What is accessibility?

Key terms

Disability: The World Health Organization defines disability as a 'contextual...

Useful links

The Web Accessibility Initiative at W3C (provides the WCAG policies for...

Accessibility, specifically online accessibility, refers to the availability of online content and activity for everyone, regardless of any special physical, sensory or cognitive requirements. In order to ensure that your online course content is available to as wide a range of people as possible, there are steps you can take regarding both technical design and content provision.

Accessibility

Accessibility, specifically online accessibility, refers to the availability of online content and activity for everyone, regardless of any special physical, sensory or cognitive requirements.

What is inclusive design?

Inclusive design allows us to 'create adaptable and personalisable educational resources that can accommodate a diversity of learning styles and individual needs' (Inclusive Design Research Centre, OCAD University). Online materials can be designed to help accommodate a diversity of learning styles and individual needs.

Inclusive design

Design for educational resources that accommodates diverse learning styles and individual needs.

When you are constructing online content or designing online activities, following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) will help to ensure that your course is as accessible as possible to as many users as possible. The 'Useful links' pod on the right-hand side of this screen will give you more information on the WCAG.

When you are constructing online content or designing online activities, following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) will help to ensure that your course is as accessible as possible to as many users as possible. The 'Useful links' pod at the end of this section will give you more information on the WCAG.

The guidelines and success criteria for accessibility of online content are organised around four principles recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium (2013):

  • Perceivability
  • Operability
  • Understandability
  • Robustness.
In the following activity, click on the tabs on the left-hand side to find out more about each of the four principles for successful accessibility.

You will now be presented with more information about each of the four principles for successful accessibility.

Your context

It is important to understand policies about accessibility in your own...

Perceivability

Make content available in a variety of formats, and in formats that can be adjusted, so that learners who are more comfortable with a particular format or are only able to consume content in a particular mode have that option available to them. So, for example, it's great to provide some audio content but a text version should also be available.


Operability

This means that users must be able to navigate around and access content regardless of the devices they are using. So, for example, make sure that users can navigate through your course using only a keyboard.


Understandability

Learners should be able to focus on the content to be learned, and not be distracted by unnecessary complexities of language and structure. Use plain English and simple sentence structures and ways to help learners pick out key information such as bulleted lists and brief summary paragraphs.


Robustness

All of your formats, from plain text to multimedia, should conform to existing standards and guidelines. This helps ensure that assistive technologies can find the necessary information, and that new technologies will be able to read older content. So, for example, using accepted text mark-up will ensure that a screen reader can correctly interpret items like hyperlinks and acronyms.

Source: Adapted from Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University [website]; W3C (2003 & 2008) [website]. Copyright © [2013 and 2008 respectively] World Wide Web Consortium, (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics, Keio University, Beihang).
All Rights Reserved. www.w3.org/Consortium/Legal/2002/copyright-documents-20021231.

You don't need to be a specialist to incorporate significant aspects of accessible and inclusive design into your online materials and courses, and you don't need to understand the medical aspects of any conditions your students may have.

Case study icon

Let us consider four case studies to help understand the impact your design choices may have on accessibility and inclusion. Meet Eric, Francesca, Amy and Alessia:

A silhouette image denoting one of the four online learners used in the case study in this section. A silhouette image denoting one of the four online learners used in the case study in this section. A silhouette image denoting one of the four online learners used in the case study in this section. A silhouette image denoting one of the four online learners used in the case study in this section.

Eric
Eric has cerebral palsy and is a wheelchair user. He can use a mouse but has poor motor control, and cannot click on links or select text with great accuracy. His typing is very slow, and his head tremors also make reading very tiring.

Francesca
Francesca is profoundly deaf and has been from birth. She is fluent in sign language and uses this as her main method of communication. She can lip-read a little and can read written English, but English is her second language. She engages actively in the deaf community and most of her friends communicate in sign language.

Amy
Amy has moderate dyslexia, which was identified when she was in secondary school. Spelling, grammar and punctuation are mildly affected, but Amy's reading speed is much slower than average, particularly when the writing style is more academic and complex. She finds reading on screen particularly tiring, but also that it is easier to read sans-serif font on a tinted background. Amy also has trouble sequencing and planning her work.

Alessia
Alessia is a visiting year student from overseas who suddenly has to return to her home for family reasons. She expects to return before the key course assessment but is anxious to keep up to date while she is away from the campus. But at home she has only intermittent dial-up (modem) access to the internet or can use her smartphone for 3G access.

smartphone

A mobile phone with computer features that allow it to interact with computerised systems, send emails, and access the internet.

How might the content and activities you include in an online course be adapted to accommodate the varying needs of Eric, Francesca, Amy, and Alessia?

In the following activity, read the content or activity suggestion. Then, for each of our four online learners, select the tick (advantage) or cross (disadvantage) to indicate whether you think the activity or content suggestion will be of benefit to that learner, pausing to read our feedback in each case. Click 'Next' to move to the next content or activity suggestions.
You will now be presented with six suggestions for content or activities in an online course. For each suggestion, consider whether it will be an advantage or a disadvantage for each of our four online learners. Then continue on to consider our thoughts.

Key terms

Asynchronous: This refers to learning that can take place at any time. In other...

PROGRAMME | Teaching Online
COURSE | Designing and developing your online course
UNIT | 2 : Things to consider before you start designing your course
PAGE TITLE | Planning for accessibility and inclusive design

Place outline lecture notes online each week in advance of the lecture

Will this be an advantage or disadvantage for Eric, Francesca, Amy and Alessia?

Our thoughts:

This will be an advantage for all four of our online learners:

  • Eric can highlight any points he wants to pay particular attention to, even if he has no time to add detailed notes.
  • Francesca can familiarise herself with the topic and keywords, which may help her with lip-reading in class.
  • Amy can take the time to identify the keywords and topics, change font and background colours, and annotate the notes during class in her own way.
  • Alessia will be able to follow the outline of lectures she will miss, and may be able to read more around the lecture topics.

Create short podcasts of key topics on the course

Will this be an advantage or disadvantage for Eric, Francesca, Amy and Alessia?

Our thoughts:

This will be an advantage for Eric, Amy and Alessia.

  • Being able to listen to key points will allow Eric to take a rest from reading. You will need to ensure that the controls for playing and pausing the podcast are large and clearly marked.
  • This might be especially helpful to allow Amy to identify the key points for her learning, and helps her to work through content at the same speed as everyone else.
  • Alessia can download these to listen to at any time – perhaps even before she travels.
  • This would not be advantageous for Francesca. An audio file is no use to her, so a text transcript should be available beside the podcast. Creating a text transcript of the podcast from your 'script' when you make the podcast should be built into your routine.

Create an online asynchronous discussion board

Will this be an advantage or disadvantage for Eric, Francesca, Amy and Alessia?

Our thoughts:

This will be an advantage for all four of our online learners:

  • Eric should be able to create a discussion board entry using his own speech-to-text software, either directly or via a word processing package. He should be able to enlarge the text and controls for easy use, or have the entries read by screen reading software.
  • Francesca has the same access and learner experience as everyone else on the course.
  • Amy can take her time to prepare a posting and use her preferred spelling and grammar checking. She will also be able to change the font and background colours to her personal preference.
  • Alessia can interact with her peers and with tutors. You might explicitly suggest she uses this to get others to explain any missed lecture and tutorial content to her.

Online webinars with text and audio chat

Will this be an advantage or disadvantage for Eric, Francesca, Amy and Alessia?

Our thoughts:

This will be an advantage for all four of our online learners:

  • Eric can ask questions via audio.
  • In Francesca's case, this could be advantageous if used thoughtfully. The text chat function will allow Francesca to participate in any discussion. If the teacher uses a webcam and speaks clearly towards it, this will help Francesca follow any speech while also watching a slide presentation. However, the slide presentation should be made clear enough for her to follow if a webcam is not available. Making a transcript of the audio presentation available after the webinar would also help here.
  • Amy can use audio to ask questions and listen to the response, and can scroll back through any text chat and save it for later reading at her own pace.
  • Even if Alessia's internet connection is too poor to allow her to participate 'live', she can subsequently download and review the recorded webinar.

Create a set of graphs showing trends over time for your topic

Will this be an advantage or disadvantage for Eric, Francesca, Amy and Alessia?

Our thoughts:

This will be an advantage for all four of our online learners:

  • Graphs and charts can be excellent ways of communicating a lot of information. Less text can be an advantage for students with any kind of reading difficulty.
  • Francesca has the same access and learner experience as everyone else on the course.
  • Amy may find it easier to absorb information from graphs and charts than from text. Of course the graphs, like any other visual image, should be accompanied by a clear text description for anyone with a visual impairment.
  • If Alessia is working in English as a second language, she may find graphical information easier and faster to assimilate.

Provide a 'course map' linking to the main elements of the course, including readings and resources, different types and dates of assessments

Will this be an advantage or disadvantage for Eric, Francesca, Amy and Alessia?

Our thoughts:

This will be an advantage for all four of our online learners:

  • It will help Eric to go to the part of the course he needs without having to scroll or click through unnecessary items.
  • It will provide Francesca with a clear visual indicator of how the course fits together without complex language descriptions.
  • It helps Amy to review the overall structure of the course and plan her work ahead, around the introduction of new topics and key assessment dates.
  • Alessia can review this before she leaves, and identify key topics she may need to work on, and key dates to target. This could form a helpful basis for discussion in helping her complete the required work while off-campus.

How do accessibility and inclusive design work together?

Accessibility specifically considers the needs of people with disabilities, whereas inclusive design is a broader concept that looks to reduce the need for special adjustments for any user. Inclusive design supports accessibility when something can be used 'straight out of the box' by people with different abilities, or when something is compatible with various adaptive and assistive technologies (University of Washington, Universal Design; 2013).

There are three good reasons why accessibility and inclusive design are important for online teachers and learners:

  • Good design is for ALL learners – they benefit from clear content structure, variety of modes and media, and being able to personalise and pace their own learning.
  • Teachers and designers have an ethical obligation to design educational environments for the widest range of abilities.
  • Legislation often requires educational institutions and IT suppliers to ensure their goods and services are accessible to all.

Being prepared with accessibility

Making this sort of provision for students in advance of having a student with a specific requirement will save the student, you and your institution both time and money. By using inclusive design you can also help to 'future proof' your online materials. Having planned and made explicit the role of each component of your course, it will be simpler to adapt and update single components as new technology emerges, without having to revise the whole programme. For example, making audio and video files available as MP3 and MP4 formats means that they can be accessed by many different systems.

These design considerations grow in relevance with the rising use of mobile devices for accessing the internet. Trying to navigate around online materials using a small touch screen can reduce the accessibility of the content being studied, So, designing for flexibility, including alternative methods of access, is becoming important for everyone.

mobile devices

Smartphones and tablets; in the context of online learning, they can be used to access learning content and to participate in learning activities.


Key terms

Disability: The World Health Organization defines disability as a 'contextual variable, dynamic over time and in relation to circumstances. One is more or less disabled based on the interaction between the person and the individual, institutional and social environments' (Institute for Human Centered Design, 2013).

Useful links

Your context

It is important to understand policies about accessibility in your own institution. Locate and bookmark any relevant policies, also making a record of who you should contact about accessibility issues.

Key terms

Asynchronous: This refers to learning that can take place at any time. In other words, you and your students can access and participate in your online courses whenever you wish.

Synchronous: This refers to learning that takes place in real time, such as virtual meetings or other scheduled online events.