Teaching Document Accessibility

The Faculty of Medical Sciences Digital Skills provides lifelong learning to students throughout the faculty on a bespoke basis. Our tutorials cover the use of Microsoft Office programmes such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, as well as tutorials on how to work with specific media such as images and posters.

Recently, we have increased focus on the value of our tutorials by highlighting lifelong learning skills for accessibility. As part of our Word tutelage, we teach students to use Styles to format their documents. Styles are packets of information that control how text looks and behaves. Namely, we teach students to work with heading and caption styles. In addition to being effective and efficient methods of formatting text, styles have an important role to play in accessibility. Screen readers can analyse a Word document using styles and accurately interpret headings. This allows users to easily navigate through documents. And, when converted to a PDF, styles automatically create tags in the document affording the same benefit for screen reader navigation.

Additionally, we teach students how to add alternative text (alt text) to images they insert into Word or PowerPoint. Alt text allows users with impaired visibility to understand what an image depicts. By using alt text, student increase accessibility of their digital documents. And, like styles, when converted to PDF, images retain tags of their alt text.

These skills are truly lifelong learning skills as they provide students with the knowledge and ability to create accessible documents. These skills will serve them in their future careers where digital documents will be required to meet specific accessibility regulations.

Ethical Framework for Digital Teaching and Learning

In December 2020 I had the opportunity to attend the Association for Learning Technologies’ Winter Conference. One of the presentations at the conference really struck a chord with me and I would like to share a synopsis of what was discussed.

Presenters Sharon Flynn, Natalie Lafferty, John Traxler, Bella Abrams, and Lyshi Rodrigo sat on a panel discussing an Ethical Framework for learning technology. They discussed what they perceived as the biggest issues around ethical teaching and learning digitally.

One of the primary concerns driving the development of an Ethical Framework is the inevitable power relationship learning technologies create between teachers and their students. For example, how can monitoring work in the right way, where it is not there as a policing tool, but rather as a tool for aiding engagement and learning. One of the panellists suggested a simplified form of terms and conditions could go a long way to pacifying student concerns over any form of monitoring.

There are inherent principles about trust and reliability in the digital world. This is evident in many sectors but likely not more than in the surveillance culture of the digital world. We have, therefore, the responsibility to help protect students, and colleagues, as we become more aware of ethical challenges in the digital world.

Another concern relates to fair access. What ethical role does the institution have in ensuring all students have access to the digital tools, such as laptops and broadband internet? What is considered adequate and equitable? How logistically can this be accomplished? And, this is not simply a problem for students. Some teachers will also experience digital tools poverty. This would also include training for students and teachers in the systems, programs, and tools they would be expected to use. (Something that Newcastle University is working hard to ensure exists to support students and teachers in the unique set of circumstances following of from Covid-19.)

Another question brought up was what constitutes harm? This question would be at the heart of an Ethical Framework. How do we as institutions identify harm caused by digital teaching and learning and mitigate it? For example, how does proctoring and the use of e-resources impact students. What about productivity measures? These could potentially be arbitrary and misrepresent what really matters. Some people think these are easy solutions for the current challenges, but they invite the need for an Ethical Framework.

The implications of GDPR and its potential successor also impact the need for an Ethical Framework. Professional bodies are not necessarily thinking of the problems related to approaches like proctoring. So, any Ethical Framework must be rooted in context of principles and be ever aware of the needs and where importance lies withing various other cultures.

This all leads to the need to develop an Ethical Framework for teaching and learning digitally. The panellist suggested that we start from a position of respect and use our values to build an Ethical Framework including student voice.

This summary of the impetus and content of what may be needed in an Ethical Framework for teaching and learning online is certainly worth considering as we enter into the new normal that will likely contain more online teaching than we had pre-Covid. I would be interested to hear (reply below) what you think about what the ALT panellists had to say and what your views on such an Ethical Framework should and could be.

Accessibility and Ally

This week I have been working on how to improve accessibility of resources, focusing particularly on the four commonest issues flagged by Ally in Canvas. I have been working on the BMS Health and Safety course to check its accessibility. I found that while it’s easy to add an image description in the Ally view within Canvas, I wasn’t familiar with how to correct issues within the PDF itself. After a few searches online, I was able to come up with a guide to help others fix these issues. A quick summary is below. You can access the full walkthrough on the FMS Community.

The four commonest issues I found were; a lack of image descriptions, a lack of headings, the lack of document title, PDFs not being tagged.

Find the Original Document

These can be added under image formatting tools in Word and PowerPoint.

Add or Define Headings

Make sure you are using the built-in style galleries and slide templates to format your document. This makes it easier for screen-readers to understand the structure of the information.

Add a Document Title

This setting lives on the ‘Info’ tab of a file – one that I had never paid attention to before!

Tag your PDF

After you have saved your file, you can also export it to PDF from the option on the same menu. Go to the advanced settings area and you can make sure that your PDF maker will include bookmarks and headings.

You can access the full walkthrough for each of these steps on the FMS Community. More information about Ally and accessibility is available via LTDS.