Firm makes e-learning accessible

A half million federal employees already take courses online, learning how to manage projects and people, even how to write effective e-mails. Now a major e-learning company has made its courses Section 508 compliant, opening online education up for thousands of federal workers with disabilities.

SkillSoft Corp. said 373 of its business skills courses now are compatible with assistive technology, meaning they can be taken by people who are blind, deaf or have other disabilities.

The company's courses are offered by dozens of federal agencies, ranging from the Navy to the Labor Department to the CIA, said Vince Penkala, SkillSoft's federal business development manager.

The courses, which average about two-and-a-half hours long, are designed to teach skills that will enable workers to advance in their jobs, Penkala said. Typically, government workers take the courses at work in half-hour segments or at home using their personal computers. But until recently, the courses were not accessible by government employees who rely on screen readers and other assistive technology.

"E-learning has the mystique of being an enterprisewide solution, but if 20 percent of your employees can't get access, that's hardly enterprisewide," Penkala said. Health surveys indicate that about 20 percent of the population has some sort of physical disability.

In the federal government, where the average age of employees is in the upper 40s, the percentage of workers with disabilities may be higher than 20 percent, he said.

E-learning is growing in popularity with federal agencies. The Navy, for example, is preparing to make online education available on its ships and submarines, and agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Internal Revenue Service use online courses to train workers in areas as varied as first-time supervisory skills or learning to use a new computer system, Penkala said.

The training, which is almost always free to employees, serves as a recruiting and retention tool for the government. "There is demand out there, clearly," he said. "We're working closely with the Department of Veterans Affairs," which offers online training courses for its employees and the population of military veterans that the agency serves.

The courses cost agencies from $5 to $125 per student, depending on the contents of the course, the number of students enrolled and who hosts the course software, Penkala said.

One part of making courses Section 508 compliant was "an engineering task," Penkala said. SkillSoft altered its underlying "player technology" to make it compatible with Freedom Scientific Inc.'s JAWS screen readers.

Course designers then examined every page of each course to add text tags to images so the screen readers could describe aloud what was being explained in course graphics. Many of the courses are 300 pages to 400 pages long, he said.

SkillSoft used WebABLE Inc., an organization that specializes in accessibility, as a consultant on complying with Section 508, company officials said.

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