Accessibility and Usability in e-learning

Nowadays, we are moving away from the traditional approach and instead educational content is being offered in various ways, including, the Internet. In this way teaching and learning has been transformed.


The issue that we face, however, is whether this technology, specifically e-learning, is being made accessible by all, irrelevant of difficulties and disabilities. According to The European Business Network for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) 20% of the people in Europe have a disability which may interfere when using computers for educational purposes. Some questions which follow include, Are people having an impairment being given the opportunity to benefit from these technologies or are their needs being forgotten? Do our present e-learning systems offer keyboard equivalents to be used by users with mobility restrictions or vision impairments? Do all the images of our e-learning systems include labels to be used by the visually impaired in the form of screen reading software? Is course registration easily accessible by people having a disability?

Barton (1993) states that the way we define disability is extremely important. UPIAS (1976) defines disability as being "the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities". Therefore, it is our responsibility as citizens to eliminate the mismatch between learner needs and the educational experience being offered. The IMS Global Learning Consortium considers accessibility as being the adaptability of the learning environment to suit the purposes of all the learners.
In order to address the problem of accessibility IMS Global Learning Consortium has devised principles for accessibility in online distributed learning. These principles propose guidelines on how to develop accessible software in online learning. These should be followed as from the design process since it will be much more difficult to inject them in the software upon completion. The six principles target accessibility for people who have sensory-motor difficulties and also those that have cognitive disabilities.
Six principles

  • Allow for customisation based on user preference
  • Provide equivalent access to auditory and visual content based on user preference
  • Provide compatibility with assistive technologies and include complete keyboard access
  • Provide context and orientation information
  • Follow IMS specifications and other relevant specifications, standards or guidelines
  • Consider the use of XML

The following chart expands on the principles listed and gives actual example of how the web can help enhance the learning environment, making it more flexible and accessible.


In some cases, web accessibility is stipulated by law. The WAI Web Accessibility Policy Resources includes a set of links to laws and policies around the world. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) was developed by the W3C to provide solutions for web developers producing web software. In fact these guidelines represent the international standard for Web accessibility. Some of these guidelines and techniques can be accessed from the following website: One must also keep in mind that these guidelines are not specifically geared towards e-learning systems but to websites.

I agree with the fact that if the basics of usable design are ignored, all of the users would become disabled in using the technology. The same principle applies to when designing an e-learning environment that can suit all of the user's different needs. Lack of access puts individuals at a disadvantage which should never be the case. Furthermore this proves that it is the software which makes people unable to use it rather than the other way round.

The Conformance to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) also developed guidelines for developing accessible authoring tools, which can be accessed from These should be followed in order to ensure conformity. Moreover, there also exist evaluation tools that test whether the software developed adheres to accessible guidelines or not. This software is usually available online and it saves a lot of time and effort. Despite the latter, no evaluation tool is efficient enough when compared to actual human beings making use of the software. It is these users who test the product in the best way since "no tool can automatically determine the accessibility of Web sites". W3C also make use of levels of accessibility to classify the level of conformance to accessibility of software based on certain criteria. The levels include A, AA, AAA, and are explained below:

  • Level A: This is the minimum level of conformance given to a website which only confirms to the basic criteria for accessibility
  • Level AA: This shows that the website meets the criteria for both level A and AA. There can also exist a level AA criteria instead
  • Level AAA: This is the highest level of conformance and shows that website meets criteria for level A, AA and AAA. An alternative level AAA criteria can also be provided.

It's important to note that even when the website conforms to the highest level of accessibility (AAA), it does not mean that it caters for all types of impairments. Content creators should seek to remain up to date with the techniques which are currently being used so as to create the most accessible website possible no matter the type of disability, be it physical or cognitive.
More info:

Various projects exist which try to make accessible e-learning a reality rather than just a script on paper. One of which is the Accessible Learning Platform for Europe. ALPE is a validation project aimed at providing accessibility solutions for the visually and hearing impaired as well as for those adults who lack basic skills. The pilot study was done with 300 students from Spain, UK and Greece whose findings where used for the EU4ALL project. ALPE was a success and it managed to reduce a lot of digital exclusion.

EU4ALL stands for European Unified Framework for Accessible Lifelong Learning Project. It is also another project that supports the diverse ways of using technology for educational purposes. It was funded by the European Commission. This e-inclusion project started at 2006 up till 2011. It main aim was to make Lifelong Learning accessible for Disabled people. Since the project started, universities participating in the project have transparently integrated software to the existing virtual learning environments, thus making them more accessible. For more information:

Moreover, some software developers are also creating software that is more accessible. This include Flash player which can be included in e-learning environments. According to the W3C standards, flash media should not be incorporated in e-learning environments, however, accessibility features are transforming this view. The latest Flash 6, Macromedia involved many accessibility features. Its content is fully compatible with accessibility software like screen readers and magnification tools. For more information about the Flash accessibility please click on the following link Also, when using screen readers it is important that the language that they use is quite simple and straightforward. If the language is not easy to understand it leads to making users more confused rather than easing their access. The Plain English Campaign was set up for these purposes so that the language used is standard without any dialects.

It is very difficult to create an e-learning environment that caters for all the difficulties regardless of what they are. The best thing to do is to create e-learning systems that give the user the opportunity to set system preferences and other settings in order to avoid user disappointment and frustration and to be able to cater for all. I have set up a summary of different features that make an e-learning environment more accessible and those that on the opposite hinder it's accessibility.

What features make a system accessible?

  • Alt attribute should be used to describe the function of each image or animation
  • Provide captions and transcripts of audio as well as describing any video
  • Check that your explanations of links make sense when read out of context, for example, avoid using abstract instructions like 'click here'
  • Use headings and lists
  • Be consistent in structure and layout
  • Use CSS for layout and style if possible
  • Summarise graphs, charts and tables sensibly where possible or use the long description attribute
  • Provide alternative content in case some features are inaccessible
  • Make use of meaningful titles
  • Validate your work using the previously mentioned evaluation tools and guidelines

What features make a system less accessible?

  • Activities which include a lot of mouse control
  • Activities which require awareness of screen layout
  • Unclear instructions
  • Too complex instructions
  • Low colour contrast of graphics (for colour blind difficulties)
  • Small text
  • Overlapping elements
    Ongoing testing should be done to cater for accessibility. The earlier you locate something to fix, the easier it would be to adapt it. Further information on:


Barton. (1993, September). Born Again: A personal journey towards the Social Model of Disability. Retrieved from KNPD:

Gabrielli S., M. V. (2014, January 10). The Design of an Authoring Interface to make eLearning content accessible. Retrieved from e-Learning and Accessibility: