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Creating accessible academic content for online courses

Dr Manjula Patrick draws on extensive experience to share her top tips for developing inclusive academic content for an online context. 

Student with laptop. Credit: Nesa by Makers/Unsplash

12 May 2020

Dr Manjula Patrick is professional services team lead with responsibility for short course development at the UCL Deafness Cognition and Language (DCAL) Research Centre. Here, she describes the importance of designing inclusive content and details, from her extensive experience, some top tips for creating accessible academic material for online learners:

  1. Minimise isolation
  2. Enrichen the experience
  3. Clear navigation instructions. 
  4. Know your 'Alt tags' from your 'subtitles'.  
  5. Check the accessibility of your content.
  6. Add an accessibility statement. 

With thanks to Joanna Stroud, Distance Learning Facilitator (UCL Digital Education), for her input into this article. 


Drawing on experience

I have a long-standing interest in inclusion. In my time at UCL, I have acquired practical experience of working with deaf and disabled people in different contexts, gained insights in to the different perspectives of deafness and disability, and the barriers to their inclusion. 

Over the last four years, I have developed six online short courses on deaf awareness for different audiences. The most recent, for health professionals, has been accredited by the professional bodies like the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of General Practitioners. 

Developing accessible online material was a huge learning curve but an enlightening and enriching experience too, thanks to the support of many colleagues. 

'Accessible-first' has broad benefits

Diversity in society enriches everyone and everything but we will only really benefit from diversity when it is accompanied by inclusion and equality. Access to education is one of the fundamental elements in progressing the inclusion of minoritised groups. 

From a purely, business perspective, approximately one third of people in the UK have a disability; without accessible content, it could be argued we are losing a third of our potential audience. 

In our current circumstances - writing this in the thick of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown – people have been thrust in to remote everything…embracing technology with glee, slightly reluctantly or kicking and screaming. We are working, shopping, home-schooling, learning and socialising remotely. The plus side? A huge potential audience-in-waiting of online learners who no longer balk at remote learning. 

Higher education institutions face huge financial challenges to recover from the impact of prolonged lockdown from this pandemic. Making content accessible ensures our courses are open to that 30% of largely excluded audience, disabled people. 

I define ‘accessible’ in this context as an adjustment/provision related to disability. To state the obvious, the benefits of creating ‘accessible’ content are not restricted to disabled people – although we shouldn’t forget there is legislative requirement in The Equality Act 2010 – have you ever used captions when watching a video in a busy place? Captions are also used by non-native language users, and are very helpful if sound quality is poor or the speaker’s voice is not clear. 

With this in mind, I prefer to use the term ‘inclusive’ content. ‘Inclusion’ is more all-embracing, something that affects/benefits us all. Is this just a question of semantics? No, it can make a profound difference in approach. Say to someone "you need to add captions because deaf people need this" - they may have never met a deaf person, not had a deaf person access their material previously, so there is a disconnect and this becomes cumbersome, irksome. Using ‘inclusive’ instead, conveys shared ownership. This means you, me, everyone; it holds attention, is more pertinent on a personal level, so there is more of a connection. 

What I've learned along the way

1. Minimise isolation.  

'Online' doesn't always mean self-directed, but in our case the courses were. With a self-directed course it's important to develop a narrative and use conversational language to help the learner feel someone is with them, guiding them through their journey. 

2. Enrich the experience

Think about how you can add richer learning experiences and broaden the learning base. Being inclusive does not mean reducing or minimising content. There are plenty of ways to broaden and enrichen the learning experience for online learners. Some examples:  

  • Personal stories hold attention – case studies, interviews. 

  • Include visually engaging and interactive material – videos, games - where alternative formats can be provided for those who may require them. 

  • Challenge the learner to reflect and apply knowledge, and answer questions. Quizzes with feedback on answers; include reflection points. 

  • Provide the learner with tips and information that is not strictly to do with the content but may be useful or interesting. 

For me, the issues of primary importance are ascertaining what your audience(s) need/want, and thinking creatively about how best to engage them to convey that content in an inclusive way… simple! 

3. Avoid trying to write everything afresh. 

Use external resources like YouTube videos, blogs, etc. (Legally! Always check copyright restrictions).   

4. Clear navigation instructions. 

A little thing that might be boring to write but makes a huge difference to the learner. Providing clear navigation instructions and support saves you from being constantly asked about technical issues, e.g. a browser not playing videos. For a disabled person, already managing one or more access barriers, not having to figure out how to navigate content is one less challenge. 

5. Know your 'Alt tags' from your 'subtitles'. 

Are your images and links labelled? You should provide alternative text descriptions (alt text) for all images used.The University of Virginia has produced some guidance on providing appropriate alt text for images.

If you have complex visual elements that are used for teaching, you may want to use the Diagram Center's Image description tools which offer guidance and resources for deciding when and how to add alt text to visuals, particularly academic material.

Are your videos subtitled? Automatic captioning on YouTube videos is very useful but the quality is hit-and-miss, so not advisable to rely on it for course content. The most accurate system is still to have captions added manually... Don’t forget to add this to the course development time and/or budget.

6. Check the accessibility of your content. 

There are numerous free tools to check content accessibility. I really like MS Word’s accessibility checker – I use Word routinely and the accessibility checker is incorporated. It checks the document, highlights content that is inaccessible and helps with fixes – very easy to use. Use it a few times and it becomes part of the routine;  just as you routinely spell-check, you start to routinely accessibility check! 

UCL has equality networks who may be willing to advise/review your material: Dept Inclusion leads, the enable@ucl group, disabled student network. Note, these are all voluntary roles so staff/student members will have other time commitments. 

You can’t and won’t get everything right, and you cannot cover every eventuality… nobody does. However, it is necessary to make the more common adjustments (captions, screen readers, layout) and leave the door open to those who have other needs to be able to request different adjustments.  Take creative approaches where technology and resources are limited factors. 

Screen readers

Will your content work with a screen reader?

To better understand the experience of navigating content using a screen reader, watch this screen reader simulator.  Note, simulators like this one are useful to provide some insight in to barriers a disabled person encounters, but they do not convey the lived experience of a disability in its entirety.

NV Access offers a free screen reader, which you can use to test your content. 

Layout, colour and fonts  

Consider colours, flashing images, multiple pop-ups. These may affect neurodiverse people (those with autism, dyslexia, etc).

Font size 12 is recommended and certainly not smaller than size 11. Choose a ‘sans serif’ font like Arial, Verdana or Calibri, which is easier for most people to read. 

Use Bold to emphasise items and avoid italics and underlining. 

Can the content be zoomed up to 300% without the majority of content falling off the screen or requiring constant scrolling to visual content?  

7. Add an accessibility statement. 

You should also include instructions about how to make requests related to disability access. 

Typically, an accessibility statement includes: 

  • Scope of Accessibility statement for [course name]   
  • Contact information (phone or email) to request alternative formats 
  • Technical information about this website’s accessibility (e.g. WCAG compliant) 
  • Non-accessible content (anything that you are aware of that is inaccessible or a generic disclaimer) 
  • What we’re doing to improve accessibility   
  • Preparation of this accessibility statement (Date prepared, last reviewed) 

Templates/examples: 

See UCL’s Accessibility statement as an example, or view GOV.UK's detailed accessibility statement template

Further information 

You can view a recording of Dr Manjula's recent Lunch & Learn, 'Is your online content inclusive and accessible?' hosted by the UCL Widening Participation Community of Practice, 4 June 2020. 

ISD guide to creating accessible content 

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (known as WCAG 2.1) are an internationally recognised set of recommendations for improving online accessibility. 

Additional guidance is available from the LinkedIn Learning course Teaching Techniques: Making Accessible Learning.

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Image credit: Nesa by Makers / Unsplash.com