Type of paper: Position Paper
Published at: CHI 2018, Workshop on Emerging Opportunities in Inclusive Education for People with Visual Impairments
Authors: Reeti Mathur, Erin Brady
A number of modern tools for learning programming skills are online and are used within classroom settings or at home for self-structured learning. Implementing appropriate web accessibility into these tools is crucial to allow students with visual impairments to learn these skills. However, many of these tools for early learners are visually based, leveraging “drag-and-drop” components that are not easily accessible through assistive technologies. This position paper talks in detail about the accessibility of secondary educational online systems – such as Code.org’s PlayLab and MIT’s Scratch – that are oriented for children. We describe how these portals could be made accessible for individual, collaborative, and community learning.
What We Did
We conducted automatic and manual accessibility testing to understand the accessibility of interactions on Code.org’s PlayLab and MIT’s Scratch, two of the most highly used drag-and-drop coding platforms. With both sites being visually based and heavily designed with graphics and User Interface (UI) elements in mind, we hypothesized that much of the content would be inaccessible, making it difficult for blind and visually impaired students to fully interact with it.
How We Could Address Inaccessibility on E-Learning Platforms
We described many common accessibility problems like missing alternative text for visuals or labels for other UI elements which need to be resolved for screenreader users to access the site. However, there are larger problems around the accessibility of these drag-and-drop coding tools which should be addressed to improve its accessibility for individuals.
A solution to this inaccessible condition would be to evaluate alternatives for interacting with these components, such as voice-based interactive systems which produce audio output as in Blocks4All , or tangible interfaces like connecting blocks with tactile features as in Story Blocks . A browser extension would also aid to improve the accessibility of the authoring tools.
Teaching through online educational platforms can be done effectively in a collaborative environment, but there are common collaborative access issues which should be examined with these e-learning platforms. These issues may mirror some of the misconceptions that exist between blind employees and their sighted co-workers  – a sighted teacher or classmate of a blind student may prefer to interact with the content visually, meaning there must be easy translation between the visual and audio/tactile content.
Finally, we recognize that many of the accessibility problems on these sites are the result of them hosting user-generated content. Regardless of the accessibility improvements implemented by the site, we must also build a community knowledge of accessibility among the sighted creators who upload and share their work.
A solution to this could be to augment the platform through the mandatory inclusion of “alt text” descriptions for each character or user-created image in the code. At schools, sighted peers and instructors of visually impaired kids could help improve the accessibility of such online portals by making it a regular practice to caption their work and provide a detailed description at every level of the creation process, using this process as an opportunity to be introduced to web accessibility principles.
- Stacy M Branham and Shaun K Kane. 2015. The Invisible Work of Accessibility: How Blind Employees Manage Accessibility in Mixed-Ability Workplaces. In Proceedings of ASSETS ’15, 163–171. 4.
- Varsha Koushik and Shaun K Kane. 2017. Tangibles + Programming + Audio Stories = Fun. In Proceedings of ASSETS ’17, 341–342. 5.
- Lauren R Milne, Catherine M Baker, and Richard E Ladner. 2017. Blocks4All Demonstration: a BlocksBased Programming Environment for Blind Children. In Proceedings of ASSETS ’17, 313–314.