Philip: I’m speaking with Dr Scott Hollier, the digital accessibility director for Media Access Australia, and senior lecturer of Australia’s only university accredited online access course, The Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility, the PCWA, which is enrolling right now for the next course intake. Over 350 people have graduated from the course since it began in 2011. My first question, Scott, is have you noticed any increase or decrease in the number of students gaining a distinction or HD?
Scott: Yes, it’s been encouraging to see the way that students have really embraced the course and whilst the marks are always different from student to student, what we have noticed is that students consistently, once they start the course, find it really relevant and directly important to their roles. So generally we see a trend towards high marks and that’s because people understand the relevance when they’re in the course and ultimately strive to incorporate accessibility into their work practices.
Philip: In addition to the modules that you and the other course convenor teach and the assignments that you mark, how is the level of interaction and forum sharing between the students?
Scott: That’s a great question and it’s a really important point of the course and what separates this course from other online courses, myself and my co-lecturer, a big part of what we do isn’t just giving students a chance to read modules but it’s that level of engagement that really makes the course important. And the feedback we get is that interaction in the forums is as important, if not more important, than actually the materials that people read and the assignments they do.
We have three different forums in the course. We have a forum where people introduce themselves, we have a reflections forum where people can post about each weekly module, but really where the heart of the discussion happens is in our general discussion forum and there’s certainly a lot of posting by students and myself and the other lecturer. And ultimately we all learn from each other and it’s great that students can post things in a very safe environment where they can ask questions and ultimately get answers, not just from myself and the other lecturer but also from each other, because we have students from such a wide variety of places and backgrounds.
Philip: Actually that leads me to ask you, what types of people are taking the PCWA course?
Scott: There’s been a number of different students from a variety of countries, which has been really exciting. So quite often when students do the course, not only are they getting perspectives on roles but they’re also getting perspectives from different countries. Just recently we’ve had people from places such as Vietnam, Singapore, the US, Canada, Poland. So it’s got a great variety of people from different places but across roles there is really significant difference. We’ve had people from web development through to IT coding, we’ve got some content producers, people who are managing IT staff, so we have quite a variety of people coming to the course and it’s terrific that there are so many different skills, whether it is web design, whether it is more of a coding role, or if you’re just producing content and applying WCAG in that area. There’s quite opportunity to learn in this course.
Importantly though, the course is run in Australia so the majority of the students are Australian and it is fantastic that WCAG has such a strong prevalence in the global scale. So whilst we do cover a lot in terms of an Australian focus and looking at things like mass transition strategy and other government initiatives, it’s fantastic given that WCAG is the international standard, that we have people from all over the world and the course is directly relevant to them.
Philip: Scott, the course is constantly updated so that the latest information is taught. What are some of the components that are regularly updated so that the PCWA course remains right up-to-date with changes to policy and technology?
Scott: Importantly, as the W3C materials evolve we also evolve the course. Also if there’s certainly news or changes in technology we incorporate that directly. So for example, when we’ve seen evolution in accessibility features and mobiles and wearables we incorporate that into our assignments. When the W3C releases new standards, such as the authoring tool accessibility guidelines that were published last year, we immediately make sure that the new version of those is incorporated into the course. So we are constantly evaluating the material, constantly updating it and because of this students coming through the course can be assured that they are receiving the latest information. Another important part is that in those forums that we discussed earlier, any breaking news we immediately put into those forums. So it means that students can be confident that they are always getting the latest information and are able to effectively apply that to their work.
Philip: Terrific. What about former students? Are they kept up-to-date with the latest changes?
Scott: Well it’s important that anyone who’s come through the course continues to be kept informed because the course is a point in time. We want to make sure that as people continue to implement accessibility in their work practices that they’re kept up-to-date. So we do have two mechanisms to support our alumni. One is through a Linked-In forum where we discuss the topics. A lot of the topics that we looked at through the course we also have the ability to have that forum. That’s a closed forum, so only alumni can participate in that forum. We also have a regular newsletter that we send out, just updating any alumni since they’ve finished the course on some of those key changes in technologies and standards, so that again they’re able to be aware of that and continue their learning process.
Philip: Fantastic. What topic or technology do you get asked most about by students?
Scott: Certainly the course is grounded in WCAG2, so a lot of the content is around that. But what we’ve noticed recently is a lot of people are asking, “well how do I apply WCAG to apps and how do I apply it to documents?” And so we do look at that in terms of the applicability of apps and how WCAG can translate into an app testing context. We do also look at document testing and we look at things like PDFs and some of the issues around publishing those on websites. So the course is always evolving and expanding and it’s important, especially in this day and age where mobile accessibility plays such an important role, but people do understand how WCAG can apply to our emerging technology.
Philip: That’s great. Look, it’s online, it’s six weeks. What happens if, like many people, I’ve got a full time job? Can I still take the course?
Scott: That’s a great question and it’s something we do get asked a lot and the answer is absolutely yes. What we’ve done in terms of making the course online is to give people the flexibility to do the course as they need to. So the course is available 24/7 and all the modules are available from day one. So what that means is whether you have time during working hours to work on it, or whether you prefer to work on the course after working hours, or whether you might have a few busy days then a few quieter days, the course is very, very flexible. So whilst we generally ask students to spend a few hours a week working through each module, and there are three assignments, ultimately students can get that time wherever they can and then spend it on the course. So we try to get the best of online learning in that flexibility, plus the strong support from the lecturers, who are always lurking around.
Philip: That’s fantastic. And you, no doubt, have some more marking to do, so thank you for giving us your precious time, Dr Hollier.
Scott: Thank you.