Four Ways to Increase Course Accessibility

By Christine Scherer

Web accessibility refers to strategies, practices, and tools that make online content available for all users, including those with disabilities or technological limitations. One of the more commonly known accessibility features is captions on videos, which help hard-of-hearing users engage with the information. Captions are just one of many available resources, however, and there are a number of ways that developers and designers can make their online content accessible to all.

A recent series of webinars hosted by the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) and 3PlayMedia highlighted strategies for improving the accessibility of online courses and other educational resources. These webinars focused on:

  • Accessible video player options
  • Accessible PDFs
  • Captions in videos
  • Accessibility standards from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)

Assess Your Video Player Accessibility

The first webinar, The Future of Video Player Accessibility, featured a panel of representatives from several video player sites, from the ubiquitous YouTube to the accessibility-focused Able Player. Each representative discussed what current accessibility features their players offered, as well as how they plan to improve their accessibility going forward. All of the representatives focused on captions, keyboard usability, and screen reader compatibility. Able Player was, unsurprisingly, the best video player for accessibility, as it was originally designed with accessibility as the focus. However, with some input from the video creators, all the video players featured in this webinar could be made accessible to all users.

Some key items to assess when determining if your video and chosen video player are accessible include:

  • High-quality captions (see below for more on video captions)
  • Ability to navigate through the menu using the Tab key on the keyboard
  • Easy-to-locate links to transcripts for the video

Create Accessible PDFs with Acrobat

In the second webinar, the discussion turned to documents, in Creating Accessible PDFs with Acrobat. Adobe Acrobat Pro, which is available to all Northwestern faculty and students through NUIT, has a number of tools that can help authors to make their PDF documents more screen-reader friendly. Screen readers help visually impaired users by reading text on the screen aloud; however, screen readers are software and, unlike a human reader, they are limited by their programming and by the code in the document. For example, it’s a fairly common practice to create a line in a document by typing a series of hyphens across the page. Visually, this is easily understood as a line. To a screen reader, however, each hyphen is a piece of punctuation that must be read out: dash dash dash dash dash dash… This can be avoided by simply inserting a line rule when creating the document, rather than typing out a row of hyphens. There are a number of changes like this—some at the text level, some in the background code—that make documents accessible for all users.

Caption Your Videos

Quick Start to Captioning provided an overview of how captions work, the differences between captions and transcripts, and methods for adding good captions to videos. Online video hosting has made it possible for anyone to upload and share video content—but this also means that responsibility for providing quality captions falls on the video creator. Captions should be accurate, synchronized to the video, complete, and placed in a location that doesn’t block important on-screen information. This is one reason why we advise writing scripts for faculty lecture videos; it’s far easier to make quality captions from a script than by transcribing an ad-libbed lecture. If videos in your course don’t have captions, please contact us at distanceeducation@northwestern.edu.

10 Tips for Creating Accessible Content with WCAG 2.0

The final webinar, 10 Tips for Creating Accessible Content with WCAG 2.0, provided a high-level overview of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These guidelines provide recommendations and best practices for how to make web content as accessible as possible, and they are so broadly accepted that they are being incorporated into United States disability laws. The WCAG 2.0 standards include a lengthy list of criteria; this webinar highlighted ten specific actions that any web content developers can take to improve the accessibility of their sites. These actions included the use of descriptive links, alt-text descriptions on images, transcripts and captions on audio and video media, keyboard controls, and sufficient color contrast. In a future post, we will go into these tips in greater detail, in addition to providing further resources for following these guidelines.

Next Steps

These strategies are best implemented as early as possible in a design and development process. In the case of online education, accessibility should be part of the course design from the very beginning. It requires a little extra planning and awareness, but the result is a course that all students can fully engage with and participate in. Here at SPS, we plan to use the information from these webinars as a jumping-off point to make the content of our courses and of this website more accessible to all users.

Leave a comment, reach out to me at christine.scherer@northwestern.edu, or contact our office at distanceeducation@northwestern.edu to learn more about accessibility or to examine your course for accessibility issues.



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