Accessible Online Courses: Techniques and Tips

Written By

Jenny Hill

April 01, 2013

How can you create online course content that is more accessible to students, even (or especially) to those with permanent or temporary physical or sensory challenges?

This article offers five techniques that will start you down the path toward creating more accessible online course content and help you create content that is more accessible to learners.

What kinds of challenges are we talking about?

Rodney, a 15-year-old high school student, decided to take an enrichment course online to learn more about parliamentary government, because he hopes to major in international affairs in college. He signed up for an online course through his local community college and was excited to dive into the material. Rodney was unhappy to discover that all the lecture material for the course was in the form of podcasts—he is partially deaf and had difficulty understanding the audio. He contacted the teaching assistant, but was notified that there were no transcripts available. After receiving a poor score on the first quiz despite a strong understanding of the reading material, he chose to drop the course.

Selena, a 35-year-old nurse, was on short-term disability due to a wrist injury. She wanted to keep her skills sharp while she was away from work, so she enrolled in an online professional development course that would allow her to hone her skills in caring for older adults. The assessment material for the course required complex use of a computer mouse for drag-and-drop quiz activities. Selena was unable to complete the activities without causing further wrist injury, and was unsuccessful in completing the course.

Barriers

Selena and Rodney each experienced a barrier—a stopping point that made their online course so difficult to use that they were unable or unwilling to continue. Stories like this are common; perhaps you can even think of a time that you had difficulty in accessing online information that you needed.

Online courses open up a wealth of possibilities for many learners, because they add an element of flexibility to the learning experience not always achieved with traditional classroom courses. Ensuring course accessibility takes advantage of this flexibility and maximizes the potential of the learning experience.

Accessibility

Identifying and eliminating barriers is what accessibility is all about. Accessibility of content is not only a best practice in developing online courses, it has become a legal requirement in many situations. You may have heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Sections 508 or 504 in the US, or the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in Canada, or other legislation that applies to education or web accessibility. All these mandate a certain level of accessibility in online content for various organizations. These requirements may apply to your work, so it is important to be aware of them.

By thinking a little differently when you’re developing and designing an online course, you can help to avoid creating unnecessary barriers for your learners and help improve their success.

1. Ensure text is truly text

Course designers are sometimes tempted to use images, Flash, or video to present reading material or headings or to add other visual effects to text. While this may be very visually engaging, it can create a major barrier for learners with vision difficulties, cognitive disabilities, or those on mobile devices, as these elements don’t resize well.

Present your text as true text, not as images of text (for example, GIF or JPG files). Text can be styled with cascading style sheets (CSS) to be more visually engaging, but most importantly, use of true text allows for a variety of access methods, including various browsers and mobile devices. Assistive technologies such as screen readers and magnification software can bring true text to many different learners in an easily accessible way.

2. Make sure content is in an easily understandable reading order

Sometimes, when laying out content visually, a course designer neglects to ensure that the content is presented in order in the code. CSS float techniques can allow for highly engaging visual presentation, but the content should remain in a logical order underneath.

Use HTML headings to organize your content, and make sure those headings stay in order in your document. This helps learners to understand the order and will allow for those using screen readers, custom CSSs, or other assistive technologies to access the content in the most logical way.

3. Use HTML where possible

If your course materials are in word-processor documents, or in PDFs or PowerPoint presentations, it can be tempting to simply upload these to your online course and call your course completed.

HTML is the language of the web, and thus is accessible with many different browsers, software packages, and devices. Along with ensuring your text is true text, using HTML to present your content (rather than PDF, Word, PowerPoint, etc.) allows for the broadest access and most use of assistive technologies. Learners can customize their experience more to get the most out of HTML material, whereas a course made of PDFs or Word documents may be more difficult to access and use.

4. Ensure visual and audio elements have captions and transcripts

Video and audio materials can be a highly engaging way to present course material, and with easy access to digital cameras and recording devices, it can be tempting to quickly record video or audio of lecture material to use in your online courses. However, video or audio without captions or transcripts can exclude many potential learners. Captions and transcripts for this material not only allows more users to easily access the content, but can also improve retention of the material, thus improving the overall online learning experience. This step is critical to developing courses where required material is presented via multimedia.

5. Do user testing and solicit feedback

This is the most important step you can take toward making your online courses more accessible.

By doing simple user testing with your content and soliciting feedback you can identify less visible barriers to access and address them. You can start small. Convening small focus groups and collecting feedback from current students is a great first step; it’s amazing what you can learn by asking learners how online content could be improved.

Keep the learners in mind

It is most important that learners can access the material, so understanding the learners and thinking about potential barriers is key. Making this your focus will change your thought processes and allow you to avoid potential accessibility issues from the start, saving time and improving the quality of your work. Through these five steps, you can move further toward delivering the most inclusive online course possible, improving outcomes and experiences for learners.

You may also find that you want to implement a more in-depth accessibility practice in your course development. The following resources and conferences can help you learn more about accessibility and move much more quickly toward developing those standards and practices.

Resources for further information

Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI): http://www.w3.org/WAI/

WebAIM—Web Accessibility in Mind: http://webaim.org/

Simply Accessible: simplyaccessible.com

Conferences

Accessing Higher Ground Conference: http://accessinghigherground.org/

The Accessibility Conference: http://www.accessconf.ca/about.aspx

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