Close up of a black laptop with computer coding language on the screen.

Creating accessible computer science courses

May 24, 2023
Author: Rachel Stern

Amber Thomas shares her experience

Everyone deserves equal access to education, yet barriers remain for some learners.

Amber Thomas ran into challenges when she wanted to take a computer science course at her university in Alberta. The accessibility tools available there would not work for her computer science course because it needed specialized tools. Amber is blind and uses a screen reader to complete her courses. 

Amber sought permission to take an equivalent transfer course online through VIU with Sarah Carruthers, a VIU Computer Science Professor. Amber knew Sarah, as she previously attended VIU before moving back to Alberta in 2018. In the past, Sarah made accommodations that worked for Amber in highly visual computer science courses. 

Amber says there was pushback from some students in the class because it meant extra work, but Sarah explained why it was important. 

“It’s important for people to realize that accessibility isn’t optional. She explained I’m in the course and I need to get as much out of it as my classmates. It’s not just on the professor to make the course successful, it’s on the students as well,” says Amber. “They have to make sure shared assignments are accessible for anyone who may have a disability whether that be vision loss or others.” 

Amber worked with classmates Liam Kaufman-Willis and Aaron Wang to create a bulletin board app people could post notes on. The app was fully accessible by screen readers. 

Sarah, Amber, Liam and Aaron co-wrote a paper on their experience and why it’s important to make university courses accessible. They outlined barriers to accessibility, considerations and lessons learned from the process. They presented the paper at the Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education conference held in March. The conference provides a global forum for educators to discuss research and practices related to learning, teaching, development and the implementation of computer courses.

Working together 

Many post-secondary institutions have resources to support and accommodate students with disabilities, but these may not work in specialized fields. Software development uses Unified Modelling Language (UML) and Computer Aided Software Engineering. These require a mouse to create and edit diagrams and they contain visual information that cannot be read by screen readers.  

“Since most people are sighted diagrams are the most helpful. No image is going to be accessible for a screen reader,” says Amber.

The challenge was finding such a diagram tool. Sarah found PlantUML which allows students to create diagrams from plain text language. This allowed Amber to participate in software development in the course.

“Text is really the only way for you to digitally be able to look at a diagram and know what it is,” says Amber. “I don’t refer to the actual diagram because the screen reader just says ‘image.’”

Sarah asked Aaron and Liam to be on Amber’s team to use PlantUML to create diagrams. Aaron says Sarah was “open and honest from the start” and explained the specific needs Amber has.

“To overcome challenges, we need to have an openness to new experiences and willingness to devote time and energy to adapt,” says Aaron, who graduated from VIU last year. “One of the things that was wise on Sarah’s part is she didn’t try to do all the adaptions on her own. She incorporated some of the people in the class like myself. We were all part of the process to some degree.”

Inclusive courses can lead to more diverse perspectives and ideas, which is invaluable to the creative process of iterative design. When Aaron and Liam had an issue with part of the programming, Amber often found solutions.

“Amber could figure it out or could help us figure out stuff that we couldn’t,” said Liam, a VIU Bachelor of Science student majoring in Computer Science.  

Aaron and Liam found it easier to track changes using PlantUML than traditional methods.

Accessibility from the start

Amber says the key to making courses accessible is designing them with accessibility in mind from the start. This means having digital copies of everything.

“It’s about thinking about it from the very beginning while you’re constructing these courses. It’s not an afterthought. This needs to be part of your initial planning and design of the course to make it truly accessible,” she says. 

There is still a lot of work to be done. 

“In a lot of ways, the visually impaired community is behind a lot of accessibility barriers. Just because visual technology still has far to go,” says Amber. “There are so many things for hearing impaired and wheelchair users because the technology has been developed, whereas vision is so complex. There isn’t a technology that will sit in class and read handwriting off a board in class and if there is it isn’t completely accurate because handwriting is so different from person to person.”

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