Creating digital learning materials that are fully accessible to all students can be a challenge. Here’s what instructors need to know.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 57 million Americans — roughly 19 percent of the population — live with a disability that impairs their motor functions, vision, hearing, or cognition. Among these tens of millions of Americans are the 11 percent of undergraduate students who come to school with a disability, students whose odds of completing a bachelor’s degree (16.4 percent) are significantly lower than those of their fully able peers (34.6 percent).
This gaping achievement gap notwithstanding, the American higher education system — and the country at large — has taken a series of important steps in recent decades to make learning more accessible to all. Most notably, in 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to include Section 508. This addition dictates that “when Federal agencies develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology, they must ensure that it is accessible to people with disabilities.”
For institutions of higher education that receive funding or other support from the federal government, failing to comply with Section 508 — and the more stringent state-specific regulations that have come in its wake — is a major risk, one with serious legal repercussions.
However, as higher education continues to gravitate toward online learning, many instructors are struggling to craft digital materials that meet the needs — and satisfy the legal rights — of students with disabilities. Fortunately, the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 provide instructors with a comprehensive overview of how to make their courses accessible in the digital age.
In “Accessible Online Courses,” one of Hoonuit’s more than 1,500 online learning modules, JoAnn Roe explains each core component of WCAG 2.0 in great detail. What follows is a breakdown of the guidance Roe provides to instructors aiming to make their online course content accessible to all.
Defining Digital Accessibility
Echoing Matt Aggen’s blog post on the definition of accessibility — “the ability to engage in and interact with the world on the same level as the majority” — Roe explains that “accessible content” does not refer to “content that is available from any device, 24/7” (that’s access), but to content that can be consumed just as thoroughly by a student with a disability as by a student without one.
WCAG 2.0 lays out four central principles that should govern the creation of accessible digital content: perceivability, operability, understandability, and robustness (or, “POUR”).
First and foremost, online learning materials must be perceivable, both by students with various disabilities and by the devices they use to compensate for such disabilities. Students whose vision is impaired, for instance, are unable to see images on a website and often use screen reading software that “speaks” what’s on a page. Such software has no problem reading the words on a page, but if an instructor fails to include “alternative text” — that is, a brief textual description — with their images, the software will simply skip over the images, compromising the visually impaired student’s depth of understanding of the lesson.
Similarly, audio and video content should include both real-time captions and permanently available transcripts so that hearing-impaired students can take full advantage of multimedia lessons.
Online content is not truly accessible if it’s only optimized for passive consumption; students with disabilities must be able to engage with it actively, as well. This is what WCAG 2.0 calls operability.
For example, students with either a motor function or visual disability usually aren’t able to use a mouse to navigate digital content and rely entirely on their keyboard to “get around” online. If a course features, say, a drag-and-drop activity, this may present a barrier to these students’ full participation. This doesn’t mean that such activities need to be avoided altogether, just that instructors should either make sure that the activity is completable with a keyboard alone or provide an equally rigorous alternative for students with disabilities — perhaps a matching challenge crafted inside a keyboard-friendly tool like Microsoft Excel.
More broadly, online learning materials need to be understandable to everyone who might engage with them — whether they have a disability or not. This means developing content written in language that is appropriate for the course’s audience, ensuring that course navigation is simple and straightforward (this is especially important for online-only courses), and providing alternative course “paths” or activities that are tailored to different learning styles.
Simply put, if a student with a (minor) cognitive disability cannot understand an online course without special intervention, then the course is likely insufficiently accessible. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways instructors can improve the understandability of their online materials, from having a colleague edit their prose to soliciting the help of a programmer to simplify a course’s navigability.
Finally, digital learning materials must be robustly accessible, not just accessible within a tightly defined set of circumstances. This begins with technological interoperability. An online course should be equally functional (and accessible) on every major web browser and every kind of device, from PCs and Macs to tablets and smartphones.
It should also be compatible with popular brands of screen reading software and other accessibility-oriented technologies. If for some reason this simply isn’t possible, an instructor should say so explicitly in their introductory course materials.
A Commitment to Accessibility
At Hoonuit, we’re committed to making our entire suite of products fully accessible, so much so that we recently underwent an extensive accessibility audit by a third-party vendor.
Based on the results of the audit, we’ve made a number of enhancements to our platform, which is now fully compliant with both Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 (in accordance with our Voluntary Product Accessibility Template and WCAG Support Statement). What’s more, we create content designed to help educators make their course content broadly accessible. We believe that access to education is a fundamental right, and we’re doing everything in our power to ensure that this right is protected for all students.
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