Reimagine Learning

Expert Interview with sonarDesign: Implementing Accessibility in a Disruptive Digital Education Market

We recently caught up with our partners at sonarDesign, Chief Executive Offer Jerry Bowerman and Vice President of Product Adrian Penn, to talk through accessibility and the challenges that organizations face when undertaking accessibility initiatives. sonarDesign offers a cloud-based authoring and publishing platform which helps organizations create rich accessible and interactive learning content.

As experts in accessibility and compliance, Jerry and Adrian offered some helpful tips for implementing an impactful accessibility strategy. We’re excited to share our conversation with you!

Second Avenue Learning: Why do organizations struggle with accessibility?

Jerry: Today, in 2017, the biggest force pushing the market to re-think how we support students is online learning. When students go into a physical space to learn, there are accommodations that can be physically walked through to support students in hands-on ways. Today, organizations struggle to make online education accessible because the very way we teach and learn in an online setting needs to be rethought. There is some really hard stuff that people need to figure out. At its core, no one has really tackled this challenge.

Second Avenue Learning: Can you give a more concrete example of content that is challenging to make accessible in a digital environment?

Jerry: Think about the maths and sciences. When trying to convey a chemical formula or a mathematical formula, many times the classroom setting includes hands-on activities to reinforce the concept. Without a physical space, the “hands-on learning” is completed by the student online. This is where people struggle to create accessible content.

Let’s say I’m trying to teach a vision-impaired student how to plot a straight line, and the student is learning on a mobile device. How do I get across the concept of a straight line without showing the student what this looks like? How do I give the student room to play around and figure out what a straight line means on his or her own? How do teachers teach in an online environment in a way that takes students through a thought process similar to the thought process of a non-visually impaired student? Both the student and the teacher must work through the concept differently.

Second Avenue Learning: We’ve worked with organizations to re-conceptualize science labs for an online environment for years. The challenge with creating online simulations is that you want the give students the ability to experiment so they learn in the same way that they would in a physical lab. This can be a challenge!

Second Avenue Learning: Do solutions like text-to-speech technology support these kinds of challenges?

Jerry: Text-to-speech technology supports learners who are engaging with static text only. If a student is reading interactive media with a screen reader, the tool will jump over the interactive elements. Blind or limited vision users won’t know that the interactive content exists. It is here that organizations need to stop and rethink their design process. Organizations need to design for visual, auditory, and other learning challenges from the outset. Unfortunately, the technology industry plateaued at text-to-speech technology.

Second Avenue Learning: Who is accessibility really for, anyway?

Jerry: The original accessibility legislation focused on supporting people with disabilities. However, in an effort to be as inclusive as possible, new accessibility legislation will support many more people and will cover a broad spectrum of temporary and permanent disabilities. If new legislation passes, there are reports that accessibility will cover around 20% of the population. This is not a small number.

Second Avenue Learning: You’re right. We showcase who accessibility impacts in our accessibility infographic.

Second Avenue Learning: Given this, is there a misconception that accessible design serves only a small number of special education students?

Jerry: I think that that is very true. As we think about design, accessibility benefits all learners not just those who have disabilities. As an example, you can read faster than you can watch a video. But if you turn on close captions while you view the video, you can breeze through the content. You may use assistive technology to get through your task quicker and the technology may help you grasp a concept that you had previously been struggling with. You may not necessarily need the accessibility feature, but it can help!

Adrian: My background is in design. When I sit down to design something, I am not thinking about the visuals up front; I think about structure and the hierarchical organization of content first. Accessibility should be thought about in the same way. If your design for accessibility from the get-go in a clear, well-organized manner, accessibility becomes applicable to any (or anyone’s) experience.

Second Avenue Learning: Adrian, from your design perspective, why do you think organizations struggle to design accessible tools?

Adrian: The problem is that people dive so fast into visual concepts. They want to see what the simulation or lab will look like. Visuals are important, but until you know how you will structure and present your information, you should not get tied up in the visuals.

Second Avenue Learning: We agree. We believe that accessibility benefits all learners not just those with disabilities. This means that we must design with accessibility in mind from the outset of our process and incorporate accessibility evaluations and user testing at strategic points within our iterative design process.

Second Avenue Learning: With accessibility law, technology, and pedagogy constantly changing, accessibility compliance is very complicated. Is this even a winning battle for organizations?

Jerry: I believe it is. Even more so, it is an area where an organization can differentiate itself. Right now, no one is focused on becoming the market leader for accessibility, but no one wants to be left behind. What if one organization takes on a leadership position and commits to making all of their content accessible. If one organization takes this on, they can become a market leader. Think about the impact this would have on the sales process. The sales conversation for organizations who are competing for business would be night and day.

Second Avenue Learning: Accessibility compliance can be a very costly investment for publishers, especially when organizations do not plan for accessibility at the onset of their product design process. We urge our partners to proactively audit for accessibility shortcomings and plan accessibility improvements in more cost-effective, scalable ways. This is a focus of our accessibility best practices guidelines.

Second Avenue Learning: In your opinion, Jerry, how should organizations fit accessibility into their budgets?

Jerry: Most publishers have a handful of courses that make up the bulk of their revenue. As an example, in higher education, these are large survey courses: Calculus 101, Biology 101, Chemistry 101. In my mind, organizations should start there. As they develop interactive media elements, they can use accessible technology to differentiate themselves in a faster, more cost-effective process. If an organization can pre-emptively use accessibility to differentiate themselves and take market share from a competitor, they will help regulate the playing field, all the while supporting more students.

Also, I wonder about the smaller publishers who are nimble and can make decisions quicker. One of those companies could start expanding into related content fields, diversify their courseware, and make a bunch of noise on how they embrace accessibility. They could capture market share quickly.

Second Avenue Learning: On a smaller scale, when an organization initiates an accessibility initiative, what is the first task a production or media editor should take on?

Jerry: Sit down and lay out the universal design objectives first so that you create and design with accessibility at the onset of your process. Accessibility will no longer be a box to check off at the end of a production cycle but a way to differentiate yourself in the market and deliver elegant and effective experiences for all learners.

In Summary:

Creating accessible content in a digital world can be a complicated task; however, when organizations consider accessibility as a best practice to support the needs of all students, the path to success is much more straight forward. If content providers consider the different ways in which students engage with and understand content at the onset of their product design process, organizations will be more likely to deliver accessible products that meet the needs of their users. This takes a concerted effort by the publishers to understand their users. However, the impact on student outcomes can be great. As our partners at sonarDesign have shared, accessibility is not just mandate and not just a Special Education practice, but rather a best practice for designing impactful educational tools for all learners.

For more information,

sonarDesign was founded in 2012 with a simple mission: to engage audiences on every device easily. and offers a cloud-based authoring and publishing platform for rich, interactive, and accessible learning content that works on all devices.

Jerry Bowerman, Chief Executive Officer, sonarDesign: Jerry has had an extremely versatile career, spanning investment banking to gaming to technology startups. He previously served as VP of EA Games Canada and was on the board of Lucasfilm and adviser to George Lucas. Jerry was also Executive Vice President of Sierra Online. Currently he serves as an Executive Board member at the University of Texas Game Development Program.

Adrian Penn, Vice President of Product, sonarDesign: Adrian has spent his career with the mission of bridging the gap between design and engineering. He has been the Senior Project Manager at Engineering Animation, Inc., the Director of Production Gamed at Human Code, and the Director of Development at Milkshake Media. When Zynga acquired Challenge Games, he became an Executive Producer and played a huge role in the success of a range of products.