Strategies to Improve Online Accessibility

With many institutions’ abrupt transition to online instruction, I thought I’d share a post from March 2016 where I outline some strategies for making online content more accessible for students. Enjoy!

A few weeks ago, my institution’s Director of Online Programs and I offered a professional development session for faculty to help them make their online classes more accessible.  One of the challenges with teaching online is that many faculty members rely on text-based instructional material.  While some adventurous online instructors may include videos to support multiple learning modalities for their online students, the reality is that most of the content offered online is not really accessible to students with special needs.  If you’re an online teacher, I want you to take a second and ask yourself a few questions:

Would a blind student be able to fully participate in my online class? If one of my students had a learning disability, would they have trouble accessing the content in my class?  Would a deaf student be able to fully access all of my online course content?

You can use the questions to do your own soul searching. Based on the answers I hear from most online instructors, I wanted to pass along some basic accessibility strategies that are easy to adopt.  While these won’t solve all of the accessibility issues that may arise in an online class, it will help the majority of them.

  1. Use page formatting.  If you’re creating your own content in your learning management system, use the Headings and Paragraph formats appropriately.  While many instructors think that these options just change how text displays, the formatting also communicates important information to readers that visually impaired students would use.  Think in outline form. Header1 communicates the highest levels of an outline.  Header2 communicates the next level down and so on.  This formatting structure allows visually impaired students the ability to navigate the pages more easily.
  2. Use PDFs with Optical Character Recognition. I know several online teachers who scan articles and simply post them online. While this may help students without visual impairment, a blind student wouldn’t be able to access the content at all.  Use Adobe Acrobat or a site like Free OCR to convert the visual picture into readable text.
  3. Provide Alternative Text (ALT TEXT) to communicate relevant, educational information. Most learning managements systems require Alternative Text whenever an image is uploaded.  If an image is decorative, not much information is needed.  If the image conveys important information that is relevant to the class, you’ll need to include some succinct but descriptive language.  Here are some tips from WebAIM to get you started.
  4. Offer captioning and transcripts whenever possible.  Think about how a deaf student would be able to watch that great screencast you just recorded.  Without captions or a transcript, they probably wouldn’t be able to.  Consider using the captioning options through YouTube. While the process isn’t perfect, it may provide enough detail to support students with hearing impairments.
  5. Avoid using color to provide contrast.  When you’re creating pages in your learning management system, remember that conveying information with color differences may be a challenge for students who have color blindness.
  6. Use tables wisely.  Some web developers use tables to creatively layout content.  Depending on how they’re created, however, these tables can be challenging for some screen readers.  Use tables only when you want to display data and go with the simplest configuration possible.  Also, understand that what may look good, may not display correctly for an online reader.  For some more tips, check out these tips from WebAIM.
  7. Apply accessibility strategies to all files.  While these strategies apply the content you build in learning management systems (LMS), they also apply to content you upload into an LMS.  For instance, if you’re uploading PowerPoint slides, use Alternative Text to convey the information displayed in text.  Also, use the basic formatting offered through the program to better communicate the structure of your presentations.  Adding textboxes on blank slides rather than using one of the default slide formats will create distinct challenges for screen readers.

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