Inclusive Open Educational Practices: How the Use and Reuse of OER can Support Virtual Higher Education for All

António Teixeira, Carlos João Correia, Filipa Afonso,
Antonio García Cabot, Eva García López, Salvador Otón Tortosa, Nelson Piedra, Luciana Canuti, Jacqueline Guzmán,
Miguel Ángel Córdova Solís, Centro de Filosofia, Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal


Following the recommendation of the 2012 Paris OER Declaration, promotion and use of OER should aim at widening access to education at all levels, both formal and non-formal, in a perspective of lifelong learning, thus contributing to social inclusion, gender equity and special needs education. Given the different kinds of special needs of students with disabilities (physical, sensitive, cognitive), this aim implies a holistic approach to the design, use and reuse of OER. However, this hasn’t been the case so far. Standards and guidelines developed so far tend to consider accessibility only in relation to the design of resources. In this paper we discuss how critical it is to ensure OER use and reuse follows guidelines which consider the different types of disabilities and educational aspects involved in an integrated way. In order to assure “equal opportunities” in education, accessibility should have an educational component related to the level of understanding the users may have of the OER content. We submit a proposal for classification which addresses the educational objectives of OER, the difficulty level of understanding of the content of the resource, and the user profile determined by the type of disability in an integrated form.

Keywords: Access; Open Educational Resources (OER); Standards Open Educational Practices (OEP), WCAG 2.0.

From Open Educational Resources (OER) to Inclusive Open Educational Practices (IOEP)

One of the most important trends in education in recent years has been the creation of a vast integrated network of experts and institutions which are generating high quality validated content for use and reuse by everyone in the world. Open Educational Resources (OER) are digital resources with potential educational value for educators, students and self learners which have been published on the web with an open license or are in the public domain (White & Manton, 2011). By clearly describing all permissions and restrictions of OER, open licensing made easier, legal and safe its use, re-use, edition, adaptation and repurpose to different contexts. In fact, evidence demonstrates OER can be of very different types and sizes, ranging from simple educational resources, readings, images, open textbooks, videos, links, up to complete courses called OpenCourseWare (Downes, 2007). See Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Ontology Concept map on OER / OCW (Piedra et al., 2010)

Although OER were seen at first as informal instruments to widen participation in Higher Education through the facilitation of access to quality content, throughout the years have been increasingly used in educational formal practices as well. In fact, from an academic perspective, OER hold an educational value and pedagogical structure. Educational resources developed in open environments can be continuously improved and adapted for use by a wider community of educators. Thus, the use of OER enhances educational innovations by rapidly disseminating new ways of teaching and learning. Indeed educational resources that can be reused promote collaboration and participation by all. Therefore, OER call for the notion of open educational practices which relates to any educational activity involving the creation, use, or dissemination of an adaptive open learning resource.

However, even if OER are increasingly available across the globe, evidence shows their use is not proportional. This is due to the fact that the production of free access digital resources alone is a necessary but not sufficient condition to widen participation in Higher Education. In order to achieve this goal we need to develop strategies that effectively integrate the use of these materials in the daily practice of teachers and students, as well as improve the visibility of existing resources. This new emerging concept of open educational practices (OEP) can be best defined as practices which support the (re) use and production of OER in the framework of educational policies that promote innovative pedagogical models, and respect and empower learners as co-producers on their lifelong learning process. In fact, we believe OEP implies a dramatic change in educational cultures which extends the sole free universal access to content. By using the term «practices», we are no longer referring to repositories alone, but also to how they are and can be used by educators and learners. OEP brings indeed a need for the full review of the design and implementation of learning experiences. Access by all has to come as a result of inclusive educational practices and not only by assuring resources is accessible by all.

After concentrating on building infrastructure and tools, researchers and practitioners have realized how critical for success it is to move now to the design of improved learning experiences for all and to innovate in educational settings, particularly formal ones. Beyond access to open learning architectures, the focus of open education is now on learning as a process that can be built and shared in an inclusive way. In this paper we submit the idea that online open education needs also to fully integrate a third pillar apart from technology and pedagogy, which is ethics. In order to be fully open, virtual education needs to be inclusive. And, to assure this objective, it needs to articulate learning tools and methods with values.

The 2012 Paris OER Declaration paves the way for IOEP

Since the 2003 World Summit on the Information Society Declaration of Principles, the online education community has assumed the commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society. One where everyone can create, access, utilizes and share information and knowledge. The recent 2012 Paris OER Declaration follows the same path by explicitly recommending all national states to “promote and use OER to widen access to education at all levels, both formal and non-formal, in a perspective of lifelong learning, thus contributing to social inclusion, gender equity and special needs education” (UNESCO, 2012).

Indeed every human being has equally the right to learn. However, this universal right calls for a differentiated realization. In fact, opposite to common belief, widening participation in Higher Education is not achieved by simply providing mass-access to quality content. On the contrary, the universal validation of that generic right critically depends on the possibility of each and everyone access content according to his/her own differentiated needs. When considering learners with disabilities, the issue of accessibility becomes more complex indeed. Different kinds of special needs may be involved (physical, sensitive, cognitive). This notion of different kinds of accessibility makes it imperative therefore to use a holistic approach to the design, use and reuse of OER. It is an approach which promotes inclusive open educational practices.

Given the international regulatory framework on the rights of learners with disabilities, each country has established special laws for securing these rights. These regulations seek to ensure equal opportunity, non-discrimination and universal accessibility for people with disabilities. In the context of technology and distance education a number of standards and guidelines have been developed to help ensure that digital resources produced/used in the field of education are accessible for all. In general these studies consider the accessibility only in relation to the design of resources. However, as discussed in this paper, at the time of measuring the accessibility of resources it is critical to ensure guidelines for OER use and reuse which consider the different types of disabilities and educational aspects involved in an integrated way.

Accessibility standards for OER

The concept of OER is commonly associated with sharing open content in public repositories. This concept of OER is independent of the format used for files, which can be PDF, HTML, etc.. One way to classify these OER would be based on whether or not they meet accessibility standards. For example, in the case of web-based resources OER could be classified according to web accessibility standard WCAG 2.0. WCAG is the acronym for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, developed by the WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative), a branch of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) which monitors the web accessibility.

Whereas “equal opportunity” not only refers to the accessibility of the resource but also covers the conceptual content accessibility of the resource, it is proposed to extend the principles of perception and understanding of the WCAG (W3C, 2008) to the content of the resource (pedagogical / cognitive accessibility), and classify the resources from evaluations by users, experts and end users, considering the different types of disabilities and educational resource pedagogical purpose.

The WCAG (W3C, 2008) standard specifies guidelines in the production of web resources in order to assure they are robust, understandable, operable and perceptible to people with disabilities. These patterns guide the web design, and each pattern contains a set of checkpoints with different priorities (priority 1, 2 or 3). Compliance with all priority points 1 states that the design of the web resource will have a level of accessibility, i.e. complies with all that HAS to be accessible. If the application meets all checkpoints of priority 1 and 2 then the resource achieves an AA accessibility level, i.e. complies with all that has and needs to. And finally fulfilling all priority points 1, 2 and 3 AAA accessibility level is reached indicating that the resource meets all checkpoints that has to, needs to and should comply with. In short, WCAG 2.0 accessibility focuses on web design resources, and accessibility levels (A, AA and AAA) are established based on the fulfilment of all checkpoints of priority 1, 2 and / or 3. Such guidelines for accessibility of OER design are not limited to web resources, but extend to other formats of educational resources, such as PDF, and Macromedia Flash (Adobe, n.d.).

In recent years several evaluation projects and proposals of metrics assessing the accessibility of web resources have been developed. Some of these works focus on the measurement / assessment of online learning environments considering education as an integrated, interrelated and dynamic process where technical aspects (platforms, resources) and pedagogical ones (such as educational processes, cognitive styles) interact. Other works focus on the measurement of web resources, many of which based on the WCAG standard (Vigo et al., 2007; Brajnik & Lomuscio, 2007; Freire et al., 2008). In these last two works in particular two considerations appear repeatedly:

  1. it is not enough to simply measure WCAG 2.0 checkpoints compliance, and
  2. the importance of complying or not with the checkpoints is related to the educational purpose of the resource and the type of disability which affects the user.

Vigo et al. (2007) describe some problems in accessibility metrics for failing to consider the impact of error, its nature and manual expert assessments that can take into account accessibility aspects which sole empirical solutions cannot cover. The suggested solution includes these aspects classifying the errors has: errors, warnings and generic problems. In addition, it takes into consideration aspects as the frequency of errors and human judgment when assigning the importance level to errors.

Brajnik and Lomuscio (2007), present a very interesting problem that can be related directly with our case. It is whether the metrics describe if a website is more accessible for certain user groups than others. The authors propose a methodology for measuring accessibility that combines automatic evaluations based on WCAG, with the expert reviews which should consider the types of disabilities and objectives. They advocate a mapping between WCAG checkpoints and types of barriers related to the types of disabilities.

Brajnik identifies 36 different types of barriers (video without titles, movement of the content, ambiguous links, opaque objects, etc.) with metadata which describe the mapping with verification points, WCAG principles and also to which kind of handicap it affects. For example, the barrier “Image maps with no text” is mapped with verification points 1.1 and 1.1.1 of WCAG 2.0 and linked with the handicap “blind” affecting the principle “Perception”.

Most research has considered the pedagogical aspects related to learning objects, the user’s profile and the context of use, using metadata for describing educational aspects of the object or resource, and assessments or judgments made by the community (experts, end users, and others). Different styles of assessment range from very simple mechanisms as an indication by the user if the resource was helpful to more sophisticated forms as LORI used by the project eLera (Nesbit et al., 2003) filled by experts. Therefore, a possible way to classify OER may be considering the level of understanding of the content of the resource perceived by different user profiles, determined by the type of disability, while taking into account the pedagogical objective of the resource.

The WCAG 2.0

WCAG was first published in 1999 in its version 1.0. A second version (WCAG 2.0) was published in 2008. In the first version the standard established general principles of accessible design. It is divided into 14 guidelines that provide design solutions and using as an example common situations in which the design of a page may cause problems of access to information. The guidelines also contain a series of checkpoints (65 in total) that help detect errors.

Each checkpoint is assigned to one of three priority levels set by the guidelines:

  • Priority 1: are those aspects which a web designer has to comply with because, otherwise, certain groups of users could not access the website information.
  • Priority 2: are those aspects which a web designer needs to comply with because, if it were not so, it would be very difficult to access information to certain groups of users.
  • Priority 3: are those things that a web designer should comply because, otherwise, some users may experience some difficulties in accessing information.

According to these checkpoints pursuant levels are set:

  • Conformance Level “A”: all checkpoints of priority 1 are satisfied.
  • Conformance Level “Double-A”: all checkpoints of priority 1 and 2 are satisfied.
  • Conformance Level “Triple-A”: all checkpoints of priority 1, 2 and 3 are satisfied.

As for WCAG 2.0, it is an official W3C recommendation which is based on the1.0 version. It bases on four fundamental principles: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust (in reference to the features of an accessible Web document).

  • Perceptible: The information components and the user interface should be presented to users in a way that can be perceived.
  • Operable: The components of the user interface and navigation must be operable.
  • Understandable: Information and the management of the user interface must be understandable.
  • Robust: Content must be robust enough to work with current and future technologies.

Each of these principles is divided into various patterns to a total of 12. Each of these patterns in turn is atomized into “success criteria” (Success Criteria) that form validation and which total 61 (in concept, equivalent to the 65 checkpoints of the WCAG 1.0). W3C recommends that new and updated content apply WCAG 2.0 instead of 1.0.

A proposal for accessibility classification

In light of the principle of “equality of opportunity” in education, one may wish accessibility should have an educational component related to the level of understanding the users may have of the OER content. We therefore propose a classification based on the references described in the previous section which addresses in an integrated way the educational objectives of OER, the difficulty level of understanding of the content of the resource, and the user profile determined by the type of disability.

On one hand it is proposed to classify the level of OER according to the WCAG 2.0 accessibility level achieved, by the pedagogical objective of the resource and the types of contexts of use (user profile and / or characteristics of the environment) determined by the types of disabilities. For this, we will use the method proposed by Brajnik and Lomuscio (2007), presented in the previous section, according to which a mapping between the checkpoints of the WCAG 2.0 and the types of barriers is used (Brajnik, 2009). Experts determine how to classify the resource according to the type of disability and educational purpose. In our case we suggest to ask experts to indicate the degree of importance (high, medium, low) of each barrier. In this sense a resource will have a:

  • level of “pedagogical accessibility A” if it meets all checkpoints listed as “highly” important by experts;
  • level of “pedagogical accessibility AA” if it meets all checkpoints listed as of “high” and “medium” importance;
  • level of “pedagogical accessibility AAA” if it meets all checkpoints, that is the ones listed as of “high”, “medium” and “low” importance.

We note that a resource not meeting WCAG AA level, could nevertheless be classified with level “educational accessibility AA” according to this classification if the non complied checkpoints affect only aspects which are irrelevant to the pedagogical objective of the object or to the context of use. This is because in both cases these aspects are of low importance.

In addition we propose to classify OER regarding the understanding of content achieved by the different user profiles. We call this “pedagogical content accessibility” of OER for different types of disabilities. Basic assessments of “the information contained in the application” (very easy to understand, was understood, difficult to understand) made by end users grouped according to their disability profile will make possible to classify OER by level of content understanding in each type of disability. This type of evaluation allows that classification of OER in what regards understanding of content for different disabilities is determined by users themselves using the resource and will be increasingly accurate.

Table 1:   Classification according to “Pedagogical Accessibility to Content”


Very Easy to Understand

Easy to Understand

Difficult to Understand

Problems of Sight


Problems of Earring


Problems of Moving


Cognitive Difficulties




Classifications proposed here follow a similar direction to the concept managed by the IMS (IMS, 2002) when linking OER with comparability. Because it is possible for different OER to share a same pedagogical objective although having been developed using different technologies each offering features by type of disability (video, text, etc.). In short, they may have been designed for specific user profiles or contexts of use.

Being the relation between OER features and each user’s potential limitations a critical aspect regarding accessibility, user profile is basically determined by the type of handicap. For instance, when facing visual limitations, the use of features such as colour, contrast, picture size, etc., influence the degree of accessibility each user can expect to have. In the cases of sound limitations, the features as the quality, volume and the spectrum of the sounds used determine the level of access users with hearing problems can aspire to.

In short, the interfaces or the content structure of an OER may be designed to better reach user needs. If we consider his/her type of handicap and the cognitive aspects associated with each specific limitation, we can use the best tools to design OERs.

By producing OERs in such a way, we may reach the end user with greater quality. Although, in general this may lead to a less wide public diversity. Therefore, following the IMS suggestion to manage OER packages, we argue OERs which share the same pedagogic objective, but differentiate in structure and/or specific interface for the various user profile types should be packaged. This way, the ‘OER Package’ could reach each different user profile in the most efficient manner possible and at the same time reaching all of them. That is why the accessibility level should be measured as an ‘OER Package’.

As shown in the discussion, pedagogical aspects are critical to determine OER accessibility. In light of this, we have presented a set of procedures that make possible to include them in the evaluation and classifications of OER. The proposal presented in this paper combines important elements in the evaluation of resources or learning objects. These include automatic assessments, community assessments (end users, experts), WCAG, types of disability and educational objectives. We must determine the level of detail of the types of disabilities that will be used in the project. It could disaggregate large groups as ‘hearing problems’ into more specific groups such as “deafness”, “hard of hearing”, etc.. This type of classification manages to bridge the points of view of design and pedagogy, articulating them in an ethical framework. In the cases of complex OER that include activities, task, communications tools, etc., which can be performed individually or in groups, the educational methodology used in the OER is a very interesting element to considerer when measuring the level of the student’s success in  understanding the content. Furthermore, it is expected that this element will be important in the treatment of cognitive limitations. At this first stage, the effect of the educational methodology used in relation to the pedagogical accessibility beyond the scope of this proposal, but it is something to consider in future work


It is critical for every author and web designer of OER to be aware of the ethical and legal aspects which justify delivering accessible academic content. In fact, the educational value of OER use depends on how these resources allow access to quality learning experiences for all. This is why OER authors and web designers should be trained in the technical aspects needed to provide educational content in an accessible format. Keeping in mind however that in order to adapt or create material that is accessible to people with special educational needs (ex: physical disabilities) may require in several cases the assistance of qualified personnel, whether related professionals or specialized institutions.

Creating accessible OER is as important as measuring the degree of accessibility achieved; not only from a technological point of view but pedagogical as well. Therefore, it is necessary to have evaluation processes which take into account standards, pedagogical goals, users’ profiles and contexts of use. These kinds of evaluations require the participations of authors, experts, reviewers, and end users, who provide feedback that can be used in the evaluation processes.

There are formats and technical platforms which are more accessible than others, allowing more easily changing the language or parts of the document. Thus, the realization of the universal right to access quality content by all individuals, including the ones with special needs, is basically an ethical responsibility of all content providers of open education resources.

Finally, a note should also be presented regarding the critical aspects of searching and finding OER, as well as accessibility of content for all. The later also constitutes a part of the ethical responsibility of open education providers. In fact, all open digital resources must be described using metadata and should be interchangeable. However, even in the cases this feature is met, differences in the programs may make it difficult to search through different education systems. This is another ethical challenge of the global OEP community.


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This research was conducted under the ESVI-AL Project. An initiative supported by the European Commission – ALFA III Programme [contract reference: DCI-ALA/19.09.01/11/21526/279-146/ALFA 111(2011)-11].



e-learning, distance learning, distance education, online learning, higher education, DE, blended learning, ICT, MOOCs, information and communication technology, collaborative learning, internet, learning management system, LMS, interaction,

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