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Research Report

Supporting accessibility in a remote learning environment

June 2, 2020

While higher education institutions across the world are working to make remote learning the new temporary normal, they are also preparing for the possibility that online learning will continue into the Fall. As campuses continue to operate in our new virtual reality, it is critically important that accessibility is at the forefront of online design and instruction, so that all students can learn effectively.

Unfortunately, as of 2019, only about 20% of CIOs rated their digital resources and services that promote accessibility as “excellent” (on a scale of 1-7, where 1=poor and 7=excellent), according to the 2019 Campus Computing Survey.

With a lot of progress to be made across the board, the IT Forum has narrowed down the top considerations for institutions looking to make their remote learning environments accessible for all.

Please note that this resource is intended to help institutions move along their path to accessibility. This resource is not an exhaustive list of all requirements to be compliant by law or with the standards outlined in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, the accepted standard for web accessibility. The guidance below should be used to help jumpstart efforts in the remote learning environment or serve as a validation check for those who want to evaluate their efforts thus far. 

Checklist to assess accessibility of online content

To start, we have crafted a simple checklist for institutions to review their online content for web accessibility and ideas for leveling up:

1. Are there alternative options available for online content?

Online content refers to any information or resource that lives on a webpage. When creating this content, institutions should try to offer alternatives by appealing to visual, auditory, and other sensory needs. For example, instead of just having simple text, consider visual learners who may prefer or require instructional videos or others who may require recorded audio. While providing transcripts for videos may seem like common practice, other questions to elevate your online content include:

  • Do images have descriptive alternative text?
  • Can content be presented in a different orientation or layout without the loss of meaning and order?
  • Do instructions avoid relying on shapes, sizes, or visual locations (e.g., avoid terms like “instructions are on the right-hand column” or “click the blue circle to learn more”)?
  • Are you using color contrast and text spacing appropriately?
accessibility in remote learning environment

2. Is the interface intuitive and functional?

Interface refers to the way in which a user interacts with and experiences the webpage. Beyond general navigation and proper headings, other ways to enhance operability can stem from asking the following questions:

  • Can you use the keyboard to navigate all content on the webpage?
  • Are users warned before inactivity results in the loss of data?
  • Can your content be accessed and interacted with from a mobile device, without the loss of function?

3. Is online content clear and easily understood?

Besides making your web content more user-friendly, ask yourself the following questions to illuminate new areas for improvement:

  • Are pop-up windows either initiated by the user or accompanied by an option to disable the pop-up?
  • If an input error is detected, are there helpful and direct suggestions provided to fix the input?

4. Is your content compatible with a variety of user agents?

When thinking about online content, user agents are applications that enable accessibility such as browser extensions, readers, media players, and other assistive technologies. As these tools help make web accessibility easier, institutions should keep in mind how their web content can be supported by current and future technologies in this space.

For a more detailed checklist, you can use the WCAG. For a DIY option, Arizona State University (ASU) has created their own Web Accessibility Audit.

Practices to promote accessibility awareness

The IT Forum has highlighted 3 practices to facilitate progress on the checklist above and promote accessibility for your remote campus:

1. Utilize a web accessibility checker or online tool to help evaluate your web content.

Whether or not your institution chooses to adopt a new tool, there are plenty of online tools that are free or offer free trial periods. If your campus maintains a web accessibility tool, you may consider requiring that all courses be checked and reviewed for accessibility on a regular basis. For a list of tools, see the W3C’s Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools List or, for an institutional example, see Michigan State University’s list of Accessibility Evaluation Tools.

2. Create online courses or video tutorials on web accessibility.

Trainings help faculty and staff understand their obligations to support accessibility and how to leverage tools and resources at their disposal. To see an institutional example, check out the online training options at ASU, where they offer an Introduction to Accessibility, Advanced Web Accessibility, and a Faculty Canvas Accessibility Course. Beyond training courses, ASU also offers additional internal support and connects users to external courses and trainings.

3. Write knowledge articles on how to add and edit captions to videos.

This information belongs on a permanent and easily located webpage or knowledge base, rather than just an email or newsletter sent out during the transition to remote instruction. To see how other institutions have communicated this information, see Vanderbilt University’s FAQs on how to add and edit captions to video or Michigan State University’s Guide for Captioning Video or their Tutorial for Creating Your Own Captions.