Creating an Accessible and Inclusive Virtual Laboratory
In the past year, we’ve been able to bring virtual labs to millions of students who were unable to access physical laboratories. Now that our platform has matured, we have committed to making our virtual labs both fully accessible and inclusive. We are upgrading our catalog of legacy virtual labs to meet WCAG 2.0 Level AA accessibility standards and actively applying the principles of inclusive design to our new simulations to feature more characters with ethnic, cultural, gender, and sexuality diversity.
What do we mean by “inclusive design”?
Using inclusive design means creating access to the learning embedded within virtual labs. What we aim to do with Labster is break down the barriers that prevent students or educators from deeply engaging with the learning opportunities contained within each virtual lab.
We are implementing the Three Dimensions of Inclusive Design as articulated by Jutta Treviranus:
Recognize and respect the uniqueness of every user, every student and educator.
Use design processes that are open, transparent, and involve a truly diverse range of perspectives from different people and places.
Realize that, as designers and creators, we are operating within a complex and adaptive context. The world is changing faster than ever before, so there’s a need for responsiveness and constant listening and monitoring of the environment and context of our learning.
Currently, we address the categories of accessibility, diversity, and inclusivity through many avenues. Our content creators dedicate many hours to talking with educators and students to listen carefully to understand their needs in terms of educational experiences and access arrangements. We’re doing our best to stay agile so we can respond to feedback where issues are raised and feed these learnings into our future design processes.
Making Virtual Labs More Accessible
We recognize that virtual labs, when made accessible, have the potential to make science more accessible to students who face challenges navigating physical laboratories.
We have set a goal to have the majority of our virtual labs accessible via screen reader and keyboard navigation by Fall 2021. To accomplish this, we are currently improving newly developed features to allow students with disabilities to experience the high level of engagement, interaction and challenge in our virtual labs.
This includes being able to zoom text to three larger sizes, adding audio description for all animations and actions, as well as alt text for all images that can be accessed at any time during the simulation. You can keep up with our progress and review our growing list of fully accessible virtual labs at https://www.labster.com/accessibility/.
Making Virtual Labs More Diverse
Addressing and being aware of our own unconscious bias as creators and designers is an important part of our effort to become more inclusive. In our very first virtual labs, the avatar that represents the user – a hand that does all of the lab work – appeared to have only a caucasian skin tone. We received the feedback that it would be helpful to have other skin tones represented. When our platform had matured enough that we could support the feature that was needed, we developed a feature where the skin tone of the hand avatar was randomly generated in one of five different skin tones. That is an example of our early progress.
Today we’re working on diversifying the range of characters and storylines that appear in our virtual labs. In many of our virtual labs, we portray different characters such as lab technicians or patients who are in for a blood test. Our 3D artists have purposefully given life to characters with a variety of physical features that identify them as having a particular ethnicity, culture, sexuality, or gender.
Our aim is to act as a force of progress in science by proactively showing the change we want to see in the world. We are working to ensure that our characters demonstrate non-stereotypical behaviors.
How Educators Help Support Inclusive Learning Experiences
Faculty at the University of Kansas have been important partners in our initiative to make our virtual labs more inclusive. Last year, Dr. Laura Rozzi, Biology Lecturer and Lab Technician, and Dr. Mark Mort, Biology Professor, set out to design a fully online and inclusive Principles of Biology Course at KU. They chose to use Labster virtual labs and at-home assignments that complemented them.
“We needed to build in flexibility for all students, including single moms, full time employees, students that live at home, and others,” said Rozzi, speaking at the Science Online 2020 Conference in October.
Mort explained that their intention was to design a lab that could be “accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world.”
With the assistance of Rozzi and Mort, Labster has been able to improve its accessibility features, including its screen-reader and keyboard navigation. While we are still improving our overall accessibility compliance, we are encouraged by the initial success at the University of Kansas.
“We’ve had people contact us and say ‘I’ve always been interested in a biology lab course but I’ve never been able to take one because I’ve never been able to come onto campus or into a physical laboratory setting. I was always concerned about taking a lab course because I wasn’t sure about being able to move around the lab room,’” said Mort.
“I had a student without arms, and their feedback was that they could accomplish the Labster simulations and at-home experiments on their own, without the aid of anyone else,” said Rozzi.
Creating an inclusive virtual laboratory experience is a significant challenge but Labster is delighted to have the opportunity to contribute and indeed lead this global change in perspective within the scientific community.
You can follow along on Labster’s journey to diversify the lab on our website at https://www.labster.com/accessibility/.
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