Monday, March 11, 2013

A Model for Accessible LMS Discussion Boards

A Model for Accessible LMS Discussion Boards

We have been testing and evaluating major learning management systems for several years, and while we continue to document significant improvement in many LMS components, we have noted little or no noticeable progress in the accessibility of the discussion board/forum, a tool which remains one of the most complicated and difficult for learners with disabilities to use effectively. In response, we decided to create a rough prototype of a more accessible discussion forum, one that draws on our experience and knowledge as accessibility and instructional technology/design specialists, and uses our collective understanding of how various LMS have approached this component.

Our discussion board model is an outgrowth of our long-range comparative accessibility testing and ongoing evaluation of four major learning management systems—Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Moodle, and SAKAI. Our suggested design attempts to provide solutions for many of the perennial, cumbersome accessibility/usability issues that affect LMS discussion forums, such as organizing and grouping forums, topics, threads, and messages so that all users, including assistive technology users, can easily identify a desired object/location, navigate to it, and interact effectively with it. Here are some of the key questions we considered:

  • What are the best ways to order lists of discussion topics?
  • What level of detail should be evident when the user first encounters a discussion board?
  • How should greater detail and specificity be progressively revealed as the user drills down to deeper threads?
  • What is an optimal amount of information for any given message and how does that message appear in the context of other messages so that the content and place within the overall discussion board or thread are clearly evident?
  • What HTML structures and what scripted interactivity provide a strong user experience without getting in the way of that experience?

We are not promising a drop-in solution, and we cannot claim to provide a perfect implementation. Instead, our presentation first examines how typical LMS discussion boards tend to work from an accessibility perspective. From that vantage point, we then offer design patterns and a rough prototype implementation for others to consider as a more accessible potential alternative. Our hope is that LMS vendors will borrow some of our ideas to improve their own systems’ discussion boards/forums.


I would like to thank and acknowledge the hard work of all my colleagues who helped me with this project; without their help I wouldn't have been able to design and deliver this new model for discussion board. An especial thank to Michael McKelvey who worked on the code until the last minutes of our presentation at CSUN Conference 2013.


  • Hadi Rangin, IT Accessibility & Collaboration coordinator, University of Illinois
  • Michael McKelvey, Coordinator of Engagement Technology & New Media, University of Illinois
  • Marc Thompson, Instructional Designer, University of Illinois
  • Dan Hahn, ELearning Professional, University of Illinois
  • Ken Petri, Program Director, The Ohio State University

Highlights of the Suggested Model

Note: This design is optimized for Firefox and Chrome. We have not worked on cross-browser compatibility yet.
Use NVDA with Firefox to test for screen reader accessibility; do not use Jaws.

  1. Full ARIA landmarks to provide semantic structure
    • Breadcrumbs [navigation landmark]
    • Forum Options [navigation landmark]
    • Search [search landmark]
    • Forum [navigation landmark]
    • Message [region landmark]
  2. ARIA menu for intuitive keyboard navigation in the menu
    • Display, Filter, and Manage menu
    • Enter or space to open the menu
    • Up and down arrow to scroll through the menu
    • Right arrow to open a sub-menu and left arrow to close a sub-menu
    • Enter to select an item in the menu
    • Escape to cancel interaction with the menu
    • Tab key to move from one top menu to another top menu
  3. Select box for selecting the desired forum
    • Up and Down arrow to scroll through the menu
    • Enter to select the desired Forum
    • Selecting a forum updates the Thread treeview
    • NOTE: select list keydown & change events must be modified so simply scrolling through menu does not update thread treeview.
  4. ARIA tree view to browse and select desired thread
    • Up and Down arrow to go through the threads/posts
    • Right arrow to open a thread
    • Left arrow to close a thread
    • Enter selects the desired thread/message and moves the focus to the beginning of the thread conversation shown in the message landmark
  5. HTML headings to structure thread depth
    • Heading levels 2-6 are used structure threads/messages
    • Each post has an ARIA action menu for applicable functions.
    • A Message Display Mode select box to filter threads/posts shown.
  6. Keyboard shortcuts
    • Shortcut key 1 to move to the Forum select box
    • Shortcut key 2 to move the focus to the threads treeview
    • F6 key to switch focus between landmark regions (not implemented)


Martin Dougiamas said...


I'm here looking for ways to improve the Moodle forums to make them more accessible.

My first impression of using the demo (as a sighted person with a mouse) is that I can't make any sense of it and it's really hard to navigate or see anything. So that feels a big step backwards at the moment.

Do you have any comments on that? Is there a way to make a threaded accessible for *everyone*?

Martin (from Moodle)

Mark Pearson said...

Following Martin's comment, I would dispute the implicit assertion that this Discussion Board in it's Demo form can be termed 'accessible'. Here's why. My understanding of the term 'accessible' in the context of a web based application such as this is that it means 'usable by sighted and non-sighted persons'. I would maintain that the User Interface breaks a couple of basic intuitive rules which makes it de facto not usable by sighted persons.
1) Every user interface that I have come across treats a + in a square box as being the operation to open a list of items below. Here it's merely a label that has no action functionality.
2) Opening a thread. The prompt "Please select a forum and thread to view in this pane" strongly suggests that clicking on the thread title in the left hand column will open up the whole thread. Instead, double-clicking this reveals the nest of thread titles but no contents. Clicking around does nothing. In fact, the only way that I could initially display the contents of a thread was to hit the [Enter] key. So, only usable with the keyboard and not accessible with the mouse. Most sighted users would not think about using the keyboard in this situation and would merely give up.

That said, I can see how this layout could be modified to fit the way that the discussion forum needs to work in the Moodle context, and as such it has potential.

Anonymous said...

While dealing with moodle for a long time I have realized that so far it is one of the best platform for learning management system where teachers and students can manage as well as discuss about their courses.

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