Designing the online components of a course with accessibility in mind is a significant boon to students who need accessible options; however, this approach also offers many opportunities for supporting the learning of all students who can make use of accessible features in the ways that work best for them. It’s also often much easier to build the online elements of a course to be accessible from the beginning than it is to retrofit content to make it accessible, so planning in advance can be a helpful way to optimize accessible options.
There are many different opportunities to design an online course that is more accessible for students, from high-level planning and structure through to specific details around individual pieces of content. Collectively, these strategies can be used and combined in different ways to ensure that students are supported in accessing content, understanding its context, and completing activities and assessments throughout the course.
- First, options for structuring a course, building clear navigation, communicating with students, and contextualizing information will help to set up a course site that is more accessible to work with for all students.
- Next, developing support resources and including different ways to access information and complete work can engage, motivate, and support students with diverse needs.
- And finally, working with accessible formats and software will ensure that all students will be able to access course content.
These options can be combined in a range of ways to best address the specific needs of a particular course while ensuring that students’ accessibility needs are being met.
One of the most important principles guiding accessible online course design is consistency. Learners are better able to work within a course and find what they need when they’re working with a consistent schedule, structure, and guidance.
Establishing consistency in a course might include approaches like:
- Emailing once a week on the same day and at the same time with essential course information
- Offering a similar amount of content in a similar structure each week – for instance, notes, followed by a lecture video, a brief self-quiz, a video from an external source, and then a worksheet or reflection to complete
- Keeping all assessment due dates the same day of the week at the same time
- Using the same digital tools regularly across the course
Consistency helps to establish aspects of a course as regular and routine, which reduces the degree to which learners need to remember specific details or process new information.
Learners benefit from regular communication from their instructors, especially when there is less or limited in-class contact. Connecting regularly with students through email or Blackboard announcements (which also send email notifications) offers an opportunity to highlight important elements of the class, send reminders about important dates or tasks, and update learners on any changes to the course.
On the other hand, too much communication can be overwhelming. Learners are likely receiving communications, announcements, and other notifications from many classes at once. Focusing on communicating regularly – perhaps once a week on the same date and time – can ensure that learners expect and review the communication but aren’t overwhelmed.
How a course is set up can be a significant help or hindrance to students. Having a simple and consistent course structure helps to let students know where they can find course materials easily from week to week.
Before You Start Building
Before you start building, give some consideration to what will be included in your course. You might consider:
- What materials are going to be available to students every week?
- Are there a lot of materials or just a few?
- What materials are going to be made available more irregularly?
- How many assessments will students complete?
- When and how often do assessments happen?
Structuring Consistent Course Materials
Once you know what your course materials look like, you can determine how to structure your course so that materials are consistent and easy to find for students. For instance:
- Materials could be stored in weekly folders in the Course Documents section of Blackboard, so students can find all of the content for a given week in one place
- Regular assessments, like weekly quizzes or reflections, could be included with weekly materials
- Major assessments, like exams or projects, could be put in the Assignments section, or another designated area
At the start of the semester, it’s a great idea to provide students with instructions on the course structure and where they can find different course components. This could be done in different ways, including:
- An announcement, email, or starting document that highlights the most important elements of the course and where to find them
- A virtual live screencast tour of the course during which students can ask questions
- A screencast recording of the instructor showing the course site and highlighting where different components are that students can access to review
- A scavenger hunt, in which students are prompted to explore different course components and complete a brief quiz
Navigation works with structure to help make it simpler for students to find what they need in their course. Clear navigation paths that don’t require a lot of clicks will help to support students in getting to the materials that they need quickly and easily.
- Avoid using too many layers of folders – folders within folders make navigation more complicated and reduce the likelihood that students will access course materials
- Consider putting course components in one place in the course and then linking to them from others, so students can navigate to the same thing in different ways – for instance, a quiz could be created in the Assignments area and then also linked in the weekly folder in the week that it’s due
- Include links to commonly used tools that may be harder for students to find in the menu – for instance, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra or Groups
- Considering linking to important or high stakes course components from the menu for ease of access, such as weekly content folders or major tests
Understanding the importance of course materials and how they fit together can be a significant support for students. While it is often easy for instructors to understand why different aspects of the course are important, it can be more challenging for students who don’t yet have the experience to determine the purpose of different elements.
Offering learners clear context on what’s happening in the course, why it’s important, and what they should pay attention to can help them makes sense of the overall course and focus on what’s most important for smaller components.
High Level Context
To provide high level context, you might consider:
- Offering a broad introduction to the course that explains what the outcomes and objectives are and what they will learn
- Explaining how their learning connects to other classes they have taken or will take, their future careers, or even the world more broadly
- Starting each week, module, or unit with the outcomes or objectives for that week and explaining how they will be met
Smaller Course Components
For smaller course components, detailing what they are being used for, explaining how they will help students, and highlighting what’s most important about them can help students to better focus on what’s most important. For instance, you could:
- Detail what will be covered in a lecture recording – “In this lecture, we are going to define [term] and compare it with last week’s approach”
- Identify the purpose of images or graphics – “This image shows the difference between a serif and a sans serif font”
- Explain what to focus on in an external video – “This TED talk looks at a general approach to design. Pay particular attention to the steps for an iterative design process, since we’re going to use it in class soon”
- Detail the purpose of assessments – “This quiz is intended to check your knowledge of process one since it’s foundational to process two, which we’ll be looking at in week 4”
Support Resources and Materials
In addition to regular course materials, students who are doing more of their work outside of the classroom or in an online delivery format can benefit from having additional supports to help structure, guide, and manage their work.
As you’re developing your course, you could consider:
- Including estimates for how long different aspects of the course should take to complete
- Developing worksheets to help guide learners through different tasks or activities
- Providing timelines on longer, more significant, or multi-step projects
- Creating a glossary of course terms
- Incorporating actions into titles or headings of course components to indicate what learners are to do – for example, Read, Watch, Complete, Respond, or Discuss
Any content that’s included in your course should be developed in a format that is accessible to all students. While Blackboard is already built to be compatible with assistive devices, such as screen readers, there are some extra steps that should be taken with documents and images to ensure that all students are able to access materials.
For documents, such as Word files, PDFs, PowerPoint slide decks, and Excel spreadsheets, the built-in accessibility checkers now often offered within software should be used to check any documents for accessibility issues. These tools help to identify any problem areas and may offer suggestions on how to best fix them.
Images used in a course should also include alt text, a text-based description of what’s in the image that can be read by a screen reader. While this is not absolutely necessary for images that are purely decorative, any image that has significance to the course should be described so all students know what they represent. If the image is complex and requires a long description, one could also be included below the image on the page.
Review our Document Accessibility training series to ensure you are producing accessible content for your online course.
Any videos being used in the course should have accurate captions. Hosting a video in MS Stream or YouTube will automatically generate captions that can then be edited for accuracy and to correct any errors. Videos hosted on other platforms can be linked from or embedded into Blackboard course sites.
If you’re holding synchronous sessions in your course, you may want to consider using a service that provides automatic captioning as you speak. While Blackboard Collaborate Ultra does not currently provide this service, it is available through MS Teams.
Review our Captioning 101 article for detailed strategies around captions and accessibility.
There’s lots of wonderful software available that’s designed to make learning more effective, engaging, and interesting. However, before using third-party software, it’s important to ensure that the software is accessible to all learners so that no one is disadvantaged.
From an accessibility standpoint, it’s also helpful to limit third-party software to one or two accessible, essential options that meaningfully contribute to the course. Constantly jumping between programs can be confusing and difficult for learners, so limiting options can provide greater consistency and ease.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
UDL is a useful framework for any kind of course delivery. It was designed to build a course that meets the diverse needs of different learners, but also has the benefit of providing strategies and approaches that are useful and supportive to all learners.
Many of the ideas in this article are already based in UDL principles, which recommend that learners are provided with:
- Resources that support interest, motivation, and engagement in course materials and activities
- A variety of formats and ways to access course materials, information, and resources
- Different ways for students to express and show what they know and have learned
One benefit of online teaching is that it can be relatively easy to offer students various ways of approaching their learning. For example:
- Offering students supports like worksheets and timelines can boot engagement and motivation by providing a place to start and giving guidance through a project
- If you’re already making a video for your course and captioning it, you could also provide students with a transcript and an audio file of the materials with minimal extra work
- Learners could choose whether they want to create a report, live presentation, recorded presentation, slide deck, podcast, infographic, blog, website, or another option that seems appropriate to showcase their work.
Drawing on UDL principles can help you to preemptively build a course that is accessible to all learners and helps to meet their diverse needs so that they can learn better and demonstrate their capabilities.
Planning for accessibility strategies during the design and development of an online course will support a delivery that meets the needs of diverse learners from the beginning. Implementing accessibility strategies through structure, navigation, communication, context, support, and formats will help to ensure that all learners can more effectively engage, learn, and demonstrate what they know.