What considerations should be made in order to develop accessible online learning courses?

Updated January 11th, 2013

Today, online learning courses employ a wide array of electronic and information technologies. These include web pages, chat software, multimedia, and audio and video conferencing. To assure that the electronic and information resources used are accessible to all trainees and instructors associated with a course, administrators should address the following issues.

Consider the characteristics of potential instructors and trainees

Keep in mind that your audience may be diverse in terms of age, language skills, learning styles, physical abilities, and sensory abilities. Regarding disabilities:

  • Trainees and instructors may have mobility impairments that require them to use alternative keyboards and mice, speech recognition, or other specialized input devices to access Internet-based course materials. If their input method is slow, they cannot effectively participate in real-time (synchronous) "chat" communications.
  • Participants who are blind may use screen reader software and speech synthesizers to access a course. With this technology, a synthesized voice reads aloud the text content on the screen. The content of graphics can be understood only if text descriptions are provided. Other visual materials, such as video presentations, also create access challenges for participants who are blind if the content is not also provided in text form.
  • Trainees and instructors who have low vision may use magnification software to enlarge the content of the screen. By doing so, they may view only a small portion of a standard screen page at a time. Web pages that are cluttered and use inconsistent formats can make navigation and comprehension of the content difficult for these individuals.
  • People who are color-blind may experience difficulties accessing course materials and navigational mechanisms that require the ability to distinguish one color from another.
  • Some participants may have specific learning disabilities that impact their ability to read, write, and/or process information. Some individuals with learning disabilities have trouble understanding the content of websites when the information is cluttered and poorly organized and when screen layouts are not consistent.
  • While most Internet resources do not require the ability to hear, the use of multimedia materials such as video or sound clips is becoming more widely used.. When multimedia materials include audio output without providing text captioning or transcription, individuals with hearing impairments cannot access the content.
  • Some web pages include flashing content to grab the viewer's attention. Flashes at certain rates (often between 2 and 55 hertz) can induce seizures for people who are susceptible to them.

Consider the accessibility of online learning course authoring tools

The authoring tools used to develop an online learning course should be accessible to all potential trainees, instructors, and course designers, including those with disabilities. Online learning authoring tools, such as Blackboard and WebCT, include some accessibility features, which are updated periodically. WebCT has been acquired by Blackboard. Blackboard Learn 9.1 was recognized by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in August 2010 for its high level of accessibility to people who are blind . Keep in mind, however, that in order to create an accessible course the designer needs to employ the accessibility features provided. There is a growing number of authoring tools developed for mobile applications, not all of which have fully developed accessibility features.

Consider the platforms used to access the course

Web-based trainings are no longer limited to personal computers, but are increasingly being accessed by trainees through smart phones or tablets in addition to personal computers. Features which may be accessible on one operating system or platform may not work on others. An example is Flash-based content which cannot be played on many Apple products, such as the iPhone or iPad.

Consider the accessibility of web pages

Regardless of whether or not you use an authoring tool, the web pages for promoting and delivering distance learning courses should be accessible to everyone. This requires that developers either avoid certain types of inaccessible features or formats or create alternative methods for performing the functions or accessing the content provided through inaccessible features. Lists of standards and guidelines exist for designing accessible web pages. The two most commonly used lists are those developed by the World Wide Web Consortium and the Section 508 standards developed for United States federal agencies. For more information on these standards, see the article What is the difference between the W3C guidelines and the Section 508 standards for Web accessibility? Other countries and organizations have developed standards as well. In addition, web authoring tools, such as Dreamweaver, include accessibility features that, if employed, can help to make web pages accessible. More information about the accessibility of web authoring tools can be found in the article Can I make accessible web pages using web authoring tools such as FrontPage and Dreamweaver?

Consider how instructors and trainees will interact

Text-based resources such as Usenet discussion groups, bulletin boards, electronic mail, and distribution lists are generally accessible to trainees and instructors with disabilities. On the other hand, "chat," where participants communicate synchronously, is not accessible to everyone. For example, a trainee with a learning disability or a trainee with a mobility impairment that makes it impossible to input text quickly may have difficulty keeping up with the pace of the conversation. The accessibility of a chat room to individuals who are blind and using screen reader technology depends on how the chat room was developed. For more information on this topic, consult the article Are chat rooms accessible to people with disabilities?

Consider the accessibility of video and audio clips

To make video clips accessible to trainees or instructors who are deaf, captioning can be provided. Similarly, transcripts should be provided for audio clips. Audio description (a technique for verbally describing visual content) should be provided for those who are blind. More information on open and closed captioning can be found in the articles What is the difference between open and closed captioning? and Is it better to caption or transcribe multimedia? The National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) has developed a free software tool called Media Access Generator (MAGpie) that allows multimedia specialists, publishing companies, and service providers to add captions, subtitles, and audio descriptions to their work. You can visit the MAGpie website to find out more information about the product's features and to download a free copy.

Accessible design is good design

People without disabilities may have situational limitations that are similar to the limitations imposed by disabilities. For example, a trainee or instructor may need to access course content from a hand-held computer, low resolution monitor, or slow modem connection. High graphic content may not be easily viewable by these individuals. Also, a trainee or instructor may need to access multimedia content in a noisy environment and may be better able to access audio if it's captioned or transcribed. Designing an online learning course to be accessible to trainees and instructors with disabilities will make it more accessible to everyone. For more information on making online learning courses accessible, read the article Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning, published by the University of Washington, Steps Toward Making Distance Learning Accessible to Trainees and Instructors with Disabilities published in Information Technology and Disabilities, or the comprehensive document IMS Guidelines for Developing Accessible Learning Applications.