Making Accessibility Mainstream Using OER

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Author: Greg Gay

Editor’s Note: In this series of posts (This is Part 1, Parts 2&3 will appear soon!), Greg Gay takes us on an an accessibility journey with open source and Open Education Resources (OER). Enjoy! – Gryph

Edit: Parts 2 and 3 are now available.

Promoting Accessibility with Open Source and OER


This OER story begins in the mid 1990s at the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre at the University of Toronto (now The Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University). We conducted two studies looking at the accessibility of learning management systems (LMSs) [7][8], and how well they would support participation by students with disabilities, particularly students who are blind, using a screen reader to access the Internet.  

To make a long story short, none of the systems available at the time would allow a blind student to effectively participate in online learning activities. As a result we undertook to create a model accessible LMS (aka ATutor) to demonstrate how a complex system, like an LMS, could be made accessible. We released the software as Open Source (GPL) so the model would be as broadly available as possible at no cost, and so other developers could learn from our experience. 

Jump ahead to 2020, and virtually all LMS developers have accessibility as a priority, many with dedicated teams focused on ensuring their systems are accessible to everyone. Though still evolving, accessibility is improving at a rapid pace. Blind students today can participate in online learning with a greatly decreased number of barriers to contend with.

LMSs are not the only complex systems that require accessibility, any web application, web service, or website in general also needs to be accessible. Being accessible is good for business, and in many places, it’s now the law. But, finding developers who understand accessibility can be a challenge, and for many business owners this means a certain amount of anxiety about how to comply with the law and avoid potential legal action.  

The problem is developers do not learn about accessibility in school. The only mention of accessibility in the computer science courses I took came from me. Instructors were not able to talk about accessibility with any authority.  During those 20 years developing our LMS, and hiring developers myself, never did I find one that knew anything more than the basics. They often knew nothing at all.

Enter OERs  

More than 20 years has passed since our model accessible LMS was open sourced. Still, however, accessibility is a topic that rarely comes up in technical instruction.  Even with laws emerging around the world that require IT be accessible, developers are having to fend for themselves to understand what they should be doing to make what they create accessible to everyone.

The aim now is to get accessibility instruction into post secondary curriculum, and into the minds of computer science instructors, among others. This is no easy task. There have been a number of research efforts in recent years[1][2][3][4], showing limited success in teaching accessibility. Low enrolment is often the downfall of courses dedicated to teaching the subject. Most current computer science instructors learned their craft during a time when accessibility was nothing more than a footnote. And, who can blame them for steering clear of a topic they may have little experience with, if they are aware of it at all. And, this is not just a problem here in Ontario, Canada, where we happen to have strict laws requiring accessibility, it’s a global issue.

To help remedy this situation the Digital Education Strategies team at The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, at Ryerson University, partnered with the Government of Ontario on a series of projects over four years, to create that missing curriculum, and publish open textbooks with much the same intent we had when we open sourced our accessible LMS.  The textbooks are licensed under the Creative Commons CC-BY-SA licence to make them as broadly available as possible at no cost to users.

Each of these open textbooks began as a three or four week intensive Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), that ran through a public platform, attracting more than 5000 participants over 10 cohorts. This made it possible to refine the instruction based on participant feedback, helping perfect the instruction to produce the best possible learning outcomes. Using the MOOC retention research [5][6] we conducted to measure the success of these refinements, with each cohort, and each course refinement, retention increased.  Typical MOOC retention is in the 10% range.  By the 10th cohort retention had increased to more than 40%, a rate unheard of for MOOCs.

Now perfected, those MOOCs have been adapted to produce the series of open textbooks to support the addition of accessibility curriculum into existing post secondary instruction, or to support the development of standalone courses on digital accessibility.  These textbooks, listed below, have been developed in the Ryerson University hosted Pressbooks site, and are available in a variety of formats there, and through many public OER repositories.

Download Accessibility Open Textbooks

Five book covers, described below



Greg Gay is the IT Accessibility Specialist at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, at Ryerson University. He led the projects to develop the OERs and Open Source software described here, and is the primary author of the books and game content. He’s been in the accessibility field since 1995, as a web developer with a formal background in disability and adaptive instruction, and has been developing and teaching online since 2000.