Accessibility and Usability: Learn More

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Accessibility and Usability: Learn More

There are two videos, with text in between; make sure you scroll all the way down to see everything. The text and the videos cover the same material, so you can choose either to read or to watch, but you probably don't need to do both, unless you want to.

Purpose: This is what you need to know about making your course both usable and accessible.

Watching this video will assist you in meeting the following objectives:

  • Develop an online course that incorporates eight general standards for quality online teaching.
  • Build an online course in the Brightspace learning management system.

  • Create course navigation that facilitates ease of use.
  • Design a course that facilitates readability.
  • Provide accessible text and images to meet the needs of diverse learners.
  • Provide alternative means of access to multimedia content in formats that meet the needs of diverse learners.
  • Identify effective ways to make a course usable and accessible in Brightspace

Mr. Bart Everson on the importance of accessibility (4:32)
Mr. Bart Everson (part 1) video transcript (PDF)

Accessibility is the First Principle of Usability

Usability is not typically a consideration in traditional face-to-face teaching, but web and software developers have been contending with these issues for decades. For example: navigation. Especially in the early years, the typical experience for the typical user on the World Wide Web was that they were lost. Simply finding one's way around has gotten easier. We've gotten better at building websites that facilitate effective navigation. It doesn't happen by accident. It happens by design.

Now that we are teaching online, it's a concern for us too. The experience for the user -- in this case, the student -- is largely shaped by the design choices we make as teachers. Good design choices can facilitate a good experience, meaning that the student is able to find the information they need, learn what they need to learn, and demonstrate that to you; not-so-good design choices may lead to difficulties and frustrations for everyone involved.

We want people to be able to use what we're building, so we call this usability, and there are four major principles to consider:

  1. accessibility (which is something you may already be familiar with from traditional face-to-face instruction),
  2. visual clarity,
  3. readability, and
  4. consistency (which includes findability -- yes, that's a neologism, don't worry, I'll come back to all this).

So let's start with accessibility. It's important to remember that we all experience the world differently. People with certain vision impairments see the world differently. Depending on your vision, you may not have noticed anything unusual about the color scheme of this video. Some are not able to see at all. No matter the case, we want our students to be able to access our content and learn. With a little bit of understanding and planning, we can accomplish this.

For our purposes, there are four major categories of disability that we should keep in mind when designing our course:

  1. visual disabilities,
  2. hearing disabilities,
  3. cognitive disabilities, and
  4. motor disabilities.

Now, let's consider specific actions you should take.

First of all, you should have a statement in your syllabus that indicates your policy regarding students with disabilities, including any specific considerations unique to your course, and obviously aligned with university policy.

Furthermore, there are several things you can should do while building your course to enhance accessibility. These practice help with screen readers and the like.

  1. Use the semantic styles which are built into the HTML editor. In other words, don't just make a heading big and bold -- use the built-in styles to designate a first-level heading, a second-level subheading, and so forth.
  2. When you make links, use text that is meaningful and concise. Never write "click here." Instead, write something like "The National Institutes of Health provide a useful summary," and make that text the link. Don't expose the bare URL unless it is quite short.
  3. When using an image, Brightspace should prompt you to provide alternative text. You should describe the image as briefly as possible, or designate it as purely decorative.
  4. When making a video, be sure to provide captions. Automatic captioning is provided by some video hosting services, such as YouTube, however you'll want to check and correct those captions for accuracy. If you write a script, like I did for this video, you can make that text available to your students or perhaps even feed it into the video captions.

Holy heck! Who knew that Brightspace has a built-in Accessibility Checker? It's as easy as clicking a button. Read all about it on the CAT FooD blog: Brightspace Tip #156: Accessibility Checker.

Mr. Bart Everson on the importance of readability (3:57)
Mr. Bart Everson (part 2) video transcript (PDF)

Visual Clarity, Readability, and Consistency

Returning to our four major principles of usability, there are additional considerations which fall under the heading of visual clarity, readability, and consistency, which will also improve accessibility. So let's take each in turn.

The idea of visual clarity includes using legible fonts, color contrast, white space, headings, and indents to organize text visually. You'll also want to eliminate distracting elements like animations and graphics that are purely decorative. Don't get too subtle or fancy with color - remember different devices will render graphics differently, to say nothing of the variation in our eyeballs. Keep it simple.

It's probably a good idea to get a second set of eyes to look over your content, preferably someone who hasn't seen it before and isn't overly familiar with the topic. You may wish to work your way through the Usability Questions for Online Courses (PDF). For further inspiration, check out for a great overview of the principles of clean design.

Readability includes writing in active voice and at an approachable reading level. To check readability you can paste in a sample of your text into a readability checker, such as You can also check readability within Microsoft Word. Again, you'll want to use legible fonts and adhere to the principles of visual clarity. Finally, if you are sharing PDFs, make sure they contain actual text and not just pictures of text. If this is a problem you may need to investigate OCR or optical character recognition.

Finally we come to consistency. The learning management system itself dictates a certain level of consistency, but it's up to you to supply the rest. Your layout, navigation, images, and terminology should all be consistent.

You'll notice throughout the modules of this course, the content is displayed consistently from page to page, and the images and graphics are similar in appearance, size, and shape. Our intent is to make these pages approachable and easy to navigate. Contrast these pages to many commercial news websites -- take your pick -- where the pages are cluttered with a mix of story links, pictures, videos, notices, and advertisements which makes it more difficult to navigate. Let your students spend less time hunting for information, less energy trying to distinguish the important stuff from the decoration. Let them have more time and energy to learn what you want them to learn.

That brings us to findability. See, I told you I'd come back to it. Your spellchecker may not recognize this word, but it was coined in the early 2000s. There's so much information at our fingertips and flowing across our screens, but it's no good if we can't find it. Help your students find what they need by being consistent, using logical categories for organization, labeling everything clearly, and adhering to those good old principles of visual clarity.

Notice how, in this course, we put everything in modules. Modules allows you to aggregate your content, your activities, and your assignments in one easy-to-find place -- and you can put things in the order that you want your students to work through them. Starting each module with an overview also improves usability.

If you are moving a course online, organizing with modules also allows you to see where there may be too much material for the students to work through in the time provided. You may also spot gaps in content that need to be filled.

All right. That's it! Have fun making your course usable and accessible!

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