17 Accessibility in Online Learning
This chapter was originally published as a chapter in the open-access eBook Thriving Online: A Guide for Busy Educators (Kay & Hunter, 2022; Power, 2022b).
I have been designing and building online courses and digital learning resources for many years, and I am still learning new ways to make my resources as engaging and effective as possible for all of my students. An important area that I have been concentrating on in recent years is Digital Accessibility. One thing that I have learned is that it can be fairly easy to maximize the accessibility of our courses by following a few simple guidelines.
Why Accessibility Matters
For me, accessibility issues are something that started out as a professional interest. While working as an instructional developer at College of the North Atlantic-Qatar, I had the opportunity to learn about creating accessible documents through a professional development opportunity hosted by the Mada Assistive Technology Centre (Mada, 2017). While working with the Online Learning team at the Fraser Health Authority, I had the opportunity to explore accessibility issues in education more deeply by participating in the University of Southampton’s Digital Accessibility: Enabling Participation in the Information Society course (FutureLearn, n.d.). But, in recent years my interest has become more personal because I have two children with very different accessibility needs. I have also worked with students who have had documented accessibility needs, and I suspect that there have been many others who had needs that they either had not disclosed, or that they themselves were not even aware of.
It is likely that you will be working with students who have either documented, undisclosed, or perhaps undiagnosed needs that will be impacted by how you prepare and present your digital learning resources. As Doyle (2021) points out, “22% of Canadians over the age of 15 live with at least one disability that limits their everyday activities.” According to Dyslexia Canada (n.d.), “15-20% of the population has a language-based learning disability,” such as Dyslexia, meaning that nearly one in five of your students will likely be impacted by basic readability accessibility accommodations when creating your digital learning resources. Many Canadian jurisdictions have already enacted legislation dictating Digital Accessibility standards for instructional design of courses, as well as for digitally-mediated communications with our students, their parents, our colleagues, and the general public. In Canada, Ontario was the first province to explicitly codify Digital Accessibility standards through the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA, 2005). Provinces such as Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Quebec all have similar existing laws, while others such as British Columbia have legislation in the proposal stages (Doyle, 2021). Most of the standards that these provinces have put forth are based on the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (W3C, 2022).
It is unreasonable to expect that all teachers will be well-versed in all of the web-content authoring guidelines or the range of digital tools available to support the variety of accessibility needs of their students. However, it is important for everyone to be aware of certain basic accessibility standards. In some jurisdictions, you may be required to meet these basic standards whether or not you are aware of a particular student who needs accommodations (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2016). These efforts represent small changes in practice that benefit all of our students, not just those with diagnosed needs.
Guidelines for Creating Digital Learning Resources
The following guidelines are based on the WCAG 2.1 standards (W3C, n.d.). These are all steps that anyone can take without investing in specialized software or learning additional web-coding skills.
- Properly format and tag headings and text. Whether you are creating a word processor document, a PDF, a PowerPoint presentation, or a web page (including a page in a learning management system), you should avoid manually formatting the font, size, or color of your text to create document headings (Pennsylvania State University, 2021). Use the formatting toolbar in your word processor or web editor to tag your headings as “Heading 1,” “Heading 2,” “Heading 3,” etc., and your main text as “Paragraph.” This will allow digital screen reader applications to navigate your document or web content using a keyboard or digital switch. Sticking to the default paragraph and heading tags will also enable your students to use their own device’s accessibility settings, or browser plugins like the Open Dyslexic font (abbiecod.es, 2021; OpenDyslexic.org, n.d.), to adjust your digital reading materials to meet their individual needs.
- Add ALT-text and avoid embedding a lot of text within images. If you include an image in your document or web page, be sure to add alternate (ALT) text to the image (Harvard University, 2022). You can usually do this by selecting the appropriate option when inserting the image, or by right-clicking on the image. Your ALT-text should be a short (1-2 sentences, at most) description of what the image is about. This text will be read aloud to students if they are using a screen reader application, which is beneficial to visually impaired students. If the image is purely decorative, and your document or web editor provides the option, check the box to tag the image as “decorative” so that a screen reader will ignore it. Keep in mind that any text contained in the image itself is not machine-readable – so it is not accessible. Thus, avoid embedding important text within an image.
- Be careful when using color. Colors do not always display the way that we intend them to on everyone’s screen. Some of our students may also have visual impairments that make it difficult to read colored text (Morton, 2016). With this in mind, you should avoid using colored text to create emphasis, as that emphasis will not be apparent to some students. You should also be careful to maximize the contrast ratio (called color-contrast ratio) between your text and the background. Some color combinations may make it difficult to read the text. When in doubt, stick to black text on a white background. Many learning management systems will point out color-contrast issues when using the built-in accessibility checker. You can also use a free Color Contrast Analyzer like the one shared by the Paciello Group (n.d.) to check your documents and web pages.
- Check your reading order. When you create a document, PowerPoint presentation, or web page, the intended reading order for your content may be apparent to “visual” readers. However, this may not be the case for anyone using a screen reader application (Colorado State University, 2022). Reading order is often impacted by the order in which you actually placed the items on the page when creating the document (especially when creating slideshow presentations). One trick to ensure the correct reading order is to keep things linear on the page or screen, as screen readers will read the content from top-to-bottom by default. Another strategy is to avoid using tables to present content, unless you are presenting statistical data. (Tables need to be properly formatted with tagged header rows or columns, or they become confusing when using a screen reader.) Built-in Accessibility Checkers in word processors, PowerPoint, PDF editors, and web editors often have the ability to identify potential issues with the reading order of content.
- Make sure videos have Closed Captions. Many users may not be able to hear the narration in videos you choose or create to add to your course or web-based content. Many other users frequently choose to watch videos with the sound turned off. Make sure you select videos that have Closed Captions available. Use your video editor or YouTube’s closed captioning tools (Google, 2022) to add captions to your own videos
- Use an Accessibility Checker. Most word processing such as Microsoft Word (Microsoft, 2022a), web editing applications, and learning management systems such as Canvas (Instructure, 2022) now include an Accessibility Checker tool. It is often as easy to use as the spell checker. While an Accessibility Checker is not perfect, and may not detect compatibility issues with advanced accessibility tools that some of your students may use, it will pick up many common issues such as color-contrast ratios for text, missing table headers, and missing ALT-text for images. The Accessibility Checker will often provide suggestions or simple click-through options to help you resolve any issues detected.
These general guidelines are summarized in Power’s (2020) downloadable Digital Accessibility Cheat Sheet.
Activity 1: Testing with a Screen Reader
Let’s take a look at how accessible the readability is for some of your own digital learning resources. For this activity, we will examine any type of material that you want to share with your students electronically. It can be a word-processed document, a PowerPoint slide deck, or web-based reading content. What we want to do is determine if your materials are optimized for accessibility, or if there are any potential barriers that you can easily remove.
You can try this activity as often as you like, with a variety of digital learning resource types. What we want to determine is if your students can easily access the materials using some of the most common accessibility tools, such as screen readers and browser extensions.
Try out a basic screen reader. Once you have one of your digital learning resources available, try using a screen reader application to read the text to you. Most applications are compatible with built-in text-to-speech tools or your device’s accessibility features. Let’s start with some of these basic tools.
For a Microsoft Word or PowerPoint document, go to the “Review” tab and click on the “Read Aloud” icon.
For web-based content, such as a document in Google Classroom or a page in a learning management system, try installing and using a screen reading browser extension such as Google’s (2021) Screen Reader.
Try out a full-featured screen reader. Now, let’s try an application that has more of the accessibility features some of your students may want to avail of, including document navigation tools. NVDA (NV Access, 2021) is a free, fully-functional screen reader application. Try downloading and installing NVDA, and using it to navigate your digital learning materials.
The activities described here assume that you are using either a recent version of the Microsoft Office suite, or the Chrome browser on a Windows computer. Older versions of Word or PowerPoint may not have the Read Aloud feature built in. But, you can still try these activities using an add-on tool such as NVDA. Likewise, you may need to look for a screen reader plugin or extension for your preferred web browser.
Activity 2: Testing Fonts and Colors
Some of your students may avail of their device’s accessibility features or web browser extensions to make digital reading materials more easily accessible for visual reading. It is a good idea to test your materials to determine if things like font or color choice might create unintended barriers to learning.
For this activity, let’s take a look at some materials that you have posted online (such as a web page or content page in a learning management system). We will examine whether your students are able to manipulate the fonts of your text, or if the colors of your text might impact accessibility.
Try manipulating the text size. Some of your students may use accessibility tools to make text easier to read. One of the most common ways to do this is to enlarge the text. If you are viewing your materials in a desktop web browser, try using the built-in zoom feature to enlarge the content. If you are viewing your materials on a touch screen device (such as a phone or tablet), try “pinching and zooming” on the page.
If you encounter these issues, you may need to reformat your text, determine if the text is in a text box with a “hard coded” width, or determine if the content is actually inserted as text or if it is contained within an image.
Try changing the display font. Another commonly used tool for students with language-based learning disabilities is a browser extension or plugin such as the OpenDyslexic font (abbiecod.es, 2021; OpenDyslexic.org, n.d.). This tool changes the default text font on a web page to a font that is easier for some students to read. Try installing the OpenDyslexic plugin for the Chrome browser, and use it to view your online content.
If your text does not display with the updated font, you may need to reformat your text to revert to the default paragraph text formatting.
Try checking your colors. Color contrast can impact the accessibility of your learning materials for some students who are colorblind, or who have other visual acuity issues (Morton, 2016). For this exercise, you can use either web-based content, or a word-processed document, PDF, or PowerPoint slide deck that you want to share with your students digitally. Download the Paciello Group’s (n.d.) free Color Contrast Analyzer tool. Use the color pick to check the contrast of your text or image (foreground) against the background color of the page.
If your color combination does not pass accessibility standards, you may need to change your text or background colors. Remember, when in doubt stick to black text on a white background for the highest possible contrast ratio (and accessibility).
The text font plugin activity described above draws upon a browser plugin for the Chrome browser. You may need to search for the OpenDyslexic font for your preferred web browser. If you are testing the color contrast ratio for your online content in a learning management system, you may not be able to alter the default font colors set by your system administrator.
Accessible Digital Documents and Websites and Accessibility in E-Learning
- The Council of Ontario Universities (2017a, b) provides a number of excellent resources to help you make your online teaching and learning resources are accessible to all learners, and AODA compliant.
BCampus Open Education Accessibility Toolkit
- BCampus (Coolidge, et al., 2018) recently published an Open Access eBook on how to make digital learning resources, such as eBooks, compliant with digital accessibility guidelines.
Google for Education Accessibility Resources
- Want to learn more about maximizing Digital Accessibility in your Google Classroom, or when using Google Apps for Education? Google for Education (n.d.) provides a two-page PDF with overviews and links to their accessibility resources for teachers and students.
Power Learning Solutions Digital Accessibility Resources
- Looking for more tips, tricks, and resources to help you improve the Digital Accessibility compliance of your digital learning resources? On my website, you will find an ever-growing list of resources, including recorded webinar presentations, tutorial videos, and links to tools (Power, 2022).
Understanding WCAG Compliance Checkers and Their Shortfalls
- Want to evaluate the Digital Accessibility compliance of your web-based learning resources, but there is no Accessibility Checker built into your platform? Essential Accessibility (2018) provides a good overview of how online accessibility checkers work, along with links to some free online accessibility checking tools, and a good must-have WCAG compliance checklist.
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Doyle, J. (2021, May 26). A Complete Overview of Canada’s Accessibility Laws. [Web log post]. Siteimprove. https://siteimprove.com/en-ca/blog/a-complete-overview-of-canada-s-accessibility-laws/
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Instructure (2022). How do I use the Accessibility Checker in the Rich Content Editor as an instructor? [Web page]. Instructure Community. https://community.canvaslms.com/t5/Instructor-Guide/How-do-I-use-the-Accessibility-Checker-in-the-Rich-Content/ta-p/820
Kay, R. H., & Hunter, W.J. (Eds.), (2022). Thriving Online: A Guide for Busy Educators. Ontario Tech University. https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/aguideforbusyeducators/
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Morton, R. (2016, June 17). Colour contrast – why does it matter? [Web log post]. Accessibility in Government. https://accessibility.blog.gov.uk/2016/06/17/colour-contrast-why-does-it-matter/
NV Access (2021). Join the NVDA Revolution! Finally, a Fast, Functional, & Totally Free Screen Reader. [Web page]. https://www.nvaccess.org/about-nvda/
Ontario Human Rights Commission (2016, January 6). New documentation guidelines for accommodating students with mental health disabilities. [Web page]. https://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/news_centre/new-documentation-guidelines-accommodating-students-mental-health-disabilities
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Power, R. (2020, February 13). Helping Everyone Access Your Online Learning Resources. [Web log post]. Power Learning Solutions. https://www.powerlearningsolutions.com/blog/helping-everyone-access-your-online-learning-resources
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Power, R. (2022b). Accessibility in Online Learning. In R. H. Kay & W.J. Hunter (Eds.), Thriving Online: A Guide for Busy Educators (pp. 101-108). Ontario Tech University. https://doi.org/10.51357/ERZM7438
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