Improve Accessibility in Tomorrow’s Online Courses by Leveraging Yesterday’s Techniques

Traditionally, when a face-to-face student requested a sign language interpreter or other assistance, individualized accommodation arrangements were made through institutional channels.

With the advent of online courses, however, the concept of accessibility has emerged. In contrast to the reactive, customized approach of accommodation, accessibility means proactively identifying and removing as many barriers to instruction as possible—before a course is ever opened for registration.

While some argue that building in accessibility is prohibitively expensive, recent lawsuits are driving more and more institutions to view accessibility as a requirement rather than a luxury. Unfortunately, making an online course accessible is tough—unless you’re familiar with traditional print techniques.

The problem

Making online courses accessible presents two major challenges:

1. Technical challenges.

  • Most instructional designers don’t have the technical skills, ability, or time needed to build in accessibility. This is because few instructional designers create software from scratch; instead, they’re limited to using a combination of learning management systems (LMSs) and third-party packages that differ widely in accessibility support.
  • The very nature of online instruction poses unique problems and challenges for accessibility. In class, for example, a sight-impaired student can hear and differentiate speakers and ask for immediate clarification. Neither strategy is possible with asynchronous text-based discussion boards, which form the backbone of many online courses (and which pose serious challenges for screen reading software).
  • It’s not uncommon for online courses to be developed on extremely aggressive schedules. With mere weeks to develop and implement an online course, even a straightforward strategy such as adding closed captions to lecture videos can be seen as a time-intensive extravagance.

2. Pedagogical challenges.
Even if screen readers could identify and translate onscreen text with 100% accuracy (which isn’t the case), the very act of turning a complex textual presentation into a single continuous audio stream creates significant barriers to instruction.

Sighted students reading text online, for example, can make meaning by choosing where to enter the material (say, by consulting the table of contents or by scanning headings); reading out of order or re-reading specific sections; and glancing back-and-forth from text to illustration as needed to clarify their understanding. In contrast, a screen reader begins at the top of the screen and translates from top to bottom and left to right, often incorporating unhelpful items (such as redundant frames and headings) that sighted students can quickly skip.

Consider, too, how screen reading software might interpret a map, a chart, or a complicated table. Adapting these resources meaningfully for audio presentation requires more than a simple read-the-text-that-appears translation; instead, a profound pedagogical understanding both of what needs to be conveyed and how best to convey it audibly is required.

The solution

Creating an online course is more analogous to publishing an e-textbook than it is to teaching a traditional face-to-face course. Recognizing this allows instructional designers take advantage of the following tried-and-true content presentation methods, all of which boost accessibility.

1. Technical strategies.

  • Present instructions, handouts, and other digital texts in one of the following two formats—both of which are supported by virtually all learning management systems and screen readers:
    • HTML
      • Use numbered lists whenever possible and replace bolding with heading tags (screen readers interpret bolding and heading differently).
      • Add descriptions to all the images in your materials using the HTML ALT tag. If the image is too complex to be described in a sentence or two, however, you’ll want to rework the image so that it can be conveyed audibly .
    • Tagged PDF. Making course content available in PDF format allows students to print it easily, which is important both for students who lack 24/7 Internet access and those who simply learn better by studying and taking notes on paper. But going one step further and applying HTML-like tags to PDF files (which you can do using a combination of Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat Pro) also tells screen readers how to translate the material meaningfully.
  • Present content in as flat a navigational structure as possible. Rather than a multi-level folder-within-a-folder approach, present all course content in a single, scrollable file, tagged (via HTML or PDF) to tell screen readers the precise order in which text should be translated. If that’s not possible given the constraints of your LMS, at the very least reduce the number of clicks required to “drill down” to course content to two or three.
  • Avoid using frames. While HTML frames can be useful for sighted students (used correctly, embedding implicitly and efficiently communicates relationships among the items presented), frames can make a screen reader’s job tougher. If you do decide to use them, offer a flat non-framed version, too.
  • Chunk videos (and name the chunks). Instead of a 50-minute video called “Week 12 video,” create and link to two 20-minute videos titled (for example) “Structure and Function of the Integumentary System (19:56)” and “Alterations in the Integument (20:11).”
  • Provide closed captioning for all videos. Video production software such as Camtasia and Captivate typically supports captioning; if yours doesn’t, take advantage of YouTube’s free captioning support to add captions to videos after you’ve produced them.

2. Pedagogical strategies.

  • Cut extraneous material. Sighted students can learn to ignore extraneous “eye candy” and text. That’s not the case for students relying on screen readers, which give the same presentational weight to long-winded, repetitious material and critical course concepts. Make sure every paragraph, image, activity, and video clip you add to an online course contributes directly to your course’s stated learning objectives.
  • Write clearly and succinctly. Use a direct, personal tone in your instructions, feedback, and discussion posts that more closely matches face-to-face speech than formal written speech. For example, favor “Plan to read an average of 50 pages each week” over “Students should be aware that reading comprises a significant component of the grading scheme for this course, as outlined in learning objectives 23, 25, and 41.”
  • Provide accessible alternatives to inaccessible materials or activities. It’s fine to send online students to a third-party website to work through a simulation or case study. But if the activity isn’t accessible to students with hearing, sight, or cognitive impairments, have in mind an alternative that is accessible that will provide a similar opportunity for learning. In lieu of asking students to label a map with major WWII battle sites in chronological order, for example, offer an alternative activity that has students record themselves speaking the name and chronological order of major WWII battle sites as well as a description of each battle location (to explicitly assess the knowledge that sighted students demonstrate implicitly by drawing on a map).
  • Annotate links meaningfully. For every Web link you present, include a short description (for example, 3-1/2 minute Smart History clip introducing the Pietà), how students should approach it (Watch the video through once, then read pp. 33-39 in your textbook and watch it again) and precisely what you expect them to learn by interacting with it (Of the works in your textbook that deal with the Pietà’s subject, which ones take an approach most radically different from Michelangelo’s in terms of realism?). This approach provides a double benefit: it drives active learning and provides the meaningful details necessary to guide students relying on a screen reader.
  • Avoid pronouns. “This section of the river,” “that region,” and “these nodules” are meaningless to students who can’t see what you’re referring to. Avoiding pronouns as much as possible makes your meaning clearer—to all students, not just those relying on screen readers.
  • Uniquely identify and annotate all figures and illustrations (whether presented as part of online text or videos/animations) and present them adjacent to the text that refers to them initially. Example: Figure 2. Hodgkin Lymphoma. When you refer to a table or figure, link directly to it using an HTML link.
  • If you use repetition, use it both deliberately and economically. Ideally, your course content will contain nothing extraneous. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t contain repetition. In some cases, repetition is necessary to drive learning. In those situations, present the material once and then link back to it as necessary.


Because building support for every conceivable physical and cognitive accommodation into every single online course would be prohibitively time-consuming and expensive, accessibility will never obviate the need for one-on-one accommodation. However, proactively building as much accessibility into online courses as possible can go a long way toward reducing the need for accommodation (and toward protecting institutions from lawsuits).

Best of all, making a course more accessible is a win-win situation, because the result is a course that all students will find easier to use—and to learn from.


Parry, Marc. (2010) ADA Compliance Is a ‘Major Vulnerability’ for Online Programs. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Wired Campus, November 12, 2010. Retrieved online April 21, 2014 from

InfotechNews. (2013) Higher Ed Accessibility Lawsuits. University of Minnesota Duluth, October 23, 2013. Retrieved online April 21, 2014 from

To find out how a screen reader would interpret your course content, type a URL into one of the online accessibility tools listed here: and here:

Overview of tagging PDF files:

Emily Moore is an instructional design consultant/multimedia developer at a metropolitan research university.