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10 Tips for Designing Accessible Online Learning Courses

Every learner has a unique set of abilities and preferences. Find out here how to design online courses that are accessible to everyone.

May 5, 2023 by Amy Foxwell
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When you’re designing online courses, who are you building them for? A quarter of U.S. adults have a disability. That means many learners may not be able to see images, listen to lectures, or interact with tests using a mouse.

If you don’t take differing abilities into account as you prepare your course, you risk leaving people behind. That’s an unacceptable outcome, said Nick Leffler, instructional designer and founder of corporate training provider Techstructional.

“I build courses for the corporate world every day,” Leffler said. “The biggest consequence of inaccessible design is that people won’t be able to access your content. They’ll be left out. There are potential legal repercussions, but that shouldn’t be the number-one motivation. Making content accessible is the right thing to do.

The benefits of accessible learning content extend beyond learners with disabilities, too. The Universal Design for Learning framework asks educators to present materials through multiple “means of engagement,” such as simultaneous text and speech. This approach improves accessibility for all, while also appealing to individual learning styles in a diverse group of learners.

In other words, accessible course design is good course design.

“Accessible courses are important not only to those who require accommodations, but for those who simply benefit from them,” said Leffler. “For example, captions benefit someone in a noisy environment, or when the language of the course is the student’s second language, or any number of other scenarios.”

So how do you design more accessible distance-learning systems? We spoke to instructional designers, corporate educators, and accessibility experts to find out. Here are their top tips on designing accessible online courses.

Designing Online Courses: 10 Accessibility Tips

For detailed guidance on making web content—including online courses—accessible, look to the international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), an ongoing project by the World Wide Web Consortium.

WCAG is organized into dozens of specific “Success Criteria”—everything from strong color contrast for text to proper labeling for interactive elements—that tell you exactly how to design online content that works for the most users. The WCAG Success Criteria do apply to online learning content, of course.

Need a simple introduction to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines? Start exploring with our comprehensive guide to WCAG.

But WCAG is a lengthy document. It takes a while to master. In the meantime, start creating more accessible online courses with these 10 expert tips (many of which draw on WCAG Success Criteria):

Designing Online Courses: Accessibility Tip #1

Plan for accessibility from the very start.

“Focus on inclusive design,” said Min Hwan Ahn, founder of law firm EZ485 and an attorney who has worked on accessibility cases involving Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. (Ahn’s recommendations here don’t constitute legal advice, of course.)

Inclusive design means creating your course content in such a way that it is easily accessible to all learners, regardless of their abilities,” Ahn said.

There are lots of specific ways to meet this goal. Leffler mentioned captions as alternatives for audio and video (more on that later). Conversely, make text available in audio formats, a simple feature with the right text-to-speech (TTS) tool in your learning management system (LMS) or online learning environment. Many of these solutions are hard to retrofit, however, so it’s crucial to make accessibility a core goal from the earliest stages of course design—and that process starts with a little self-education.

Designing online courses: Plan for accessibility from the very start
Designing Online Courses: Accessibility Tip #2

Research digital accessibility guidelines.

“Before you begin developing your online learning program, it’s important that you educate yourself on the guidelines you should be following to make your program accessible to all,” said Troy Portillo, director of operations at online learning platform Studypool.

“It’s much easier to create content that fits within accessibility guidelines than it is to go back and try to change existing content,” Portillo said.

The gold standard for accessible digital content is, of course, WCAG. Make sure you understand the goals and specific requirements of these guidelines prior to launching an online learning project.

Designing Online Courses: Accessibility Tip #3

Include captions and transcripts for all multimedia content.

Odds are, your online courses include lectures and other video content. To make these materials accessible to all, you must include text alternatives—captions and transcripts. Captions sync with your video, providing a readable version of dialogue, and they’re not hard to add to your content.

“All video hosting platforms allow you to upload a caption file so viewers can turn them on or off,” said Leffler. “Most course development tools let you import or set up captions for narrated content.”

Captions are helpful for learners who are deaf or hard of hearing—and for learners working in noisy environments. But other users may prefer transcripts, which often include text descriptions of on-screen action. People with blindness or vision impairments may prefer to page through transcripts using screen readers or text-to-speech (TTS) tools, for example. And many learners would retain information best by reading it, rather than watching the whole video.

Designing online courses: Include captions and transcripts for all multimedia content
Designing Online Courses: Accessibility Tip #4

Add text alternatives to all images.

According to WCAG, videos aren’t the only media that require text-based descriptions. Success Criteria 1.1.1 states that “all non-text content that is presented to the user has a text alternative that serves the equivalent purpose…”

In plain English, that means any images you post should be accompanied by a written description. If you present your course on a webpage, you can accomplish this through the HTML “alt text” tag. In other online environments, captioning images serves the same purpose.

These text alternatives “ensure that learners who are visually impaired can still access the content,” said Youssef El Achab, an IT consultant with corporate education site IT Certificate. Screen readers access alt text to describe images to users with blindness. But alt text is helpful for many learners in many situations, such as when images don’t load properly.

Designing Online Courses: Accessibility Tip #5

Choose text colors that contrast with the page background.

Most online courses use writing as a primary means of sharing information. It’s essential to make sure text is legible to the greatest number of learners. How do you do that?

“Select color schemes that provide sufficient contrast between text and background colors to ensure readability by users with visual impairments,” said Ahn.

Black text on a white background is a safe bet. But if you’re designing a more colorful course, make sure the text-to-background contrast ratio is at least 4.5:1. That’s according to WCAG Success Criteria 1.4.3. (For even more accessible text, shoot for a contrast ratio of 7:1.)

Take a deeper dive into accessible course design in this webinar from ReadSpeaker and Quality Matters:

Designing Online Courses: Accessibility Tip #6

Build a user interface that works with assistive technology.

Many learners with disabilities already have the assistive technology they need to use computers, so it’s essential to make sure your content works with these tools—things like screen readers, braille keyboards, and keyboard-only navigation. How can you tell how your online course will perform? Conduct regular testing, said Ahn.

“Test your course with assistive technology tools,” Ahn said. “Regularly test your online course using screen readers (like JAWS or NVDA), keyboard-only navigation, and other assistive technologies to identify any issues related to accessibility.”

Designing Online Courses: Accessibility Tip #7

Write simply.

All learners benefit from readable course materials. Students with developmental disabilities, second-language learners, and struggling readers may require simple writing to grasp your content. That makes writing style an important accessibility concern.

“Use clear and concise language,” Ahn said. “Make sure your course content is written in simple language that can be easily understood by all users. Avoid using jargon or complex terms where possible.”

Designing Online Courses: Accessibility Tip #8

Get feedback on your course from students with disabilities.

Most of the experts we spoke to recommended testing as a key step in designing accessible online courses. We’ve already mentioned testing course materials with assistive technology tools, but you also need to hear from users who reflect your audience. Automated accessibility testing is a great start, but it won’t uncover everything. You also need human testers, ideally from users with disabilities themselves, said Ahn.

“Regularly ask for feedback from learners with disabilities to ensure that your course is meeting their needs,” the lawyer said. “Then make necessary improvements based on their suggestions.”

Designing Online Courses: Accessibility Tip #9

Make sure learners can navigate course materials with keyboards alone.

“Make sure that all interactive elements, such as buttons or links, can be accessed using a keyboard,” said El Achab.

Some motor disabilities make it hard to use a mouse. Users with these disabilities may navigate online courses with keyboard commands alone—but you won’t know how your materials respond to keyboard commands unless you test them.

Designing online courses: Make sure learners can navigate course materials with keyboards alone
Keyboard shortcuts in a Techstructional course. Shortcuts aid in keyboard navigation.
Designing Online Courses: Accessibility Tip #10

Give users power over how information is presented.

Principles of accessibility and UDL alike remind course designers that every learner is an individual, with a unique combination of abilities and learning preferences. The only way to serve every learner is to serve each learner, and that means giving users choice over how your materials are presented.

That means providing not just text, but text and audio, for example—a combination made simple with TTS tools from ReadSpeaker.

Course Design Case Study: ReadSpeaker TTS at Los Angeles Pacific University

At Los Angeles Public University (LAPU), accessibility is a core consideration for every new course on offer. “For us, accessibility isn’t just bolted onto instruction,” said Dr. George Hanshaw, LAPU’s director of elearning operations. “It’s part of the actual build process when we design new courses and programs.” But rather than ask course designers to introduce accessibility tools, LAPU sought a TTS solution to embed directly into the school’s LMS’, Moodle and Brightspace. ReadSpeaker’s TTS tools were ideal for the job. The choice to listen to course materials removes barriers for LAPU students with disabilities, while offering every learner more choice over how to engage with content.

“All students engage more deeply with course materials when voice capabilities are added,” said Hanshaw. “We’ve seen this time and time again. And better engagement leads to greater student success.”

Learn more in ReadSpeaker’s customer story about LAPU.

ReadSpeaker’s TTS learning tools offer the user’s choice of lifelike synthetic voices, available in more than 35 languages, with more on the way. These tools integrate directly into every major LMS, so students don’t have to open new browser tabs or applications to use them. ReadSpeaker’s combination of TTS and digital literacy tools offer a simple way to improve accessibility and support UDL when you’re designing online courses.

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