Open badges and accessibility

I recently attended a talk on the Open Badge Framework, by Grainne Hamilton, from the JISC Regional Support Centre Scotland. It got me thinking about the potential Open Badges has a way to allow people to reward sites for a high level of accessibility.

The post that follows is a direct copy of what I originally published on the University of Dundee’s eAccessibility blog. Have a read and let me know what you think.

What is the Open Badge Framework?

The Open Badge Framework, developed by Mozilla, is a technology to allow the creation of a reward system for recognising an individual’s skills. These skills are defined using an open, online description, and represented by a badge – a custom graphic. So if an individual earns a badge, they can display that badge on their web site, blog, portfolio etc; the badge serves a link to an online and public description of the level of attainment represented by the badge.

The open-ness of the system means that organisations have the freedom to:

  • identify and define a series of qualities they would like to reward, that could be represented by badges;
  • undertake the graphic design to create a suite of badges to represent these qualities;
  • define the process by which an individual can earn and display a badge.

At first glance, it reminded me of a more bespoke form of the badges you can earn as a Cub or a Scout. But clearly there are great opportunities from an education perspective to identify, in an open and reliable way, specific skills that a learner or teacher has attained or qualities they have demonstrated. There seem to be a number of organisations using Open Badges, and thus plenty of inspiration for how they could be issued and earned, in a way that is complementary to other more formal accreditation and qualification schemes.

Accrediting Digital Accessibility

So, as I listened to Grainne’s talk, I began to wonder whether Open Badges could help to solve an on-going issue relating to digital accessibility – namely a reliable way of sharing the level of accessibility of a digital resource, such as a web site. A few tweets I sent asking what work might already have been done in this area didn’t get a reaction, so I’m sharing these thoughts now, unsure how original they are…

Let’s assume that a reliable way of indicating the accessibility of a resource would be helpful to people with specific accessibility needs in understanding whether they are likely to be able to successfully and independently use the resource for its intended purpose.

The main flaw of existing ways to indicate accessibility is that they are typically declared by the resource providers, and may not provide enough reliable detail on what is accessible and to whom. They may be out of date and may not reflect the current state of the resource (a particular problem with web sites launched to a high level of accessibility, but as content is changed or added, new accessibility barriers are introduced). The damage that can be done by inappropriate use of accessibility logos has been discussed over the years in several research papers, so much so that they are rarely used now.

Standards like ISO/IEC 24751-1:2008 and, building on this, Access For All v 3.0, have pointed to a formal way of describing digital resource accessibility in a meaningful way that can be tailored to suit a specific learner’s profile, but this work has yet to have any real impact.

Inititatives like Fix the Web have attempted to open a communication channel between people experiencing accessibility barriers on a web site and site managers/developers – i.e. people who could do something about it. A site that has responded to a Fix the Web report could then potentially report this, but this relies on an unbroken communication chain – which includes triaging by web accessibility specialists reviewing and passing on reports – and action having been taken.

So – could the Open Badges Framework be appropriated for describing accessibility? Could we create a system that allows disabled people to award badges to sites that, in their experience, have allowed them to successfully complete tasks without undue effort? Such a system would need to:

  • define badges for different types of accessibility qualities, in the form of “the site can be used by [person with specific accessibility needs] to successfully complete [defined goal]“;
  • offer a way for which people who use assistive technology to award a site with a sufficient level of usability with an appropriate badge;
  • enable people who need or want to know about a site’s accessibility to know that it has earned  the badge.

Sites that have been validated by more than one person with a similar set of accessibility needs could advertise this by sharing a badge count (in a similar way to Facebook likes or eBay seller stars).

The great advantage of this approach is that it is the people who experience barriers (or not) who are validating the site, based on real experiences, rather than third parties who are doing so on their behalf. Clearly, this could give a particularly valuable level of credibility to the system.

Of course there are a number of challenges or limitations to this idea, including:

  • identifying an organisation or group of people who could administer the system;
  • choosing a meaningful set of badges, given the diversity of assistive technologies and experience of using them, the diversity amongst people with similar accessibility needs, and the diversity of reasons for using a given web site;
  • an approval system that would allow individuals to be granted the authority to award badges to sites;
  • persuading sites that have been awarded badges to display them. Individuals can store badges in their backpack, but can this work for web sites? (A second best could be a separate site listing sites that have earned badges).

I’m not sure if this is a workable way forward, but writing about it at least allows others to comment! What do you think?


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