Corporate learning has seen some major shifts throughout time.
From apprenticeships centuries ago, to Henry Ford’s “Sociological Department,” to the introduction of Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations (PLATO) and computer-based learning in the 1960s, training the next generation of workers has been refined into a more than $220 billion industry that nowadays uses mobile apps, games, social media, and virtual reality.
As technology has evolved along with learning, tools have emerged to help individuals who may not fit the standard corporate mold to take part in corporate training. Assistive technologies such as text-to-speech, screen magnifiers, closed captioning, and data tagging images provide alternatives to those with low vision or a hearing impairment when on-screen courses don’t work for them.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Section 508 was passed then updated by the US federal government, enshrining a set of guidelines that all government agencies and any organization working with federal grant money are obligated by law to follow. Other countries have adopted similar legislation, and a series of voluntary guidelines have been published by third party organizations, including the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
Awareness of accessibility in corporate learning technology continues to increase. Large corporations like McDonald’s and Accenture have put major dollars behind accessible technology to improve the learning and development experience for all workers. E-learning authoring tools include various options to help employees build accessible content more easily. There is even a global accessibility awareness day. This is great news for the 1 billion people worldwide with disabilities that may prevent them from fully participating in digital training programs.
But are we doing enough? Currently, only 1 to 2 percent of all websites fully meet accessibility guidelines. Many e-learning courses only meet the bare minimum requirements of accessibility, and sometimes organizations opt to give those with a disability a separate learning experience. As an industry, there is more we can do to make workplace learning an equitable experience for everyone.
Why Does It Matter?Population declines and the changing face of work are pushing the global workforce toward a historic talent shortage. As competition for workers increases, employers are turning to learning and development programs to help upskill individuals and fill in the gaps.
Giving workers opportunities for learning and development improves work performance, increases loyalty and engagement, and increases profits. It is in everyone’s best interest if those programs are usable by as many people as possible. The more accessible the learning content, the greater the talent pool will be.
It is true that governments mandate varying degrees of accessibility, but corporations that prioritize accessible learning and push the boundaries of what is possible will have an immense advantage over businesses that merely follow a checklist.
Modern Tools for Modern WorkersSection 508 was recently updated to adopt WCAG accessibility guidelines, a move praised by accessibility advocates as a step toward making content usable by many more people with disabilities. The previous set of Section 508 technical standards, which were published in 2000, was outdated. It left accessibility gaps and didn’t reflect our current technology and how we use the web today.
Today’s accessibility standards benefit all learners—even those without disabilities.
Accessible tools allow a worker sitting in a crowded, public space to read captions instead of play audio on their mobile phone or help non-native speakers internalize concepts through reading a transcript at a slower pace. Accessibility is all about granting access to more people in more varied ways. Coming up with better solutions opens doors to those who may not share their struggles publicly.
Plan for AccessibilityInstructional designers, HR managers, and C-suite executives need to come together and decide that accessibility is an organizational priority. The standards will only get stricter and more detailed as time goes by, and failing to plan for accessibility now will only result in more lengthy and expensive fixes in the future.
The WCAG rules were developed for websites. Following these guidelines is a great place to start, but e-learning has its own set of tools and uses that, while similar to websites, is not the same. As an industry, we must come together to find common standards, tools, and processes that drive inclusivity and accessibility.
For the individual instructional designer, start by educating your team about accessibility, focusing on strong instructional design, and having a set of tools, templates, and processes set up to support building accessible learning from the start, instead of adding it later as an extra function.
First, you need to understand what the WCAG and other accessibility mandates are asking for.
If something doesn’t make sense, reach out to a mentor or an accessibility advocacy group and talk things through. Understanding the reasons behind accessibility can heavily influence how accessible content is made. A better understanding will always lead to a better product.
Next, focus on the learning objectives. What kind of behavior are you trying to guide and support?
Consider whether a drag-and-drop interaction is the activity you need to stimulate knowledge transfer and retention. Often, there’s an alternative exercise you can build that won’t exclude learners but covers the content just as well. If your learning requires behaviors outside of accessibility, such as a simulated behind-the-wheel driver training, have them be add-ons.
Building for accessibility at the beginning of the process instead of adding options at the end is the only way to create successful, accessible corporate e-learning programs.
ConclusionDespite the many in-roads that accessible content has made in corporate learning, we have a long way to go to make training programs truly accessible for everyone.
Organizations should start by using the best tools available to build accessible learning. The investment in better tools will pay off by saving time on development and producing a better product. By bringing accessibility into the forefront of training programs, by building and using tools that allow for everyone to engage with them, and by educating our employees on what each of them can do to help, organizations can broaden and deepen their workforce to include a huge section of the population with so much to offer.
Accessibility is more than just adopting new software or checking off boxes. It needs to be a full mindset. Accessibility is an issue that affects the entire way the world economy runs. We can do better. Education, better tools, and a restructuring of corporations to give those who need access to accessible learning opportunities a seat at the table when it comes to planning training programs are just the start of what can help turn the tide.
As an industry, we should be innovating learning solutions that are accessible, engaging, and enriching. Think about the amazing technology we could invent if accessibility was considered first instead of last. It’s time for another major shift in corporate learning—this time to create a more equitable world.