Digital Accessibility: The Ongoing Goal
POSTED: Wednesday, February 20, 2019 - 10:39am
Computer on desk with coffee mug and notebooks

As technology’s role in education becomes more significant – with most colleges and universities having an interactive website for their institution, many students opting to take online courses, and grades and assignments being shared, submitted, and viewed online – the need for digital accessibility is constantly growing.

With the importance of accessibility in mind, Kent State’s Systems Development and Innovation (SDI) team has been working to make FlashLine, KSUMobile, and other university technologies as user-friendly as possible.

How FlashLine and KSUMobile have become more accessible

FlashLine and KSUMobile have been making strides in becoming more accessible for users, and Systems Development and Innovation Executive Director Sameer Jaleel credits much of the progress to hiring accessibility expert, Doug Flower, who is able to oversee projects with accessibility in mind, answer questions, and offer guidance to the team.

However, the entire team has made it a priority to consider accessibility with each new project, and additional training will be given in 2019.

Here are some features that SDI have implemented for improved accessibility in their products:
  • Design changes that promote consistent and clear navigation and viewing (font sizes larger than 11pt, mindful color contrast, the use of narrow columns, new themes)
  • The use of hyperlinks that make pages within the site easier to access
  • Large touch/tap targets for touch screen devices
  • Ability to navigate using just a keyboard

From then to now

In 2016, FlashLine underwent an extreme overhaul. Before the relaunch, there were organizational issues as well as navigational inconsistencies, and information was not organized by audience. After the redesign, ‘My Dashboard’ was implemented, search features were added, and role-based navigation and content was optimized.

In 2018, a focus for the team became making FlashLine’s themes more accessible. The inclusion of the Dark Theme in FlashLine was the website’s most recent big change.

“Providing users with an option to change their theme is a feature that really bridges the gap between making FlashLine more accessible and improving the overall user experience.”

Accessibility Specialist Doug Flower explains, “Some of the feedback we got when the redesigned FlashLine was in ‘pre-release’ was that the default theme was too bright, which is especially problematic for users with low vision or light sensitivity.” This realization was the driving force behind creating a dark theme option.  

Exciting improvements are coming to KSUMobile as well. Student employee Tom Behner is making KSUMobile more compatible with screen readers. VoiceOver, the Apple software, and TalkBack, the Android software, will make it easy for KSUMobile users to navigate the app. Users will be read titles, headings, body content, as well as link and checkbox options from top to bottom, left to right. The app is also being updated so that it differentiates content that needs deeper context. For example, users can check the weather on the homepage. Behner says that with the upcoming changes, “the fahrenheit symbol will be read as ‘fahrenheit’ instead of it currently being read as ‘lowercase f,’” is just one of many improvements of the same nature.

“Digital accessibility is a fundamental component of a great user experience, which is one of our department’s top priorities. We had to think, what does ‘new and improved’ mean to someone who might not be able to see it, or to someone who can only navigate it with a keyboard? A great user experience doesn’t exist if it’s only a great experience for some users but not others,” Flower says.

Challenges to reaching digital accessibility goals

Even with great progress made within the last couple of years, providing digital accessibility to the standard wanted and needed is still a challenge every day.

Jaleel recalls that some of the challenges he sees around the university includes not all departments having the proper resources  - technologically or financially – to address digital accessibility gaps that they may or may not be aware of. “Right now, we are doing more with less,” he says. “There is a lot of ground to cover to ensure that we have the budget, training, and time to meet the needs for all of our technologies.” After all, when users are not being provided with everything they need, there is instant frustration (and rightfully so) but it is often discovered too late.

While there are still plenty of challenges to face, providing better accessibility is an ongoing process and Jaleel says, “we are in it for the long haul.”

So, what can be expected in the future?

The SDI team is working toward implementing even more themes, along with further improvements to design and navigation, fixing bugs, and more.

"From a project lifecycle standpoint, we’re looking at how digital accessibility can better fit into each stage of our design and development process."

"As new features are being implemented, we’re paying closer attention to how users of all abilities will be experiencing these features, and that process is becoming more involved from a testing standpoint. Does it work with just a keyboard? Does it make sense to someone who can’t see color? Does it work with a screen reader or other assistive technology?” According to Flower, those types of questions are becoming more common as FlashLine and KSUMobile continue to improve.  

To the SDI team, user feedback matters! “Feedback greatly impacts our approach to implementing new features on current and new technologies,” says Flower.

Digital Accessibility is an essential component of an equal and inclusive learning environment. For more information, you can visit Kent State's Digital Accessibility webpage.