During Spring 2020, COVID-19 forced many face-to-face courses to shift to remote learning abruptly. This shift posed numerous challenges for instructors, including how to provide accessible course content. While the pandemic forced institutions and instructors to be flexible or even allowed short-term exceptions for specific requirements; accessibility standards were not waived. Instructors were still responsible for making sure that their courses were accessible and in compliance. Markus and I recognize that complying with accessibility requirements can feel a bit overwhelming. Therefore, we want to share a few tips to demystify the concept of accessibility as well as provide some free tools to simplify making your asynchronous and synchronous courses compliant.
Let’s start by discussing accessibility best practices. First, a common thought is that accessibility requirements only need to be met if students request accommodations. In reality, remote courses need to be accessible even if no student accommodations are in place. Regardless of the delivery format (asynchronous vs. synchronous), there are several accessibility best practices to consider:
- Course design – We recommend that you use a simple and consistent format. Take a few minutes to look at your course through multiple lenses. Ask yourself, if you could not hear, see, or had other disabilities, could you successfully navigate this course? If not, make the appropriate changes.
- Communication – It is important to make sure your instructions are clear for all course activities. Remember, in a remote environment, you will not be as readily available to your students as you might have been in the classroom. Ask yourself, if you did not know anything about the presented materials, would you know what to do? If not, add the appropriate clarification.
- Learning Management System (LMS) Tools – Most LMS systems (i.e., Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, etc.) have built-in accessibility support tools. Be sure to use these when they are available. These tools and resources will simplify the task of making your course compliant.
- Third-Party Applications – Do you use third-party tools? Homework managers, or other applications? If so, are these third-party applications accessible? If not, you may consider using different resources. Third-party applications that are accessible will have an accessibility statement.
- Hyperlinks – It is important to describe any hyperlinks used in your course. Avoid using generic terms for links, such as “Assignment,” “Quiz,” etc. The link should describe the activity and its content, such as “Chapter 2 Assignment”.
- Images – It is also essential to use descriptions that clearly describe all images shown in your course. If possible, avoid using images just for decoration. All images should have a purpose and add value to the learning experience.
- Font – The bigger the font, the better. San serif fonts are the best for accessibility. Additionally, Word documents should typically use a font that is 14-point or larger, and PowerPoint slides should use a font 24-point or greater.
- Color – When using color in your course, always consider color-blind students or those who are visually impaired. It is best to use contrasting colors, whenever possible. Avoid red and green, but if you must use these colors, try to use darker versions for clarity. Colors like blue and orange tend to be better.
- Captions – Captioning your course content is one of the biggest challenges or concerns for many instructors. It is perceived to be very time-consuming. Additionally, there is often the misconception that captioning is just for students who are hearing impaired. However, captioning can be helpful for a variety of other students as well. For example, ELS/ELL students (English Language Learners).
Markus and I are often asked the question, “Where do we start?” There are several free tools available for you to use. Some of these tools you already use on a regular basis.
Microsoft Office provides a free accessibility checker tool that can be used with Excel, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint, and Word. This accessibility tool is available for Office Online, as well as Windows and Mac users.
Word and PowerPoint are probably the best-known applications that allow you to create and share accessible documents. Accessibility features in Word and PowerPoint can be turned on for accessibility checking while you work, or you can verify accessibility before saving the document. The Microsoft accessibility checker not only verifies accessibility; it also provides recommendations for compliance, such as inserting alternative text (Alt Text) for images and properly formatting headings. When creating accessible Word documents, avoid using features such as SmartArt, text boxes, headers, and footers. When creating accessible PowerPoints, consider selecting a template that offers contrasting colors and avoid using the Design Ideas feature. While some Design Ideas templates are compliant, many others are not.
PDFs are another way to share accessible documents. If you have the professional version of Adobe Acrobat, you can use the accessibility check feature for any documents (created by you or others). To create an accessible PDF, Markus and I recommend that you start with an accessible Word document. It is important to use the “Save As” feature to convert your Word document to a PDF, rather than printing the document to a PDF. The “Save As” option helps retain the original accessibility features in your new document. Most accessible Word documents easily convert to an accessible PDF; however, it is always a good idea to double-check the accessibility of your new document for accessibility and make modifications as needed.
Videos and Virtual Meetings
Course videos and virtual course meetings also need to meet accessibility guidelines. Videos should be captioned, visual content needs to be described using Alt Text, and video players need to be user-accessible by mouse and keyboard. Video controls should be appropriately labeled so that screen reader users can access all the video features. A few of the video players that support accessible content include YouTube, Vimeo, and Panopto. You may find Panopto as a free feature in your school’s LMS.
Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR)
Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) technology is continuously improving, but the technology is still not 100% accurate. Accuracy of converting speech to text can be affected in various ways, including excessive background noise, the speaker’s accent, voice tone, or volume. If you use a script to record your videos, then you already have your captioning transcript created. If you do not use a script, there are several free captioning options available. Regardless of the captioning method you use, it is essential to review your captions and make corrections as needed.
Closed-Captioning vs. Live-Captioning
Asynchronous courses typically use closed captioning. Alternatively, live-captioning is generally used with synchronous courses since it happens in real-time. Closed-captions allow course participants to opt-in or opt-out of displaying the caption. In contrast, live-captioning is always displayed, for all participants. Closed captioning is easy to translate into multiple languages, and captions can be modified. In comparison, live-captioning is typically available only in one language and cannot be modified or saved. Not all platforms support closed captioning, but accessible video players like YouTube, Vimeo, and Panopto do.
The accuracy standard for closed-captioning is higher than for live-. For closed captioning, the goal is 99% to 100% accuracy rate. Markus and I have found that verifying video captioning accuracy is quick and easy when you record shorter videos (less than 15 minutes). Shorter videos also are more engaging for students, so it is a win-win!
Live-captioning standards strive for the highest level of accuracy considered reasonable under the circumstances. Using technology tools that have a high speech to text accuracy level dramatically improves the quality of the live-captioning experience for students. Technology tools like PowerPoint, Google Doc/Slides, G Suite – Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom all have live-captioning options. As previously mentioned, usually, live-captioning cannot be saved for future use, but Zoom’s “closed-captioning” feature does have the ability to archive live session captions.
The topic of accessibility may still feel a bit overwhelming, but once you find your tools and perfect your processes, accessibility compliance can be very manageable. Do not forget to use your Disability Services and Distance Learning offices for support and assistance. They can be great resources. An accessibility resource for web content that may also be useful is the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) Quick Reference.