This blog post is a work in progress: a public sharing of notes mid-flow, and as such, might not follow its own advice just yet! It also assumes some basic working knowledge of Google Classroom.

As many of us move to online learning, I’ve found most of the advice focussing on the live aspects of video calling. Here are some tips you might find useful for operating a virtual classroom — more specifically, a Google Classroom. As powerful as they can be, these platforms often lose the kind of adaptability we are accustomed to with plain HTML, WordPress, or other similar environments (you can learn more at the Web Accessibility Initiative, A11y Project, and UK Association for Accessible Formats websites).

This blog post is a response to a challenge from Robyn Steward, who runs the inclusive conscious Robyn’s Rocket at Cafe Oto and elsewhere. In one of our regular conversations about access, and looking back on one of own my classes she had attended, Robyn fed back: “Google Classrooms just look like they work well for people that like a lot of text”..not just for learners, but for teachers and facilitators as well.. and this stopped me in my tracks.

I have to say, over the last few years developing in these environments, for some reason I hadn’t really questioned the format; instead, I’d purely been looking at the content to which it was a gateway, where I had more control over the accessibility considerations. The classrooms had been working well, but who had I been excluding without realising it?

As I adapted courses for Progress at City Lit and our online Blurring the Boundaries / activities this month, I wanted to take on the challenge of creating as much visually supportive and screen-reader compatible content as I could. I wanted to consider the aesthetics of access amongst all of this: how does the accessibility influence the content in a positive way, rather than “getting in the way”?

Here are some ideas I’ve picked up along the way. In this context I’ve mostly developed these on my own, with feedback through the classroom situations, and so many of the access considerations are still speculative. More broadly, I’ve also drawn upon the web guidelines that Drake Music provided when I was blogging for them more often. The next steps will involve more direct interaction and collaboration for really meaningful results.

I’d love to hear what you think, particularly if you rely on any of these access points on a daily basis Charles

❓ What are the key issues?

These are the issues I’ve been able to identify so far:

  • Google Classroom restricts the use of colours and font variations, and also insertion of hidden characters or formatting that might help screen readers.
  • It is not possible to break up text with images within the classroom itself
  • Menu items on the learning materials pages need to be touched to reveal more information.
  • Links are available on posts with a small preview panel, but are restricted to the end of the document and difficult to edit afterwards.
  • Assignments rely on text-based forms.

In summary: as Robyn pointed out, without some adaptation, the learner experience is pushed into the realms of plain text.

πŸ‘ Easy read content

Easy read is a format intended to remove barriers to written information. Easy read documents often provide summaries of information in large fonts, alongside clear illustrations and/or symbols.

“Easy read”-style content for a recent online Teaching Musician session at Trinity Laban

The UK government provides guidelines for this here.

Many easy read sites present pictures on the left hand side, and text on the right. Continuity in this respect can be important.

Break up text with descriptive headings: consider how this affects the flow and what kind of practical information can be delivered.

✏️ Symbols

For the past year, I’ve been working on a set of symbols for music technology and sound art contexts, taking a lot of requests from the Hidden Sounds group. I’m trying to play with the aesthetic of the AAC symbols we usually find in SEN classrooms; so your mileage may vary:

Symbols created in conversation with Hidden Sounds students at City Lit.

These are free and open source, in contrast to more commonly found (but excellent) closed systems. They are generally compatible with Mulberry Symbols.

πŸ–Ό Alt text

I’m trying to consider conveying information to support the main text in my image descriptions, rather than simply describing the object. In practice, I’m still struggling to keep up with this layer of content and need to find the right habits or tools to make it work.

πŸ–₯ Creating a parallel Google Site

I find it useful to create a parallel set of pages in Google Sites, which lends itself somewhat more readily to the Easy Read format. Dragging images onto the page will often create a separate column, and it is relatively easy to arrange alt text.

If you’re concerned about access by the wider public, Google Sites can be password protected or lead back to the password protected content in the Google Classroom itself. It’s possible to take links from individual assignments within Classroom.

Shopping list in Google Sites from a City Lit contact microphone course

Be aware: you will be locked into a very specific interface, and unlike Docs, Classroom, and Slides, there is no mobile app for Google Sites.

Because of its inherent inflexibility (or rather, removing options to streamline the design experience), using Google Sites can create a lot of extra work! If you are like me, and prefer to generate your content automatically through your own templates, you will probably want to use your own system. If so, the pages can still be hosted through Google Drive.

πŸ“œ Coloured backgrounds

One of the key restrictions I found with Google Sites is the use of coloured backgrounds for emphasis: there are only two or three colours available, and none of these are the light shade of yellow I prefer for my own reading. I also like to use variations in colours to contrast sections in documents, in lieu of borders.

I’ve been able to work around this by creating a small .jpg of the desired colour, and inserting this as the background for each section.

πŸ“Ί Embedding content in sites

It’s possible to embed documents, slides, videos, forms, and even whole websites in the flow of a Google Site. But as far as I can tell, for some reason the option to display fullscreen video is disabled on mobile devices, which may cause issues with accessing subtitles.

πŸ“ Using Google Forms for assignments

This can be a good way to embed content and offer multiple-choice answers, but also brings a few more constraints on top of sites and classroom.

πŸ‘‰πŸ½ Emojis?

This seemed like the most obvious way to bring some visual life to your classroom pages: dot some emojis about in the headers!

In many cases, you’ll need to find a close approximation — certainly in my case, until contact microphones and musical saws are accepted into the Unicode standards. However, be aware of how this will affect the screenreader experience (more on this below).

πŸ“ƒ Screen reader access

I use screen readers on a daily basis for emails and longer documents, but I tend not to bother with websites.

You might find it useful to try punctuation in your headers — otherwise, the text can come across on the screenreader as a stream of upwards intonation. I’ve found that placing a full stop at the end of each header can avoid this, even if it looks a little unconventional.

Thinking this way has made me consider the more concrete functions of the header: the style guides I could find advise against using exclamation marks, but depending on the context, these could be useful. Should I ask more questions in my headers?

Emojis are great for bringing colour and clarity to headers, but bring with them some “alt text” descriptions that we can’t control. For example, I recently covered a course on contact microphones with a useful emoji I found through searching for “disc”: πŸ₯ .On a screenreader, this reads as “frisbee”, and will make little sense to the end user.

Consider how these additions can affect the flow of a screenreader. On a mac, you can find descriptions in the “character viewer” provided to place the emojis. If you don’t use a screenreader yourself in everyday life, try highlighting emojis/text to “speak”, and find out what the spoken equivalents are.

Some people recommend turning your screen off and attempting to navigate the website purely by screenreader. This can be useful, but it’s no substitute for asking for feedback from the end user (and employing that person if at all possible).

🧠 Moving forward

From a content creation perspective, don’t forget that access is not always easy. Yes, everything should be accessible to the most people possible, and suggesting that accessibility is expendable in the interest of getting courses online quickly is simply not acceptable. But we also run the risk of shaming people trying to keep up with restrictive technology and additional time pressures, many of whom are Disabled people ourselves.

I don’t have infinite time to work on new approaches as a result of lockdown, but I’m trying to approach this as a creative challenge. For me personally, in a time of wider flux, this is a good moment to reset my approaches and try to build these considerations in from the start — they’ll certainly be harder to go back and change later. I am appreciating how this situation is already changing the way I work, in similar ways that adapting technology and delivery in person have. But I feel like this will take a few iterations to really work.

Rather than setting myself impossible tasks at this stage, I’m trying to address the individual barriers to people with whom I’m trying to engage: abstracting the accessibility in dialogue, rather than attempting to impose my interpretation.

Further reading: