Conflict of interests? Can tensions between accessibility, interactivity and multimedia in e-learning be overcome?

Morag Munro: Learning Technology Project Officer, Dublin City University

Barry McMullin: Director, eAccessibility lab, Research Centre for Networks and Communications Engineering (RINCE) Dublin City University

Presented at EdTech 2005.

Also available in PDF format.


The significance of web accessibility in e-learning design is well known. Accessible design will (ideally) ensure that all students can benefit from e-learning resources, regardless of any visual, aural, motor, cognitive or neurological impairments; and regardless of the device(s) used to access the web.

Web-based multimedia technologies can enhance the learning experience for many users, and on many levels - specifically including users with a range of disabilities; however, simultaneously, multimedia technologies are often criticised for being inaccessible to users with disabilities. So, what are the real implications of web accessibility for designers of educational multimedia? Can multimedia resources be accessible? Is there a conflict between accessible design and creative pedagogical design?

This paper examines some of the issues relating to balancing accessibility and multimedia in e-learning, and presents a framework for best practice in the development of accessible web-based educational multimedia.


Web-based multimedia is becoming ubiquitous in a diverse range of educational contexts: from supplementing classroom-based teaching in primary schools; to the delivery of distance education degree programmes online.

Well-designed educational multimedia may enhance the learning experience on many levels:

Educational multimedia also has specific potential to widen disabled students' access to education, and may allow some individuals to participate more fully and more independently. For example:

It is therefore ironic that, despite its potential to support learning, and despite the opportunities that it may create for disabled students, multimedia often presents a significant barrier to people with disabilities. As multimedia becomes increasingly prevalent in education, students with disabilities may be further disadvantaged or stigmatised if this is not addressed.

As an example, consider a simulated laboratory experiment employing: video footage of the experiment; animation of the chemical reaction; voice-over descriptions; and "virtual participation" in the experiment. This could be an invaluable learning resource to many students: it will allow participation in the experiment in a safe environment, from any location, and as many times as is required; it will allow visualisation of complex processes that are not visible to the naked eye; it may also improve accessibility for those who might never be able to fully participate in the 'real' experiment.

However, the same simulation could easily exclude certain users:

What is accessible multimedia?

Web accessibility is the practice of ensuring that media delivered via the web is accessible to all potential users, regardless of any visual, aural, motor, cognitive, or neurological impairments, and regardless of the device(s) used to access the information.

The ideals of accessibility are tied closely to the concept of universal design: "[T]he design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design." Mace et al (1997).

Educational multimedia designed according to the principles of universal design not only benefits students with disabilities: those who access the web via devices other than a "typical" desktop workstation will also benefit. For example, users who access the web: via devices with small display screens (mobile phones, PDAs etc); via low bandwidth connections; via older computers; in noisy environments, or where audio cannot be used; or whilst simultaneously engaged in other activities (whilst driving, for example).

Students with low literacy levels, and those who are accessing the web via a language other than their first-language will also benefit from accessible design of educational media. In addition, accessible design gives learners more choice and flexibility in their learning experience, allowing them to adapt media to their personal preferences.

W3C Web accessibility guidelines

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is responsible for the development of global standards for the World Wide Web. The W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0) are recognised as the 'definitive' guidelines in relation to web accessibility. Complying with these guidelines should, in theory at least, be the easiest method of creating accessible web-based multimedia; however, in their current format, the WCAG guidelines are verbose, and can be difficult for non-technical readers to interpret (version 2.0 promises improvements in this regard). The guidelines are also notoriously difficult to implement, especially where multimedia is concerned: as yet, the specific multimedia technologies endorsed by the W3C are much less prevalent than popular proprietary technologies such as Macromedia Flash, a format which is currently widely employed in the development of educational simulations and animations.

It is not surprising, therefore, that learning designers may be confused or apprehensive about incorporating multimedia into their designs. For example, they may - wrongly - conclude that:

Framework for best practice in design of web-based educational multimedia

The authors propose a five-step framework for best practice in the development of inclusive web-based educational multimedia: 1. Use multimedia appropriately; 2. Choose the most accessible technology for your circumstances; 3. Exploit the accessibility features of the technology you choose; 4. Be aware of the accessibility limitations of the technology you choose; and 5. Provide (at least) a functional 'text equivalent' to multimedia content.

1. Use multimedia appropriately

There are many sound pedagogical reasons for using multimedia, and there are many circumstances where appropriate application of multimedia can enhance accessibility. However, there are also situations where the pedagogical or accessibility benefits are not sufficient to warrant development of the resource, or where accessibility barriers outweigh the perceived benefits.

Before designing a new multimedia resource, consider the following:

2. Choose the most accessible technology for your circumstances

A key recommendation made by the W3C in the WCAG 1.0 guidelines is the endorsement of W3C - as opposed to proprietary - technologies:

Checkpoint 11.1: Use W3C technologies when they are available and appropriate for a task and use the latest versions when supported (W3C, 1999).

W3C technologies relevant to multimedia include:

A full discussion of these technologies is beyond the scope of this paper; however, it is worth noting the W3C's rationale for endorsing them:

W3C technologies undergo continual review to ensure that accessibility issues are considered during the design phase, and they are extensively evaluated and reviewed for accessibility prior to being endorsed by W3C.

Consequently, W3C technologies consistently include 'built-in' accessibility features. In some cases these provide intrinsic accessibility benefits for any application of the technology; in other cases, they provide facilities for content developers to ensure accessibility in a content-specific way.

The W3C's specifications are developed in an open, industry consensus process. This maximises the opportunity for third-party development of support for these technologies, which, in turn, maximises support for the needs of relatively small-scale 'niche' users, such as many disability groups.

Proprietary multimedia formats are numerous, and include the Macromedia suite: Flash, Director, Authorware and Captivate; Apple's QuickTime; and Microsoft's Advanced Systems Format (ASF) media file format. Although such proprietary technologies may include some accessibility features, they are generally deprecated on accessibility grounds because:

They typically require either "plug-ins" or stand-alone applications to be installed before they can be accessed. These are not always available for all platforms or on all devices that people use to access the web. Users with disabilities are naturally more likely to be using specialist access technologies, which make all such extra requirements more burdensome.

Their development is, in general, controlled by a particular vendor, or is open to third-parties only on payment of royalties to the vendor. This may inhibit innovation for 'small' and/or 'specialist' markets - precisely the markets for users with particular disabilities.

So: Should proprietary technologies should never be used? Can proprietary technologies be accessible?

At present, there are no clear-cut answers to these questions: the accessibility of a particular resource will depend on the technology used, and on how that particular technology is employed. The appropriateness of a particular technology must therefore be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Ideally, proprietary technologies should not be used if there is a functional W3C technology alternative available; therefore, before using, Flash, for example, one should pause to ask whether the same effect would be possible using W3C technologies. At the time of writing, however, of the multimedia technologies recommended by the W3C, only HTML, XML, XHTML and CSS are considered to be mainstream: being supported by current browsers and having development tools widely available. The more sophisticated W3C multimedia technologies, such as SVG and SMIL, are not yet as mature, nor are they as well supported.

In some cases, creative use of a combination of the mainstream W3C technologies may produce the desired effect; in other situations, a less mainstream technology, such as SVG would be required, and, for the time being at least, it may easier, more cost effective, or more practical to employ a proprietary technology. However, even in such cases, it is worth investigating available development tools to see if they support W3C technologies (in addition to proprietary ones), either already or as part of a development roadmap. This may allow relatively easy deployment of equivalent resources offering both proprietary and W3C technology versions in parallel, with minimal additional development overhead.

3. Exploit the accessibility features of the technology you choose

W3C technologies have built-in accessibility features. Proprietary technologies are more unpredictable in the accessibility features offered. However, regardless of whether one is using a W3C or a proprietary technology, one should exploit whatever specific accessibility features it makes available.

As an example, consider one of the most popular proprietary multimedia development technologies: Macromedia Flash. Up until the launch of Flash MX 2004, this technology was criticised for being inaccessible (Clarke, 2000); however, Flash MX 2004 is very improved in terms of accessibility, and it is now possible to develop Flash artefacts that incorporate:

Add-on tools for synchronised captioning of Flash MX movies, such as Hi Caption SE and MAGpie, are also available. Comprehensive guidelines for developing accessible Flash are given elsewhere, for example by Smith (2004) and Regan (2004).

4. Be aware of the accessibility limitations of the technology you choose

All multimedia technologies, whether W3C or not, have accessibility limitations.

Proprietary technologies

W3C technologies

W3C technologies are only accessible if they are used in accordance with W3C accessibility guidelines. In addition, although W3C technologies include many features that will improve accessibility, these features may not necessarily be implemented on older browsers or on all devices that people use to access the web.

5. Provide at least a functional "text equivalent" to multimedia content

This is a specific implementation of the W3C WCAG 1.0 guidelines:

Checkpoint 1.1: Provide a text equivalent for every non-text element (W3C, 1999).

A text equivalent of multimedia elements should be just that: in so as far as is possible, users must be able to benefit equally from the text and multimedia versions of the resource.

It is important to keep the text equivalent synchronised with the multimedia element: if the multimedia version is updated, the text version must also be updated.


This had been, of necessity, a brief survey of issues arising in inclusive or universal design of web-based multimedia materials. The cited and hyperlinked resources provide much more detailed advice and guidance on specific technologies and applications. However, in summary, we suggest the following two 'take home' messages:

In general, multimedia provides an important opportunity to enrich learning experiences for all students, and particularly including students with disabilities. We strongly encourage the incorporation of such content where it is pedagogically well motivated and designed.

However, in any such multimedia innovation there is also potential for accidental and gratuitous exclusion of some students with disabilities. We strongly encourage careful consideration, at the earliest design stage, of how effective and reasonable accommodations can be made to minimise or, ideally, eliminate, any such unintended outcomes.


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Multimedia technologies and enabling software

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Hi Caption. (Homepage). [Online]. Available from: <>[Accessed 9 May 2005]

MAGpie. (Homepage). [Online]. Available from: <>[Accessed 9 May 2005]

SVG. (Homepage) [Online]. Available from: <>[Accessed 9 May 2005]

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