IDRC - Celebrating 25 Years

1993 - 2018

Laurie Harrison, Jan Richards and Jutta Treviranus
Adaptive Technology Resource Centre, University of Toronto

Today's educators face a new challenge in meeting the demand for accessible online learning resources. For reasons of pedagogy, economics, access and efficiency, an exponentially increasing amount of teaching and learning is occurring over computer networks. Networks such as the Web, Intranets or dedicated broad band networks are being used to teach, to conduct research, to hold tutorials, to submit assignments and to act as libraries. Learners of all ages, from preschool, through university, professional upgrading, employment training and life long learning are participating in educational programs delivered over computer networks. This move to online learning provides new possibilities for students with disabilities, who benefit from the inherent flexibility of access to learning materials now available in electronic media.
Advocates of accessible online learning have identified several key areas of benefit:

  1. Web-based delivery of distance education provides a critical opportunity for accommodation of students with special needs because of the fact that learning materials can easily be adapted to varying learning styles, rates, and communication formats.
  2. Materials can be quickly prepared for use with adaptive computer technology, and once they are in an online formats, can be presented in redundant, reinforcing or alternative formats (e.g., speech, print or graphics).
  3. The wealth of resources on the Web can be used to augment existing curriculum through access to current, recently published learning materials.
  4. Accessible Internet-based communication tools provide learners with the opportunity to interact more easily with peers and instructors.
  5. Online distance education may allow students to continue to participate in learning activities when they are not able to attend classes in person or on campus.

However, in order for us to exploit the potential benefits of online education, the resources must be developed in Web formats which are accessible to students who use adaptive technology. To this end, it is essential that educators and administrators are provided with tools and resources to support them in the following aspects of digitized curriculum development:

  1. Automating Validation of Accessible Web Pages - Tools must be provided to ensure that HTML markup is in compliance with WAI (Web Accessibility Innitiative) guidelines.
  2. Accessible Courseware -Courseware utilities and communication tools must have accessible user interface.
  3. Accessible Curriculum Formats -Interactive components and multimedia elements must be presented in accessible formats.

While adaptive technology does allow the learner to control mode of input/output, and customize their interface, authoring tools are the logical place to lay the foundation for universal design. Rather than retrofitting or finding "work-arounds" to allow access by students with disabilities, educators and Web authors are encouraged to create materials using inherently accessible standards and formats. The ATRC (Adaptive Technology Resource Centre), University of Toronto, has undertaken several research projects to review tools currently on the market and identify utilities and techniques that facilitate development of accessible online learning materials, as described below.

1. Automating Validation of Accessible Web Pages

The fundamental building blocks of online learning resources are Web pages. Whether you are providing text-based content, images, media components or interactive tools, they are generally accessed through a user interface written in HTML. In the case of curriculum design, we are delivering education, to diverse learners, with diverse needs. To be effective, we will need to make certain that pages remain usable to the widest possible range of users, who have varied technologies, techniques and situations:

  • Learners may be trying to access your pages using specialized software that adapts the content for non-visual access, text-only browsing or other customized formats.
  • Learners may be using various types of hardware including devices without mice, with small, low resolution, or black and white screens, etc.
  • Learners may have cognitive disabilities, learning disabilities or other differences that affect their learning needs.

With so many variables, where does one begin? The Web Accessibility Iniative (WAI), a sub-committee of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), is the present leader in establishing accessibility guidelines for page authoring. The WAI is coordinating many organizations that have produced Web accessibility reference documents in the past, in order to develop a comprehensive and unified set of accessibility recommendations. The most current version of the guidelines may be found at the World Wide Web Consortium site,

In addition to being familiar with the guidelines, educational resource developers will want to make use of validation tools such as the W3C's own HTML Validation Service ( and Bobby ( from the Centre for Applied Special Technology. Both of these tools will validate Web pages, providing a summary of potential concerns, with links to information on the specific issues identified. While the automation of the validation process is key to ensuring accessible design, further gains are possible if the validation utilities are integrated into authoring tools, and support the designer beyond identification of potential problems, by correcting or repairing the of potential barriers to access as well.

The A-Prompt Toolkit

The ATRC, as part of the Network for Inclusive Distance Education (NIDE) has developed the A-Prompt Toolkit, an authoring support utility that evaluates HTML code and, in addition, offers a repair function. A-Prompt is currently available as a Microsoft Windows software module (DLL), designed with the goal of integration into existing authoring and courseware tools in mind.
Currently, the A-Prompt Toolkit may be used in two ways:

  • A stand-alone program. In this mode, the user selects files that will be checked for accessibility problems. If any problems are detected, A-Prompt will display dialogs and guide the user to fix the problem. The repaired file can then be saved.
  • Integrated into the HTML Authoring Tool. In this method the authoring tool sends HTML code to A-Prompt for validation and repair. The HTML text can be sent to A-Prompt as it is entered by the user or when the entire web page is complete. If an accessibility problem is detected, A-Prompt displays the necessary dialogs and guides the user to fix the problem. The repaired HTML code is returned to the host program where it is inserted into the document.

A-Prompt checks for accessibility problems based on the WAI Page Authoring Guidelines. While the ATRC in the process of pursuing partnerships with authoring tool developers, the A-Prompt toolkit is now available as a free, downloadable utility, at

2. Accessible Courseware

The exponentially increasing number of educational courses being offered over the Web has spurred a growing industry of software tools to assist in creation of Web-based curriculum and in performing class management tasks. Recent courseware development tools assist educators in creating and distributing new, customized curriculum materials quickly and easily using the Web as a vehicle for delivery.

Courseware products such as WebCT, TopClass, CourseInfo, Virtual-U and other programs will take HTML documents, along with other media and resources, and quickly organize them into a framework specifically designed for delivery of Web-based courses and other learning resources. Frequently they are used to complement traditional lecture-based programs.

Courseware products are helpful to educators who are unfamiliar with programming, allowing easy integration of password protection, interactive activities, tracking of student progress, etc. Overall, the interface is fairly simple for the designer, as many use templates and wizards extensively to assist in course content creation. Step-by-step guides support creation of a range of components, from the course home page, to bulletin boards, to quizzes and marking systems.

While this approach is and efficient for course designers, the automation reduces control of the final formatting of the HTML pages rendered. Thus, while education programs built on courseware platforms could easily facilitate access to education for students with disabilities, they frequently present access barriers to users of certain types of adaptive technology. Ironically, very few include basic accessibility considerations outlined in the WAI guidelines, potentially excluding those individuals who stand to benefit most from new technologies. Care must be taken to choose products carefully, and be attentive to potential barriers. While the creation of course materials is automated by these tools, the compliance with accessibility standards is not.

Courseware Reviews

In order to encourage courseware developers to become more aware of accessibility issues, the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre continues to conduct reviews of products currently available on the market. In 1999 we conducted at study evaluating leading courseware packages, using overall functionality in relation to accessibility as critieria for an accessibility ranking . The results of this study are available at

Results of the 1999 evaluation showed Lotus Learning as having the highest accessibility score at that time, although it should be observed that significant issues remained, such as missing ALT text and use of frames. Web Course in a Box and TopClass ranked well, although with less functionality. Results of this study highlighted the fact that all of these courseware developers have a considerable distance to travel in terms of providing tools to create accessible learning environments. Although courseware product developers such as Lotus, WebCT and CourseInfo are taking steps to improve accessibility, in response to the US Rehabilitation Act, Section 508, there are at present no commerical products on the market which adequately address accessibility issues.

Currently the ATRC is undertaking a second more comprehensive phase of this research, investigating the most recent releases of these courseware packages. Results will be available in fall of 2000.

The designer/instructor is often left with the task of finding "workarounds" or developing alternative access methods in order to accommodate users of adaptive technology. The following are some strategies for ensuring access to your educational courseware.

  • Create pages externally and upload to the courseware platform:
    When selecting your courseware development tool, choose a program which allows creation of content pages in your HTML editor of choice, then requires them to be uploaded to the course. This will allow you to incorporate accessibility features which templates or wizards used by the courseware do not include.
  • Build a site map:
    A site map which is a simple text-based table of contents for the course site will guarantee accessibility of the navigation system. If the program you are using does not provide this feature, you can build one yourself, and link it to the home page of the course.
  • Build alternative communication tools:
    If tools such as bulletin boards or chat utilities are not accessible, you may need to adapt by constructing tools external to the course software until such time as the courseware developer is able to provide them.

3. Accessible Curriculum Formats

While accessible HTML standards have received considerable attention in recent years, there is as yet no vehicle for delivering accessible math, science or music notation. As well, interactive courseware and scientific simulation completely generally excludes students who are blind or who cannot use a mouse, and most synchronous communication tools are completely inaccessible.

To facilitate progress in this area, a number of innovative strategies are being developed by the Network for Inclusive Distance Education, a consortium of organizations collaborating to develop new access standards and strategies for online education. The mandate of this network is to make it possible for learners with disabilities to participate fully in network delivered education opportunities. In addtition to the previously discussed A-Prompt Toolkit, NIDE is undertaking the following research and development initiatives:

Science and Math Notation

Math, science and music notation is presently transmitted over the Web in graphic formats (PDF, GIF, etc.). For people without disabilities this means that the algorithms or equations cannot be edited. For people who use screen readers, refreshable Braille displays or text to speech systems, this means that the information cannot be read or edited.

All alternative display systems used by people with sensory impairments or learning disabilities read and translate only electronic text. Thus text transmitted in a graphic format such as PDF, is completely inaccessible. Science, engineering, math and music curriculum transmitted over the Web is inaccessible to people using alternative displays. This is a critical problem as math, engineering and science are targeted growth sectors in the Ontario economy.

There is an emerging standard for publishing, and rendering math and science notation on the Web. MathML 1.0, cast as an application of XML, was released as a W3C Recommendation on the 7th April 1998. MathML is a low-level specification for describing mathematics as a basis for machine to machine communication. It provides a much needed foundation for the inclusion of mathematical expressions in Web pages.

At present, several developers are offering pluggins, translators and equation editors which can generate HTML pages where the math expressions are represented directly in MathML. NIDE is testing the output of these various products to assess the potential for integration into authoring utilities previously described. Of particular interest is the iMath initiative, a consortium developing a editor and browser program that will allow editing and viewing of MathMl.

Our goal is create MathML setup and profile utilities for popular alternative access systems, such as screen readers, refreshable Braille displays that support the Nemeth code (the Braille standard for science and math notation) and speech recognition systems. This will allow individuals who are blind, visually impaired, learning disabled or physically disabled to read and edit science and math notation over the Web.

Music Notation

NIDE is currently exploring popular file formats for music notation distribution standards. This includes the NIFF (Notation Interchange File Format) was completed in the fall of 1995. This is a standard digital format for the representation of standard musical notation. The format is very flexible, allowing for simple implementations with minimal graphical information, or much more elaborate descriptions including all aspects of page layout, associated midi data, custom symbols, etc. The NIFF Consortium has also developed at freely available SDK for software developers implementing NIFF.

Another popular file format developed by the CERL research group, at the University of Illinois, is an extensible music notation format called TILIA. The CERL group have also created a notation editor available in the public domain called LIME. LIME includes a NIFF import, export utility. A US based corporation named Dancing Dots have developed a utility that translates TILIA and NIFF files into Braille notation.

The NIDE project is investigating the feasibility of integrating the LIME editor and Dancing Dot utility into the courseware authoring modules, to allow the creation of accessible music curriculum by educators.

As well, we are working with Learn Ontario to develop a database that will allow the user to access information about a piece of music in various formats. This design is targetting seniors, and will allow them to retrieve or contribute lyrics, notation, or audio snippets for a particular piece.

Accessible Interactive Courseware and Educational Simulation

Interactive courseware and simulations are predominantly delivered over the Web using either Javascript, Java Applets, Dreamweaver, Authorware Players, or Perl script. Screen readers are not able to extract text from the above mechanisms. People who are unable to use a mouse are frequently restricted from using this material as it requires mouse control. Simulations that cannot be translated and annotated verbally or in text form are not accessible to learners who are blind.

The NIDE project is addressing these barriers by exploring strategies for expanding and improving the modalities that can be used to display and control interactive and simulation courseware over the Web:

In collaboration with SUN, the ATRC has developed an Audio Look and Feel that allows the user to sonify a Java-based graphical user interface (GUI), displaying all interface components through sound or speech as well as visually. The Audio Look and Feel will be integrated into the courseware authoring modules.

The project is also developing applications that support use of VRML and haptic interfaces over the web. ATRC in partnership with Haptic Technologies Inc. have made it possible to both transmit and render tactile or haptic feedback using the Web. NIDE is currently developing a haptic periodic table of the elements, and also a haptic graphing tool.

NIDE is working with software developers to create more accessible interactive science programs. Two software programs targeted are the Digital Frog suite of science exploration activities and the Electric Chemistry lab from Snowbird software.

Accessible Synchronous Communication Tools

Synchronous communication tools, because they most closely mimic traditional communication methods, present traditional access challenges. Fortunately, because communication is computer mediated, we can exploit the translation and transformation capabilities of computers to create new access solutions. The NIDE project is exploring solutions to access challenges presented by synchronous learning tools such as real-time chat rooms, IRC, ICQ, etc.) and is continue to develop, apply and evaluate access solutions such as voice recognition, pattern recognition, word prediction.

These tools are geared towards enhancing communication between students and teachers in a Web-based environment. A database logs all of the communication, and allows queries, organization and knowledge building through this interface design.


Access to education has long been considered a basic human right, and, as an ideal, has been recognized in the policies set by institutions of higher learning. Our task is to ensure that the ideal becomes a reality, as we move into the new environment of online learning. A grassroots approach, beginning with authoring tools, will mean that accessible design becomes the status quo, rather than an additional effort undertaken by designers who have awareness of the potential problems.

Additonal Web Resources