AXSChat Podcast

AXSChat Podcast with Susi Miller – eLearning accessibility expert and author

February 28, 2022 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with Susi Miller – eLearning accessibility expert and author
AXSChat Podcast
AXSChat Podcast with Susi Miller – eLearning accessibility expert and author
Show Notes Transcript

Susi Miller – eLearning accessibility expert and author 

Susi Miller is an industry-leading expert on accessible learning design and the founder and director of eLaHub (www.elahub.net). The author of Designing Accessible Learning Content (Kogan Page, 2021), Susi has more than 30 years of L&D experience in public, private and not-for-profit sectors. She is a skilled instructional designer, eLearning accessibility trainer, and passionate advocate for digital accessibility. Her accessible learning content has been shortlisted for the Learning Technologies Awards.

This is a draft transcript produced live at the event and corrected for spelling and basic errors. It is not a commercial transcript and will need to be checked if you wish to publish it. AXSCHAT Susi Miller

NEIL:

Hello and welcome to Axschat. I'm delighted that we are joined today by Susi Miller. Susi has written a very important, in my opinion, book which is Designing Accessible Learning Content because learning and online learning is ubiquitous and yet it is an often-forgotten part of the accessibility universe because everybody working in large and small organisations needs to learn new stuff. And we need to make sure that that learning content is accessible and yet it's often been the last bastion of inaccessible content. So, Susi it's great to have you with us today, can you give us a little bit about your background and how you came to write this book?

SUSI:

First of all, thanks ever so much for having me. I really appreciate it and I really appreciate having the platform and the opportunity about speaking about learning accessibility. I could not agree it is one of the areas that I think is often forgotten from accessibility the community. So, thank you, as I say for allowing me to come in and talk about eLearning accessibility. So, my background really is I have been in learning for about 30 or 35 years. I started off as an English teacher. And then, moved into software training, in the public sector, working in local authority for many years. And from there I moved really like many people into instructional design and online learning and that then took me to working in the university in the UK for a few years and it was there really that while I was in the local authority I was really interested in accessibility and in assistive technology, I was lucky enough to work with someone who was a screen reader user which got me really interested in making sure I was designing things that were accessible. But then moving into the university, I was lucky enough to work with a few people who were specialists in accessibility, and I think that really for me, really focused me on just how difficult it was to find out about anything to do with accessibility when it came to. eLearning. So, kind of finding out more about the web content accessibility guidelines and like so many people trying to fathom out what they meant and specifically for our work, working with learning and development, trying to apply them to actually what we were doing was, I found it very, very difficult. So, in the end I just realised that if I wanted to specialise in accessibility and in eLearning really, I would have to just go it alone. So, I started my own company and that is when I also wrote the book to help other people who said that they didn't have to go through quite the same struggle as many people were already doing trying to make their learning content accessible. So yeah, that is me really.

NEIL:

Thank you. So I think it's a bit of a common theme amongst people of our generation in working in the accessibility field that we have all kind of gone it alone and found our way as a second or third or fourth career and that it has been a case of trying to discover how to do this stuff for ourselves and I am really passionate that we start to put some kind of decent framework around teaching people how to be accessible and also teaching accessibility because those are two slightly different things. And hopefully that we'll have generations to come where this will be second nature to them rather than something that they need to dig into and think about and realise that is missing. So, what are some of the challenges that you have, if we go back to sort of eLearning systems and there are many but there are probably a handful that are really sort of commonly used. What are some of the challenges that you find with eLearning and the creation of accessible content?

SUSI:

So, I think from the point of view of the tools, I think that is a starting point really. I think the accessibility and the understanding about accessibility with tools and the eLearning altering tools has developed a lot over the last couple of years. So, it is getting better, and you do see that, you see more commitment to trying to make things accessible. And one of the things that I do in a lot of the webinars, and you know any kind of conferences that I speak at is try really to bring out the good things that are happening in accessible tools because it is very easy for us as learning developers and designers, just to be saying we can't do it because the tool is not letting us. So, for one of the things that I start do at the Tech Share Pro Session that we did. I had all three tool providers and one of the things that we did was really pull out the positive things. So, things like some tools do have an accessibility checker. A really great fundamental starting point is to have knowledge of the accessibility of the tools. To have either a conformist statement or a V Pack before you start. So, you know, you're not trying to yourself work out what the limitations of the tool are if you have that, you know a conformist statement up front then that is a really positive thing. You see really great things such as people who, altering tools who are putting accessibility in the workflow. So, in the instructions as your designing, they will say for example if you auto start the video, they will say this is not a good thing to do for accessibility. So, it's not. Those are really some of the positive, brilliant positive things that you see and that is the type of things that I try and bring out the good things as well. I think the frustrations are still you know as with any tool. You know where you have got the ATAG guidelines for altering tools and you know it doesn't seem that that many tools are aware of them you know trying to make them, make that accessibility built into the workflow making it as easy as possible for, not only for the output but also for developers themselves for the tools themselves to be accessible. So, I think, I have seen a lot of progress with all three tools, and I think that they are really you know the main market leaders really are realising that it is fundamental. It's no longer a nice to have. They have to have that as part of the tool. Maybe you know sometimes with newer tools, sometimes you go to the conferences like learning technologies is a big conference and you have quite a lot of new tools coming out. You talk to them about accessibility and it's really something they had not considered and when you think actually it could be such for them a new altering tool, such a unique, unfortunately it is still almost a unique selling point. Something you can really shout about if you make your tool accessible. It's almost you know, it's still, I think a feeling a bit like it's shoehorned in afterwards. So, a lot of the tools that have been around for a while, I think that is probably how it feels. It feels like some of them I'm familiar with using, it does feel a bit like an add on. Its just we have forgotten about and then it's just put it in at the end and it is not part of the workflow, and it is extra work for people which I think can be quite off putting.

ANTONIO:

For someone that is listening to us and how can I make my content accessible. I think all these tools and I think the difficult question is where I start. So, Susi where do I start?

SUSI:

Okay I think one of the things for me and a little bit Neil like you were saying about how we are actually training accessibility. I think if you, it's almost this is great fantastic if you have someone who actually wants to make something assessable. But really it's still a huge piece of work to do that kind of advocacy as why are we doing this, why is it important and I think in the training that I deliver, one of the, as part of the understanding, as part of making it really come to life for people is doing that advocacy, doing the why is this important and then I think that is its first piece of the puzzle. For me the second piece of the puzzle to understand how to make something accessible or why you're doing it is to understand a bit more about assistive technology because so many of the web content accessibility guidelines are there to help us make, you know, specifically to help people who are using assistive technology. If you don't understand very much about screen readers or screen magnifiers then it's very difficult to understand, you can follow the guidelines, but if you understand why you're doing it for me that is a really important missing piece of the puzzle. And then to try and make it, the next thing I think to address to try and break it down. So, when you look at the web content accessibility islands or you look at the book the web content accessibility guidelines, divided into our core principles, literally is you know a great long list of you know 50, if it's A, AA or 78 guidelines that you are trying to implement. So, for me it's trying to break it down really and make it you know make it more accessible for everybody. So, it's one of the things that I start off with training is just breaking it down into four different access needs. So, you know it's very oversimplified in a way but just breaking it down to vision, hearing, cognitive and motor is at least a good starting point where people can then begin to understand okay, so if I want to make something accessible don't just focus on everything, I need to do for a screen reader user which is very, very common. That is when people think about accessibility, that is one of the kind of myths we often have, it's only for people who have vision access needs. So really, it's breaking that down and realising that actually there are quite straightforward things that we can do that actually can, means that it can be accessible for a wide range of people. So, I think that is the starting point for me.

NEIL:

So, I am really glad that you mentioned that it's not just about making it compatible with screen readers. Although that is one of the most obvious and significant challenges that we face with learning content. That a lot of it just does not work with assistive tech. But I am really interested in you know how we make cognitively accessible training and particularly assessment processes that work for people with cognitive accessibility needs because essentially, the testing process is quite often deliberatively cognitively inaccessible and ambiguous. So, for example, with multiple choice questions that they write questions in such a way as to be deliberately ambiguous which is actually really, really difficult for someone like me who will sit there pondering about the meaning of the different statements in the questions when, if you assessed it in a different way, clearly have absorbed the knowledge. So how do we cater for some of that stuff in learning design?

SUSI:

Okay. So, I think, and I think again when, obviously the web content accessibility guidelines are very often criticised for not going into looking at the cognitive access needs in enough depth and I think they have, maybe with the next version there, they have addressed that. There is still enough in the web accessibility guidelines which mean that people can be thinking about things and doing things in slightly different way. So again, coming back to the training that we do. One of the things that we do is we have a case study which comes from the book and that is somebody who has so, his history when he was at school, he had a learning disability, and he also has chronic pain issues as well. And he is a learning designer and developer. And so having his case study and giving the first-hand experience of how exactly the type of things that he struggles with. So, for, he particularly pulls out the fact that he, the frustration that a lot of people feel with the type of things that you were saying. You know, multiple choice. For him that has a very profound effect because it triggers a lot of the negative experiences that he had at school around learning. It also then kind of triggers that he, it immediately makes him more stressed. It makes him, he realises that he, the things like adding timing. Quite often we think about the timing that we put on to assessments being that we should not be doing that, or we should give learners control because people have motor access needs. But equally for people with cognitive access needs and equally sometimes saying this learning will take you, even if it's not a time test but saying this learning will take you an hour, he says as soon as he sees that that makes him stressed and anxious because he knows it's going to take him longer than that to do the training. So immediately triggers all of the negative emotions that he used to have. So, he also, well he picks up things like having shuffling questions. So, if he has to do a compliance test and then he has a bank of questions and he then gets some wrong. He has no feedback on the answer. Then he has done them again and they are all shuffled in a different order and sometimes he will have a question and then the answers are shuffled. For him that has huge profound effects on how he is able to and also it really brings out as learning designers and developers, we really have a responsibility to be empathic and be respectful of the way people are learning, not just assuming that this is the way we have always done. We've always had a bank of 50 questions, we're going to shuffle them at the end and give you 25 minutes to do it. But there is that always that we do have the issue that we have, sometimes we have compliance testing and that sometimes comes with the things that we need to do. But certainly, we can do things like we can you know we can make sure that our language. We use plain language and make it as straightforward as possible. So, there is always a balance I think between understanding that you know the real-life situation of people who maybe are involved in compliance testing. And have these requirements that they need to maybe legally you know have or meant that then the reason for doing the case study and getting people to think about it and talk about it is just to show people that there is a different way. And for me I remember reading that case study well actually I spoke to Luke who wrote it for the book and I remember the hairs on the back of my neck standing up because I was thinking I have done everything that he is talking about which we all have and I have never even considered that that would be an issue for someone, I had just gone away, because that was the way that we had always done it. So, it's kind of opening up people's, you know perceptions and maybe thinking well just because we have always done this, do we really need to do it like this or can we think of a different approach.

NEIL:

So, I think obviously there is a need for compliance on lots of things.

SUSI:

I agree.

NEIL:

And yet, factoring the testing as a way of catching people out rather than testing their knowledge I think is discerning. I have certainly felt it in sort of mandatory testing that we have had to do within our own organisation. And this is not me having a crack at my employers. This is the way that these things are designed systemically. So, it's not something that they have decided to victimise me. But as a user of these products or you know, I find that they had almost designed to trip you up and whereas they should be designed to discover whether or not you have the knowledge and there is a difference and so I think that that changing mindset of how you create the assessment process is really important because if yes we probably nailed how we or at least nailed the knowledge of how we can make stuff interoperable with assistive tech. I don't think we have fully nailed how we can make good assessment processes for people with cognitive accessibility needs to the same extent.

SUSI:

I agree. So, when you say we have nailed it who is you say is we? Is that your organisation or?

NEIL:

No, I think in general, in terms of the web content accessibility guidelines, the accessibility industry. We know how to make stuff interoperable with assistive tech. I don't think we know as well how to create assessments that are fully accessible for people with a wide variety of cognitive accessibility needs.

SUSI:

I completely agree with you. And I think sometimes it is just that idea of maybe, it is that idea of accessibility being a journey rather than destination and then just learning as we go along. So sometimes maybe the idea of giving people maybe different ways of testing it. I think you know that opportunities for different options is something that you see much more in Higher Education rather than in a lot of, although the same tools we are used for creative content are used across the board, a lot of the assessment things we are doing talking about are very much workplace learning and they tend to be very much the compliance side.

ANTONIO:

So, with so many tools in the market and all the newcomers we also see that there is a grow in terms of automation and artificial intelligence embedded in some of these tools. What role do you see AI and automation have in helping designers to make content more accessible or even to check if the content is accessible or help them in the process of writing content that allows them to make sure that the language is accessible. What do you see the role of this technologies in learning?

SUSI:

I think there is huge potential there. That for me is one of the frustrating things that I think about our industry is that you know, there is, we are still having conversations now. Routinely having conversations about you know eLearning and people will be talking about how to make drag and drop accessible and you know, when you see the advances in technology that are going across the industry, it's incredibly and I find it you know, and they are talking about not being able to make you know the tools accessible. You know that technology is out there. It's just the frustrating thing about this particular industry. It is that is why it's so important that learning and technology is part of the accessibility. I don't have any, I am not an expert on the technology. I see it as a huge potential but it's really how do we harness what is going on and other amazing things that are going on in other industries and harnessing them and making sure that that actually is brought into learning and development and we are not still having conversations about the fact that you can't make a drag and drop accessible or what we should be doing about it, you know when you see the most incredible technology going on, you think well why aren't the people who are doing, coming up with this amazing technology realising how important it is to get people in the learning LND industry and the learning tech industry on board right from the very beginning rather than let's forget about it and then shoe horn it in at the end. So yeah, as I say I'm not a real expert on the technology side of things. But I think certainly there is huge potential there.

NEIL:

Yeah. I think that you know we frequently see the accessibility dongle. You plug it in at the end and bolt on thing and we really don't need to be doing that as we renew these tools and redesign them, except that with all technology you know there is established stuff out there. We can't just throw away our legacy tech or our legacy learning materials either because it takes time to create this stuff. So, we'll be on a journey of iterative improvements for quite some time to come in. But I do think there is also a tension, not just between the knowledge of how to implement stuff but even the tension between pedagogy and accessibility because we had one learning provider that was insistent on drag and drop implementation in a particular way where we had shown them an accessible way of doing it and we said we can't do it that way because it's not and then you're thinking hold on a second this is now becoming you know sort of very much a sort of closed mindset. And so how do we, I mean are you finding that people are open to finding new ways of doing things or do you think it's still a case of winning hearts and minds to convert people to being accepting of changing the way they need to do stuff.

SUSI:

I think the winning hearts and minds is still a really important piece of the jigsaw that is missing. So it's kind of like, as I say, a lot of the talks that I do are about you know the myth busting and it is, I find it you know really when you, in comparison to what you see going on in the general accessibility community, it is disheartening to feel that we are especially maybe two or three years ago really you know the attitudes and the opinions to making things accessible were just really, I felt they were a long way behind you know other industries. So, I think that is you know, there is still that kind of missing piece that needs to be done. It is that advocacy. And also, it's obviously from a business point of view, this is great for your business. It still is that. You know, I still have conversations with clients where they say well, we have got our supply and we know they are accessible and so that is fine. I'm like okay that is fine. Have you done any testing just to make sure and then it turns out actually that their supply even though it's in the contract it's saying yeah, we are accessible, all the same issues but they are still being supplied with content that is not accessible to Work Life 2.1, A and AA standards as it has said? So, it's almost like if someone can get it right and someone can show the benefits of getting it right then I think that will trickle down into the industry. So, I personally think that there are a lot of people like me at grass roots level. So, I think the advantage that we have as learning designers and developers is that we are generally very passionate about what we do. We want to create effective and engaging learning experiences. So, for me why wouldn't we, why would we be doing that and wanting? Why would we think it was acceptable to be excluding statistics variable like 12 to 26% of our audience? You know, so from a grass roots level I think there are more and more people who are beginning to think you know, it's not, I need to do this. I really genuinely think, this should be accessible. Quite often a lot of people find I think then it's the blocker of oh well that is going to cost more money and we don't have the resources to do it in our organisation which is part of the reason that I wanted to write the book because there are a lot of people working in big organisations. They might be working as freelancers where they are part of a team and you're the instructional designer you've got someone who does the graphics, you've got someone who does the development. But there are a lot of just one man an organisation. Especially in public sector. You know a really small team or just one person working on their own and they are without the support. So at least one of the reasons for writing the book is that everybody at grass roots level is that idea of democratising it, you didn't have to be an accessibility expert. So you may not want to be following every single one of the accessibility content guidelines, if you're starting small you can actually just do something that helps you yourself to feel that you are making your learning content as accessible as you can but from there, as I see it, grass roots level I see a really strong, really you know and people I'm training and people I'm doing webinars for. It is always a lot of positivity, a lot of passion around it and you know and that really translates into you know a feeling that there is kind of a movement growing. However, I still think then it's that kind of blocker of we need the industry as a whole to be supporting this and organisations as well to be you know how you actually implement it within a large organisation. So, I think that is still really the kind of stumbling block.

NEIL:

So, I think there are some really significant points that you raise there. So firstly, a lot of learning content is user generated content. So, it's that those tiny teams or its actually people creating a PowerPoint that then gets thrown into the machine to be spat out as a learning module. Quite often. So, it's finding ways to get this embedded into the work flow and as you mentioned before, ATAG, which is the Authoring Tools Accessibility Guidelines, is much less well known and much less well understood but hugely important because it's that bit that gets it into the work flow that nudges people saying hey, have you done this, hey you need to do that that can really make a huge difference. And then I guess the other thing is actually prioritisation because we had this huge corpus of inaccessible content that is not going to go away anytime soon. So how do we, what are the things that we want to prioritise. I would say there are a few that are obvious. Mandatory training. Where someone is told that if you don't do it, you're going to get marked down on your appraisals for example.

SUSI:

Or even lose your job.

NEIL:

Exactly. So, you would become noncompliant through no fault of your own. Those are the kinds of things that organisations need to fix first. But what are the things that follow on from that? What are the things that you would say then should be high up on the priority list?

SUSI:

I don't know even before mandatory training, the other thing that's really important I think for workplace training is basically on boarding. So you, for me that is where you know and I have kind of like heard experiences of people actually again someone at Tech Share I was trying to get, he was a screen reader user and I was trying to get some more experience you know to hear what his experiences had been and he was explaining to me that for his on boarding training for an organisation that was committed enough to accessibility to send him to the Tech Share Pro conference and to have lots of other delegates there, this organisation was obviously committed to accessibility but for his on board training he needed to have his manager sitting next to him reading out his training because it was not accessible and I said oh how long have you been at the organisation thinking he's been there for a few years he said this was in March of last year. So, I think for me, that is the disconnect between organisations. So, we can get accessibility right and obviously it's a lot more, it's important how people are understanding about the you know getting people within the workforce with disabilities and making sure that their recruitment process is accessible. So, the really great progress and then for me the on boarding is when that is where the learning, that's where it falls apart. How actually committed are you to accessibility if you have had a fantastic experience and your recruitment has been accessible and then you have your on-boarding train does not have captions on it or you're using a screen reader and you need to have your manager read out your learning for you. All of the, so many things that it could be if it's not accessible. You know all of that hearing, cognitive, the motor, the vision, could be all of those. So, if your learning is not accessible for me it's the kind of on boarding is the real proof of whether an organisation has thought about accessibility. It's not just kind of and again it's that journey verses destination. You know obviously things will not always go right in the process; you're not going to have everything right. But it's that for me that on boarding is a hugely important part because you know you have got to make someone feel part of the organisation. That is the whole purpose of doing on boarding is that you know these are our values. You know, this is what we believe as an organisation. If it's not accessible there is just a disconnect between actually what you're saying is your policy and what actually in reality is what someone with access needs often has to face. So, I think on boarding is really important and then I think all of the kind of development you know again, I suppose it comes back to that empathy and to that showing people respect. If you genuinely want to, you know if you are genuinely committed to progressing your staff and allowing them to achieve their potential and then surely you need to make sure that the learning that you provide to allow them to do any kind of professional development is accessible as well because otherwise it's that kind of disconnect between what you say you actually believe in and actually the reality of it. So, I think those probably are the two areas for me.

ANTONIO:

We have been discussing talking about the compliance, about you know mandatory training, training is a unique opportunity because people have to pay attention to what they are doing. At the same time, I feel that sometimes organisations miss the fact that that needs to be something that people enjoy doing and sometimes we might be developing training that oh I have to do this again and just the fact that you see that you are already afraid of going there because you're going to remember the experience from last year. That was not great.

SUSI:

We have all experienced that yeah.

ANTONIO:

So, in this journey to make it accessible, how you make sure that in the end that people really enjoy what they are doing when they are doing those modules receiving those training and then that's when it actually works because you know you can do something that you are forced to do. You do it just to fill in all the boxes but in the end, you might not remember what is happening there. How can we make sure it's accessible and at the same time it's actually useful and people really learn?

SUSI:

I think that is a whole question for our industry that we have been debating for years and years and years and it's like sometimes there are quick fixes. Let's do a little bit of gamification. You know, what is the new kid on the block at this conference, is it going to be gamification, is it going to be AR VR. Is it micro learning? Is that going to work? I think for me, the only way I can answer that is to say how I design and develop learning as an instructional designer. I think it is again for me and I keep coming back to this empathy and respect, understanding that everybody is time poor that everybody, that nobody really to be fair often wants to do especially a piece of compliance learning. But it's really making it as relevant for me and again that is a key theme really in our industry, is making relevant as possible to the experience of the person. So, you can see, sometimes you can see a piece of training that maybe has been sourced externally and I am not saying that is necessarily a bad thing but if it can be you know, if it is you know made relevant for a particular organisation, made bespoke so that it becomes really relevant and it is, everything is, you can see the purpose. What is in it for me I think is the key thing as a learning designer and developer. If you're missing that that is something that I would always try to put into a piece of learning and get from the client if I'm working with the client. What is it? Why are they doing this? What is the benefit for them and making sure that is interwoven all the way through? I think that makes it. It's not always perfect but at least that has some makes it hopefully a more positive experience and then there are just things like trying to make, again as an instructional designer, trying to make something that is, on the surface might seem well actually I can't really see how to make that engaging and exciting. But quite often there is a way of making it relevant for people and trying to you know make it make it more engaging really. So, I think that the key thing for me about the accessibility is that myth that we do still have in the eLearning industry LND that you can either have accessible or you can have interactive. So, it's that we still have that harping back many years to when we had the accessible version which was the PDF version. You had the shiny exciting standard version. Then you had the PDF accessible version. There is still the feeling there and I still get that from a lot of people I'm talking to, if you make something accessible you immediately strip out any interactivity. Any kind of visual. Anything that would be exciting because they are still in that mindset of well accessibility means that it has to be, that a screen reader can work it. So I think one of the things is yes, there is that whole bigger question of making workplace learning and all learning, making it engaging and interesting for people and relevant but there is also that wider question of when you add accessibility just make sure that you know there is no reason why, if you understand how to use the tool and you can kind of, when we were talking Neil about maybe thinking in a different way why the learning can't be as interactive and as engaging as, like you were saying Neil again coming back to our drag and drops, we do sometimes put in inter activity for the sake of it. Let's click on this thing and then this thing will happen. That is not necessarily a good experience for someone who is using assistive technology but equally again someone might thing you know it's like the click next to the get to the next slide you were saying Neil for our PowerPoint that has then been turned into ours. As long as they are clicking then they are interacting. It just does not work like that. So, it's yeah. I think there are lots of different issues there to address.

NEIL:

Thank you. We have come into an end of our time. I just need to thank our friends at My Clear Text, for keeping us captioned and accessible and I really look forward to you joining us on Twitter. Thank you, very much, Suzi.

SUSI:

Thanks a lot. Thanks for your time. Bye, bye. Page | 2