Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to sit down with Steve Scott, Courseload’s Chief Technology Officer, to ask him some in-depth questions about our accessibility progress and commitment. Since beginning at Courseload in June, I've heard of our commitment to accessibility, but wanted more concrete answers to the thoughts behind our actions. Speaking with Steve gave me not only a technological insight, but a deeper understanding of what this commitment looks like and has been like for Courseload.
Molly: What is Courseload’s Accessibility commitment? How has it evolved?
Steve: It’s really simple – a better, less expensive, and more engaging education for all regardless of abilities. We are committed to providing the best user experience possible for all users – now and in the future. In a changing ecosystem of content, pedagogy and technology, Courseload will lead the pack in inclusive usability. That’s how we define accessibility – making our product not only compliant with standards and guidelines, but USABLE by all. We started with an optimistic view of the world. We’re a technology company with very creative and bright people who look for better ways, so that is no surprise. What we learned in our research was that, while the future is bright with possibilities, we live in a very different world today. Our commitment to make a difference every step of the way meant we needed to put our heads not just into creating an appealing future but also into how to address the realities – now – today. How useful would it be to provide a next generation platform when only a small fraction of desired content could be used with it? How user-friendly would it be to require students using preferred assistive technologies to abandon tried and true tools to learn a totally new technology their school was piloting? We had to take our future-state vision and create a map that gets us from here to there – from now to then. While we are impatient and still want to do it faster we want our users to have a quality experience with the ecosystem they live in today.
MS: What has this journey been like for you?
SS: I knew nearly nothing about accessibility in March 2012 when I joined the Courseload team. It has been an amazing and humbling education. I am one of those who overestimated the possibilities today.
Being a technology guy, I am always impatient with the pace of change, and I have had my share of experience with inertia, serving some slow moving industries like automotive, aerospace and pharmaceuticals. But they pale in comparison to what I have encountered in the educational content ecosystem. Accessibility is not a technology problem but rather one of coordination and to some extent motivation.
I have been endlessly impressed by the support offered by the accessibility community, disabled student services pros, advocacy groups, standards groups, and thought leaders. This is the most remarkable part of the journey for me - the number of people wanting to see change happen and willing to help us make a difference.
MS: What have you learned from interactions with the National Federation of the Blind?
SS: It is a tough job to advocate for a disenfranchised community when the mainstream is slow to listen. The NFB has battled for decades, sometimes resorting to strong measures when others were not working. We have been preceded by a number of actors who have taken a “minimum acceptable compliance” approach and others who ended up doing even less. The NFB understandably puts less credence in plans and promises, focusing instead on tangible results.
Nonetheless, change, even rapid change like we are delivering, comes in iterations – especially today with technology shifting so rapidly. What I have learned in our recent dialog with the NFB is that we are at our most productive when we all focus on progress. This is a journey not an event and we need to work together to make improvements to the status quo.
Some believe that the services provided by DSS (disabled student services) orgs on campuses today serve to slow the movement toward a “born accessible” world. We agree to disagree on that. Courseload is committed to assisting the DSS orgs because we see their efforts to re-publish and personalize course materials as vital to the current educational needs of students with disabilities.
But we do agree on the goal of “born accessible” content delivered on an adaptive platform that optimizes the user experience based on user preferences. The NFB advocates for important advances like ePub3 and Access for All, and Courseload is committed to these.
MS: Where are we in the accessibility journey? How much farther do we have to go?
SS: We are just getting started. Call it the first step in a marathon. We are updating our current product, but all new product development will be born accessible. As we add new capabilities, we will design for an adaptive future while considering the current state of content, pedagogy and technology. As long as these change, we will not be “done”.
While we will pass a lot of markers along the way, the reality is that the journey only ends when accessibility is no longer a term. As long as products and technologies are invented that rely predominately on one sense or very specific physical capabilities, we will need accommodations for those with limitations.
MS: What has the progress looked like at Courseload?
SS: The cool thing about this is that you can’t really see it in our platform. Accessibility is not a “feature” but a way of engineering – it’s really behind the scenes. If we have done it right, each user has the experience they prefer without being aware that others have a different experience.
Eventually, we will offer some personal preferences that will permit anyone to use any adaptation. Perhaps you are not deaf but would prefer to watch videos with captions. Or maybe you would prefer to have your assignment read to you, not because you are visually impaired but because your eyes are tired or you simply learn better that way.
MS: What has it been like working with Courseload’s Accessibility Advisory Board?
SS: Wow. What a valuable source of expertise and guidance for us. They are extremely active and provide us with great advice. We have fortunately attracted a group who has no problem debating important topics and challenging us to think bigger. We have a number of board members participating in everything from strategy discussions to testing of our platform.
MS: What were some key takeaways from the AAB conference in September?
- Make a difference and do it as fast as possible in small increments
- Communicate openly with the world about what we are doing
- Keep reaching out to the community for help
- 80% of compliant solutions are unusable – strive for usability
- Work with publishers to get “born accessible” content sooner
- Help DSS orgs streamline their processes
MS: Why are solutions so often based on older technologies?
SS: Geoffrey Moore described the market adoption of new technologies in his book Crossing the Chasm. Early adopters of new tech are surrounded by a marketplace of older tech users. Until critical mass is achieved, the newer technology is considered risky and experimental.
In the publishing industry, we are experiencing the laggard stages of publishing for print while the early adopters of semantic content like ePub are experimenting. As a platform for delivery of digital content, Courseload must support both the old technologies and engage in development on the emerging new technologies.
One more thought here – as new operating systems and devices emerge, we expect to see better accessibility “built in” to these foundations. Courseload will lead the way to leveraging these core capabilities for future generations of users.
MS: What do you hope to see in the education technology space regarding accessibility?
SS: I’ll go back to a simple answer – “Less”
Less work to make content usable for all because more of it is “born accessible.” Less time between the need and availability of content for students because support processes have been optimized. Less complexity for disabled users because more assistive technology is “built in.” Less difficulty in personalization of the learning experience because adaptive content, pedagogy, and technology is in use.
…all because we have collectively made the journey.