Sandy Keeter is a Professor in the Information Technology Department at Seminole State College in Florida.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires equal access for all students in all courses. Students must be able to access our courses “fully, equally and independently.”
Institutions are taking accessibility more seriously as courses continue to move online at a rapid pace. This doesn’t mean lowering standards. Professors must develop and build courses to be challenging and to meet course objectives, but with accessibility always in mind. This will help ALL students, not just those with a disability.
Technology is more advanced today than when I first started teaching online 20 years ago. But, it can have limitations and shouldn’t be the only consideration when making courses accessible. We must look at all perspectives, take a step back to see where problems could arise, then figure out how to overcome them.
As we develop and build our classes, choose course materials and craft teaching methods, it’s important to remember that our students have a wide variety of skillsets and backgrounds.
If course accessibility challenges and design considerations are not met, learning can be adversely impacted, and students may experience barriers to our content.
Accessibility and Your Course: Why It Matters
Your course needs to accommodate both seen and unseen disabilities using assistive devices, through the inherency of your course design, or both. With a few simple changes you can make a world of difference in your students’ success.
Using already vetted products from your publisher or your Learning Management System (LMS) can be very helpful and provide greater course accessibility. We need to be proactive, not reactive, and remain open to continuous accessibility adaptations.
Tip: Refer to Established Guidelines
To ensure our courses leverage accessibility best practices, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) created a list of guidelines for making web content more accessible and meeting the needs of your students. These guidelines cover web accessibility requirements for website, browsers, content tools and more, including specifics for educators. A complete overhaul of your course might not be necessary; you may just need a quick review and some minor changes.
Tip: Include Accessibility in Your Syllabus
Be sure to add an accessibility/accommodation statement to your course syllabus. This will let students know there are services available and how to access them. An example from my institution:
“Seminole State College abides by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which stipulates that no student shall be denied the benefits of an education solely by reason of a handicap.
Psychiatric impairments, learning disabilities and hearing, sight and mobility impairments are just some disabilities covered by law. If you have a disability that may have some impact on your work in this class and for which you may require accommodations, you must contact the Disability Support Services Office (DSS) to facilitate the accommodation process.”
Over the years, Seminole State has served many students with disabilities and we rely heavily on our Disability Support Services office for support and guidance.
Tip: Structure Your Content and Instruction
An easy-to-navigate learning path, with clear content and organized into bite-size sections, is a common design technique. This prevents students from feeling overwhelmed and helps them focus on the material.
Students can more easily absorb short bulleted lists and animations with academic content than lengthy pages of text and long videos. Simply designed tables are another effective way to display content and can easily be read and interpreted by screen readers.
Students come to us from all walks of life, with a wide range of skills and backgrounds. Therefore, we need to provide options for them to master course content by presenting the material in multiple ways.
By providing a variety of learning opportunities and adequate time to complete activities, along with feedback and multiple attempts, you’ll reach every learner and ensure their success in your class.
Tip: Consider Text Best Practices
Font types, styles, size and color can negatively affect legibility and readability if not used correctly or consistently on a page. Sans serif fonts, 12 point, are more easily read on screen, especially when magnified.
Headings and style features in your documents or HTML tags in your LMS create a hierarchy of information for students with assistive technologies to navigate the content easily. It also keeps content more organized and professional looking.
Adding color and format can affect the clarity of text. Limit the use of color and text formats, like italicizing. This allows students with dyslexia or visual impairments to interpret the information on the page more easily.
If using colors is necessary, be sure to use proper color contrast and use italics judiciously. There are many free accessibility checker tools to help with this. Building custom LMS templates to keep a consistent, accessible design scheme throughout all courses is a good best practice.
Use descriptive text when linking out to websites, versus embedding an entire URL on a page, for a cleaner look. Students will then know where they’re going before clicking the link. As a final check, before publishing your class, run a course link validator through your web page or LMS to be sure no links are broken.
Tip: Consider Image and Video Best Practices
To explain their meaning to someone who’s blind or visually impaired, images should include alternative text and descriptions, if not purely decorative.
Videos should include closed captions and transcripts so students who are deaf or hard of hearing can access the content. This also benefits others who may not have audio.
These added features will allow screen readers to pick up the text and let students know what they’re viewing. Many of these accessibility requirements can be met by utilizing LMS tools, video recorder/media player options and Publisher content whenever possible.
Course Delivery: Synchronous vs Asynchronous
Instructors must consider accessibility for both synchronous and asynchronous sessions. What might work well delivered asynchronously from the LMS, might not be accessible from a synchronous Zoom session.
Examine polls, timed responses, chats, videos, PowerPoints and other tools carefully before using to be sure they meet accessibility standards.
Following some of these simple design strategies will be a great start to making your course(s) more accessible. Providing multiple ways to navigate your course and access the content will help all students be successful.
For more tips for creating an effective and inclusive online course and environment, check out our library of on-demand resources.