Guidelines for Accessible Course Materials and Online Courses

USM institutions must ensure that course materials are accessible. The U.S. Department of Education has stated that the standard for “accessible” is that “a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. A person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally, and independently as a person without a disability. Although this might not result in identical ease of use compared to that of persons without disabilities, it still must ensure equal opportunity to the educational benefits and opportunities afforded by the technology and equal treatment in the use of such technology.”

Course Materials

Students with print disabilities too often still struggle for access to standard hard copy print in textbooks, course readers, and library research materials in the alternate format they need (e.g., digital text, Braille, large print, or audio). Institutions should implement a comprehensive approach for rapidly converting course materials, such as textbooks and readers, into an accessible format. Institutions should require faculty to submit reading lists prior to the start of the semester with adequate time for the appropriate student support services office to convert course materials into accessible formats. Faculty should be required to disseminate supplemental course materials as far in advance of the class reading due date as possible. Additionally, learning management systems and classroom technologies, including podiums, displays, and clickers, should be accessible.

Online Courses

Ensuring that online courses are accessible to all students poses unique challenges. Notably, the burgeoning trend toward using open educational resources for course material will directly impact higher education’s ability to deliver alternate formats in a timely manner. Given the scope of this requirement, accessibility of online education must start with forethought in course design rather than an afterthought when a student encounters an accessibility barrier. Therefore, USM institutions should incorporate accessibility in web-based courses from inception through implementation, which will require a shift in thinking to designing online courses with accessibility in mind. While delivering accessible online courses and content will involve up-front planning, effort and resources, these variables will be offset by a reduction or elimination of the time and expense of providing accommodations. Importantly, incorporating accessibility during the design and building of online courses is typically less resource intensive than retrofitting an existing online course.

These guidelines on online courses are not limited to password-protected class or course content provided to a discrete or targeted audience. Classes, courses, or content that is made available to the general public through the institution’s own website or through services such as YouTube, iTunes U, and the edX learning management platform (e.g., Massive Open Online Courses, or “MOOCs”), should always be made accessible from the outset.

Best Practices

WCAG 2.0 AA conformance constitutes best practices for Web content. Members of the USM Accessible Information and Technology Workgroup have developed a best practices resource specifically for developing online course materials entitled, Improving Access: Best Practices for Developing Course Materials with an Online Component. The document includes a checklist of practices for communicating with students about accessibility, addressing and accommodating differences, and designing an effective course layout and visual design.

The resource is based on the fifth edition of the Quality Matters (QM) Rubric*, used in a collegial process for promoting quality in online/blended courses, which includes the following five key standards* in online course accessibility:

  • Course instructions articulate or link to the institution’s accessibility policies and services (QM Standard 7.2).
  • Course navigation facilitates ease of use (QM Standard 8.1).
  • Information is provided about the accessibility of all technologies required in the course (QM Standard 8.2).
  • The course provides alternative means of access to course materials in formats that meet the needs of diverse learners (QM Standard 8.3).
  • The course design accommodates readability (QM Standards 8.4).

* © 2014 Maryland Online, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

As beginning steps to introduce how to create accessible online course content to faculty, course developers, etc., USM institutions should consider the following:

  • Develop an accessible syllabus template and train faculty in how to implement it in their courses.
  • Provide faculty and staff awareness and training of common course format barriers and accessible alternatives to remedy them as shown below:
Format Barrier Accessible Alternative
Printed text Incompatible with screen readers used by blind/low vision students and students with learning disabilities (LD) Supplement with audio; provide an electronic copy of text
Audio Hearing impaired students may not hear it; students with LD (auditory processing) may have difficulty understanding it Supplement with printed text
Video Blind/low vision students may not see it; hearing impaired students may not hear it; students with LD (auditory processing) may have difficulty understanding it Provide description, captions or written transcript
Picture Blind/low vision students may not see it Add description
Synchronous discussion Blind/low vision students, students with LD and ADHD, students with medical/physical and psychological disabilities may have difficulty following and keeping up

Use asynchronous format for all or some discussions to allow more time for processing and responding
Tests/Quizzes Many students with disabilities have slower processing speed that impacts performance (e.g., LD and ADHD, medical/physical and psychological, blind/low vision, hearing impaired) Provide extended time;
Supplement with audio;
Provide large text size option

General Online Course Accessibility

USM institutions should implement best practices for creating courses with an online component. The USM Accessible Information and Technology Workgroup has developed the document Improving Access: Best Practices for Developing Course Materials with an Online Component that can be obtained by contacting any member of the Workgroup. The next step would be for the USM institutions to vet the document for potential adoption as a system-wide best practices resource.