Thursday, 21 November 2019

Understanding Accessibility of PDFs

I have run a few accessibility awareness workshops at UCEM recently with my colleague Graham. You can see a video montage of some of the workshop activities.
However, I feel we need to look at accessibility of PDFs separately as it is much more complex (at least to me) tagging and correcting reading order etc.

So I spent some time studying the WebAIM PDF Accessibility and PDF - the Print Devil's Format? and trying to create an accessible PDF from a document that wasn't read properly by the screen reader. Here I am sharing what I learned hoping it will help someone else too.

Best Thing to do ..

... is to make your document accessible before converting to PDF!

It may be much easier to address accessibility issues if you use the source document. 
If you don't have the source document you can create it from the PDF by using File > Export To option.

Before converting to PDF check the documents for:
  • headings
  • alternative text for images
  • table structures (make sure table header row etc is indicated)
  • descriptive links
  • lists 
  • columns
  • text size, font (San Serif fonts are easier to read), spacing and justification (left justified letters are easier to read)
  • colour contrast
  • not using colour to differentiate meaning
  • document title
  • document language

Creating a PDF file 

There are various ways you can create a PDF file using a source file. Here I will take the example of a Microsoft Word file in a Windows environment. 


Creating a PDF using Acrobat Tab's Create PDF and is your best bet to creating an accessible PDF. PDFMaker add-in that gives you facility to create PDF within Microsoft Word will be installed when a compatible version of Acrobat is installed. Make sure in the Acrobat tab > Preferences have a tick in the checkbox against "Enable Accessibility and Reflow with tagged Adobe PDF". This allows creating a PDF file that will reflow when user Zooms it (without having to scroll).


However, if you do not have Acrobat Tab, you can use File > Save As  then from the drop-down select PDF. Make sure under More options > Options > Document structure tags for accessibility is checked.

Never Print to PDF

Creating a PDF using "Print" to PDF option loses the document's structure and tags that makes it accessible to assistive technologies (screen-readers).

Checking a PDF for Accessibility

If you have followed accessibility good practice and created the PDF using above recommended way there should not be too much to correct in terms of tagging etc. 

Check for Reflow

Reflow test is to check that a PDF document can be magnified without having to scroll horizontally to see the text off-screen. To do this use View > Zoom > Reflow. Now you can magnify the page and observe how the document behaves. If a document does not correctly reflow you will have to change the document structure - explained later in the post.

Convert Scanned Text

If the PDF is a scanned document first thing in making it accessible is to make sure that it contains real text. To do this, got to Tools > Enhance Scans and add it. In the PDF with scanned text go to Enhance Scans in the Tools pane and select Recognize Text > In this File.

Changing background colour

You should be able to change the background colour with Edit > Preferences > Accessibility > Replace Document Colours. Sometimes this may not work well; for example, if there are background images.

Read Out Loud

If the document is not a scanned image, the text should be selectable and these could be read by assistive technologies. You can check this by View > Read out loud. Reading order affects the way content will be read out.

Tags and Reading Order


For me this was the most difficult bit to learn. You can open the Tags pane by View > Show/Hide > Navigation Panes > Tags. This will show all the tags within the PDF in a tree structure. When a screen reader looks to read a PDF, it gets the information from these tags.

Reading Order Tool (called Touch Up Reading Order or TURO)

Accessibility > Reading Order (or Touch Up Reading Order). By selecting the Structure types radio button in the Reading Order dialog. Here you can see the tags associated with items in the document and you can add or change a tag by drawing a box around content with the crosshairs and then selecting the desired tag from the Reading Order window.

I found that removing the existing incorrect structure by using Clear Page Structure and starting clean was easier than trying to correct the structure.

Content vs Tag Order

The content order is displayed by the Reading Order tool. This is NOT the same as the tag order.  Once you have created the structure of the document it is easier to order it and drag and drop the tags into right places.
According to WebAIM tutorial's Repair the Content and Tag Order section, the changes made in the Order pane is reflected in both Order pane and Tags pane but they say it can be unpredictable and it is best to complete Order pane first and then verified in the Tags pane.

Table Editor

With Reading Order dialog open you can either select the table and right click to elect the Table Editor or Select the Table Editor from the Reading Order dialog itself. You can also select Edit Table Summary from right click menu to add a summary to the table.
In the Table Editor, borders of the table will be highlighted. In the Table Editor mode you can right click to show Table Cell Properties. Now you can specify whether the cell is a Header Cell or a Data Cell. If the Cell is a Header Cell, then assign the scope as appropriate.
After making the changes, verify table structure with the Tags Panel. Tables with multi-level row or column headers or cells spanning multiple columns or rows may need careful work to ensure they will be presented correctly by screen readers.

I have only given a quick introduction to using the Table Editor. In Adobe Help site PDF Accessibility Repair: Examine and Repair Tables is a good tutorial to follow.

Set Alternate Text

To show the Accessibility Tools panel for the first time go to Tools Tab  > Accessibility and Add the accessibility tool. From the Accessibility pane select Set Alternate Text Tool. It will identify all images and allows you to add alternate text for these.

Accessibility Checker

Similar to MS Office suite, Adobe also provides an accessibility checker. If you have Acrobat DC you can use the accessibility checker. This tool is also in the Accessibility pane. To show the Accessibility Tools panel for the first time go to Tools Tab  > Accessibility and Add the accessibility tool. You can check for Accessibility using Accessibility panel's Full Check. Even if this automated tool does not report any problems with the PDF still there could be.

I am not still sure I am fully confident on making a PDF file accessible. At least I know what and where to look for if something isn't working right :)


Adobe (n.d.). PDF Accessibility Repair: Examine and Repair Tables. Available at:
McNaught, A. (15 November 2019). PDF - the Print Devli's Format? Available at:
WebAIM (26 April 2019). PDF Accessibility. Available at: 

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Volunteering day at Cedar Court

Last Tuesday myself and about 14 other staff members from UCEM volunteered at Cedar Court, Extra Care Housing under the scheme organised by UCEM with EmployeeVounteering. This was one of the four employee volunteering days organised by UCEM as part of its centenary celebrations.
I have been a volunteer with The Link Visiting Scheme  for several years until my “friend” passed away at the age of 93. I just could not make up my mind to go back because I was so emotionally involved. So I thought to take a break and go back when I am ready.  Since then, I have used the Volunteering Day offered by UCEM to do a lesson at a local primary school (half-day) and then when this opportunity came up I jumped at it. I selected an opportunity where it was possible to do art, craft, games and the like rather than physical work mainly because of my previous experience with The Link Visiting Scheme and knew I enjoyed that type of interactivity more.
So when I got details for the day email to say that we will be doing cleaning patio, deck area and the garden at Cedar Court, I must say I thought did I pick the right event. Thankfully it was a sunny October Tuesday (it rained all day on Monday!) and I joined in with few others doing weeding. It was only a small area so it only took us about an hour and a half to finish the clearing the garden ready for winter.
Next we went inside to play games with the residents. Cedar Court provide housing to a wide variety of people, who have mental and physical health issues, learning disabilities and there are also elderly residents who just need that reassurance. It was fun playing games – I played Dominoes while others played card games, Jenga and Mega 4 in a Line (Connect 4). After lunch we had a six rounds of Bingo. It was my first time playing Bingo and on the last round I won the house – but I only got a toffee as we had the boxes of chocolates reserved for the residents.
Paw prints painted on a flower pot
Painted flower pot
After bingo there were few activities to select from. Nail art, decorating Gingerbread, painting pots or just chatting. I was talking to a resident who picked painting as her activity so I went along with her and we sat beside each other painting our pots and chatting. It was lovely to hear how she had worked for a firm that produced tins for Huntley and Palmers, how Reading had changed over the years and what activities they do at Cedar Court. I must say the activity I enjoyed most was painting flower pots.
After finishing the pot we planted Daffodil bulbs in them. We had many cups of teas over the day but after the final activity there was tea and a selection of yummy cakes.
In the Asian culture that I grew up in, going into residential care (even if it is a nursing home) is looked down upon. Offspring are expected to take care of their parents in their old age. I thought it could be isolating and boring to live in an assisted living accommodation. However, after seeing Cedar Court to me it seems like a houseshare with some people getting bit more help. According to the residents I spoke to, they have lot of activities going on to keep them occupied and they are happy there. Given that we are an aging society perhaps we will be needing more assisted living accommodation to support our aging population? However, residents very much appreciated us being there. I would definitely join another employee volunteering event if it were to be offered, I enjoyed the day very much 🙂

Monday, 24 June 2019

Celebrating the Best Research Paper Award #EDEN19

It feels great to be recognised for the effort you put in for your work. Some of the research we do, does not give the results we intend. It tells us that what we wanted is not happening or it is not effective. But this is part of the research. There could be various reasons for that, which I will not go into here. After all this post is to celebrate the prestigious European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN) Best Research Paper Award!
  EDEN19 Best Research Paper Award
EDEN19 Best Research Paper Award - photo by Ben McCammick-Copley 
When I started my research into looking at whether off-the-shelf automatic transcription software was good enough to be used for Built Environment Education, I never expected it to be recognised this way. Of course, I knew that at EDEN they awarded the best research paper award every year at their conference. But I did not know how it was selected nor did I think I will be that lucky person.

When I got to know that I was one of the eight finalists out of the shortlisted 23 papers, I was delighted to be one of the best to be considered in the final round. Going to Bruges was my first visit to Belgium. One of my colleagues from UCEM asked me to take a photograph with #OswaldTheOwl if I could. So, on my way to Bruges I made it to the Grand Place to make sure I captured a picture with Oswald.

Grand Place Brussels
Grand Place, Brussels

The conference was well organised (I think I will be writing another blog about the conference) - undoubtedly the best conference organisation I have seen. I had the privilege to listen to two of the Best Research Paper Award nominated presentations on Tuesday 18th June afternoon. They both were PhD research projects and the quality of the work was very high. So I was really glad that my work had been shortlisted among those high quality research.

At the Conference Gala Dinner, which was held at the amazing Market Hall (first constructed in 1240!) they announced the winner of the Best Research Paper Award. The chair of the Jury said it was a unanimous decision. This years’ theme was “Connecting through Educational Technology” and the jury had agreed my work Automatic Transcription software: Good enough foraccessibility? A case study from Built Environment Education was well aligned with the theme. He further said that when they critically evaluated each criterion:
  • contributes convincingly to the theme(s) of the conference;
  • deals with a research question of relevance for conference participants;
  • rigorous examination/research methods are applied;
  • findings, results and outcomes are convincingly presented and critically examined;
  • conclusions are thoroughly discussed (including aspects like applicability, transferability, and/or further research);
  • literature is reviewed against the state of art.
Receiving the Best Paper Award from Prof. Alan Tait

there could be no other winner. They commended being open and honest about my small study and being critical about the limitations of the study. Methodology, he said, was designed so meticulously that they could not ask for anything more. This coming from Prof. Alan Tait, a very well-respected researcher in Distance Education and the chair of the Jury, meant a lot to me.

As researchers we continuously criticise our work to find better ways of doing things the next time. It doesn’t help many women suffer from Imposter Syndrome and have self-doubts. However, I think now it is time for me to celebrate. But before that I need to thank my amazing PhD supervisors Prof. Andrew Adams (Meiji University, Japan), Professor EmeritaShirley Williams and Prof. Naz Rassool (University of Reading, UK) for guiding me through my PhD to make me the independent researcher I am today.
Online education team celebrating my award
Online Education Team Celebration at UCEM
You can access the full paper and presentation.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Good practice for accessibility

This blog post was first published on UCEM Online Education Blog - 7 May, 2019

I came across Lee Fallin and Sue Watling 's  Designing for diverse learners poster where they have adapted work from Accessibility Poster Series from the Home Office Digital.  I am promoting accessible materials at UCEM and was looking to put up some posters in the Hub area (communal space) to remind my colleagues of accessibility good practice when I found Lee and Sue's poster shared with CC license.

Though I have published some of my work with CC license in open access journals, this is my first re-mix of CC licensed work . I wasn't sure how much of a change was considered a re-mix. So after talking to Lucy, Information Governance Manager at UCEM I am confident in publishing it with share-alike license similar to the work I adapted. Asma, our Graphic Designer at UCEM, helped me by designing it with her graphic design software and saving it as a PDF.
An image of the Accessibility poster
In this version of work, we wanted to say why we needed to do each of these suggested accessibility enhancing steps. For example, we should not use colour as the only means to convey meaning (e.g. red  letters for wrong answers and green letters for correct answers) because colour-blind learners may not be able to  access the content as they may not be able to distinguish the different colours. I think giving reasons why something needs  to be done in a certain way makes it more real as people can make connections.
This poster was designed to be visual as we are hoping to print it and display it at UCEM.  I also created an accessible version of this poster in a text only version which can also be downloaded.
Again I want to thank Lee and Sue for their amazing work. Had they not shared this with CC license we would not have been able to adapt it.
Creative Commons License
Good practice for accessibility version 1.0 by Tharindu Liyanagunawardena and Asma Hussain is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. To provide feedback on this poster, download a copy access: 
This poster is based on Designing for diverse learners by Lee Fallin and Sue Watling at:

Friday, 5 April 2019

Visiting Sri Lanka with Gluten Intolerance

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country having lots to offer: beaches, mountains, natural beauty, wildlife, flora funa, and amazing cultural heritage with UNESCO sites like Sigiriya.
Elephants (@pen_ash from Pixabay)
Recently one of my colleagues, who has a gluten intolerance, visited Sri Lanka. She had got Google translate to translate some sentences to Sinhala so that she could take cards that said what she could and could not eat. She brought them to me to check whether they conveyed the meaning. Google translate has done a decent job, however, the translations were in 'written language' not the language people talk day-to-day. So I modified them a little bit and thought I'd share them here, in case anyone else travelling to Sri Lanka may find them useful.

In Sri Lanka, I have not seen shops actively catering to various food intolerance - may be due to the low demand?

My colleague is back safe and sound and have not have had any problems with food and she thanked me for the translations. So they have been proven ;)

The statements my colleague wanted me to translate are here:
  • I would like plain boiled rice please. Talking with her what she actually wanted to say was "Give me plain rice portion. Not fried rice" so I translated that to Sinhala
    මට නිකං බත් (ප්ලේන් රයිස්) එකක් දෙන්න. ෆ්රයිඩ් රයිස් එපා.
  • I cannot eat any wheat flour or I will get sick. In Sri Lanka, people generally call wheat flour as bread flour and some people may not even recognise what wheat flour is. So this was my translation for her.
    මටතිරිඟු පිටි (පාන් පිටි) වලින් හදපු කෑම කන්න බැහැ, කෑවොත් මම ලෙඩ වෙනවා.
  • I cannot eat any bread or I will get sick. Here I added flat bread, which is popular in Sri lanka as these are also made of wheat flour.
    මට පාන්, රොටි කන්න බැහැ, කෑවොත් මම ලෙඩ වෙනවා
  • I cannot eat any soy sauce, barley or vinegar either.මට සෝයා සෝස්, බාර්ලි හෝ විනාකිරි කන්න බැහැ.
  • Does this food have any wheat flour in it?
    මේ කෑමෙ තිරිඟු පිටි (පාන් පිටි) තිබේද?
I really hope these will be of use to someone else too.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Research and Innovation in Distance Education, and eLearning (RIDE) 2019

On 15th March, I attended the RIDE2019 conference with two other colleagues from UCEM. We joined the Centre for Distance Education (CDE)'s October event and was really impressed with the event so wanted to come back for the CDE annual conference. I was waiting to get the presentations so that I could link to them but seeing that they are not coming through I thought I might as well note down my thoughts from the event.

The opening keynote was presented by Maren Deepwell, Chief Executive of the Association for Learning Technology She revealed some of the results from ALT survey and trends identified 2014-2018. Highlights were that lecture capture was up 20% and assistive technologies up by 7%. She also talked about the gender bias and suggested the reading Invisible Women: Data bias in a world designed for men by Caroline Criado Perez.

Then when it came to the parallel sessions we decided to go to the three different tracks so that we would be able to cover the whole conference between the three of us - however, in hindsight this was not a great approach as some presentations were not very engaging at all.

David Baume's session What information capabilities do your graduates need and what practices and policies will help them to achieve these? was an interactive session which discussed the importance of guiding students to build information literacy skills. We are trying to be helpful by providing our students with the most relevant articles - especially as distance educators we want our students, often time poor learners who are at higher risk of drop-out (than mainstream university students), to succeed. You provide all materials and students do not have to search for reverent material. So by being more helpful are we hindering them and their skills development in information literacy? David used the analogy of teaching his granddaughter crossing the road. How he helped her realise what were the dangers to look out for. Yes a car is a danger but only if it is moving towards you not away from you. The narrowing down process is where you can help your learner develop their own judgement. So in the first year we can provide most of the materials required but as they move on to second and third year give them more chance of putting their Information Literacy skills to work. It really made me think of our practice at UCEM. With our No Student Left Behind initiative, we have tried hard to provide as much support to students as possible, but are we inadvertently hindering them? Information Literacy skills are not just for the induction week/module - we need to support our students to build their skills over the course of their studies with us.
By the way, now I am using David's method of narrowing down process with my twins teaching them how to cross the road so it was a very worthwhile session :)

Then I attended Sarah Sherman's On your marks, get, set, study! Preparing students to be digitally ready for learning where she presented a course with 4 units they have put together for the UoL institutions.

  • Unit 1: General Technology
  • Unit 2: Learning Technologies
  • Unit 3: Access, sharing and safety
  • Unit 4: Getting organised. 

This Moodle course is an openly licensed one and Sarah offered other institutions to adapt it. Kate has already expressed UCEM's interest in a Tweet.

Plagiarism in Distance Learning: Causes and measures for control presented by Ayona Silva-Fletcher and Clare Sansom was another presentation I really looked forward to since looking at the programme. In this they talked about a research project they have undertaken at UoL after seeing 274% increase in plagiarism cases at University of London World Wide during the past five years. In the study, they have contacted programme directors for UoL institutions with a survey to get an understanding of the plagiarism problem. In their presentation they presented plagiarism as a spectrum from clone, remix, find and replace, 404 error (made up references) to re-Tweets (too much of a chunk stuck in assignment). Some of the main reasons for plagiarism as revealed by this study were:

  • Lack of knowledge (cultural background, insufficient engagement with materials, ignorance of self-plagiarism)
  • Not enough time
  • Pressure
Another disturbing fact that the research shed light on was the fact that if a student gets away with one minor plagiarism offence they go on to re-offend. So does that mean the institutions need to come down hard on any plagiarism offences how minor they are? The presenters offered their proposed solutions: communications, teaching materials (JISC, Indiana University), Turnitin as a learning tool (allowing students to view plagiarism report) and making training compulsory.

I was really interested in hearing about this research and I was wondering whether there could have been another piece of work done in parallel looking at what students (both students who have plagiarised and those who haven't) thought about causes and solutions. Programme directors would be able to give details that are revealed in disciplinary process or what students have told them but asking students would have corroborated the findings and may even give us a completely different perspective. 

All in all the event was a great learning opportunity giving me food for thought.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Supporting Student Success Event at Centre for Distance Education University of London

Have you ever been to an event and thought what am I doing here? Conversely, have you also been to an event and thought why did I not know about this series of events before? Well I have.

Yesterday, Fiona and I went to Supporting Student Success Event organised by the Centre for Distance Education, University of London which was really useful. The event had two parallel sessions and we attended different ones hoping to make the most of it.

In this blog post I am going to share my learning from Dr. Ormond Simpson's work.
Dr. Ormond Simpson presented a report about feedback from students with disabilities. I have not been able to locate the document online yet, but once I find it, I will link to the report in the blog post. The report was titled Disability the student voices: feedback from disabled students. The data for the report had been collected by sending an anonymous survey link to current students who have declared a disability. Though this does not reflect on views of students with disabilities who have dropped-out, it gives us a view to the struggles these students have to face in accessing learning.

The range of disabilities reported in this survey showed the varied individual needs and the need to support students for their specific needs. It was also the first-time I heard from a student with light-sensitivity as a disability.

Looking at some of the recommendations from the report, I can see that we, at UCEM, are already practicing some of these while there are other recommendations that we need to embed into our practice.

An important issue raised in the discussion was the ability to share information. Especially with GDPR coming into force it was reported that the details of disability declared to the university by the student during the application process does not get conveyed to the tutor on the course or the course directors. This has resulted in students not being offered the support they should have and students thinking that the university nor the lecturers cared about them.

I find it difficult to understand why GDPR or other data protection laws should affect the lawful use of declared disability data to support a student in a course. Perhaps we should seek consent to share the data with the tutor who is supporting student in the course. In my view, if a student has disclosed a special need, they would expect the course team to support them.

Unless the tutor is made aware, how would they "know" that this student has special needs especially at a distance. For example, if the university has special software to support special needs students but the tutor does not know that the student should be given a copy of this software it would affect the student's experience of learning. Alternatively the software could be made available to everyone, but that could be very costly and in fact unnecessary information for a large group of students.

It is easy to say XYZ is inhibiting us supporting student success but I believe we can find effective ways to overcome such barriers and research events like these bring the issues to light so that they can be addressed.