instructional design processes. They believe “barriers to learning are not. . .inherent in the capacities of the learner, but arise in learners’ interactions with inflexible educational materials” (p. iv). Instead of catering or adjusting the curricula for specific and/or disabled individuals, inclusion of universal design will cater to almost all learners.

Rose, D., & Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student: Universal design for learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Yates, R. (2005). Web site accessibility and usability: Towards more functional sites for all. Campus –Wide Information Systems, 22(4), 180-188. Retrieved from ABI/INFORM Global.

1 Comment

  • wgriffiths
    April 19, 2012

    Usability presupposes accessibility. I disagree with Yates that “a website might be useable, but not accessible.” Separating these concepts requires dividing the user into two distinct categories: those with a major sensory disability and those without one. Such a website would be both accessible (i.e., perceivable) and usable by those without a disability, but inaccessible to those with a certain disability. Little more is said about these concepts other than they are applied to different categories of users.

    I think the difference between them is not one of kind but rather of degree on a gradient ranging from communicating no content (inaccessible) to effectively and clearly communicating content. The boundary between these concepts is fuzzy and shifting depending upon the specific category of user under consideration. This is where what might be considered mere usability issues for the general user can easily shade into significant accessibility issues for individuals with disabilities.

    I would like to see the concept of accessibility advance beyond the negative formulation of “removing barriers to people with disabilities” to a usability-centered approach of improving the user experience for all users. I encounter too many people concerned with addressing accessibility issues who focus solely on satisfying narrow legal requirements, so serious usability issues are swept aside because they are not on the checklist.