Accessibility: Ensuring that Edtech Systems Work Together to Serve All Students

Key Takeaways

  • As course materials are increasingly deconstructed and customized to specific learners, ensuring accessibility and interoperability of edtech tools and systems is crucial.

  • The next generation digital learning environment offers an ecosystem to provide this cohesion and ensure the accessibility of learning materials.

  • When vendors follow standards such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines,their components support individual accessibility and contribute to enhancing the accessibility of the whole system.

  • Ultimately, the real-world test is not how each of the parts conform to a standard, but how all of the parts work together to provide a highly functional system for users.

Providing instructional materials for a higher education course was once the domain of single vendor, single application, and single-purpose solutions. Today, digital technology is deconstructing this provisioning process into suites of services and applications that anyone can assemble to create customized solutions to address the needs of specific learners.

To help the higher education community navigate this transformation, the next generation digital learning environment (NGDLE) "is conceived as both an ecosystem and a mind-set that will allow students and instructors to benefit from the full range of developments in higher education." [emphasis in the original] The NGDLE's five tenets are interoperability, personalization, analytics, collaboration, and accessibility, and each is critically important to insuring the success of the learning process within an institution. However, I would like to suggest that one tenet stands above the others in the primacy of consideration, as it must be a factor in each of the other four. That principle is accessibility — that is, universal design and its ability to provide accessible access to each and every part of the systems we create.

This accessibility is particularly important to students living with disabilities. For many of these students, the promise of edtech is currently unfulfilled because it fails to meet their specific learning needs. As we rapidly progress toward more digital- and technology-centric modes of teaching and learning, this failure is becoming increasingly pronounced; it should also be increasingly unacceptable to all of us.

I've been involved in the edtech marketplace for the past three decades, including helping to launch VitalSource Technologies, which creates content-delivery systems used by institutions and companies. My experiences have given me insights into how digital technology for teaching and learning have transformed the higher education landscape — and how important it is to ensure that content-delivery platforms give every student and user access to the content they need.

Edtech and WCAG Standards

Edtech companies are responsible for a range of tools and systems, from those delivering required course content with day-one availability to those that empower publishers and storefronts selling directly to learners. Regardless of their product, edtech companies must ensure not only that the target content is available where and when users need it, but also that the platform and the content are created using universal design principles to ensure accessibility.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) have emerged as the benchmark for creating this common platform for accessibility. The WCAG technical standard's 12 guidelines fall under four principles that provide testable success criteria at three levels: A, AA, and AAA. Published and maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is also an ISO standard (ISO/IEC 40500:2012).

The WCAG delineates how to make content more accessible to people with disabilities. WCAG conformance is the minimum that any platform, and any content, should adhere to. Its international success and adoption has increased the expectation of what every edtech company should do. The reality, unfortunately, is that not all edtech vendors actually do it.

This dichotomy need not be the case. Increased expectations, supported by increased transparency about actual capabilities, will help move standards conformance forward, but only if there is interoperability among system parts and mutual support and commitment to the standards that enable that interoperability. For the learners at our institutions, this means we must ensure that all customer-facing applications conform to the WCAG standard wherever possible and make documentation about that conformance publicly available.

Forward Movement

Historically, understanding exactly what "accessibility" meant was confusing to many. For too long, it simply meant providing access to the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) document, which, for many, is overly general and lacks key details. The lack of clarity and objectivity in examining claims around accessibility was noted in a recent study published by UKSG Insights, where it was observed that "Existing guidelines mean little to those who matter…. Accessibility guidelines for web content are already in existence; however, these are beyond the technical understanding of most stakeholders." Adding to this confusion was the observation that being compliant with a standard "is easy for a supplier to claim and hard for a purchaser to argue," and there was near universal agreement "that e-book suppliers should provide better accessibility information." In the US, the recently announced refresh of the US Federal Government Accessibility Standards (Section 508) has brought the specifics about the WCAG standard to the forefront, and the WCAG standard now defines the requirements that must be used. Similarly, the publishing world recently released the Accessibility 1.0 specification for EPUB files that also uses the WCAG standard and adds book-specific requirements (such as page numbers that correspond to the printed version). This EPUB file standard is quickly becoming a requirement as the prevailing distribution method for textbooks and other learning materials continues to move to digital.

These and many other efforts are bringing adoption of a common standard for evaluating accessibility to the marketplace. This, in turn, will let us create the needed transparency regarding actual capabilities and allow for effective evaluation and comparison. With greater transparency of each part of a system involved in teaching and learning — and common frameworks to use to compare them — we can all make more informed decisions.

Example: Reading Systems

To give an example of how standards work, I'll use the example of reading systems — that is, the software that displays the text for a learner to read. There are a number of these in the marketplace, designed for specific scenarios or use cases, such as iBooks from Apple, Google Play Books, or our own VitalSource Bookshelf®. Whatever the system being used, the same requirements exist: Before materials arrive in front of the learner, it is the responsibility of reading system designers to ensure that everything works together. Specifically, a reading system must respect the markup in the files it delivers and expose that markup to assistive technology being used by the learner.

With the prevalent use of web technologies everywhere today, it would be unthinkable to consider a part of an institutional ecosystem that did not work with the Internet. Similarly, it should be just as unthinkable (and dare I say irresponsible) to have a reading system in today's edtech marketplace that is not accessible.

Currently, the WCAG 2.0 AA standard is the minimum, base-level assumption for that accessibility. (For those of you following along with the latest developments, you know that WCAG 2.1 is in the works to bring more clarity around mobile, cognitive, and other issues.) It provides clear direction on what every vendor must do, specifically how to support the content markup and be completely transparent in how well they provide that support. Given the increased awareness of WCAG, and the expectation that systems are conforming to it, simply publishing a VPAT or some other statement is no longer enough.

Transparency about a vendor's conformance to WCAG must also extend beyond just their own systems to ensure that users know how the platform intersects with the content being used, the device it is being viewed on, the installed operating system, and any enabled assistive technology. In other words, users want to know that it actually works. Yes, it's a lot of moving parts! And none of us can do this alone.

Working Together

Only by adopting industry standards and partnering with standards-based organizations (such as IMS Global and the W3C) can edtech vendors effectively determine how functional their entire system is for the end user. The real-world test is not how each of the parts conform to a standard, but how all of the parts actually work together to provide a highly functional system for users. To validate their claims, vendors can partner with publishers and institutions and work with independent third-party testers.

Ensuring accessibility is a shared responsibility of the learning platform, the publishers, and the higher education institution. Therefore, edtech companies should work closely with publishers and institutions to ensure they have the tools and knowledge they need to successfully create standards-based content to be delivered through the platform.

An external review of the accessibility of each piece of content can provide confidence and trust in a vendor's claims. Benetech's recently announced Globally Certified Accessible is a great example of this. We need a similar effort to test platforms, as well as transparency around exactly how well each platform supports content accessibility and interacts with devices, operating systems, and assistive technologies.

Filling the Gaps

As we all work to improve our solutions, we will continue to find gaps that must be filled. We might find these gaps in functionality, the standards, the laws, or even the testing process. Participants, especially from the edtech community, disability services offices, and instructional technologies, must be involved in identifying and filling these gaps. We all need to roll up our sleeves and participate in working groups, test creation, and community discussions about the best ways to partner, fill these gaps, and insure transparency around every facet of the problem.

The needs of each part of the supply chain must be respected, and yet we all need to work together to come up with solutions. Even when we do everything right — that is, the publisher has marked up the content, the distributor has adopted the right metadata techniques for discovery, and the platform is accessible and functioning properly — there will still be times when the users' needs are not met.

In such cases, staff members in the disability service offices at each institution become the unsung heroes. They are the ones who work with individual users to ensure their specific needs are accommodated, but to do their jobs, they need the right tools to service these situations. Publishers, vendors, and retailers must come together to help create these tools.

The work of the IMS Global Accessibility Community of Practice is a great example of participants coming together to solve problems and propose solutions, ensure their interoperability, and help (again!) to provide that transparency we all need.

Preparing for the Journey

The edtech ecosystem has many players, and solving an individual learner's needs requires that all parts work together. This means doing more than handing someone a flyer or some other vendor-created document. As a critical participant in an institution's ecosystem, vendors must be transparent about their system's capabilities because their partners, customers, and other important "links in the chain" that they might never have contact with all need that information. They must adopt standards for metadata (such as the content accessibility additions to CreativeWork at to enable content discovery. And, above all, they must be prepared for the journey.

Fundamentally, delivering an accessible platform is not about checking a box and saying, "It's done." Operating systems are updated regularly, assistive technology continually releases new versions, and an application's capabilities will advance. Longevity, or a sustained marketplace presence is required, as is the perspective that accessibility is a non-negotiable requirement.

Providing accessibility is a never-ending journey, and vendors must understand the commitment it requires. It must be at the core of their operation and development processes. They will never solve the problems at hand if they are trying to fix things afterward or in later releases. Vendors must design in accessibility from the start, commit to the journey, and ensure it is a fundamental part of their DNA.

Finally, a vendor might be tempted when addressing "accessibility" for their platform to simply give a "yes" or "no" based on their standards conformance. While this is important information for a customer to have, giving a one-word answer will ultimately be a disservice to the customer. When evaluating accessibility, the vendor must examine the content, the platforms, the devices, the assistive technology, and the discovery and delivery process (that is, where people purchase the product) and ensure they all work together. Only then can the vendor stand behind a bold "yes" to the questions of accessibility with the details that all participants need readily available.


To revive an old phrase, we are all moving down this information superhighway. The pace of change and the volume of content moving along with us are constantly increasing. Unless each of us revisits our assumptions about how we need to "solve" accessibility, we will wind up in a cul-de-sac rather than the fast lane.

The increasingly nomadic behavior of participants, whose interconnected devices provide access to their critical content without boundaries or restrictions, requires that we take a broader view and partner everywhere we can. This is where standards win. None of us can do this alone. Standards enable us to stand on the shoulders of the giants who have come before us, as well as to be immersed in the crowd and share the advances we can contribute.

Rick Johnson is vice president of Product Strategy at VitalSource Technologies LLC.

© 2017 Rick Johnson. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under the Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license.