Enabling flexible, accessible learning that improves a learner’s existing practice
Date: 22/06/22 | Duration: 33:05
Accessible and inclusive experiences are critical to the success of organisational learning. Few would argue against the benefits an accelerated shift to – and adoption of – digital learning has brought to learners, particularly with greater flexibility in terms of access, delivery and coverage. But is the design of your learning drawing out the best from your workforce or a stumbling block to truly accessible learning?
Join Nigel Cassidy, live from the CIPD Festival of Work 2022, and this month’s guests – Susi Miller, eLearning Accessibility Expert and Author of Designing Accessible Learning Content; Giorgia Gamba-Quilliam, Digital Learning Content Manager at CIPD – as we unpack how your organisation can make learning content accessible for all learners and ensure everyone has the opportunity to engage with learning without barriers.
View the full podcast transcript
Nigel Cassidy: I’m Nigel Cassidy, and welcome to a slightly different episode of the CIPD Podcast. Last week the CIPD hosted it’s Festival of Work at London Olympia. It was a two day conference bringing together thousands of people, professionals and business leaders to discuss the new world of work. For one of the sessions, I took to the stage to interview two special guests, the CIPD’s own Digital Learning Portfolio Manager, Giorgia Gamba-Quilliam and Susi Miller, author of Designing Accessible Learning Content. Our conversation focused on learning, whether a one size fits all approach to learning is feasible, and the practicalities of designing adaptable, inclusive and vitally accessible learning experiences. In this episode, you’ll get a chance to hear that conversation in full, or if you were at the festival, to hear it again. I hope you enjoy it.
Well on behalf of the whole podcast team, fantastic to see so many of you joining us for this session. Really, this is all about whether you can box clever and design for everybody. Does one size really fit all when it comes to your learning and communication? And of course, we all know the reasons why this is incredibly important. One in five of the working population say they have a physical or psychological disability which may impede how they use materials, and I, I know there’s a great desire in the whole HR community to do better with our digital communication. So our digital learning is failing in some areas, this session we hope will be incredibly practical in showing how it can be put right, how to fix it.
Well welcome to the stage here at Olympia, alongside me the CIPD’s own award winning Digital Learning Portfolio Manager, she’s created content for high profile clients from the Liberal Democrats to the Red Cross, and she was on the team that launched the CIPD’s own online platform Learning Hub, it’s Giorgia Gamba-Quilliam, hello.
Giorgia Gamba-Quilliam: Hi everyone.
NC: It’s brilliant to be out isn’t it instead of working from home?
GGQ: It is, I know, all these real people.
NC: And we are both delighted to hear from a feted specialist in this field, she’s author of the book, Designing Accessible Learning Content, which I know is on sale at the CIPD stand over there. A passionate advocate for digital accessibility, the founder and director of eLaHub, Susi Miller. So Susi, before get onto designing or redesigning, I was struck by how you make a distinction between accessibility and inclusivity. Because basically both terms are used and exchanges aren’t they? Most people know they can follow all the guidelines that are out there to make their material, their online learning accessible. But does that mean that it’s inclusive?
Susi Miller: I think starting from accessibility is a great place to start, because I think a lot of us aren’t, haven’t actually started understanding what accessibility means and how to make our content accessible. So basically, I think accessibility quite often is seen as meeting the particular web content accessibility guidelines or standards. However I think it is possible to create a piece of learning which does tick all of the boxes, but it still isn’t a great piece of learning, and for me that’s where the, this idea of inclusivity comes in. If it’s an inclusive experience, it’s a welcoming, positive experience for everybody. So it’s a good piece of learning which doesn’t exclude anyone at all. So I think we were, as well as being accessible for everybody, making sure that there are no barriers which exclude anyone with any type of access needs, so it could be vision, hearing, motor or cognitive as we’ve discussed. It actually is, as I say, it’s a great piece of learning experience. So it’s as equally good for someone who is using assistive technology as it is for someone who isn’t using assistive technology. And it also, it’s also, the language that’s used is inclusive, the imagery that’s used is inclusive. So it’s altogether a welcoming inclusive experience for everybody.
NC: I’ve heard you give a great example about a restaurant …
SM: Yeah, so an example from one of the contributors that did a case study for my book, and she’s recently released a video which explains the difference between accessibility and inclusion. And the example that she, that really struck me was the idea of a group of people going to a restaurant with someone who uses a wheelchair. And although the restaurant was accessible, in the video, all of the people who aren’t using a wheelchair are, went into the main entrance and had their lovely welcoming experience. The wheelchair user was taken around the back of the restaurant, you know, dark alley, dustbins, people smoking, then through the kitchens, then past the toilets and then joined her friends. And for me, that was just kind of a lightbulb moment. Yes, it was an accessible experience, but it wasn’t an inclusive experience. And then I suddenly thought, my goodness, that applies to learning as well, we can make learning accessible, we can tick all of the boxes, but what we really need to be, in an ideal world doing, is making it inclusive for everybody.
NC: Giorgia, what’s your take on the difference between these two?
GGQ: Yeah, absolutely. Like, am I very loud? I am, OK. Like Susi just said, it’s --
NC: If in doubt, just plough on, that’s what they told me.
GGQ: OK, like Susi just said, it’s also about thinking about what images and languages we use. So for example, if you don’t see yourself represented in any of the images, if everybody in every image that you have is, I don’t know, white for example, if you’re not white then you wouldn’t feel as included in there. If you don’t see yourself represented then you don’t feel so engaged. So I think that’s also something to think about which makes, it goes beyond the accessibility requirement of having the whole text on the image. And same for the language, especially if you’re going to produce global content like we do at CIPD, you want a language that is simple, not simplistic but simple so that it’s easy for everybody to comprehend, no matter their background and their first language of whatever it might be. So there’s a lot to think about when you want to go yeah, beyond accessibility requirement to really inclusive learning.
NC: OK, so going a bit more into the detail now, it’s such a big topic, and if you look online at guidelines, I mean they run to hundreds and hundreds of pages. So how do you start Susi in looking through your content and reimagining it so that it’s useful for everybody without oversimplifying it or just cutting whole things out?
SM: So I think understanding it and breaking it down, I think it does, when you, when you start tackling accessibility, I think one of, that is one of the major reasons that so many people just look at accessibility and think it’s just too difficult, you know that it’s, it is such a huge area and so there’s so many different standards. So for me it is a question of coming up with a strategy and a way of accessing that. So for me, that’s part of the reason that I wrote the book, because I just felt as a learning designer myself, I needed something that simplified it and allowed me to actually make it more accessible for me really. So --
NC: And you’ve come out with some headings for people haven’t you?
SM: Yes, so the access needs you mean?
SM: Yeah, so either, for me it’s like a, it could be a contextual framework as I came up with in the book, or for, for a lot of people, if you’re trying to make, understand it yourself or trying to explain it to other people, then breaking it down into different access needs. So maybe thinking of vision access needs, hearing access needs, cognitive and motor access needs. And really understanding what you need to do for each of those categories, those lenses of access needs is a great place to start.
NC: I just wondered if we could just ask our audience maybe, just on a show of hands, how many of you have either been tasked with making some improvements and been just not sure where to go next. I mean is this a problem? Interesting yes, about a dozen hands have gone up.
GGQ: It’s great to see.
NC: So this is a familiar problem.
GGQ: It is, yeah definitely.
GGQ: And I think to address it, it’s really important to have the right people on the team. So our work as a content manager, so content is my expertise, but I couldn’t really come out with an end result of a learning product that is really accessible and inclusive without the other members on my team, including instruction and designers. And people who really understand how to translate this into digital product that is accessible. So it’s really important to have the right skills on the team. And our own research at CIPD has shown that actually, although investment in L&D has not gone down with the pandemic, the, the roles that have been hired or maintained on the teams are not necessarily all the roles that a team needs to be able to create this. It’s a bit, it can be complex, but it can be done much better by professionals.
NC: Now Susi Miller, I was in on a workshop you did before this podcast, and I’m just picking on one example here. You got a little exercise going and you showed how drag and drop is a very difficult thing, and you devised something in some of your own work to overcome this so that people could match things without physically moving them. But I could imagine a lot of senior managers for example, who are not familiar with making things more accessible. They might say, look, you’re restricting me, you’re telling me I can’t do drag and drop, say I can’t use audio because somebody might not be able to hear it. Or you might, in other words, how do you convince people that they can actually say what they want to, that they’re not either patronising people or, at the other extreme, not providing materials that do the job?
SM: So I think accessibility still is, in our particular industry, accessibility is interestingly kind of labelled as something that limits you. And obviously if you’re passionate about accessibility like a lot of people are, then the more you find out about it, then the more you realise actually, if you make something accessible, it does become a better learning experience. If you’re designing for everybody then it makes you think empathetically, it makes you think actually it’s beneficial to people who have access needs for me to include captions and to include a transcript. But it’s also beneficial for so many other people, so many other learners. So for me, accessibility adds to the learning rather than takes away. So I think when you’re, when you were saying about, does it make it simplistic? So even just looking at plain language, sometimes people think, well you know, if, if I make the language plain, it’s dumbing it down. And actually I think, the research is that everybody benefits from plain English, as you were saying before --
SM: A plain language. So it’s the way that we read online, we skim and scan, so it’s a different way of accessing content. So making it, simplifying it and saying things more, in fewer words is better for everybody.
GGQ: Yeah. I totally agree, because it encourages creativity rather than taking away, like you were saying.
GGQ: I was just working recently with actually in, an instructional designer and developer, and I was saying, I was explaining how I want to get something across in a course. And they said, oh the platform can’t do this, but that, rather the conversation finishing there, it just encouraged him to think out of the box and come up with different solutions that they wouldn’t maybe have thought about straight away. So yeah, it definitely encourages creativity and thinking out of the box.
SM: When you compare what’s happening in the learning and development sphere, and you compare that to advances in technology. In our, say for example, in the gamification industry, we’ve got games that are incredible accessible, that are doing incredible things, and yet we’re still talking about drag and drops. You know, we’ve got games where, haptic technology, we’ve got, you can literally, the most accessible games are out there. And yet in our industry, we seem to be so far behind, we have the, as I say, the fact that accessibility limits rather than innovates and makes people think out of the box. So I think we need to change as an industry, and the tools also need to improve so that you have accessible versions of things which must be, I know some tools are really now pushing accessibility so that it’s getting better.
NC: Giorgia, you have a pretty good overview of the CIPD and what organisations are doing or trying to do. So can you give any advice on how you’ll make a start? We saw from the show of hands from the audience, people do find this difficult. So do you have to assemble a team, do you need outside consultants necessarily?
GGQ: Yeah, there’s no one way to do it that is right. It depends very much of your, the size of your organisation, the context you work in. But certainly relying on the right expertise for the job is, is a good place to start. Now that might mean hiring someone or it might mean using a consultant, that is really very much dependent on the context. But certainly not expecting that anyone with an L&D role, any kind of L&D role must know everything about all of this, because, yeah, it’s impossible basically.
NC: So Susi, talk us through the practicalities of bringing a new design. Clearly you’ve a lot of experience of doing this, you know the right people to talk to. But how would you make a start in an organisation?
SM: Quite often it starts, the seed quite often starts with a person in an L&D role, it certainly was the case in mine that I just, there are people who are creating content who are feeling it’s not, this is not right that I do not know how to make it accessible. I want my content to be accessible for everybody, and that’s the germ. And then for it, for me to be successful, it needs to have that leadership support, it needs to, but very often it starts at grass roots level. And there’s, there is nothing wrong with that at all, for me that’s the power behind accessibility, and that’s really why I wrote the book was because I felt, I found it so difficult that there were so many times that I nearly gave up. But I thought, OK, all of the work that I’m doing, I want to share. So I, I think that it’s got the power of, of someone really passionate, can at least go and understand it from that point of, not that I’m trying to promote the book, but I, it’s just, it’s just where I started.
NC: I was about to say other books are available, but I’m not sure whether they are on this exact subject.
SM: I don’t think they are at the moment, but they may be soon. But the most important thing, for it to be, become embedded in an organisation is that it doesn’t stop at that grass roots level, and that it --
GGQ: Yeah, I totally agree. I think not everybody maybe can do the technical side of it, and you do need the right professions for that. But everybody can be an advocate of it and really make the case for it and talk to their colleagues and the leadership and say, well we, as an organisation we don’t want to accept that we create something that is not accessible.
NC: Is there an element of needing sometimes to convince senior managers that these are changes for the better? Because I can imagine somebody saying, look, our materials are readily understood by 80%, by all the people in this business area, why should we compromise in design for the 20% who have difficulties? How do you argue that one size fits all wherever possible it is just so much better?
GGQ: Well it’s not about compromising, like we, both Susi and I were saying, it’s about making something better for everybody. So it’s really not writing for the 20% or creating for the 20% but for the 100%. And yeah, maybe the 80% might be able to access what we do. But really, do we have any hard evidence of that either? Because a lot of disabilities are hidden, a lot of people don’t want to share their own disabilities. So we’re making huge assumptions about the number of people who can access what we’re producing. So if we make the most possible accessible thing, then that’s when we reach the --
NC: Can you not find out about that? How do you know that your materials aren’t hitting the spot? That people are, are just having difficulties every time they run a programme or something?
GGQ: Yeah of course, you can find out by asking your own people through surveys, through a HR system by collecting internal data. But I’m not sure that that many people do it. But even if you do do it, some people might not want to disclose some information about themselves. So it’s better to have something that is for everybody rather than assuming that people can access it.
NC: You’re saying it’s better to have something for everybody?
SM: Can I add to that as well then?
SM: We also, we are also accommodating people who have, so you’re talking about people with permanent access needs. But the huge, you know, if you, if you think about people who have temporary and situational access needs, if you think about the ageing population, if you think about people who are not happy, you know, are not comfortable disclosing a disability, but also people who are not, have not a diagnosed disability. So for me, for many years I suspected that I was dyslexic, but a lot of people have got neurodiversity or neurodivergent traits and haven’t been diagnosed with them. So, but those are, and that for me, the, that whole neurodivergent, the neurodiversity angle is, is really, really important.
GGQ: Yeah, it’s also about easiness of access isn’t it? For example, if you’re looking at a video and you haven’t got any physical impediments to be able to see it, but you’re in a public space, you’re in a noisy space or on a bus, you don’t want to listen to it, you want to be able to read captions or read a transcript. So some, yeah, that’s why I’m saying something that’s more accessible makes life easier for everybody, even if it, physically you don’t have any issues accessing that content.
NC: We talked a lot about accessibility, what about the other areas that are becoming more important. Are, is there a sense that it actually, for an organisation that wants to do the right thing, there’s more stuff that people should be considering, which isn’t even necessarily part of their kind of formal agenda if you like?
GGQ: Yeah, it’s not just a question of accessibility. Obviously we talked a lot about digital accessibility, but there are a lot of considerations to do for also when people can access content. So in that respect, it’s just the content can open up accessibility to a lot of people who couldn’t potentially travel to a place to access learning or access at specific times, if it’s self learning, obviously digital learning can be also delivered in real time. But if it’s there accessible at all time in the floor work when you need it, where you need it, it opens up to a lot of people who might not be able to, for care and responsibility because of the nature of the job. Or even because they’re career transitioning, they don’t want to tell their current employer that they’re learning something different. So there is a variety, an infinite variety of people and reasons why we access content and training that makes it worthwhile to have it as flexible as possible.
NC: Susi, how scary are all the official guidelines if you like online? I mean there’s, you, again at you workshop you were demonstrating there’s applications you can do to check your colour contrast, there is massive, long documents about language. People might find this task, as we were saying earlier, a bit scary.
SM: So I think it’s the driver really behind trying to decide what your strategy is. So I think if your organisation for example is a public sector body, then you need to be more aware of the guidelines. Because you have a legal duty under the public sector body’s accessibility regulations to be making your content accessible to the web content accessibility guidelines. Very, Version 2.1 Level A and AA, so that gives you a very clear framework. Under the Equality Act, every organisation has an anticipatory duty to make their content, to provide reasonable adjustments. And from the point of view of what that means for digital content, then the underpinning best practice are those guidelines, that was really I think cemented in, into law by the public sector bodies. And even organisations who aren’t public sector bodies for best practice should be meeting those international guidelines. From a pragmatic point of view, it is difficult, particularly in learning content, to always meet every single guideline. And my best piece of advice really that I give to clients is, one of the requirements actually of the public sector bodies is that you provide an accessibility statement. Now that is, as I say, a legal requirement. But for me, as a learning designer and developer, it is such a beneficial thing to provide to my learners, and to also allow me to basically address any constraints. So not all, not everything that I want to do or am able to do as a learning designed and developer may fit. So sometimes I might have constraints because my organisation needs me, or I’m working with clients who want a particular thing. But if I have the option of having an accessibility statement, I can tell learners up front that this is, within this learning, it meets the majority of the requirements, however, for a particular reason, I may not be able to meet everything. So for me, what’s happened in the past is because, as you say, it can seem so scary that people just, they kind of want to bury their heads in the sand and they don’t feel confident. For me this idea of having an accessibility statement is a really beneficial way of helping learners, and also allowing you to acknowledge that there are constraints, it's not possible always to meet every single one of the requirements.
GGQ: Yeah, that’s such a good point. Obviously don’t make perfect be the enemy of good. So if you can make some improvements, it’s better than doing nothing. And sometimes I feel, if you feel overwhelmed by the, all these regulations, you might just want to give up altogether. But it’s still better to take baby steps and do something rather than just not attempting any improvement at all.
SM: So there’s one phrase that’s actually going on on social media at the moment about accessibility which is progress over perfection. And I love that, because I really think if you accept it isn’t always possible to make everything 100% compliant, but you just, as you said, your baby steps, you’re just making a bit of progress. It has a huge, huge impact on people and we don’t --
NC: And indeed the people in this room have that responsibility, I can see people writing that down as you said it. We’re almost coming to the end, we have got time for a few questions. Who would like to ask a question. One at the front here.
Audience 1: Thank you. My question is relating to the fact that with the pandemic and us becoming very, very digital, some companies and public sector as you mentioned Susi, they’ve, it’s light years in how we’ve developed and adopted technology. But we have very diverse needs, just if you point to the generations we have in the workforce. So how can we confidently say that we need help? We need to, the support to even access some of this learning and development. Or just being able to use anything to be effective, so --
NC: And when you say we need help, you mean the L&D community or …
A1: The collective, oh yeah the L&D but even, L&D community is there to help our staff so for everyone. So yeah.
NC: Sure, and of course, so many things have just grown like topsy haven’t they during the pandemic? We’ve got all this hybrid working, rather kind of mixed solutions, some very successful, some not.
GGQ: Yes, I mean what, what’s been out there has been a mix, hit and miss sometimes. But I think it’s important to develop ourselves of course as L&D professionals. There’s been loads of research in the past years that shows we’re the last one to look after ourselves. But yeah, we cannot be expected to improve and to learn more and to do better without our own developments put in place as well. So I think there’s a really good case to be made for L&D people to also be developed and keep developing. And also role modelling in that way, after all we’re asking everybody else to do it, so we need to do it ourselves as well.
NC: And maybe Susi more intelligent conversations with users?
SM: Yeah, so, in what way?
NC: Well in the sense that, I mean the question from the floor suggested that solutions are lacking sometimes.
NC: And you wonder, how would anybody know even?
NC: They need to talk to the people who are using the training and systems.
SM: Yeah, definitely yes. And for me I think that the one, the huge benefit really of what happened when everything suddenly went digital, for me there was a real strong feeling of empathy because everybody was in the same situation. And for me, from an accessibility point of view, that was where the temporary and the situational kind of aspect really came to life. People understood how difficult it was to be working in an environment where you were home schooling children and you maybe didn’t have the, you had old computer equipment, you didn’t have the right you know? So that was, that’s that bit I hope we don’t lose, because we really did understand and we could empathise with what other people were going through in that situation. And I think to carry that learning on and to really feed it into everything we do is a key learning for me.
NC: Another question here.
Audience 2: Susi you, from what you were saying, it sounds like the ideal thing to do when you’re creating digital learning or other forms of learning resources or programmes, it’s the building that inclusive experience for everyone from the start.
A2: But in a world of finite resources and time and everything else, what are some quick wins or tips that you might point us to where we can adapt existing learning even if it might be a bit outdated?
SM: So I think a really good starting point is to, is to have a strategy before you begin. So I think there’s, in an ideal world I would say, if you think accessibly at the beginning rather than shoe horning it in at the end, and that’s the issue that we have quite a lot. Because we, our mindset is we get to the end of the project and we think, oh, it’s got to be accessible. And then, then it’s, as you say, and a lot of people have a lot of legacy content that does need to be, that needs to be remediated. So I think there’s two different strategies. I think with new content, it is understanding more about accessibility and building it in upfront. And that really does, if you, if your whole design process is inclusive, it really does, you know as the saying that, accessibility isn’t more work, you were just cutting corners before, you were just, you weren’t doing it properly kind of thing. But if, a lot of us in the situation where we have got existing work, then I think there’s a strategy. So my, the, my best piece of advice is to first of all look at that body of work and decide, prioritise what is upfront that you need to look at. And then maybe come up with 20 things that you can do easily. So it is things like adding, making sure that you’ve got captions, it’s that colour content, it’s the language, it’s that you haven’t got things, the moving content. So there’s a whole, a whole load of tips, I’ve got some leaflets actually that I’ll hand out that have got 20 tips in them, that for me is my starting point.
SM: And also you can access that online for --
NC: Brilliant, and I’m sure those could be made available --
SM: Yes they will, yeah.
NC: For people who are listening to the podcast. One more quick comment or question from the floor, woman in the front.
Audience 3: Hi I’m interested about the skill set, you were talking about having the right team around you, what would you say are the key skills that people need to have to be able to design content to meet accessibility and inclusivity?
NC: Yeah, good question, not everybody can do this can they?
GGQ: Well I guess everybody could do it if they want to learn about it. But not everybody might want to do that. It’s a long training to learn, but yeah, it, it’s more about the mixture of the team members that you have. So I would definitely an instructional designer and a developer or learning technologist if you, we’re talking about digital learning. Because yeah, they translate --
NC: That’s quite a formal way of looking at it --
GGQ: It is yeah, I’m --
NC: I wonder whether the questioner meant what kind of soft skills, who’s good at creating --
NC: Great content that works for everybody?
GGQ: Yeah well you have to know about, at least a little bit about learning, which I guess you would know if you work in L&D. The principles actually about how people learn are not different from how they learn face to face or digitally. So things like not overloading the amount of content for example, or presenting it in a clear flow following the logical flow that makes sense. And building on information, building on what people know already. All these kind of principles make good learning, they also make good online learning. So I think as a L&D professional, a lot of us know these things already, but then when we come to translate it online, there are additional considerations to be made. And that’s when, if we can, it’s good to rely on other professionals as well. But if we start from the principles and the things that we already know, we’re half way there already.
SM: I think from the accessibility point of view, if you have the, the advantage of having someone who has a lived experience of a disability is phenomenal. And I think that we quite often, because a lot of people in an organisation sometimes, they don’t feel comfortable saying that they have got, for example, particularly with neurodiversity. So quite often I find that people I’m working with in L&D, I don’t know whether it’s because of empathy or that they may, they have that experience. My own experience of working for example with a screen reader user who’s blind and has had, been using it for years, who also has an L&D background is absolutely phenomenal. Because she gives me the perspective, not, of not only does it tick the boxes but whether it’s a good user experience for her. And if, and coming back to the idea of inclusive learning, if I come up with a piece of learning that she says, it works with a screen reader her, only obviously one aspect, but if it works with a, her assisted technology, but it’s a good piece of learning, for me that’s the accolade. That is what tells me it’s a piece of inclusive learning, not just an accessible piece of learning.
GGQ: Yeah, I think if you create content for people that you know, learning content for people that you know and you can ask, that’s definitely always a great starting point. Sometimes you create pieces of learning that you don’t know who going to actually utilise and access, and that’s a bit more challenging maybe. But certainly, if you create for your own employees for example, colleagues, then definitely start by asking what works for them.
NC: So test it out on people. Well we’ve had some fantastic answers from both of you, so thank you very much. And thank, thanks to everybody who’s attended this session. If this is your first taste of the CIPD podcast, then please have a look at our recent back catalogue on the CIPD website. There’s a lot of good programmes there and many more good ones to come I can tell you, in the next few months. So until next time, from me, Nigel Cassidy, and all of us at the CIPD Festival of Work here, it’s goodbye.