Extension Engine

Web Accessibility for Online Learning

Every so often, a new product enters our awareness that impresses us so much we want to share it. Last week, Marc Zablatsky, Vice President and General Manager of Sitecues, came to our offices to give a talk about web accessibility and how they are approaching this problem — specifically, for those users with visual impairments, english as a second language, low literacy and other print disabilities.

ExtensionEngine has always been conscious about accessibility in the projects we have taken on and executed. After all, students can’t learn if they don’t have complete access to the material — and, in fact, public educational institutions are required by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to provide accessibility. More on 508 compliance below.

But first, a few words about web accessibility in general: you don’t have to have been around long to notice how websites have evolved over the past decade, especially since the invention of smartphones and tablets. Today’s webpages must be as appealing on the small mobile screen as they are on a desktop or laptop. The resulting changes in design and graphics means that websites today are nothing short of dazzling compared to those a decade ago.

That is, they are dazzling to those of us with good vision. But according to the National Federation for the Blind, 8.7 percent of adults don’t have correctable vision  -- even with glasses or contacts. They deal with any number of visual impairments that make negotiating websites a challenge and reaping information from them nearly impossible without some kind of assistance.

There are assistive technologies — screen magnifiers that enlarge the page and screen readers with text-to-speech technology for those with little or no vision. These technologies have opened up the internet to millions of people. But they do have a downside: page magnification magnifies the entire screen making navigation difficult, and both can require training to use properly.

What if there were a way for visually-impaired users to have easy and direct access to a webpage without the need for an assistive technology? What if accessibility were built into the webpage itself? And what if people with other types of print disabilities, such as learning disabilities or low literacy, could be accommodated as well?

This is exactly what Zablatsky’s team has done in designing and developing Sitecues, an SaaS product that is embedded into a website. Sitecues offers a simple and intuitive way for users to make the precise adjustments they need for their for their vision or other impairment — and does it with just a bit of code the website owner adds to the site.



[Screenshot of SiteCues user interface]

 When a page with Sitecues code loads, users encounter a simple, clear graphic interface at the top of the page. Hovering over it enlarges it to clearly display two choices: zooming the page or enabling text-to-speech. Users can choose either or both.

Clicking the down arrow reveals some other possibilities, including changing the pointer and changing the color scheme for enhanced readability. For a live example, click here.

Much of this is pretty standard for assistive technology. Where Sitecues shines, besides in its simplicity, is in how users access the various parts of the webpage. With standard readers, the entire page enlarges. This makes it very cumbersome to visit all parts of the page, which can in itself discourage full access.

Sitecues allows users to highlight a block of information by hovering over it. Pressing the spacebar enlarges the block and/or reads it, depending on what the user has chosen. Meanwhile, the rest of the page remains at its original size. This allows easy access to all parts of the page with exactly the right assistance the person needs.

Sitecues is careful to emphasize that this product doesn’t make a website 508 compliant. Government agencies, public K-12 schools, public institutions of higher education, and federally-funded nonprofits that require a 508 compliant website need to ensure that separately. However, Sitecues can move them a long way towards their goal of inclusion and equal access or all. It is already being used by a quite a number of government organizations, libraries, colleges and nonprofit organizations.

At ExtensionEngine, we also see definite benefits for commercial usage. Besides just being the right thing to do, increasing website accessibility signals to customers that the business cares about them, making them more likely to want to buy. Plus, doesn’t it make sense that someone with full access to a website is more likely to become a customer? We’d be surprised if Sitecues didn’t offer an attractive return on investment for both commercial and noncommercial organizations.

At this writing, Sitecues offers two distinct means of implementing its technology:

  • Sitecues is for website owners to embed into their site (as described above).
  • Sitecues Everywhere is a broad deployment solution for individuals, organizations and kiosks — meaning that it can be used to enhance web browsing on any website on all the organization’s computers.

Coming up soon is Sitecues for LMS, which would enhance accessibility to online courses and — need we say it? — the Custom Learning Experiences we design and develop here at ExtensionEngine.

We look forward to learning more!