During the course of the Making Digital History project, we’ve learned a lot about Xerte and its strengths and weaknesses as a tool for supporting staff teaching and student learning. One important issue that has come up repeatedly is accessibility and this post discusses some of the key lessons we’ve learned.

Accessibility, or inclusive practice, is an important element of digital literacy. It is important to be aware of the potential barriers to access and to design content in order to reduce or remove such barriers wherever possible.

Digital resources are often viewed a double-edged sword because they can both enable and disable access. They do this by providing content in ways user can customise to suit their own preferences, like increasing the size of text or listening to it read out loud. But designers of digital content are often unaware of the diversity of ways people use computers and access the internet. Without this awareness it’s easy to inadvertently prevent users from customising content to suit their own needs. This is certainly something that we’d like to address in more detail with the students on the modules which use Xerte next year.

Xerte offers a number of possibilities to introduce students to the principles of customisation, access preferences and user experience. For example, on the third slide of the presentation that is embedded below you can see how  to use the ‘Properties’ option to display the Xerte learning object in Flash mode. The various ways in which this can be displayed are demonstrated on slide 4.

The image in the top-left of slide 4 is in HTML5 display mode. HTML5 supports using the browser accessibility tools to change appearance (for more on what this means see here:http://www.clarissapeterson.com/2012/11/html5-accessibility/) but not everyone has access to this knowledge in the first place (which is an educational issue in itself). The Flash version of Xerte, on the other hand, makes it easier for users to enhance accessibility by using its built in accessibility menus. The other images are in Flash mode and show how colour, font and text size can be changed using these menus (accessible as drop-down options on every page of the Xerte object in Flash mode).

Another tip when designing Xerte slides is that it’s useful to switch from HTML5 to Flash mode and check how content appears in different views with larger text size and different colours.

Xerte is also an opportunity to discuss

  • Avoiding text over images – which makes text more difficult to read and image more difficult to see, even when the image is faded;
  • Providing alternative text on images for people using screen readers – the alternative text explains the purpose of the image on the page;
  •  Incorporating alternatives to multimedia (e.g. subtitles, captions and transcripts) for people without headphones, speakers or who may have difficulty seeing the screen;
  •  Not relying on YouTube automatic captioning – it uses voice recognition and subtitles are often a nonsense – try it and see!

Inclusive practice benefits everyone. Students with dyslexia might prefer different colour and text combinations while international students might appreciate hearing text read out loud. Being inclusive is like providing ramps into public buildings. Although originally designed for wheelchair users, easy access is now appreciated by a diverse range of users, for example those pushing prams or buggies, with shopping trolleys or suitcases on wheels. Inclusive practice and accessibility are about making small changes which benefit a large number of people.

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