Improving the Accessibility of Online Course Materials

illustration of online learning with computers and textbooks

July 7, 2011. In a climate of increased demand for online courses and increased federal scrutiny of regulatory compliance, it is increasingly critical that colleges and universities ensure the accessibility of their online course materials for students with disabilities — and not only for online courses, but also for classes held in the physical classroom that direct students to pursue research online or access supplemental materials via a course management system.

Fortunately, significant gains in accessibility can be made with relative ease — the key is to be proactive and plan for them early rather than after an issue is noticed. To learn more about the “low-hanging fruit” for accessibility of course materials, we interviewed two leading experts on the issue from Drexel University — Dan Allen, content management specialist with Drexel’s Office of Information Resources and Technology, and Jenny Dugger, director of Drexel’s Office of Disability Services.

Allen and Dugger offer the following tips for:

  • Vetting potential vendors for accessibility
  • Coaching your faculty in making course materials more accessible

Vet Potential Vendors, Thoroughly

“Where institutions often get into trouble is when they don’t vet their vendors for accessibility; by the time they realize there are issues, they have already made a long-term and expensive contractual commitment to the vendor.”
Dan Allen, Drexel U

“The whole university needs to take responsibility for accessibility,” Allen advises. Throughout the institution, different offices may be making purchasing decisions for software packages, course management systems, or even electronic textbooks and e-reader devices. Allen and Dugger suggest researching accessibility during the earliest stage of considering a vendor.

For example:

  • Google that company’s name and “Section 508” or “accessibility”
  • Review the company’s website — is their response to the accessibility issue visible and clear?
  • Ask the vendor direct questions about accessibility for disabled students
  • Check for a list of their clients
  • Consult your institution’s own experts on accessibility

In consulting your internal experts on the issue, Dugger advises not only relying on your office of disability services, but also having conversations with students with disabilities. “Make the students part of your team when vetting software packages.”

Dugger notes that not only do you need to vet the accessibility of software that your faculty might use to upload and display online materials, but also the online course shell — relatively few course management systems have NFB (National Federation for the Blind) approval.

Essentially, you have two questions to ask:

  • Is the course shell accessible? (Can students with disabilities get into the platform?)
  • For both your face-to-face and online courses, are you putting material online in such a way as to maximize its accessibility?

Coach Your Faculty

“Convey that accessibility is not as difficult as one might imagine, if you’re working on it from the beginning. Faculty want to do the right thing and help their students, but there is a misconception that accessibility means a lot of time spent.”
Jenny Dugger, Drexel U

“To get faculty involved in the process,” Allen adds, “first, don’t scare them off! Keep it simple. In fact, let them know that just two steps will go a very long way toward increasing the accessibility of online documents.”

These steps are:

  • Applying styles to the document
  • Adding alternative text to images

For example, Allen notes that because most faculty-created HTML and PDF files begin their life as MS Word documents, a lot can be achieved by educating faculty about formatting and content structure in Word. For example, if faculty apply heading styles within a document (rather than applying a bold font face and changing font color to indicate a header), then they will be structuring the content so that it can be easily scanned by a screen reader. For instance, if a student using a screen reader wanted to hear only the headers within the document, the screen reader would be able to scan them and read them out — thus giving the student an instant outline of the content. Similarly, showing faculty how they can add alternative text to images can help ensure that students with disabilities have access to the visual course materials, as well.

“Also,”Allen adds, “invite faculty to consider how the content might sound if it were read aloud to them.”

Where you may see some push-back, there is probably one of two motives at play:

  • Some faculty may perceive accessibility as a lot of work “for just that one student”
  • Faculty already have significant demands on their time, and may see accessibility as “one more thing on the pile”

Dugger suggests introducing the concept of universal design as the foundation for the work you will do together. “If you make something in an accessible format,” Dugger notes, “then you are making it accessible for everyone, not just people with disabilities but including people with disabilities. That ramp outside the building is not just for people with wheelchairs. It’s also for moms pushing strollers and for businessmen pushing bags in front of them. Frame the issue in this way.”

Second, help faculty see how to achieve accessibility with little time investment. Dugger suggests that the best thing you can do is to position your office of disability services as a resource to faculty. Let faculty know that your goal is to help them improve accessibility with a minimum of strain on their time. “Beyond providing accessibility workshops and educational sessions,” Dugger suggests, “can you be available to meet briefly with individual faculty, to coach them on making their material more accessible?”

Finally, Allen stresses how important it is to focus on partnering with faculty, not just relaying information to them. “You need a dialogue. Once faculty understand the barriers some students face, they will spot challenges and opportunities to increase accessibility that your disability services staff might not even think of.”