Category Archives: Accessibility

In order to make distance learning accessible for all learners, digital content must meet certain guidelines or standards. These standards are described in the American Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and WCAG 2.0.

Whether synchronous online course activities meet accessibility guidelines may depend on how you use them.

Man web-conferencing using an iPhone

CC-BY Public.Resource.Org on Flickr

Adding synchronous activities to your asynchronous online class can help to foster social presence and instructor immediacy. Using such tools as Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom, etc. can add an element of interactivity and engagement to the online course that might otherwise be missing. Web-conferencing can be used to prepare students for upcoming assignments, review recent material, offer virtual office hours, and more…

but what about accessibility?

Our campus recently adopted a policy that essentially requires all online instruction meet accessibility guidelines. While our facilities department is well versed in ensuring campus physical learning spaces meet ADA requirements, faculty may struggle with how to approach accessibility within the virtual learning environment. When the disabilities office notifies an instructor that a student in their class needs further accommodation they also provide the direction and support necessary to meet the student’s needs.

Universal design vs. Accommodation

To accommodate a specific student with a disability is to retrofit instruction to meet that student’s needs. However, by applying Universal Design principles we anticipate a wide range of learners’ needs and design the instruction and learning environment accordingly.

Universal design for learning is achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide alternatives for students with differing abilities.

Employing universal design principles in instruction does not eliminate the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities. There will always be the need for some specific accommodations, such as sign language interpreters for students who are deaf. However, applying universal design concepts in course planning will assure full access to the content for most students and minimize the need for specific accommodations. DOIT Center

So how can we go about ensuring online synchronous activities are accessible to all students regardless of ability? Part of the answer may depend on how the synchronous tools are being used.

Several web-conferencing solutions permit attendees to participate by dialing in on their phones rather than using computer VoIP. A phone connection may be used with other devices and services – such as Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) – to translate voice to text. Also by dialing in for the web-conference rather than using the browser or app, students can avoid exceeding their data cap when they are not connected via WiFi.

When presenting to the entire class in real-time, provide links to accessible digital materials in advance for participants to review and follow along during the session. Provide detailed descriptions and annotations to go along with any images, charts and graphs used within the presentation. Take the time to describe the significance of each graphic in detail during the presentation. These practices will also help when transcribing or captioning the session for recordings after the event.

By using the chat feature provided in most web-conferencing solutions all participants can submit questions. Assign a moderator to keep track of the chat window and type in the presenter’s answers to posted questions. Whether a question is being asked by someone in the lecture hall or via chat, it is always a good idea to repeat the question before responding.

Rather than using only video and voice features, offer chat and/or text messaging as options for conferences with individual students. Be sure the information on how and when to connect is also made accessible. Web links should provide a description and any further instructions in plain text (as opposed to images, arrows, highlighted text, etc.) to be read by screen-reader software. Include a phone number in the invite as well in the event description for hearing impaired students to access via TRS services.

By taking the time to create accessible web-conferences we not only accommodate the student with a visual or hearing impairment, we make the presentation more usable for all participants.


DOIT Center: Universal design vs. accommodation

Federal Communications Commission: Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS)

W3C: Understanding WCAG 2.0 – Time-based Media

IBM Human Ability & Accessibility Center: Overcoming accessibility challenges of web-conferencing



Virtual office hours revisited

Asynchronous online learning is often considered the gold standard of distance learning, as it is the most convenient and flexible format in regards to scheduling. Learners can interact with the content, instructor, and classmates at anytime and from anywhere. However, a frequent complaint of new-to-online students is the sense of isolation often experienced in the virtual classroom.

Isolation - man sitting alone in the desert

Isolation CC-BY Henrik Dacquin on Flickr

One of the ways instructors can help to mitigate this isolation is to leverage technology to improve instructor immediacy. Such practices might include posting short videos of themselves explaining a particularly challenging concept or going over an assignment. By providing audio feedback comments along with writing assignments, students begin to recognize their instructors as real people. Another important practice is to offer students the option of connecting in real-time using virtual office hours.

Patrick Lowenthal has been studying and writing about social presence in the online classroom for a number of years. In a recent paper, entitled, Live synchronous web meetings in asynchronous online courses, he and colleagues Joanna Dunlap and Chareen Snelson took a look at how virtual office hours might be improved using a design-based research (DBR) approach.

Lowenthal questioned whether it was a good use of his time in earlier attempts offering virtual office house due to lack of student participation. However, more recently he began to consider revisiting the practice, and to look  at ways to increase student attendance and learner engagement.

By changing up the branding, limiting the number of sessions, and tying an instructional component to the synchronous sessions, he and his colleagues discovered they could increase student participation from less than ten to around fifty percent. Students reported the sessions were a good use of their time and allowed them to get to know their instructor better (improved instructor immediacy).

The following findings / recommendations are from their study (shared with permission):

Orientation to live sessions

  1. Refer to virtual office hours using a more inviting title. For example, for more informal live sessions, select a name like Happy Hours, Coffee Breaks, Afternoon Tea, Bat Cave, and Around the Campfire. For more formal live sessions, consider titles such as Consultations, Design Studio, Conference Room, Headquarters, and Open Space.
  2. Inform students at the start of the semester when synchronous sessions are scheduled. 3. Inform students of the agenda for each live session in advance.
  3. Remind students of approaching live sessions in daily/weekly communications, such as via the announcements feature of a learning management system.
  4. Provide low-stakes opportunities for students to troubleshoot and get acquainted with the synchronous format and associated tools. For example, during the first few weeks of a course, have each student—or small groups of students—visit with you in Adobe Connect for the sole purpose of checking out tool functionality, and to hear and see each other laugh.
  5. Share a short recording of a live session with students new to live sessions so they can get a sense of how they work and what to expect in advance of participating in a live session.


  1. Consider students’ time zones when scheduling live sessions. Use a tool like Doodle, for example, to determine best times to meet.
  2. Schedule live sessions strategically; they do not need to be scheduled weekly. For example, schedule live sessions prior to the due dates of major deliverables or in advance of exams.
  3. Vary the day of the week and time of day. Consider scheduling two live sessions per week on different days and at different times of day.


  1. Be transparent with students as to your reasons for including live sessions in your online courses.
  2. Ask students to share questions in advance of live sessions so sessions may be tailored to meet specific goals, needs, and interests.
  3. Make live sessions relevant in terms of content and activity. Make sure the live sessions add value to the students’ learning experience in an online course. For example, include a brief direct-instruction component, demonstration, or guest speaker in each live session.
  4. Provide a comparable learning experience for those unable to attend a live session. For example, give those students specific questions/prompts to respond to while watching the recording.

Incentives and assessment

  1. Add incentives for attendance (e.g., require it or allow students to earn points), but provide options—equitable in terms of learning experience—for those who have schedule conflicts.
  2. Involve students in learning activities during synchronous sessions that support their work on projects, papers, and so on. For example, provide a lab demonstration that will help students complete their own experiments in the lab. Interaction
  3. Start each live session with a brief ice-breaker and/or get-to-know-you activity to help establish connections between and among instructor and students, and to get warmed up with the technology before launching into more coursework-oriented activities.
  4. Provide both informal and structured time and opportunity for students to interact with each other.


  1. Have students contribute to or determine “rules of engagement” for interacting with each other during live sessions.
  2. Model the type and level of interaction that supports student engagement during live sessions.
  3. Get students involved in the live meetings. For example, have them collaborate on a response to a problem of practice or peer review each other’s work.
  4. Ask for questions from students who are unable to attend, and respond to the questions during the live session.

Mitigating the sense of isolation that new-to-online learners often experience can help them to make the important connections and establish the support network they need to persist in meeting their educational goals. The full paper can be found in the reference section below.


P. Lowenthal, J. Dunlap, C. Snelson (2017). Live Synchronous Web Meetings in Asynchronous Online Courses: Reconceptualizing Virtual Office Hours. Online Learning Journal. Retrieved from

Improving outcomes with Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Over the past few years colleges have faced an increasing number of complaints from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) requiring their web content be made accessible to people with disabilities. Although the OCR complaints typically focus on publicly available web content, the American Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that all online instructional content meet accessibility guidelines. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) provides guidance on making web content accessible to people with a broad range of disabilities.

Usability + Accessibility = Successful Experience for All

Usability + Accessibility CC-BY J. Albert Bowden II on Flickr

Making course content accessible may at first seem a daunting task when faced with a lengthy list of rules or standards.  A recent article in the EDUCAUSE Review describes how University of Memphis integrated Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles into their online course development process. The instructional design team at Memphis developed a three phase professional development plan that helps faculty look beyond compliance and focus on the “what, how, and why” of learning online.

“…we conducted a needs assessment and determined that requiring faculty to address accessibility in their online courses was easier for them if they focused on the pedagogical concepts of the UDL Representation principle and its guidelines rather than the technical concepts of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0).”

At the heart of Universal Design for Learning is the idea that people learn in diverse ways and therefore benefit from multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement.

By providing multiple means of representation – diverse forms of media – learners are able to understand the material or concepts in ways that make the most sense to them individually. Material may be presented visually (text / images), or through auditory (voice messages / podcasts) means, or both (captioned video).

By providing multiple means of action or expression, learners can represent their understanding in different formats (e.g. writing, video / audio recordings, presentations, etc.) – providing them with personally meaningful ways to demonstrate acquired competencies.

By providing multiple means of engagement, learners can master the material according to their individual strengths and preferences. Some students work well in groups; others may prefer to work alone. Assignments that encourage students to apply their individual talents and abilities are more likely to engage students in active, authentic, and relevant learning.

Integrating UDL principles into both online faculty training and the course development process helps to equip online faculty with a proactive rather than reactive approach to supporting student accessibility and learning.


V. Cullifer (2017).  OCR Website Accessibility Complaints Hit Schools and Universities Digital Accessibility Digest,  Microassist

R. Bowery & L. Houston (2017).  Reaching All Learners by Leveraging Universal Design for Learning in Online Courses  EDUCAUSE Review

WC3 Recommendation (2008).  Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0


S. Burgstahler (2017).  ADA Compliance for Online Course Design EDUCAUSE Review