Accessibility touches every part of the course design and requires some additional planning and work. So why do we need to be proactive about it? Why does it matter at all?
Accessibility is a vital component of every piece of a course. All students, regardless of background or ability, should have equal access to education. Accessibility differs from accommodation in that accessibility is pro-active, while accommodations are reactive. Sometimes, accommodations are the best option; but many things can be made accessible in advance, making coursework smoother and more manageable.
Some of our students may not be aware of the available support, but for the majority of students, they do not disclose because they want “the opportunity to allow intellect, skill, and character to become their observed identity, rather than their disability” (Verdinelli & Kutner, 2016). As a result, it is crucially essential to design our courses for accessibility from the beginning, so that all students can engage with the course materials. Students should not be forced to choose between maintaining their privacy and passing a class. Building an accessible course allows them to do both.
Begin with these eight steps
Accessible courses and course content require a little more planning and work upfront. The steps below can help you get started in making your digital course materials accessible, more inclusive, and in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (see Legal Background section). The course website for your online, blended, or face-to-face course is as accessible as its sum:
- To help scaffold your work, download and outline your work into small steps using the CELT digital accessibility action plan (PDF).
- Download and review the checklist Effective Practices for Making Your Course Site Accessible (PDF).
- See visual examples through the 10 Tips for Creating Accessible Course Content webpage.
- Explore and bookmark these additional resources:
- Use the self-paced training resources below.
- Provide accessible course readings using the Libraries’ Accessibility and Course Materials page and ISU Bookstore’s Immediate Access The Iowa State Digital Contact Solution
- Create and share accessible documents such as PDFs, Microsoft Office and Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides using resources on ISU Extension’s eAccessibility Initiative
When you build your course with both Universal Design and Quality Matters in mind, you create a learning experience that provides students with options for engaging their affective networks, recognizing information through representations, and strategically acting upon or expressing their learning. You are designing a course that provides learners with multiple means of moving from novice to expert.
These factors apply to anything you include in your online course to help make it more accessible to all learners.
Use the checklist CELT’s Universal Design Checklist for Your Online Course (PDF) and visit CELT’s Universal Design for Learning Overview page
- Student Support –
- Include the University’s accessibility statement in your course syllabus, found on the Recommended ISU Syllabus Statements page. Discuss accommodations throughout the semester and not just the first day of class.
- Add a link to the Online Learner Support webpage to your Canvas course.
- Be aware of the legal requirements regarding accommodations, Questions? Contact Student Accessibility Services; or if you are experiencing an issue, use the barrier to access form.
- Software – Check the accessibility of all tools and software used in the course.
- Inform students of system requirements, privacy policies, and accessibility.
- Web Pages – Check Canvas content with the Canvas accessibility checker.
- Web Links and Text – Check that all your links are up to date and have descriptive text
- Images – In addition to checking that all images have alt text and proper color contrast:
- Keep image files small (ideally under 100kb). Use a photo editor to resize
- Complex figures should have detailed descriptions and be usable in black and white.
- For examples of image descriptors plus an explanation of the difference between Alt text, descriptions, and captions in these Guidelines for Creating Image Descriptions from the American Anthropological Association
- Images that do not provide content should be marked as decorative
- Videos – All videos and audio should have correct captions or transcripts
- Files & Documents – you should check all files and documents for accessibility
- Use the Office Accessibility Checker to make your Microsoft content accessible to everyone page
- PowerPoint: Microsoft has a nice grid of things to think about in Make your PowerPoint presentations accessible. A lot of us forget that when we use color for emphasis or contrast (a particularly common practice with charts and pie graphs), anyone who is color blind won’t be able to see color differences.
- Use ISU Extension’s eAccessibility Initiative site.
- Make your Google docs or presentations accessible
- Make PDFs accessible using Acrobat Pro or PAVE or use alternatives to PDF
- For additional training, use ISU Extension’s eAccessibility Initiative site.
- Math – All math equations and formulas should have alt text or MathML representations
- Alternative Formats – A separate accessible version of content should be made available when there is no other way to make it accessible
- Assignments & Quizzes – All assignments and online activities should have clear expectations to help students understand how to do them and why they are doing them
- Use rubrics and see these transparent assignment templates and techniques from Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT) in Higher Education site
- Give students extra time or separate due dates on quizzes when needed. For additional assistance, use the How-to Guide for Student Accommodations in Canvas guide
- Student View – Check the course in student view for broken or inaccessible functionality
- Check whether content is mobile-friendly. Students may be doing a lot on their phones/tablets. An easy way to see how any digital content will look on a phone is first to check it on your own phone. Check the course for usability in the Canvas Student app.
- Modules – Use the modules page as the primary place where you build and organize your course. Think of it as the table of contents or outline or to-do list for your course. If you have a reading or assignment or discussion for a particular week or unit, add it to the module for that week or unit. This way, everything associated with that week or unit will be more visible to you and your students. You can see in a glance if something is not available or unpublished that shouldn’t be, or if a requirement was not set, and so forth. See How do I add a module? and How do I add assignment types, pages, and files as module items?
- Don’t Copy & Paste – Don’t copy from other courses or websites or documents into Canvas. If you do, the text will copy over just fine (although it may mess up the text styles and fonts), but images will not copy over like they would when copying and pasting into a Word document. Images have to be downloaded from the other site (right click on the image and choose ‘save image as’), and then you can upload and insert the image into Canvas, entering alt text when doing so. When copying content from another Canvas course, use the course import tool to ensure all images and links are fixed. Use the link validator to check for any broken images or links.
- Images – When inserting an image, always remember to set the alt text with a description of what is in the image for screen readers. If you want to embed a very large image, reduce its file size with a photo editor first. See: How do I embed images from Canvas into the Rich Content Editor?
- Tables – Minimize your use of tables, but when you do use them, set a caption and header row or column in the table properties. Do not set the width of a table or table cell to a fixed value, use percentages instead. Reduce the number of columns for readability on mobile devices. See How do I insert a table using the Rich Content Editor?
- Text Color – You should not use color or font size alone to distinguish text or convey importance. Use headers. See How do I add and modify text in the Rich Content Editor? Check that color contrast is sufficient using this Color Contrast Checker from WebAIM.
- Videos – Speak clearly when recording videos and audio so that automatic captions will be more accurate and save you time with making any corrections. Additionally, consider using a script to provide focus to your video (to help with captioning, the script can be uploaded to the video platform).
- Documents – Use the Accessibility Checker when creating Microsoft Office documents.
- Math – Use the Canvas Math Editor or WIRIS app to insert equations and formulas.
- Assignments – Use rubrics and transparent assignment templates and techniques.
Develop a backup planStudents with a range of abilities should be able to participate in whatever learning experiences you design for your course. Recognize that inaccessible apps and technologies will make their way into classrooms. So, think about a backup plan; how will a student with a disability have an equivalent experience if they can’t use that app? Brainstorm with ISU staff to develop your backup plan:
- Contact the Student Accessibility Services staff at 515-294-7220 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Contact the Instructional designers/academic technologists in your college
- ISU Library’s Accessibility Services & General Information webpage
- Digital Access website
- Student Accessibility Services website
- Or, if you have a pedagogical question, contact CELT at 515-294-5357 or email email@example.com.
Share the accessibility statement with your students throughout the semester (e.g., first day of class, prior to exams, project deadlines). This is important because you may have students who did not ask for accommodations at the start of your course (or if you shifted from face-to-face to a fully online environment).
Then, encourage those students (who believe they have a current and essential need for disability related accommodations) to communicate (as needed) with Student Accessibility Services (SAS). SAS may be able assist students who require reasonable accommodations (e.g., access to alternative media, assistive technology).
(Note: This step is significantly important if your course shifted quickly from face-to-face to an online environment)
Even if they have access to a computer and stable internet, students may be sharing that computer with others, have limitations on data and bandwidth, or be in a very different time zone than you, so consider taking steps to make things easier for them.
- Mix synchronous and asynchronous: Requiring all students to attend a synchronous lecture/discussion is likely to create challenges for at least some students. Recorded videos not only give students more flexibility about when and where they watch but they can be downloaded and watched offline. However, going completely asynchronous can mean weakening important interpersonal connections (see Be Relational discussion) so using some mix of the two may provide the best compromise.
- Ask students what they have and know, as well as what they need. Use a check-in survey about needs, challenges, and concerns (e.g., devices, wifi access, etc.) Learn more from this Check-in Survey page.
- If you’re doing asynchronous lecture/discussion, consider audio-only (podcast) recordings to go with annotated slides instead of a full video recording.
- See additional suggestions from Pedagogy Playground
- See Be Flexible section for more guidance
ISU Training opportunities
- CELT’s Course Design Institute. A four-day event full of interactive, hands-on and collaborative activities to give ISU’s instructors skills, time and space for designing or substantially revising their courses. To find out more, visit CELT’s Course Design Institute page.
- Quality Matters (QM). Looking to improve the quality of your online course design? Need help transitioning to online instruction? Interested in learning how QM Rubrics apply to course design and improvement? Get started with CELT’s QM Workshops.
- ISU Online Learning Community (ISU-OLC). The purpose of this topic-based teaching and learning community is to share campus best practices to improve online teaching and learning; see how others are using Canvas. Upcoming dates are available on the ISU-OLC webpage.
Self-guided tutorials (free)
- Quality Matters (QM) Accessibility and Usability Resource. This resource reflects QM’s commitment to online and blended course design for all learners and includes useful information on all aspects of accessibility, from the basics to concrete examples of course content and activities that can be easily navigated and interacted with by all users. To learn how to access this resource, follow the steps on CELT’s Quality Matters (QM) Accessibility and Usability Resource webpage
- Teach Access Tutorial. If you are new to accessibility, you’ve come to the right place – the tutorial will help you get up and running on accessibility via hands-on exercises and useful reference guides. Begin your training using the Teach Access Tutorial page.
- Instructional designers/academic technologists in your college
- ISU Library’s Accessibility Services & General Information webpage
- Digital Access website
- Student Accessibility Services website
- eAccessibility Initiative from Iowa State University’s Extension and Outreach website
- Contact our CELT staff members
Guidance on how to use Canvas in setting up reasonable accommodations.
Consider multiple ways to teach and deliver content, have students demonstrate their knowledge, and engage with other students.
Self-Paced Training for Digital Accessibility
CELT’s 10 tips to Improve Accessibility in your Canvas Course webinar
Identify tools and strategies to create an inclusive Canvas learning environment for all students. Learn to proactively develop course content that is accessible for students with disabilities, assistive technology friendly, and easily navigated by all learners.
Would you like to attend this program, see the Upcoming Events page.
CELT’s 10 Tips for Creating Accessible Course Content webinar
Creating accessible websites and digital materials in your educational environment reduces barriers and ensures that all students encounter your materials can understand and interact with them. Websites and digital materials that are not designed with accessibility in mind exclude a significant population of potential users from participating in an ever increasing internet dependent world. Download this webinar’s resources 10-Tips Handout (DOCX)
20-Minute Mentor Commons, a digital library of online seminars
Use the 20-Minute Mentor Commons for ISU page to register and log into Magna Commons. Then, access the CELT curated 20-Minute Mentor videos to guide the course delivery mode of Hybrid/Blended Learning using the hyperlinked list below:
- How Can I Make My Exams More Accessible?
- How Can I Make My Course Content More Accessible?
- How Can Backward Design Make My Courses More Accessible?
Digital Accessibility: Learning Path in LinkedIn Learning (access through Okta Dashboard). This path was curated by our colleague Cyndi Wiley, Digital Accessibility Coordinator, Iowa State University. For technical assistance with LinkedIn Learning, please contact Learning and Development at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Host an Accessibility or Quality Matters workshop
CELT has presented our accessibility and Universal Design for Learning workshops at the Des Moines Area Community College Teaching Conference, The National Teaching Professor Conference, and the International Society for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL).
If you are interested in hosting one of these workshops for your departmental or college faculty email email@example.com.
Webinar Resources: 10-Tips Handout (DOCX)
Stay informed about accessibility
Currently, there are federal statutes or regulations explicitly governing web accessibility. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and a variety of lawsuits, rulings, and Office of Civil Rights memos have combined to form the legal foundation of web accessibility. This legal foundation outlines the broad requirements that higher education institutions must meet to comply with the ADA.
These requirements include:
- Students with disabilities must have “the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services… with substantially equivalent ease of use” as non-disabled students (Case Western University Settlement Agreement, 2009)
- Auxiliary aids and services for students with disabilities, such as captions, alt-text, etc., must be provided in accessible formats to protect the students’ privacy and independence, and promptly (which, in a digital environment, generally means immediately). (ADA Regulatory Amendments, 2010)
- Communication, such as a transmission of information via the internet, with students with disabilities, must be as effective as communications with non-disabled students. (ADA Title II)
- The majority of rulings and memos refer to the WCAG 2.0 standards as the ideal guidelines for higher education institutions to rely upon when discussing web accessibility. In January 2018, Section 508 updated to require that all U.S. Federal information and communication technology must meet the WCAG 2.0 A/AA standards.
To summarize, these various legal rulings and amendments require that higher education institutions ensure that disabled students have functionally the same access as non-disabled students. Failure to adhere to this requirement can leave a university open to future legal action, either from the Department of Justice, the Department of Education, or a private individual or organization.
Verdinelli, S., & Kutner, D. (2016). Persistence Factors Among Online Graduate Students With Disabilities. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9(4), 353-368.
Accessibility in your course, by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Iowa State University is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0. Portions of this work, Accessibility in your course, is a derivative of Why is Web Accessibility Important? developed by Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies (retrieved on July 17, 2020) from https://sps.northwestern.edu/distance-learning/how-do-i/course-accessible/why-is-web-accessibility-important.php.