Designing an Accessible Online Course

This module discusses the importance of accessibility and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and provides tips and resources for making your course accessible to all students.

Why is accessibility important?

Good course design builds in accessibility from the beginning. Course materials and tools are accessible if they can be used as effectively by people with disabilities as by those without (Jim Thacher). Accessibility falls under the rubric of Universal Design for LearningUDL aims to change the design of the environment rather than to change the learner.

“Universal design for learning (UDL) is curriculum that emphasizes the need for flexibility and encourages faculty to consider a framework for designing courses that provide multiple means of representationexpression, and engagement:

Representation includes different ways of presenting instructional material so that the greatest number of students can access the material flexibly in a way that meets their needs, since learners differ in how they understand and perceive information. Thus, it is important to have multiple ways of presenting information from which learners can choose, such as use of lectures, guest speakers, web pages, or activities.

Expression includes students demonstrating what they learn through different types of assessments, including exams, papers, or projects.

Engagement encompasses different modes for student involvement, such as the use of classroom interactive activities, discussions, or online chat rooms” (Black, et al., 2015, p. 2)

The guidelines listed above can be applied at all stages of the course design process, from the course syllabus and course objectives, to teaching techniques, learning materials, and assessment methods. 

Creating accessible online courses designed around the principles of Universal Design for Learning is important for at least three reasons (from UCDavis):

  1. “A significant number of people have disabilities that can make it difficult for them to take an online course.” Students with disclosed disabilities on college campuses make up about 11% of the campus population nationwide (NCCSD Research Brief).
  2. “Accessibility is required by law” under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. 
  3. “Accessibility features benefit many students, not just those with documented disabilities.” This includes people with low bandwidth connections or using older technologies and mobile phone users.

What can you do to improve accessibility?

UDL Syllabus
Learning Goals
UDL and Assessment
Give Extra Time for a Quiz or Assignment
Executive Functioning
Blended Courses

Media and materials (need to provide a brief intro to this content) 

Web Conferencing
Zoom Accessibility

Assess your content

Are all of your course texts machine-readable? If not, try running them through SensusAccess.

Do all of your images have descriptive alt text? If not, make sure to add it to any images that are not strictly decorative. The alt text should not be the same as any caption provided; remember that a computer will read both the alt text and the caption.

Are all of your videos captioned and all of your audio transcribed? While automatic transcriptions are not perfect, they can do most the work for you; you’ll just have to do a bit of clean-up. Kaltura can generate captions for you, as can YouTube. You can also ask us about the service Trint.

Finally, try accessing your course content from your phone instead of a laptop or desktop computer. Does everything work as expected? Are any files frustrating or even impossible to view? Remember that some of your students may be able to access course content primarily or only through their phones.

Additional resources