By: Laura Orozco

Missoula, MT, United States

For the University of Montana, innovation and accessibility go hand in hand. By working with Moodlerooms and the Moodle Accessibility Collaboration Group, the institution strives to provide an online learning management system that is accessible for all students, including students who are assistive technology users.

Located in Missoula, the second largest city in Montana, the University of Montana welcomes around 13,000 students to programs covering various fields of knowledge, ranging from the humanities and the sciences to forestry and health. The university offers these programs through fully online, blended, and face-to-face courses. Any course with an online component uses the learning management system, Moodlerooms, for the delivery of electronic content.

Marlene ZentzIn addition to facilitating communication between professors and students, supporting document sharing, and providing online working spaces, the Moodlerooms learning management system also provides new accessibility features that improve the learning experience for all users, including students with disabilities. One of the major improvements has been the development of an accessible Advanced forum. Forums provide opportunities for online discussion, and Moodlerooms created the Advanced forum to be fully accessible and then made it available to the open source community. According to Marlene Zentz, UMOnline’s Senior Instructional Designer and Accessibility Specialist, “The Advanced forum now allows all students to easily participate in online discussions and fully understand the meaning being conveyed there. The forums we were using prior to the Advanced forum had both usability and accessibility barriers that posed major problems for screen reader users”.

Moodlerooms also created a new “born accessible” course theme called Snap that makes it easier for faculty to create accessible online course content. This accessible course theme is responsive and intuitive for students to use. Moodlerooms has released this development to the open source community as well, for Moodle 2.7 and above.

These improvements are in part a result of the collaboration between Moodlerooms and the University of Montana. UMOnline accessibility specialists Aaron Page and Marlene Zentz both worked with Moodlerooms to provide usability testing and accessibility perspectives on the Advanced forum and the Snap theme. Page himself is an assistive technology user so he is able to test prototypes with his screen reader and provide highly valuable user information to product developers.

Moodlerooms also created a new “born accessible” course theme called Snap that makes it easier for faculty to create accessible online course content. This accessible course theme is responsive and intuitive for students to use.

The University of Montana and Moodlerooms were also instrumental in creating the Moodle Accessibility Collaboration Group (MACG), an international group formed during the summer of 2013 to improve the accessibility of core Moodle. Core Moodle is the foundational open source system that Moodlerooms and many other Moodle partner systems are built upon so accessibility work with it is critical. The Moodle Accessibility Collaboration Group now includes individuals and universities from around the world and continues to welcome others to participate the group’s efforts.

So far, the learning management system changes and improvements at the University of Montana have had a positive impact in the student community and also among faculty. According to Zentz, “The university has found that products designed with accessibility in mind from the beginning have a better ‘look and feel’ and work much better for all students, including students who are using assistive technologies to successfully complete their degrees in higher education”.

Zentz has also worked to provide more information about accessibility to other universities around the state of Montana. In 2013, she founded the Montana Accessibility Interest Group (MAIG), which meets virtually on the first Friday of each month. During these one-hour meetings, accessibility experts from around the nation present on topics ranging from captioning to math accessibility to alternative text for complex images and much more. Participants now include members from other states and anyone interested in accessibility is welcome to join these conversations.

*Marlene Zentz – UMOnline’s Senior Instructional Designer and Accessibility Specialist – University of Montana

Photo by: AFP Tommy Martino