July 2011 Archives

Desire2Learn Impressions from Annual Conference

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Two weeks ago, I was asked to attend to attend the annual Desire2Learn (D2L) Fusion conference, partly to scope out their accessibility initiatives, but also to get some impressions of their product and corporate culture. My main comparison of course is my previous experience, including their pre-Blackboard ANGEL conferences, but I have also had some experience with Blackboard and WebCT.

The short summary is that I was very favorably impressed on a number of levels for reasons I will share below. Any company is hoping to put their best foot forward at these events, but I was surprised to see how much the D2L folks understand the needs of higher education, including our jaded cynicism.

Commitment to Pedagogy

A theme running through the conference was a fairly significant commitment to supporting modern pedagogies. Not only is D2L investing resources into portfolio tools, analytics, social media and mobile learning, but they are also committed to helping us understand the tools. For instance, the staff used the portfolio tool to share files and sponsored a portfolio contest, plus they developed a mobile app for the conference which gave attendees experience using it.

Unlike other conferences, almost half the sessions were conducted by the staff to help train attendees in the various D2L tools and many were hands on. I thought that was very helpful for institutions and instructors new to the LMS. The other half showcased best practices and advanced tweaks in a good way as well, and many of these were conducted by various institutions.

They also had an excellent keynote from science writer Johan Lehrer who had some interesting information on neurology and the cognition of the "a-ha" moment. Any conference with a good keynote is a good conference for me.

Commitment to Accessibility

A pressing concern for the CMS team has been accessibility, so I was interested to hear what the D2L folks had to say. Again, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much the corporate culture had embraced the issue. For instance, they were willing to demo a course in a screen reader and encouraged us in the session to take a test spin...with a blindfold. They also gave a good session of how to review and adjust content with the ever popular HTML editor.

The company also brought in experts such as Karen McCall to provide sessions on accessifying Office documents (still the source of the majority of our content in resident instruction).

For the record, I know Blackboard is also committed to accessibility and that both companies have NFB (National Federation of the Blind) certification. But I appreciate that D2L is using the accessibility challenge as a way to understand and improve the experience overall and not just as a way to meet legal guidelines.

Answering Pesky Questions

One thing that any vendor working with higher education should know is that there are a lot of people available to ask pesky detailed questions...often in public. I have been one of them from time to time. But the D2L staff was ready, even with the difficult transition questions. The presenters were generally able to provide specific details and were candid when something wasn't as perfect as one could hope for.

This was a lot more believable than some vendor presentations who presented everything as a turnkey solution. They often weren't.

I also learned a bit about their support structure and was interested to learn that schools worked with project specialists who specialized in finding solutions for different educational scenarios. They sounded somewhat like instructional designers to me, and that's a handy expertise for an LMS company to have. I don't know how this would play out for Penn State, but it would be different from ANGEL interactions, which are generally positive, but do not necessarily include a whole lot of instructional design type discussion.

Any Drawbacks

Unfortunatley, it's hard for me to comment on the tool very much, but I do know the interface won't be like ANGEL. That doesn't mean it's a bad interface, but unfamiliarity is something to consider when planning a transition. You may be able to do the same things or more, but not necessarily in the same way.

For instance, there are lots of ways you can tweak D2L, much as you can tweak Drupal into a multitude of experiences. Tweaking though does require a willingness to dig into the technology. This is great for online course shops, but it's important that any tool still remain accessible to a harried resident instructor. On the other hand D2L will have integration with Adobe Connect and other products. That would be very interesting in of itself.

I have to admit that I wouldn't mind seeing D2L come to campus. It's made me excited about the LMS and that's something I haven't felt or seen in a long time.

LDSC11 Globalization Game Questions

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In Matt Meyers wrap up about the recent Learning Design Summer Camp, he comments that we didn't have a chance to discuss the educational implications.

Although anything can be improved, I was hoping to use the game cards we handed out as a way of introducing some of the issues associated with providing education in a global environment. If you still have your game card, check out the question on the back to see an example of a globalization challenge.

Some of my favorite questions included:

  1. What would be the challenges to teaching a U.S. History course covering 1939-now for delivery in the East Asian market.Which events in particular might instructors want to explore non- U.S. points of view?
  2. An instructor in human anatomy has been asked about acupuncture for the past few semesters. What would be the best method to approach discussing these concepts? Can they be reconciled with Western medicine? Should they be?
  3. A student group is planning to visit Jerusalem over Spring Break (we're assuming that the political situation is relatively stable). What information would you give to students about the significance of Jerusalem in both the Middle East and to Western culture? What places should student visit to understand the complexity of Jerusalem? What are some precautions students should take?
  4. For an online course on the American Jazz Age (which includes music, art and text-based tutorials), a lot of your non-U.S. students request more robust mobile phone support since they don't have good access to a PC. How can materials be made more mobile device friendly, particularly in regards to the smaller screen size. What are some apps that could be recommended?

If you want to see the full list, download Globalize This Questions.docx.

I do think the missing piece was a debrief, but I was also trying to accommodate the need for caffeine on a hot afternoon. Live and learn

Is there enough interest for a true debrief later on? I know I would be interested in continuing the conversation.

Thinking Calendar and Schedule Accessibility

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One of the trickier items to make accessible is the calendar (and the related concept of the schedule grid). There are a few reasons for this.

Calendar/Schedule Pitfalls

Typical problems include:

  1. Calendars/Schedules are generally presented in tables...and tables are always a challenge
  2. Date Finders for forms are often presented as calendars in pop-up windows, which can also be bad for screen reader users.
  3. Designers often merge cells, making the table complex. Does one event cross multiple days or one TV show last 2 hours? It could be presented as a line crossing cells. Once cells are merged it's difficult to get a table to be coherent even in the best screen readers. In Google Calendar, it may be difficult to determine when a date is in Calendar view
  4. Color coding also prevalent in calendars, but this causes problems for screen readers and color deficient users.

Tip 1: Can it be an Agenda?

The first issue to consider is - does your site actually need the calendar grid? One user asked me if a calendar was really empty or not working. It turned out that there were not any events happening that month (it's summer people!).

If your organization has relatively few events, is it worth the bother of accessifying a calendar? A list may be more straightforward. Not only is a list a dates generally more accessible, but it displays all the events in one text block instead of forcing users to browse between months.

See the example below:
Note: Some calendar systems now include an "Agenda View" which can help users view events.

NBC Learn Webinars from Spring 2011

  • Wednesday 2/16/2011, 2:00 PM-3:00 PM, 30 Rock
  • Thursday 2/24/2011, 12:00 PM-1:00 PM, 30 Rock
  • Tuesday 3/22/2011, 11:30 AM-12:30 PM, 30 Rock
  • Wednesday 4/13/2011, 11:30 AM-12:30 PM, 30 Rock

Tip 3: Move Date Picker to Edge and Make Optional

For many forms (e.g. hotel reservations), a date picker which opens a mini calendar can be useful, but it can also interfere with screen reader operation. You can look for accessible date pickers online, but here are some simple tips to consider:

  1. Give users the option of entering a months and dates manually. These are simple entry fields which can be easy to code for screen readers. It also serves those who already know the date they need and don't need the date picker.
  2. It's probably better to put the date picker after the date fields.
  3. You want to ensure that the date picker can be tabbed/moused over without opening it. For forms, it is generally recommended to code any submit/open actions as a separate button requiring a definitive click or RETURN so that screen readers don't trigger actions by mistake.
  4. Similarly, if a user chooses to open the date picker, they should be able to control when it closes (with Control+W functionality for keyboard users). Closing it when the mouse moves off it is not enough control.

Tip 3: Simplify Tables: Calendar

A common design in many calendars which can be tricky for screen readers is to merge cells in the first row for the month. That means that the days of the week are on the second row and this can make reading calendars challenging for users on screen readers.

Another issue is that dates may be one one row and events on another. Again, this means that a screen reader user has to work more to match an event and they date

Here's one example of an inaccessible calendar.

JULY 2011
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
1 2 3 4 5
HTML 5 Training WCAG 2.0 Presentation   Vacation

Here is how I would fix this table:

  • First, I would tag the month as a CAPTION to avoid merging cells. This also puts the days of the week as the first row, which can be tagged as headers. This will allow screen reader users to more quickly identify the day of the week
  • Second, I would ensure that the dates and events are in the same cells. You can use CSS to format numbers distinctively.

WCAG 2.0 Presentation

JULY 2011
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday

HTML 5 Training


HTML 5 Training


WCAG 2.0 Presentation






Tip 4: Simplify Tables: TV Schedule

Below is a classic online TV schedule. Note that cells for long programs are merged which means that screen readers may have a difficult time announcing the proper start and end times based on the times in the header.

8:00 PM8:30 PM9:00 PM9:30 PM10:00 PM10:30 PM
ABC Shark Tank Shark Tank Extreme 20/20 New Desperate Housewives
CBS Legally Blonde Blue Bloods
NBCWho Do You Think You Are? Dateline NBC NewDateline NBC New
FOXBones House Local Programming
CWNikita Supernatural Local Programming

Now I will be the first to admit that row spans are very handy from a visual perspective, but I also know how much it difficult it can be for a screen reader to parse. In the worst case scenario, a user may not be able to find the start time after 8:00 Pm.

There are several possibilities to fix this table. One is to add id and headers for each cell, but IMHO, this is a major pain to program and it doesn't work in all screen readers. Whenever possible, I fall back to simple tables with headers AND no merged cells

So...A simple table solution would replicate the program name in the 30 min slots (and some schedules do implement this). Ironically though, it may not be very usable for either visual or screen reader users.

Network 8:00 PM 8:30 PM 9:00 PM 9:30 PM 10:00 PM 10:30 PM
ABC Shark Tank Shark Tank Extreme 20/20 New 20/20 New (cont) Desperate Housewives Desperate Housewives (cont)
CBS Legally Blonde Legally Blonde (cont) Legally Blonde (cont) Legally Blonde (cont) Blue Bloods Blue Bloods (cont)

This is accessible, but it does mean that some titles are repeated (a movie like Legally Blonde is repeated in 4 cells). It looks weird visually and is probably even more awkward in a screen reader.

In this case, it could make sense to maintain the merged cells, but I would recommend including start and end time in each cell (e.g. "Legally Blonde: 8-10PM") I would also make sure that the SUMMARY tag indicates the presence of merged cells.

Network8:00 PM8:30 PM9:00 PM9:30 PM10:00 PM10:30 PM
ABC Shark Tank:8:00-8:30 PM Shark Tank Extreme: 8:30-9:00 PM 20/20: 9-10 PM New Desperate Housewives:10-11PM
CBS Legally Blonde: 8-10PM Blue Bloods: 10-11PM

I am not sure if this is the optimal solution, but it has to be an improvement of the original table.

FYI - If you were really ambitious, you could replace the table with a set of lists where the list items of each network included the start/end time and had a width adjusted for program time...but it would be a trick to debug.