What should eLearning authoring tool providers be telling us about accessibility? - eLaHub

Logos of 12 authoring tool providers

In previous posts, I’ve looked at the compelling case for digital accessibility, and how it benefits all users, including those with impairments. It might seem logical to think that accessibility would be a universally respected concept and value, which would be embraced by authoring tool developers. You might assume that all tool providers, would recognise the commercial advantage of making their tools support accessibility. You might also assume, that they would also recognise the benefit of helping their content authors to use their tool to create accessible content. Yet this often isn’t the case.

The Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG)

So what accessibility support should eLearning authoring tool providers be offering? The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative addressed that question with the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG).

These guidelines recommend that Authoring tool providers should support the production of accessible content in the following ways:

  • B.2.1. Ensure that accessible content production is possible.
  • B.2.2. Guide authors to produce accessible content.
  • B.2.3. Assist authors with managing alternative content for non-text content.
  • B.2.4. Assist authors with accessible templates.
  • B.2.5. Assist authors with accessible pre-authored content.
  • B.3.1. Assist authors in checking for accessibility problems.
  • B.3.2. Assist authors in repairing accessibility problems.
  • B.4.1. Ensure the availability of features that support the production of accessible content.
  • B.4.2. Ensure that documentation promotes the production of accessible content.

The eLearning sector

Although these recommendations were introduced in 2015, it’s interesting to see how widely they have been adopted in the eLearning sector. It’s beyond the scope of this post to look in detail at a wide range of tools, but just researching a few providers in the market illustrates the whole spectrum of accessibility support available. When I carried out my research I used the criteria adopted by the crowdsourced Aspire e-book accessibility project which imposed a 5-minute time limit on their testers when looking for the accessibility information provided by e-book publishers. If I couldn’t find any information within 5 minutes, I assumed that there was none available. Of the 14 vendors I looked at, I couldn’t find the accessibility information for 4. The information from other vendors varied greatly both in quality and quantity. Some providers offered a very brief overview, some tips and hints and some blog articles. Some went into more detail about accessibility requirements, and some offered good detailed information. Others offered detailed information and also additional support in the form of articles, webinars and community forums.

While there is no legal obligation for authoring tool providers to provide accessibility support, it does seem to be a requirement which is becoming increasingly important for content authors. In the latest eLearning Guild report on Authoring tools 2019 Jane Bozarth noted that problems with accessibility were a common frustration with current tools. One respondent complained that accessibility features too often seemed like an afterthought, and another commented “I am surprised that major vendors have done so little to make their products meet accessibility guidelines.”

A changing landscape?

It’s interesting that the quote above focuses on the need for meeting accessibility guidelines. Recent changes in the law in both the US and the UK and Europe, may explain this. Although US Section 508 accessibility regulations for all federally funded organisations have been in place since 1998, they were updated in January 2018 to bring them in line with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Level A and AA. In the UK, the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations 2018 also bring legal digital accessibility in line with WCAG Level A and AA, but the requirement here is the updated version 2.1 which also includes new standards which are relevant to mobile learning. Bearing in mind that the Public Sector Bodies regulations are based on an EU directive, which has been adopted into the law of all member states, this potentially has a very wide-reaching effect on accessible eLearning support and the requirements of content authors.

As a result of these recent changes, any authoring tool provider who is going to be able to satisfy these requirements, will need to be very specific about how their authoring tool can comply with WCAG 2.1 regulations. While a few vendors already do this, many do not. Another thing which few provide is detailed “documentation which promotes the production of accessible content.” Articulate Storyline, one of the market leaders, which scores well on meeting accessibility requirements, according to Diane Elkins of eLearning Uncovered is a good example. While Articulate does provide information on how Storyline content can meet WCAG 2.0 requirements, for many of the criteria, they explain that the function is ‘author controlled’ without giving any more detail about how the author can implement the standard. It is often possible to find out more information on help pages, or in forums, but this can be very time consuming and ultimately doesn’t make it easy for content authors to make their eLearning accessible.

Best practice

One of the best examples I found when carrying out my research, is the support provided by CourseArc. Not only does the accessibility support they provide go into detail about WCAG 2.1 requirements, but they also provide further instructions on meeting the regulations. 


1.3.1 Info and Relationships (Level A)

Also applies to:
2017 Section 508

  • 501 (Web)(Software)

Web: Supports

Web: Pages are organized with proper markup and headings.  It is the responsibility of course builders to ensure that their content uses headers appropriately.

1.3.2 Meaningful Sequence (Level A)

Also applies to:
2017 Section 508

  • 501 (Web)(Software)

Web: Supports

Web: Content creators can use headings and other structural elements for meaningful sequences. It is the responsibility of course builders to ensure that they use sequences correctly. All markup on a page of content appears in the order it is displayed. Finally, we provide information on visual reading order best practices.

Hopefully this good practice will eventually become the benchmark for the type of accessibility information which is given by all authoring tool providers.