5 Signs Courseware Was Designed With Accessibility in Mind

Written by: A.J. O’Connell

When it comes to courseware and other digital learning technologies, accessibility can be guided by multiple definitions. One approach is technical: accessible applications software comply with the standards laid out by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Another approach is the legal definition set out in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

For Dr. Spring Brennan, however, faculty can focus on a much simpler definition. “Accessible courseware is free from barriers for all students,” she says. “It’s easy to see, easy to hear, easy to read, easy to understand, and easy to use. The quality of courseware can vary wildly. Most courseware pursues accessibility, but there’s a disconnect between complying with a standard and a student being able to successfully complete the readings or activities in a courseware.”

Brennan, who is an Accessibility Specialist at Georgia State University’s Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning, and Online Education, adds that easy to see, hear, read, understand, and use are attributes that apply not just to the tool, but to the content in it and to delivery of a course. In other words, every student should be able to engage with the material.

“If you know what it’s like to struggle to use a site or a document, you’ve encountered an accessibility barrier,” Brennan says. ”What I am testing when I look at a website is: can I accomplish what I want without any barriers? With or without disabilities, if I can’t use it, it is inaccessible.”

Plan for accessibility before the fact

Nearly 20 percent of undergraduates report having a disability, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), but the actual percentage of disabled students is likely much higher, as many disabilities go unreported.

“Very few students disclose disability in higher education,” says Brennan. “And in fact, they shouldn’t have to in many cases.”

Therefore, faculty should assume they have a disabled student in any given class. If they wait until they receive an accommodation letter or a request from a student before they consider accessibility issues, at best, they are delaying the student’s ability to participate in the course, Brennan says.

At worst, they’re creating a barrier that may force the student to withdraw or take an incomplete. The tendency to address accessibility after the fact, and the impact on disabled students, contributes to bias and discrimination in higher education.

In many cases, educators may believe a courseware implementation is accessible simply because they were able to log on and navigate it themselves. However, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to see, hear, read, understand, and use for every student.

Characteristics of accessible courseware

Accessibility standards can be tough to spot for the non-disabled layperson if they don’t use screen readers or other assistive technology. So what should faculty look for?

Brennan is a member of the CourseGateway Product Advisory Board. In that role she helps inform and apply criteria for reviewing courseware on the product discovery tool. One of the main categories in those criteria is accessibility. Below Brennan shares some of the characteristics she advises colleagues to look for when evaluating a courseware product.


An example of an Accessibility review applied to CourseWare on the CourseGateway website.


Example from the accessibility section of a courseware review on the CourseGateway product discovery tool

1. It was designed to be digital first

According to Brennan, the most important sign of accessibility in courseware is digital literacy. In other words, the courseware was designed with digital capabilities in mind first. This might sound obvious, but even after decades of digital learning, higher education still operates largely on a print paradigm.

This means that sometimes courseware is treated as a corollary to print materials, or as a copied version of a textbook. Online materials might be designed like printed documents, such as a PDF file without selectable text. Educators should look for interactive file formats like .html and .epub, says Brennan.

“HTML and ePubs are web formats,” she says. “The reason you want web over print is because web is flexible in a way that print is not.”

In fact, when courseware is designed to work online, that’s another sign that it’s accessible, says Brennan.

2. It’s designed in a web format

Brennan came to accessibility from a career as a web designer and developer, and for her accessibility is directly linked to internet literacy.

Thanks to the WCAG technical standards, the internet itself is designed to be accessible. Underneath the hood is code that makes web pages responsive and flexible. They also offer built-in accessibility features like selectable text and the ability to zoom in. Accessibility is so much a part of the web, that when a user stumbles across a site that doesn’t meet WCAG standards, it’s often glaringly obvious.

If courseware and all the course material are designed to be delivered online, it’s a sign the courseware publishers had accessibility in mind. It’s also likely to work on all of your students’ devices, which can be a problem for courseware not designed for the web.

“You will never be using your students’ computer,” says Brennan.” All of the instruction and tools need to work on their devices, which means it has to be customizable and responsive for them.”

The web itself is able to be accessed on any device, which means that your students can access it in their browser, on their tablets and phones, using any assistive technology they may need.

3. It’s customizable

Being web-enabled isn’t enough, however. Courseware also must allow students to choose the way in which they interact with a page or document. For example, If courseware doesn’t support reflow — if the content doesn’t automatically resize to match the student’s browser or screen — it’s not flexible.

Accessible formats allow for customization, such as changing text or fonts, so that students can interact with the courseware in whatever way works best for them. They should also allow for ways to change the display, including magnification and a distraction-free reading mode.

While all of these features are built into a standard web browser, Brennan encourages educators to look for them in courseware as well. If courseware includes its own reading mode function, for example, it’s a sign that the publisher has given consideration to accessible reading.

4. Videos are professionally captioned and photos have alternative text

Two items instructors can check quickly and easily when reviewing courseware for accessibility are closed captions for videos and alternative text for images, says Brennan.

Videos should be professionally captioned and be 99 to 100 percent accurate. If video captions contain typos or appear to be automatically-generated and not reviewed by a human, that’s a red flag.

Similarly, all images should have professional captions or complete alternative text that accurately describes them. Also known as alt text, this is an image property that screen reading technology uses to speak the image for vision-disabled users. If images lack alt text, those images will be blank for students using assistive technology.

5. The publisher has a system in place to address accessibility concerns

Brennan also suggests that educators visit the publisher’s site and look for a section devoted to accessibility. If a publisher is serious about providing truly accessible courseware, they will provide a means to report and fix accessibility issues. They are also transparent about how they’ve tested with accessibility tools.

“However, if the fine print is that they can make it accessible after the fact, that’s a sign that there is no support for accessibility,” she says. “Another sign is requiring proof the student is disabled first, like an accommodation letter or a letter from the university.”

Content Accessibility isn’t a feature, it’s the standard

“Many people have an outdated understanding of course accessibility and disability,” says Brennan. “It is rarely a special accommodation anymore.”

Instead, faculty should think of accessibility as is the current professional standard — for content, for digital learning tools, and for all learning activities. When courseware fails to meet accessibility guidelines, it’s almost never the instructor’s fault. And some Most instructors have no choice in the courseware they use; they may have been assigned a syllabus or inherited courseware from a predecessor.

When it becomes clear that courseware is not accessible, the instructor should reach out to the publisher of the courseware, their department chair for alternatives, or the student disability office. “These places are there to support the instructor,” says Brennan.

While some accommodations are necessary for an individual student, such as a sign language translator in a classroom, accessibility features in courseware are for everyone. In fact, many students use accessibility features, such as captioned videos or voice-to-text, without realizing they’re using assistive technology. Those tools simply make it easier for them to interact with course materials — which is the entire point of accessibility.

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