8 Guidelines to Ensure Your Digital Learning Materials Are Accessible

Written by: Christie Forgette

Equity and accessibility in online learning go hand in hand. To ensure that a course is fully equitable, colleges and universities must give every student access to all course materials and learning opportunities. This is especially important as courseware and other digital learning tools — in both fully online and fully in-person courses — become more common.

Completely accessible courses benefit all students. Universal Design principles allow instructors to create more inclusive learning environments that provide accessible learning experiences for all students.

Although accessibility teaching practices can differ from one course to the next, instructors can draw on a few widely used principles. Below are eight guidelines for designing online courses, courseware, and/or online materials for accessibility.  

1. Write an Accessibility Statement in the Syllabus
Including an accessibility statement in your syllabus, online course website, and department website is a helpful way for students to get information on accessibility in an individual course and campus-wide.

Include links to the institution’s accessibility policies and services and its disability resource center. Think about providing instructions for students, such as whom to reach out to if something in the course is inaccessible.

The University of Arkansas Center on Disabilities developed a toolkit for creating fully accessible online courses and provides sample accessibility statements. Instructors can also check to see if their own institutions have recommended statements or guidance on writing accessibility statements.

2. Be Consistent
Consistent course material design allows for more intuitive online learning experiences. Use consistent text, page structure, lesson lengths, and organizational schemes. Clear layouts and organizational structures are useful for all, but as accessibility expert Sheryl Burgstahler points out in A Tutorial for Making Online Learning Accessible to Students with Disabilities, consistency is particularly helpful for students with “some types of learning disabilities, attention deficits, and visual impairments.”

3. Make Text Readable
Design PDFs, slide presentations, and other text-heavy documents with readability in mind. Some tips for making text readable include the following:

  • Make text size 10 pt. or larger, and use familiar fonts
  • Utilize bullet points or numbered lists to organize
  • Refrain from using colors to highlight information
  • Organize information in small chunks
  • Ensure there is enough color contrast between text, graphics, backgrounds, etc.
  • Use built-in heading styles

4. Provide Alt Text
A person using a screen reader will not be able to understand an image without alt text, the technical term for a short description, embedded in computer code, that explains the appearance or function of an image.Most computer programs that make it easy to add images also include a simple way to add alt text.

Alt text is needed for images, charts, graphs, or anything else that is not text but conveys meaning. In addition to benefiting vision-impaired learners, alt text is helpful when images aren’t displaying correctly for any user.

Alt text should be written as a clear, concise description of the image, graph, or chart  and is usually about 120 characters or less.

5. Write Descriptive Links
Writing clear, descriptive wording for hyperlinks improves accessibility for students using a screen reader. Avoid writing links that use “click here” or that rely on the web address (e.g., https://www.coursegateway.org/resources).

Instead, write a description of the content to which the link will take a student (e.g., CourseGateway’s resource page).

A good rule of thumb is to include enough context that readers will know what page will load and what the benefit will be if they click the link.

6. Use Semantic Structure in Headings, Lists, and Tables
Headings, lists, and tables that follow a logical order and match the visual order of content on the page improve readability and therefore accessibility.

Headings are a primary way that screen readers navigate the text on a page, so use heading numbers in the order you want students to read the text. Most content-creation software (e.g., Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Adobe InDesign, and Acrobat) have style and formatting features within their systems.

7. Create Accessible Videos with Captions, Audio Descriptions, and Video Transcripts
To make videos  fully accessible, instructors should create captions, audio descriptions, and video transcripts.

Check to make sure that the videos you are using as instructional tools have closed captions. If you are making your own videos, there are several ways to approach creating captions and video transcripts. For more information, the University of Washington website for accessibility has useful advice on captioning and creating transcripts.

Audio description refers to providing information about the visual aspects of a video to someone who is blind or has low vision.

8. Don’t Forget Built-in Accessibility Checkers
You should always use your software's built-in accessibility checker after finishing the course design. Then, follow the recommendations to fix any errors that the checker finds.

For example, if you are using Microsoft Word to create course content and materials, go to the accessibility report via File>Info>Check for Issues>Check Accessibility.

Remember that automatic checkers have some limitations, so make sure to also perform manual checks.

Start your search for accessible courseware today!