Accessibility in the context of online learning means that all populations of students, regardless of disability, are able to perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with their course materials and can contribute to the course without barriers. Courses and course content that are designed accessibly anticipate barriers and proactively remove them for all students in a course.
Accessibility is different than accommodations, which are reactive to a student disclosing their disability. Most often, these accommodations are created for an individual student and do not guarantee that all barriers to access are removed for others. Accommodations are very likely provided at your institution by something like a Disability Services Office. For example, you’ve ever received a letter from a student requesting additional time for tests, you have provided an accommodation.
Review Your Course
Quality Matters Standard 8 asks course designers to “utilize the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and reflect a commitment to accessibility.” The quality review will review your course for components of accessibility. Use the checklist below to best prepare yourself and your course for accessibility!
8.2 Color Contrast
8.2 Font Style
8.2 Eye Fatigue
8.3 Alt Text
Specific Review Standard 8.1 asks that course navigation “facilitate ease of use.” A consistent course look & feel across all courses in a program and across all learning management system pages within a course can help maintain consistency and can help students easily navigate to where they need to go.
Review that your course is organized in a way that is “consistent, logical, and efficient.” The AP provided course template helps guarantee that a “consistent layout and design are employed throughout a course, making content, instructional materials, tools, and media easy to locate for students.” The Learning Design team with Academic Partnerships designed the template to use “design elements that are used repetitively, increasing predictability and intuitiveness.”
Specific Review Standard 8.1 also looks for what is called “self-describing hyperlinks.” This means that all links, files, and icons “are labeled with easy-to-understand self-describing, and meaningful names.” But why is this a QM requirement? Interestingly, students who utilize screen readers navigate through pages and documents link-by-link. If a student using a screen reader lands on a hyperlink, the screen reader will read the full text of the hyperlink (with all the numbers, hyphens, and letters too).
Copy and paste this link into your browser: https://www.academicpartnerships.com/about/
Including a full URL, especially a complicated URL can be frustrating for those users, so avoid pasting long, complicated URLs into pages and documents. In addition, try to avoid using “click here” as a link text. If you have a page contains multiple “click here” links, students using a screen reader can’t tell the difference between each link which can slow down navigation. The final hyperlink mistake to avoid is asking students to copy and paste a link into a browser. This can be complicated for students using a screen reader, for students using mobile devices, or for students who can’t easily access their mouse.
Instead, of the common practices above, use hyperlink text that describes the destination of the link. It is obvious to all users what the destination of that link is.
Standard 8.2 asks reviewers to review course pages and documents for appropriate Heading Styles. Heading styles in documents and webpages indicate “the hierarchy of material in a page or document,” and are used to organize information quickly.
Headers allow screenreader users to navigate through pages and documents using a digital table of contents. Heading styles apply visual content breaks to both the text for visual users but also within the metadata of a document or page, so that users navigating the content with a screenreader can easily tell where they are located.
Instead of changing the font of a header manually using “bold” or a different font type, use the heading styles pane located in all Microsoft products or in your institution’s LMS like Canvas, Blackboard, or D2L Brightspace. Styles will create a visual identifier and a hierarchy identifier for screen reader users. To do this, simply highlight or click on the text that you want to make a header and select the header pane option.
8.2 Color Contrast
Specific Review Standard 8.2 asks that course design “facilitate readability and minimize distractions.” Limiting the use of color assists learners that have colorblindness or low-contrast sensitivity. In general, text color should “be a contrasting color that makes it clearly distinguishable from the background.” This includes all text in your courses so text on images, maps, icons, buttons, PowerPoints, textbooks, etc.
If you use color to emphasize content in your courses, you will also want to accompany that color with another source of text emphasis like bold or italics. That way, a student who is colorblind or a student who prints out a document on a black and white printer can easily understand the emphasized text by an alternative means.
8.2 Font Style
When it comes to readability, font style and size should also be considered. QM recommends that “font style and size are selected to maximize on-screen legibility.” The recommendation is to use the font and font size that is automatically provide by your learning management system. The font and font size selected by your learning management system provider is based on recommendations from WCAG, so you can rest easy knowing that the default font already meets this standard.
If you are creating documents for your course, know that there is not a recommended font, but simplicity in typeface is critical. Use a familiar font that is common and standard across different systems (Arial, Times New Roman, Calibri, etc.). But most importantly, avoid font mixing. Limit the font families in your documents to one or two styles. The more font styles and sizes introduced introduces additional cognitive overhead for your students, so keeping it simple is a great rule of thumb.
8.2 Eye Fatigue
Another way to consider readability is to consider “white space” or “negative space.” White space and negative space can and should be used around your content to help increase comprehension. Large blocks of text or the use of lots of decorative images can cause eye fatigue, and when making style decisions, simplicity is a great rule of thumb. Only include extra stylized items if they help learners accomplish particular objectives in your course. If you are adding extra text or images for the sake of filling up space, the accessible recommendation is to remove it.
8.3 Alt Text
In order to increase ease of use and comprehension, Specific Review Standard 8.3, requires images in pages, documents, and presentations to contain alt text. Alternative text (also called alt-tags) can be added through your Microsoft software or in the content creation pages in your LMS like Canvas, Blackboard, and D2L Brightspace. Alternative text asks you to describe what is happening in an image and should be clear and concise. As a general rule, you’ll want to shoot for about 125 characters in order to describe your image.
When determining appropriate alt-text, context is everything. Alt text for one image may be vastly different based on the context and surroundings of the image. As the SME, you determine the best alt text based on context. For example, consider how you might share a picture of a puppy in three different contexts. If you were sharing the image on your “Meet the Instructor” page in your online course, your alt text might read “my puppy, Millie, sitting in the grass.” However, the alt text for the same image would be totally different on a dog training website or on a leash and harness website.
Tables are a great way to organize information for students, but they can pose accessibility challenges. Specific Review Standard 8.3, which “asks that a course provide accessible text and images in files, documents, LMS pages, and web pages” will review tables for navigation requirements.
A first step to creating accessible tables and avoiding errors is that tables should always be “set up as text and not embedded as images. They should not be presented as screen captures.” This can be a tempting practice as tables become more and more complicated, but the image of the table prevents students using a screen reader from accessing the content. If you must include a table as an image, accurate alt text must be provided.
When building a table in a document or LMS, you will also want to provide a header row for columns and a header for rows if applicable. From there, you’ll want to keep your tables very simple when possible. Common accessibility errors include things like merged cells, empty cells, or split cells. These pose issues for users as it may be difficult or impossible to navigate to all cells in a table using keyboard functionality.
Most importantly though, it’s important that the tables in your course summarize data, and not be used for style/formatting. Tables used for style and formatting can be very difficult to navigate and very frequently pose accessibility challenges. If you use tables for formatting on certain pages in your LMS, discuss alternative HTML options with your on-campus instructional design teams.
Specific Review Standard 8.4 looks for alternative means of access for multimedia content. Any videos or animations in the course should be captioned “or text transcripts should be made readily available.” Most lecture platforms (including YouTube), have an option to enable auto-captions. Auto-captions will often meet standard for accessibility within Quality Matters, but for true accessibility, editing is almost always required.
The rule for captioning is that should provide “an equivalent experience for all users,” so it’s important to check that captions have been edited where necessary. The estimate for editing is generally 3 minutes for every minute of video content, so a video that is three minutes in length would take about 9 minutes to edit.
If auto captioning is not available from your lecture hosting provider or if the editing workload begins to pile up, speak with an instructional designers on your campus to discuss campus resources. There are many vendors and providers who can help decrease workload for captioning, so find out what you have available to you.
If you are using a video that does not belong to you that also does not have captions, check out Amara. Amara is a free to use resource that houses millions of captioning files for non-captioned videos across the web. It also has a captioning tool that makes it easy to caption video content you do not own. They provide captions in many languages and in many formats. You could also consider contacting the original owner of the video and ask them to turn on auto-captions or provide edited captions.
Standard 8.4 also checks for text transcripts if necessary. For example, if auto-captions aren’t available, or if you pre-script your lecture material, text transcripts can be sufficient for meeting accessibility standards according to QM; however, it’s important to note that captions are almost always preferred. If you use audio-only content like podcasts or music, you’ll want to provide a text transcript, which you can provide in a variety of file types. If you use podcasts, you can often find the text transcript of that podcast provided on the original hosting website. It might take some digging, but this is becoming a more regular practice in the podcasting world.
If you have voice-over PowerPoints included in your course, providing the audio transcript within the PowerPoints notes field can help make that PowerPoint accessible. This would count as a text transcript for this document. If you are interested in providing transcripts, the best practice is to prepare your script in advance and use it as you record. Your captions will be easier to edit and it can allow for a much smoother presentation.
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