Special thanks to Aaron Pate and Marlene Zentz of the University of Montana for presenting on this topic at Blackboard World 2015.
Accessible course design can be a lot of work. Right? That’s what we all hear. And there is a lot of work to be done yet getting lectures transcribed, information in visual organizers presented in alternative formats, and even re-thinking what we want to teach and how, there are in fact some things you can do TODAY that will make your courses much, much easier for screen readers and the people who employ them to maneuver in your online classrooms.
- Use the heading structure built into your LMS. When you organize your information using headings, screen readers pick them up as waypoints, and this allows students to easily maneuver around in your content pages. For example in Blackboard, the simple act of typing in a clear title for an item will create a “heading” in a screen reader. If you want a “subheading” within an item, go ahead and type it in and then highlight it and go to the “heading” option in the edit tools and choose “heading.” The system will do the rest for you.
- Use alternative text (“alt text”) for all important images. In most web-based editors “alt text” boxes are automatically generated when you load in an image. Make sure to provided a description and title for all important/instructional images. If your image is purely decorative, you can skip the alt text, and the screen reader will tell the student that there is an image on the page but it is “decorative.” As a design consideration, you should stop and ask yourself if purely decorative images are useful to your students. All learners can be distracted by visual clutter, so make sure the images you use count and contain proper alt tags.
- Make sure web links are self describing. This means you should never build a link that says simply “HERE” or “Click Here.” Screen readers consolidate the web addresses on any given webpage and present them separately in a list. If all you say for your link is “Click HERE,” you can imagine how frustrating that would be when pulled out of context. A rich page with many external links could have a list or 10 or more web links all saying “click HERE” in the screen reader! If instead you build the link to be self describing, e.g.: Wichita State Homepage, students using screen readers can much more easily use your provided links. Above all, avoid giving “raw” URL’s if possible. Screen readers read those out character. by. character. You don’t want that unless it’s absolutely necessary.
- Shift from tables to lists when possible. It’s simply difficult to maneuver around a table using a screen reader. If you must use a table, make sure you name the top row as a “header.” This will enable your screen reader using students to jump around the table much more easily. But better still, if you don’t absolutely need a table, consider using a list instead. When you use the automatic numbering and bulleting that comes standard with most text editors, you are “inserting code” that will enable the screen reader to deal with that information in a very intuitive way.
- Do not use color or font alone to communicate information. Screen readers do not read out formatting under most circumstances. That means if you use only red or bold or ALL CAPS to communicate emphasis, some of your students are missing the emphasis, and maybe the information itself. Make sure that all information is presented textually as well as using visual cues.
This is not an exhaustive list for accessible course design, but it’s a good place to get started. Good luck, and don’t forget to turn to your instructional design team and your disability services office for more assistance as you get further into your projects.