US Justice Department demands accessible educational technology

John Kleeman HeadshotPosted by John Kleeman

The US Justice Department made an important intervention last week, that could tip the balance in making educational technology more accessible for learners with disabilities.

They are intervening on the side of the learner in a court case between a blind learner and Miami University. The case is about learners with disabilities not getting the same access to digital content as other learners. For example, according to the complaint, the university required all learners to use applications with inaccessible Flash content as well as an LMS that was not usable with screen readers.

To quote the US Justice Department’s motion to intervene:

“Miami University’s failure to make its digital- and web-based technologies accessible to individuals with disabilities, or to otherwise take appropriate steps to ensure effective communication with such individuals, places them at a great disadvantage, depriving them of equal access to Miami University’s educational content and services.”

Example question with black on white text showing buttons that can change text size and contrastQuestionmark has long taken accessibility seriously. When we re-architected our assessment delivery engine for our version 5 release, we made accessibility a priority – see Assessment Accessibility in Questionmark Perception Version 5 .  Our platform  includes several standard templates that include “text sizing” and “contrast controls” that administrators can make available to participants – these can be helpful for certain visual impairments.

Here are some other aspects of the delivery platform that we have optimized for accessibility:

  • The administrator can override an established assessment time limit for certain participants
  • Participants can use a pointing device other than a mouse or navigate the assessment using keystrokes such as the “tab” The same question as above showing a different contrast, with yellow text on a blue backgroundkey
  • Screen readers can be used to clearly dictate assessment questions, choices and other content

Please note that preparing assessments for participants with disabilities takes more than an optimized delivery platform: assessment authors and administrators need to plan for accessibility as well. For example, items that rely heavily on graphics or images must use suitable description tags, videos should be appropriately captioned, and so on. Vendors and testing organizations alike must make a constant effort to ensure that material stays accessible as technology changes.

Providing you are following best practice for developing accessible content, the Questionmark delivery platform can complete the loop and help you give all of your participants–including those with disabilities–a reliable and fair test-taking experience.

Accessible software is good for everyone, not just those who are temporarily or permanently need accommodations for their disabilities. Many of the technologies required to make software accessible also enhance delivery on mobile devices and improve blended delivery in general.

With the US Department of Justice now engaging in lawsuits against institutions that do not take accessibility seriously, accessibility support will become more important to everyone.


Making sure assessment video and audio are accessible to participants

Posted by Noel Thethy

One of the benefits of an assessment management system like Questionmark’s is its ability to include rich and interactive media within questions. But how do you cope with this content to ensure it is accessible to those with needs?

Video and audio content

When including this type of content in questions, you should provide alternative means for consuming the information. It is important to provide equivalents for users who cannot see or hear.

Captions should be added for video and audio information detailing all the spoken content — and for videos any important non-spoken information. You can include a transcript in several different ways, including:

  • Adding the transcript in the questions stimulus
  • Adding a link to the transcript from the question
  • Embedding closed captions in the video or audio
  • Using the scenario/case question format to display the transcript in parallel with the question multimedia (as shown below)

Rich media content

If you are using any rich media content like Flash or Captivate, be sure to follow the Adobe Accessibility guidelines. This will ensure that the content (which can be interactive) has been created with the necessary attention to the available accessibility features and designs.

Ensuring question text is accessible

Posted by Noel Thethy

This post is part of the accessibility series I am running. Here we will look at ensuring text and table elements are accessible.

We have done our best to ensure that Questionmark’s participant interface is readable via screen readers. However, to ensure these work as expected you need to make sure that:

  • The text you use does not contain any inline styles that may confuse a screen reader.
  • Any tables in your content use captions and header information to ensure the screen reader can distinguish content.

If you have copied and pasted text from another application, particularly Microsoft Word, you may find when looking at the HTML code that the question contains extraneous HTML. For example, when content is copied and pasted from Microsoft Word, the text copied will appear as follows in the HTML tab.



The text copied includes HTML mark-up tags which override the style determined by the templates and could affect how a screen reader interprets what is on the screen. The HTML used to provide the formatting can be viewed in the HTML tab of the Advanced HTML Editor in Authoring Manager and should be cleaned up as much as possible.

Alternatively, Questionmark Live automatically removes any style HTML that may be included from applications such as Word or other Internet pages. To find out more about Questionmark Live, please click here: Questionmark Live

If you are using tables, we recommend that you build them following the W3C guidelines rather than the default tables available. They should ideally look something like this:






By using the <caption>, <thead> and <tfoot> tags in your table you can clearly identify parts of the table to be read by the screen reader.

For more information see the W3C recommendations for non-visual user agents. These tables can be added by using the Advanced HTML Editor in Authoring Manager.

Making media and images within assessments more accessible

Posted by Noel Thethy

This post is part of the accessibility series I am running. We will look at using media and images in questions and how to ensure these are accessible.

A number of media files can be included in a question/assessment. However, if you are interested in producing accessible assessments you should consider the following:

  • Ensure color is not the only way to distinguish among different pieces of stimulus or answers. Common forms of color blindness (affecting up to 5% of the population) could make answering questions difficult. You should, where possible, change how the information is portrayed or include other indicators.











When including graphics always include ALT (Alternative) text. This will be displayed when a participant hovers the mouse pointer over an image or if a screen reader is being used.

  • If you are using Adobe Flash media, make sure that it has been created in an accessible fashion.  Refer to the Adobe guidelines for Flash  and Captivate.
  • If you are using video or audio in a question you should include a transcript. You can include a transcript in several ways:
  • Link to a document that includes a transcript (Remember if you are including the transcript as a PDF you should also make sure this is accessible as well. See the Adobe guideline here)
  • Embed a YouTube video, using the Closed Caption feature to include subtitles of any dialog in the video.Provide a video transcript within an assessment, using Questionmark’s Side-By-Side template.

(My advice and recommendations may or may not be suitable for your particular situation, so be sure to take into account your organization’s accepted practices and pedagogy.)

How you can improve assessment accessibility

Posted by Noel Thethy

Over the next few weeks I’ll be releasing several “How To” blog posts that I hope will provide some insight in to the features and functionality available to Questionmark users.

In particular I’ll be looking at:

•    How to ensure your questions are as accessible as possible
•    How-to tweak Questionmark’s accessibility features to suit your specific needs.

This series will consist of several video demonstrations and some explanations of basics concepts.

I’ll be covering topics like:

•    Using media and images in a question in an accessible way
•    Ensuring question text is appropriately accessible
•    Customizing the font size changer
•    Customizing the contrast changer

Before we go on this journey I’d like to remind you of some other posts about accessibility that have already appeared on this blog. They include:

•    Assessment Accessibility: A View from the Inside
•    Assessment Accessibility in Questionmark Perception Version 5

I hope you will join me as I take a look at making assessments accessible.

Minimizing bias when assessing across culture and language

Student numbers graph

Posted by John Kleeman

I attended a thought-provoking presentation last week by Dr. Janette Ryan of the Teaching International Students project about the rising numbers of international students at universities and the challenges of teaching and assessing them. This inspired me to do some research about the cultural and linguistic challenges involved with assessing in such contexts.

As you will see in the graph on the right, there is an increasing trend for countries to send students for university education overseas, so they can learn from other cultures as well as their own.There are around 3.5 million international students worldwide. The USA is the world’s most popular destination, with the UK and Australia coming second and third.

The UK Teaching International Students project has a page on assessment and feedback, I also found a paper from Oxford Brookes University on Sitting exams in a second language: minimising bias, maximising potential and an Australian guide to Assessing students unfamiliar with assessment practices in Australian higher education.

Here is some advice from these documents. It’s aimed for a university and higher education context, but much here will also be relevant to corporate training.

1. Consider giving extra time for people who are taking an assessment in a language that is foreign to them. You should consider an accommodation in the same way as you would for others who read more slowly, e.g. dyslexic students.

2. Make your questions and instructions clear and unambiguous; use as few words as you need. For someone not working in their native language, each extra word increases cognitive load.

3. Expectations for how to write essays vary between countries and cultures. In some cultures, presenting a contentious statement and asking the student to discuss it is a normal means of assessment; in others this is novel.

4. In some educational settings, the more closely a student replicates the work or words of an expert, the greater the student’s learning or mastery of the subject is considered to be. Elsewhere, replicating the words of someone else is regarded as plagiarism and cheating! Whichever approach you take, tell your students what is expected.

5. Explain well how you are going to run assessments. Styles of teaching, language for grades and ways of assessing vary in different cultures and countries. Your methods may be expected by students from your own country but novel for students from another country.

6. Many international students have a high level of language proficiency but a low level of cultural knowledge. Ensure your assessments do not presume cultural knowledge; using case study questions that make assumptions about prior knowledge or context is a common mistake. The question below is meaningful to Europeans but not to others.

(from Oxford Brookes paper) "As an anthropologist, how would you study Eurovision?"

7. Give plenty of opportunities for students to practice assessments. With software like Questionmark Perception, it’s easy to set up practice tests. This is especially valuable for international students so they can understand what is expected.

8. If your assessment involves participation or work in a group, remember that different cultures have different conventions in group communication — for example about interrupting others or being seen to criticize another in public.

9. Feedback is really important in all assessment. Ensure that it is meaningful and includes any necessary context and doesn’t assume prior knowledge for people who have come from different backgrounds.

10. Above all, set tasks which give all students a chance to succeed