by Jessica Porter, Office of Educational Technology (eTech)
This post answers some of the most frequently asked questions about online course accessibility. To learn more about the accessibility of specific instructional technologies, visit accessibility.ua.edu or consult the official documentation for that technology.
What does making a course accessible actually mean?
Accessibility means all students can access and use your course from the beginning, including those with visual, auditory, cognitive and physical impairments. More specifically, it means your course follows the four principles of web accessibility outlined in Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG):
- Course content is perceivable to all students.
- Content and interface are operable to all students.
- Content and interface are understandable to all students.
- Content is robust and compatible with a variety of assistive technologies.
In most cases, “making a course accessible” will include formatting documents, captioning video, and ensuring any content provided by publishers is compliant. If this sounds overwhelming, consider that it’s much easier to have accessibility “baked in” than to retrofit materials in the future (and it benefits everyone, too).
Doesn’t Disability Services take care of that?
The Office of Disability Services provides accommodations only upon request, meaning your course content may be inaccessible in the meantime.
Isn’t Blackboard already accessible?
Yes, Blackboard Learn is an accessible platform, but your course content — documents, images, videos, etc. — may be inaccessible without proper formatting. Luckily, most of these items are easy to format, especially if you incorporate accessibility early in the development process.
Who’s responsible for accessibility in online courses?
Although support is available, instructors are generally responsible for ensuring their course content is accessible. For our purposes, course content includes any text, documents, or media created in or uploaded to the Blackboard shell.
What should I focus on, exactly?
Using Proper Document Structure
Ideally, all assignments will be built directly in Blackboard, but if you must include a Word document, it should be formatted with appropriate headings, lists, alt text, and tables. CCS offers an accessible template you may use, but you will still need to know the formatting basics. For details, see Microsoft Word: Creating Accessible Documents.
To be accessible, a PDF must be properly “tagged,” meaning its heading and body structure are identifiable to screen readers. Tags are invisible markup, and they can be added to any existing document, including scans, via Acrobat’s “Make Accessible” function. For more information, see Converting Documents to PDF and Acrobat and accessibility.
We recommend using one of the accessible templates provided by CCS, but if you prefer a different style, Powerpoint offers a selection of pre-made accessible layouts. Using one of these options will ensure your presentation is minimally accessible — that is, it has proper headings and body sections.
Presentations containing visual elements like images and data tables require a few extra steps, however, even if you’re using an accessible template. In particular, images will need alt text, and data tables will need proper headers. For more information, see PowerPoint Accessibility.
Creating Accessible Media
Adding alternative (alt) text to images is a fundamental aspect of accessibility. Good alt text is simple, and it describes the image’s function and purpose — not just its content. In other words, good alt text tells users how an image contributes to the surrounding content. To learn how to add alt text in Blackboard, see Tips for Accessible Blackboard Courses.
If you’re adding video, audio, or other multimedia content to your course, you should include a transcript and captions. In most cases, instructors are responsible for supplying their own captions, and the University provides several resources to help you get started.
If you’re recording a lecture in the CCS studio and have a transcript, they can add the captions for you.
Ensuring Course is Functional Without a Mouse
If you are developing a course with CCS, your instructional designer will format the course shell for you; however, if you are creating a shell independently, you will need to design your course to operate with assistive technology.
Good heading structure helps people using assistive technology to understand how your course is organized. It also allows them to jump between sections, making navigation simpler and more efficient. Simply bolding, underlining, or enlarging text will not make it a proper heading. Instead, use Blackboard’s built-in heading styles in the appropriate order — H1 for page titles, H2 for headings, H3 for subheadings, and so on. For instructions, see the FRC’s Tips for Accessible Blackboard Courses.
Descriptive link text
Most screen readers give users the option to pull up a list of links and navigate through the list, much like an extra menu. Be sure your link text is descriptive enough to make sense out of context (avoid “here,” “click here” and “more”). For example, see How to Write Meaningful Link Text.
Lists and tables
Format lists using the formatting tool in Blackboard, and avoid using asterisks, dashes, or numbers as list item markers. Use proper markup for data tables. See detailed instructions for building tables in Blackboard.
What about a video made by some third party?
Do your research and test third-party material with screen readers and keyboard-only navigation. Look for captions and transcripts for external videos. Ultimately, you can only ensure the content you create is accessible, but you should still consider accessibility when selecting third-party content.
What about visual materials like art and maps? What about music?
Depending on the image, you may be able to convey the information in another manner. For example, the data or process explained by an infographic could be summarized as alt text. In such cases, your description would focus more on the information conveyed by the graphic than the extraneous visual elements.
Consider format as you write your descriptions. Lists work particularly well for visuals that explain timelines or processes; data from pie and bar charts often works better as a table than as a description or alt text.
If you’re unable to make the material accessible yourself and you have a student who needs access (someone with a visual impairment, for example), they can register with the Office of Disability Services, and that material will be covered by their accommodations.
Remember, accessibility requires only an equivalent experience, not an identical one. For more information about formatting complex visuals, see Guidelines for Describing STEM Images (NCAM).
How you treat audio depends on how you’re using it in the course. In some cases, a descriptive transcript will be adequate; in others, you may need to rely on ODS for accommodations.
When should I get started?
It’s always better to make your content accessible before anyone requests accommodations. Consider accessibility as you develop and choose new materials, and plan to revise any old documents before your content deadline. This means most of the work will happen early in the development process, but it may continue throughout the iterative development cycle.
This timeline outlines the course development process and the appropriate times to make changes to your existing content.