Six More Tips for Making Online Courses Accessible

Post #12 (of 12) in the series of posts about improving the accessibility of online courses.

Barry's Bitmoji indicating his happiness that this series is ending.


In previous posts we examined many of the accessibility tips for making online course content using HTML pages, Microsoft® Word documents, and Microsoft® PowerPoint® documents. In this final installment, we’ll look at a few final suggestions for making a positive impact on the accessibility of online courses.

1. Try out Assistive Technology for yourself

A screen reader is a computer program that produces an auditory version of the text that is available on a webpage, or a computer-generated document. Commonly used screen readers are JAWS®, NVDA, Windows Narrator, and VoiceOver for Mac. You are able to try all of these programs for free, and I suggest you do so in order to get a feel for that user experience. Only JAWS requires a paid license for continued use. There is a bit of a learning curve when getting started with a screen reader, but as you stumble through your first couple of times using a reader, you’ll likely develop some empathy for students who must rely on such technology for their access to learning. You can find more about these platforms here:

JAWS from Freedom Scientific (also JAWS keyboard shortcuts by Deque University)

NV Access, makers of NVDA (Also User Guide and WebAIM tutorial)

Narrator – complete guide to Windows Narrator

VoiceOver for MacOS – user guide for VoiceOver

2. Know when to use PDF as your document file type

PDF can be a good choice for document file type, if:

  • The document appearance is critical and must look exactly the same across various different computing platforms.
  • The document needs to be encrypted, will include things such as a watermark or a digital signature.
  • You want to make it more difficult for the viewer to edit the document.

Keep in mind however, that for delivering content on a web page, such as in an online course, a properly made HTML page will be the most accessible file format.

3. Learn about making PDF documents accessible to students using Assistive Technology

If you’ve decided that an accessible PDF is the way you need to go, then you need to know how to properly create the document.

There are two ways to create an accessible PDF, either a) converting a source file, like a PowerPoint®or a Word document to a PDF or b) scanning a hard copy of a document to PDF.

To learn more about accessible PDFdocuments, visit the Web Accessibility MOOC for Online Educators public content site.

4. Go another step beyond captioning, use described videos

Captioned videos are a good first step toward accessibility of video content for online courses, however, the captions tend to capture the words spoken in the video, which can sometimes be confusing without understanding the context within which they are being spoken.

Described video, descriptive video, and audio description are three terms that all mean the same thing, a voiceover description of the primary visual elements in a video. Some examples of things that could be described on a video include setting the scene, costumes, actions, expressions, scene changes, and the like. These descriptions would be beneficial to viewers with low or no vision, as long as they can hear the audio descriptions.

There are many factors to consider when making described videos, and the full extent of knowledge extends beyond this series of accessibility tips for online courses. However, one free and simple service to consider is the website YouDescribe.org, where you can add audio descriptions to YouTube™videos. Embedded below is an example of a described video from that site.

5. Test your webpages using only your keyboard

Open one of your course content pages in a new window. Using only your keyboard (hands off the mouse!), can you access all the features and operate all the buttons or links using keys on the keyboard?

If it is a simple webpage with text and images, I’ll guess that your answer is yes. However, if you have embedded videos, an audio player, or action buttons there’s a chance that you’ll find the keyboard-only access is not sufficient. If that is the case, you may need to change that content, or get some technical help to make the content more accessible.

Keyboard users typically use the Tab key to navigate through the various components of a webpage. The other most commonly used keys are Enter, Spacebar, and the Arrow keys.

You can learn more about Keyboard Accessibility at WebAIM.

6. Be familiar with the applicable laws, and some of the lawsuits against educational institutions

There is a great deal of information available on the Internet about the accessibility laws, and resulting lawsuits that have impacted educational institutions. It is in the interests of all educators to become familiar with the legal expectations and ramifications related to accessible educational offerings.

The University of Washington offers an excellent summary of the Laws, Policies, and Standards related to accessible technology in education; including a sampling of Resolution Agreements and Lawsuits from recent legal actions and a list of Legal Cases by Issue.

I also recommend the page titled Higher Ed Accessibility Lawsuits, Complaints, and Settlements from my friends at University of Minnesota Duluth.

This brings to a close the twelve-part series of posts about making online courses more accessible to all students.

Microsoft and PowerPoint are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries.

Directory to posts in this series:

  1. Improving Accessibility of Online Courses – the why
  2. What do Educators Need to Know about VPATs?
  3. Alt Text for Simple Images in Online Courses
  4. Complex Images – Going Beyond Simple Alt Text
  5. Finding Videos with Good Captions
  6. Captioning Videos for Your Online Courses
  7. Improving the Accessibility of your HTML Content Pages – Part 1
  8. Improving the #A11y of Your HTML Content Pages – Part 2
  9. Making Word Documents Accessible for Online Learning
  10. Making PowerPoint Files Accessible for Online Learning
  11. Using Web-based Tools in Online Learning – #A11y
  12. Six More Tips for Making Online Courses Accessible