How to account for accessibility in open learning environments?

Last updated 7.3.2024

What does the accessibility of open education mean?

Open education refers to the extension of access to and participation in education to cover a larger audience and more target groups by reducing barriers and improving accessibility, supply and focus on the learner. Open education diversifies the opportunities for teaching, learning, information generation, co-creation and sharing, and combines formal and informal learning paths.

One opportunity for open education is offered by teaching that is open for all. According to the Policy for Open Education and Educational Resources, this includes all types of education that are widely available and free for everyone. However, granting credit for education that is open for all may be subject to a fee. Education that is open for all can take place face to face, remotely or as hybrid education, for example through open online courses.

Open education and teaching that is open for all take place in an open learning environment. In general, a learning environment is a combination of a physical or digital environment and psychological elements, social relationships and pedagogical solutions, in which teaching, instruction, studying and learning take place. An open learning environment, on the other hand, refers to an environment (digital or built) that is openly available to a learner and facilitates open education through its openness.

Open education, by definition, requires that the accessibility of education is increased. Accessibility in the context of open education means that as many people as possible can use (digital) open education services and open learning environments as easily as possible, and that accessibility is kept in mind when designing and providing these services.

Accessibility in open education means that everyone has equal opportunities to participate in open education in different physical learning environments. The Directive on the Accessibility Requirements for Products and Services (2019/882),  which has been applied to national legislation, requires providers of products and services intended to support open education to take into account the accessibility requirements in the acquisition of products governed by the Directive. Furthermore, purchasers of products and services must take accessibility into account in their procurement (Section 71 of the Act on Public Procurement and Concession Contracts). 

When planning the use of an open learning environment, the education provider must ensure that the learners will be able to take part in the education safely. Among other things, this entails the safe use of facilities and equipment, support with a goal-oriented approach to learning and sufficient resources for providing the learners with support. In addition to learners, the accessibility of open learning environments also serves teachers.

An organisation must ensure that learners participating in an open learning environment receive comprehensive information about the limits and conditions of the accessibility of the learning environment and education. 

The purpose of the minimum requirements for the accessibility of buildings is to promote equality. This means equal opportunities to participate in society's different functions and use services. The accessibility of built environments (Land Use and Building Act (132/1999), Section 117e Requirements Concerning Construction; Accessibility)  directs the construction of open learning environments and changes in buildings' use. Accessibility makes the use of a learning environment easier and promotes learning for everyone. Accessibility is particularly important for individuals with temporary or permanent mobility or functional impairments. In the premises, factors such as good acoustics, the required sound reproduction and transmission systems, clean indoor air, good and glare-free lighting, clear material and darkness contrasts, and uninterrupted guidance, should be taken into account. Some of these elements must also be included in digital open learning environments (e.g. adequate audio quality). Digital open learning environments are governed by the accessibility requirements of the Act on the Provision of Digital Services. 

Organisation's guidance and support for open education

The primary responsibility for the accessibility of an open learning environment lies with the organisation providing the environment. Higher education institutions are responsible for how people can participate in teaching that is open for all, and ensuring that the built environment, digital platforms and digital services in use are accessible. 

The organisation must guarantee up-to-date services for providers of and participants in education that is open for all. The organisation supports providers of open education with the accessibility of online teaching tools and learning environments. Support and training is offered for the enhancement of the quality of open education, keeping in mind different types of open learning environments and learners. 

Co-creation of open educational practices and peer learning are part of an organisation's operations. The inclusion of learners in the planning and provision of open education is part of the co-creation process.

The organisation supports learners in the identification and recognition of competence acquired through open education, creating guidelines that promote this practice. In higher education institutions, teaching, IT management and libraries promote the interoperability of open educational and cooperation platforms, software and open education services. National guidelines on identifying and recognising competence are being prepared by a working group appointed by the Ministry of Education and Culture.

As a teacher in open learning environments 

A teacher initiates the promotion of accessibility in open education at their specific skill level, and receives training and support in this from their organisation, cooperation networks and peers. As skills are enhanced, the teacher gains a wider range of means to promote open educational practices and influence not only students, but other teachers, their own organisation, various national and international stakeholders in teaching and research, as well as the wider society. The national open education skill requirements can be utilised in the self-assessment of skills.

Teachers use their higher education institution's guidelines on open education when planning and providing education. They also use their institution's support services to ensure the accessibility of open education. 

Furthermore, teachers assess and improve the accessibility of open education in their own teaching together with the support services, engaging learners in the planning and provision of education, as well as the assessment and improvement process.

As a learner in open learning environments

It is in the best interests of all learners to facilitate open education that takes accessibility into account. When enrolling in education that is open for all, learners must be fully informed of the potential conditions and limitations linked to the open education in question. An open learning environment may be an openly available digital or built environment for a learner. A good example is the STEAM project created by the City of Turku and a number of higher education institutions.

Learners may have a variety of obstacles hindering their participation in open education. A learner with reduced mobility could be, for example, a user of a wheelchair, a wheeled walking aid or other mobility aid, as well as a learner with limitations in the use of their hands. Mobility aids may be manually operated or electric. A learner with a functional impairment has challenges related to vision, hearing, memory, comprehension or conceptualisation. (Accessibility; Ministry of the Environment instructions on the accessibility of buildings 2018.)

A learner knows their own obstacles to learning and participation best, and they must be able to obtain information and support on the accessibility of open education and an open learning environment during registration and studies. A learner must also be able to get information and support enabling them to make their own openly shared learning output accessible.
The learners can, to the extent possible, participate in the planning and provision of open education. The learners may provide feedback on any shortcomings they have detected in the accessibility of open learning environments to the organisation responsible for them.