Making Online Learning Accessible

Categories: Instruction, Online Learning, Other, Teaching, Tools and Resources

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For August 2020 we will focus on Teaching and Learning Research. We will explore classroom instruction in research methods, as well as research foundations and experiences in other curricular courses.

Equal access to education is mandated by United States law, and is grounded in the hope that all students will have equal access to course content. This includes a need to address proper accommodations for those with learning disabilities.It is imperative to comply with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, as amended in 1998, so that learners with disabilities have “equal access” to online course content. Many instructors may move traditional classes into the digital format without any redesign, failing to take into consideration students with disabilities or the unique opportunities available to implement inclusive teaching strategies. Following are the top 10 tips to ensure a focus on access and equity.

This article is the fifth of a series of six sets of tips for teaching and learning online written by Linda Dale Bloomberg, a professor of education at Northcentral University and MethodSpace’s mentor-in-residence for August 2020. Click here to see the full series and here to learn more about Bloomberg.

1 Adopt an Equitable Instructional Approach: Accessibility refers to the features and attributes of instruction that ensure its ability to be used or understood. Web accessibility refers to a set of standards that guide the design of online websites, tools, and applications to ensure ease of use for all students, including auditory, visual, cognitive, and physical aspects of technology. Consider the unique needs of every individual. Work with your institution’s instructional designer and disability specialists to ensure accessibility for all. Be sure to make accommodations regarding learning preferences and technical competencies as needed.

2 Build in Accessibility Right from the Start: Designing for accessibility means creating content that is accessible to the greatest number of diverse learners. Ensure that all students have the equipment they need and run a series of online tech checks. Make sure that content supports all students and ensures inclusion; and that it provides multiple opportunities for engagement, interaction, and challenge.  You will need to know how to make the course materials accessible by way of (a) making a clear path for success in the way you present your materials; (b) integrating useful guidelines and tips; and (c) thoughtful use of a combination of synchronous and asynchronous tools.  Good practice means ensuring too that an accessibility statement is clearly included in every syllabus.

3 Refer to Universal Design for Learning Framework (UDL): Ensure accessibility by using the Universal Design for Learning framework. Principles of this framework indicate that supports benefit all learners, not just those with disabilities. This framework operates on three principles: (a) Provide multiple means of representation (the what of learning); (b) Provide multiple means of action and expression (the how of learning); and (c) Provide multiple means for engagement (the why of learning). The key phrase here is multiple means. Accessibility and universal design depend on a variety of means – or methods – across these three areas.

4 Make Assignments Transparent: Making assignments transparent helps students navigate their work more successfully, and sustains engagement. Communicate to students the purpose of the assignment, what knowledge or skills they will gain from completing the assignment, and how that knowledge or skill will be valuable to them. Be clear about the task at hand by communicating the steps that students should take to complete the assignment. Well before the assignment is due, share the rubrics or checklists that you will use to evaluate students’ work so they are aware of the requirements, expectations, and grading criteria.

5 Address Individual Learning Preferences and Abilities: Each individual has preferred modes of receiving and processing information or demonstrating knowledge and abilities. To ensure inclusivity, be flexible in the ways that information is presented, in the ways that students can become engaged, and the ways in which they can respond or demonstrate their knowledge and skills. The goal is to create an environment of support and challenge that can reach and inspire all students. Minimize barriers in instruction by providing appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and always maintain high achievement expectations for everybody!

6 Create Accessible Text Content: Certain strategies can assist you to ensure and maintain inclusivity. Run the accessibility checker as you create Word DocsPDFs, and PowerPoints and correct the errors and warnings as you work. Provide links to online resources and/or order a digital course packet for hard to come by resources. All visuals should be accessible to all students. Use the formatting tools in your text editor to enable screen readers (a tool to help visually impaired learners). Pictures, graphs, and formulas need alternate text descriptions (again, for screen readers).

7 Make Digital Content Accessible: Videos are increasingly being integrated into online courses. While effective, this can create barriers for students with hearing problems. To ensure inclusivity, it is good practice to create a text supplement at the same time that you create a video. You create accessible video by including captions that appear within the video itself, allowing learners to read the text with the images. A common way to caption videos is to do in two steps; creating the transcript and then adding it to the video. Alternatively, you can use appropriate software that creates the captions automatically from the video.

8 Ensure Easy Access to All Resources: Establish clear academic, administrative, and communication policies for instruction. Include an accommodation statement in your syllabus or curriculum. Be sure to provide easy access links to libraries, learning resources and appropriate social media, with both synchronous and asynchronous options. These options must be available on mobile devices as well. Make sure that equity content is accurate. Navigation processes and tools should be simple, consistent, and intuitive; including explicit organization and clearly labeled course segments. At all times, your pedagogy and teaching approach–not the convenience of technology–should drive your accessibility enhancements! 

9 Use Milestone Planning: A milestone plan or work schedule will clearly outline what is going to happen and when. A visual flowchart can support the structure of your course design, including weekly previews and summaries. These connections illustrate the course structure and allow students to understand the progression of the topic they are studying. Make sure that the flowchart includes the following: an overview to introduce the whole course, a preview for each unit or week, a summary of how a completed week or module relates to the upcoming week or module, and a summary at the end of a unit and its connection to the upcoming unit.

+ Make Changes as Needed! Even the most accessible online programs can still pose challenges for students. Be sure to include a feedback or review component throughout the course and/or at the end. This allows you to make changes or revisions accordingly. Be willing to receive constructive feedback from your students, and actually utilize this feedback to enable you to continue to make necessary and beneficial accommodations. Seeking feedback ensures that students will see themselves as valued partners in the learning process and that their perspectives are heard and respected.

Posts from Dr. Bloomberg in the series Teach & Learn Research

Headlines will appear in blue as they are published.

Transitioning to Teaching Online
Although the recent widespread transition to online teaching is unfamiliar for many, some of the key skills and techniques can be learned and mastered to meet the current and urgent challenge.

Being an Effective Online Instructor
Your students want to see you and connect with you as a human being.Effective online instructors have a direct and important role in influencing the student experience, making sure to facilitate resilience and perseverance.

Employing Multimodal Strategies in Online Teaching

Identifying and Supporting Struggling Students in Online Courses
Without set hours and routines, online learners may feel isolated and unmotivated to meet course requirements.

Making Online Learning Accessible
Many instructors may move traditional classes into the digital format without any redesign, failing to take into consideration students with disabilities or the unique opportunities available to implement inclusive teaching strategies.

Setting Yourself Up For Success In Your Online Class
In many ways, learning online, this “new normal”, reverses traditional teacher/student roles, and places different demands on you as a student. Suddenly, you are responsible for planning, organizing, and directing your own learning.


About Linda Dale Bloomberg

Dr. Linda Dale Bloomberg, author of the Top 10 Teaching Tip series, has served for the past seven years as professor and associate director of faculty support and development and full professor of education at Northcentral University, a fully online university. In this capacity she coaches and evaluates online faculty, develops curriculum for graduate research courses, and serves as dissertation chair and subject matter expert for online doctoral candidates. She also serves in an advisory and leadership capacity for the university’s community engagement platform and was a founding member of university’s diversity committee.   Recently she was invited to serve on the Future Talent Council, Global Advisory Board for Faculty and Staff Development. Bloomberg is the author of numerous publications in the fields of distance education, including:

  • Bloomberg, L. D. & Grantham, G. (2018).Teaching in Graduate Distance Education: Perspectives on Evaluating Faculty Engagement Strategies, International Journal Online Graduate Education, 1(2), 1-24. http://ijoge.org/index.php/IJOGE/article/view/18
  • Bloomberg, L. D. (2020). Developing a learning community through an online university’s community engagement platform: An analysis of the experiences of students and faculty. International Journal of Online Graduate Education. 3(1), 1-24http://ijoge.org/index.php/IJOGE/article/view/40
  • Bloomberg, L. D. (2020). Coaching Faculty to Teach Online: A Single Qualitative Case Study at an Online University. International Journal of Online Graduate Education 3(2), 1-23. http://ijoge.org/index.php/IJOGE/article/view/45

She is also the author of The Art [and Science] of Teaching Online: Engaging and Empowering Online Learners (forthcoming, Teachers College Press). In this book she distills almost two decades of experience in teaching in a multitude of online contexts including coaching instructors to teach online. She has also been researching best practices for online instruction since 2003 when she began her doctoral dissertation, studying the development and facilitation of online learning communities. With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bloomberg is even more committed to producing material that can be swiftly shared so it is immediately useful and usable in multiple online educational contexts. As institutions rapidly move all their courses online there is a high probability of trial and error and active experimentation. But there is also a lot you can do to thoughtfully and intentionally set yourself and your students up for success. The Top 10 Teaching Tips series is intended for this purpose.

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