How do I make my online course accessible?

Topics

  • Provide Alternatives to Auditory & Visual Content
  • Provide an Accessibility Statement for All Technologies Used
  • Provide Easy Course Navigation
  • Facilitate Readability & Minimize Distractions
  • Verify Multimedia is Easy to Use for Everyone

Accessibility

The term accessibility in education refers to the degree to which a content or an environment is available to all students, especially students with disabilities. The purpose of this knowledge based article is to provide information about the accessibility of online courses and the tools that can be used to make your online courses accessible.

Featured Video: "Experiences of Students with Disabilities" - In this video students with disabilities share their experiences with the web and accessibility.

One in four students in higher education take at least one online course and the number of those students exceeds 4.6 million in the United States alone (Allen & Seamen, 2009). Students with disabilities constitute a considerable percent of the enrollment in higher education. In this sense, whether students with disabilities can get equal access to online courses is a critical issue. There are three primary reasons why accessibility is important. First, it is the right thing to do. In our society we want everyone to be able to participate equally and we don't want to treat persons with disabilities unequally in our schools. Second, it is the smart thing to do. It is compatible with emerging technologies and provides opportunities for students who are paying tuition but not able to participate in sites and classless. Third, it is the law which will be explained in detail in the following section.

Why is this an important topic?  The most important answer is that it is the law.

As educators, many of us are familiar with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that provides services for persons with physical and cognitive disabilities.  But what happens when we move that learning environment away from the physical classroom to a virtual classroom? As technology advances in education we must always consider the implications of using such technology on our students.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that was amended in 1998 specifically addresses electronic resources such as the web. As seen in the direct quote from the law, "Section 508 requires that all Web site content be equally accessible to people with disabilities. This applies to Web applications, Web pages and all attached files. It applies to intranet as well as public-facing Web pages."

Who is Responsible for Making an Online Course Accessible?

Typically, the university's disability services department coordinates accommodations for disabled students in the classroom. However, this is not a direct one-to-one relationship when the classroom is online.  The faculty member is ultimately responsible for the accessibility of an online course.   According to Texas A&M Web Accessibility and Usability Policy, the information source owner has overall responsibility for the information provided on the web site. However, Instructional Technology Services within the College of Education and Human Development is committed to helping faculty maximize the accessibility of instruction in the online learning environment.  The Instructional Technology Group housed within ITS provides both training and direct support to online faculty with regards to accessibility.

So How Can I Make My Course Accessible?

There are two primary responsibilities to consider:  1) using alternative auditory and visual content for graphics, videos, and other media used for learning, and 2) providing accessible forms of media commonly used online. The details of each responsibility are discussed in the following sections.

Provide Alternatives to Auditory & Visual Content

Online courses should provide alternatives to visual and auditory content. The instructor should offer his or her students alternative ways to access to the course information for vision or hearing impaired students.

Examples:

Provide appropriate alternative text to non-text content, such as images and pictures.  The term alternative text refers to the textual equivalent to non-text (e.g. an image) content in the online course. As seen in the following example, the alternative text provides a textual description of an image (a textual description based on the content and the function of the image) to individuals cannot see the image.

Example:

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a sculpture carved on granite face of Mount Rushmore and featuring faces of United States presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

Alternative text is helpful for people who have limited sight and need to use screen reading technologies. For example when you have picture of a car on your course site, a student with limited sight will not know what is presented in the image without the auditory assistance that occurs when the screen reading technology has alternative text it can read to the student.  Clicking on the link at the beginning of this paragraph provides appropriate techniques for providing alternative text for your students.

Provide appropriate document structure. Headers, titles, and text need to be formatted appropriately to give meaning and structure to the web page. For example, screen readers and other assistive technologies can identify the hierarchy of the headings and notify the student of a change in structure of the content. Therefore, it is important to use the style guides provided in applications such as Microsoft Word to indicate the various levels of heading within your documents as opposed to changing font size, emboldening, and italicizing.  Various levels of heading will still provide you the effect you are looking for visually while simultaneously accommodating for learners who may have limited sight. 

Use ‘Styles’ toolbox in Microsoft Word to appropriately format your headings instead of changing the font size manually

Provide headers for data tables. A student who needs the assistance of a screen reader cannot distinguish the information presented in a table from plain text unless you use appropriate headers for data tables in your course. The instructor should set up tables with headings for columns and rows.

Good example

Bad example

Provide captions or transcript for a video clip or an animation. It is helpful to provide closed-captioned videos and transcript of the video material. Moreover, close captioning and transcripts benefit students with hearing loss and the students who are second language learners.

How to add captions to a YouTube video

How to add captions to a video in CamtasiaCamtasia

Do not rely on color alone to convey meaning. Color is an important issue for students who are colorblind.  However, this does not mean that you should convert all visual material from color to black and white. The basic strategy is to make sure that you use additional methods to convey important information such as italicizing or underlining. For more details please use the hyperlink above.

Accessibility of Common Forms of Media Used Online

The media used online should also be accessible for students with disabilities. PDF files, Microsoft Word documents, and PowerPoint presentations are forms of media which are commonly used for online courses. In the following sections, you will find brief information for some forms of media and links to the details on how you can make them accessible.

https://tamu.teamdynamix.com/TDPortal/Images/Viewer?fileName=810efb37-f86e-4902-9a18-fcd56c991abe.pngPDF stands for Portable Document Format. In order for a PDF to be considered accessible, use textual representation of the PDF content that is presented to screen readers. Click here for more information.

https://tamu.teamdynamix.com/TDPortal/Images/Viewer?fileName=107a5f26-97a7-419b-a978-24a29c0d3b2e.pngMicrosoft Word document format is the most commonly used text documents. As an instructor, you should provide accessible Word documents to your students in an online course. There are a lot of ways that you can make your document accessible by using Microsoft Word Software. There is an embedded accessibility checker offered in Microsoft Word and you can use it to check accessibility issues in the document. Please see the link to learn how to make Word documents accessible for your students.

https://tamu.teamdynamix.com/TDPortal/Images/Viewer?fileName=42290d88-7bf5-468c-9e41-ed5e088eea3d.pngPowerPoint is the most common tool for creating presentation documents. Like other document format it has accessibility features that you can use to make your presentations accessible. For more details click the link.

Are There Any Other Items Related to Accessibility That I Need to Include in My Course?

In addition to making your course accessible for your students, it is essential that you as the course designer include accessibility information for all software students are required to use while taking your course. There are two types of accessibility statements required to be in a quality online course.  The first is a link to the institution’s accessibility policy.  This was discussed in the Article: What type of learner support should be included in an online course?.  The second type of statement is regarding the accessibility of all software that students are required to use while taking the course.  These statements can be provided directly on the course site or perhaps in the syllabus. University's accessibility policies and services information, and accessibility statement of all technologies used. Please see the information and instructions regarding these two types of statements. 

Provide an Accessibility Statement for All Technologies Used

The following links provide accessibility information for the most common learning management systems and course technologies used in online courses for Texas A&M University on campus.

  1. Accessibility Statements from LMS Providers

Blackboard

Moodle

  1. Links to Accessibility Statements from Software Providers

Adobe (e.g. Acrobat, Reader, Flash)

Microsoft Office (e.g. Word, Excel, PowerPoint)

Blackboard (e.g. Blackboard Collaborate)

Google Apps  (e.g. Google Docs, Google Calendar, Gmail, Google Forms)

Note:  The accessibility of these tools changes if you do not follow the accessibility guidelines for making the products created with these tools.  This means that the software provider will indicate a statement of the degree of the accessibility of the software prior to changes made by the instructor.  This means that by not following guidelines presented in this article it is possible to lessen the degree of accessibility of software or course content.

Usability

 

So How Can I Maximize Usability of My Online Course?

Another design principle that needs attention is the usability of the online course for all students. There are three primary responsibilities to consider: 1) providing easy course navigation to students, 2) facilitating readability and minimize distraction, 3) and verifying multimedia is easy to use for everyone. The details of each responsibility are discussed in the following sections.

Provide Easy Course Navigation

Online course navigation refers to the process of designing and controlling how a learner moves from one place to another. The navigation in the course should be consistent, effective, and logical to ensure that the movement through the course and course activities are easy. However, in some cases the learning management system (LMS) does not allow instructors to change the navigation settings. In this situation, the instructor can use other navigation devices, such as hyperlinks, icons, and new-window functions, to facilitate the ease of use throughout the course.

Strategies to provide easy course navigation include:

1. Use consistent layouts and design elements throughout the course.

2. Utilize icons, labels, and links used in course pages have understandable and meaningful labels.

3. Make sure that students can easily locate where they are within the course and how easily they can go back to the previous page or home page.

4. Pay attention to the hierarchy of topics by using consistent heading styles.

5. Use table headers appropriately.

Facilitate Readability & Minimize Distraction

The instructor should use appropriate design elements (e.g., fonts, colors, spacing, graphics, and formatting) to facilitate readability and minimize distractions for the students.

Some elements to consider are listed below:

Colors should be used carefully and do not prevent students accessing the content.

Fonts and spacing do not crowd words and create a barrier.

Graphics and animations should not cause distraction from the material.

Formatting should be used purposefully to serve specific instructional purposes.

Contrast between fonts and background should be sufficient to distinguish text from background.

It is important to provide text format in your course because students with impaired vision can sometimes use screen reader software to read text. Providing links to skip navigation, using HTML and PDF documents, and including appropriate table and cell headers will help accommodate the use of assistive technologies. There are also variety of assistive technologies (e.g. screen readers, screen magnifiers, speech recognition software, and alternative input devices) available for students with disabilities that can minimize the usability issues students have. You can redirect students for more information about the assistive technologies that Texas A&M University provides.

Screen readers and screen magnifiers provided by Texas A&M University IT Accessibility Services

Verify Multimedia is Easy to Use for Everyone

The multimedia used in the course (e.g. audio, animation, video, and images) should maximize the usability and be easy to view, operate, and understand.

Strategies to verify multimedia is easy to use:

  1. Ensure graphics enhance the instruction and do not distract the learner.

Bad example: Avoid using too many graphics if not necessary.

Good example: It is best to use white space with minimum number of images.

  1. Size images appropriately so that the learner can see without scrolling.

Good Example

Bad Example

  1. Ensure that audio and video resolution is clear and videos can be resized. You can get help regarding video and audio quality from you college’s instructional technology services, if needed.

 

Bad example

Good example

  1. Divide videos longer than 20 minutes into shorter segments.

You can request help from CEHD’s Media Lab to divide videos into shorter segments.

  1. Ensure that learners are able to control the presentation flow by offering them video navigation and controls.

Tools and Resources

  • Accessible Online Learning  by D. Elizabeth Case and Roseanne C. Davidson (2011) offers guidelines regarding accessibility in online learning.
  • Simple Accessibility Checklist from Texas A&M University highlights some of the most common accessibility issues at Texas A&M.
  • IT and Web Accessibility at Texas A&M, from TAMU IT Accessibility website, has links to standards and help resources.TAMU IT Accessibility website, has links to standards and help resources.
  • WCAG 2.0 from W3C is the accessibility standard we’re recommending for the University. We recommend meeting conformance level AA for Texas A&M University online courses.
  • WCAG 2.0 Checklist from WebAIM is a more thorough checklist to help web professionals consider how to meet WCAG 2.0.
  • NVDA (direct download) from WebAIM is a free screen reader.
  • NVDA keyboard commands from WebAIM offers some of the most commonly used commands for NVDA.
  • Disability Services from Texas A&M University offers accommodations coordination, evaluation referral, disability-related information, adaptive technology services, and sign language interpreting and transcription services for academically related purposes.

*Case, D. E., & Davidson, R. C. (2011). Accessible online learning. New Directions for Student Services, 2011(134), 47-58.