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Unlocking Inclusive Learning: The Ultimate Guide to Improving Accessibility of Online Courses

Kimberly Springs

Jeff Rodgers

August 24 13 min read

August is back-to-school time, and this is the perfect opportunity to discuss improving the accessibility of online courses. As someone who spent twenty years in higher education as an instructional designer and a professor, this topic is one that I am always excited to talk about.

In today’s digital age, ensuring the accessibility of educational course content is crucial to providing an inclusive learning environment for all students. In the recent “Dear Colleague Letter,” the DOJ talks about how educators are responsible for creating online courses accessible to individuals with disabilities, allowing them to engage and participate in the learning process fully.

In this article, we will explore the best practices for enhancing digital accessibility in education and discuss the importance of following the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Why Improving Accessibility of Online Courses is Important

Digital accessibility refers to the design and development of digital content and technologies that can be accessed and used by individuals with disabilities. It is a legal requirement and a moral and ethical responsibility for educators to ensure that their online courses are accessible to all students. By making course materials accessible, educators create equal opportunities for ALL STUDENTS, not just those with disabilities, to succeed academically and actively participate in the learning experience.

Assibility Benefits ALL Students – Not Just Those with Disabilities!

The Legal Obligations for Accessibility in Higher Education

Several laws and regulations enforce accessibility requirements in education. In the United States, students in grades K-12 are impacted by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

  • The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended in 1992 and 1998 (Section 504), prohibits discrimination based on disability in any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal electronic and information technology to be accessible to individuals with disabilities.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, including online learning programs and websites.
  • The IDEA law ensures eligible children with disabilities have access to a free, appropriate public education. It mandates that schools provide special education services and develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for students with disabilities.
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination based on sex in any program receiving federal financial assistance. This includes discrimination against pregnant students due to medical conditions and sexual harassment in learning environments.  

Failure to comply with these laws can lead to legal consequences, including lawsuits, financial penalties, and damage to the institution’s reputation. Therefore, educators and institutions need to understand their obligations and meet the accessibility requirements for their online courses.

The Responsibilities of Course Designers and Learning Management Systems (LMS)

Course designers play a crucial role in ensuring the accessibility of online course materials. They should know accessibility guidelines and standards, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1, which provide recommendations for making web content more accessible. Course designers should follow these guidelines when creating course materials, including documents, presentations, videos, and assessments.

Additionally, learning management systems (LMS) are responsible for providing accessible platforms for educators and students to use. A quality LMS should be designed and developed with accessibility in mind, ensuring that all users, including those with disabilities, can navigate and interact with the system effectively.

There is some debate about other responsibilities an LMS may have regarding accessibility. Features such as the ability to enlarge or change fonts, text-to-speech, or color contrast changes are not required to be considered accessible. These features already exist on computers and in web browsers. So, at best, these features are redundant for users who need them most.

Users who rely on assistive technology, such as screen readers, will already have them on their devices to access course material. Programs such as JAWS and NVDA are more robust than any text-to-speech feature.

Designing accessible course material is a much better practice than relying on the LMS or some AI tool to “make it accessible.” At the same time, not having such additional features does not necessarily mean that an LMS is not accessible.

Best Practices for Enhancing Digital Accessibility of Online Courses

Now that we understand the importance of digital accessibility in education, let’s explore ten best practices that educators can implement to enhance the accessibility of their online courses.

1. Provide Descriptive Alt text for Images

Images are an essential component of online course materials. However, individuals with visual impairments rely on alternative text (alt text) to access the information conveyed by images. Alt text should be descriptive and concisely summarize the image’s content and purpose.

For example, if you include an image of a graph in a lecture slide, the alt text should describe the graph’s key findings or trends. Avoid using generic alt text such as “image” or “graph.” By providing descriptive alt text, you ensure that students with visual impairments can understand the visual content of your course materials.

Decorative Images

Some images can be marked as being “decorative.” This means they serve no purpose and provide no context or additional information to the page. Typically, these are used as dividing lines, solid color backgrounds, and shapes.

How can you decide on whether an image is decorative or not? If you removed it from the page, would it impact sighted students?  If the answer is yes, then it is not decorative.

2. Create Alt text for Complex Images

Complex images, such as graphs, charts, and maps, require more detailed alt text to convey information accurately. When creating alt text for complex images, focus on describing the critical data, patterns, and relationships portrayed in the image. There is no need to include every data point!

Let’s say you have a complex chart illustrating population growth over time. The alt text should include details about the variables represented on each axis, the units of measurement, and any significant trends or patterns in the data. Providing comprehensive alt text for complex images ensures students with visual impairments can access the information as effectively as their sighted peers.

Other Ways to Describe Complex Images

Other ways exist to provide information for complex images, graphs, and charts.

  • Provide more details in the paragraph before the image. This way, all students will get the same information, and screen reader users will know what to expect when encountering the image.
  • Use captions. Besides including citation information, captions can provide additional information to supplement the Alt text. Besides being read by screen readers, captions are visible to sighted students.
  • Use additional documents, such as an Excel spreadsheet, to provide the complex data points. Spreadsheets tend to be a more accessible format and are a great option to use for assessments.

3. Ensure Alt text for Assessment Images Does Not Reveal Answers

In online and digital assessments, providing alt text for images without giving away the answers is essential. Alt text should describe the image’s content without giving clues to the correct answer.

For example, if you have an image representing a diagram or a visual prompt for a question, the alt text should describe the visual elements without revealing the solution. This ensures that students using screen readers or other assistive technologies can access the assessment materials and engage in the same problem-solving process as their peers.

For more detailed tips on writing ALT+Text, check out our blog on Mastering the Art of ALT+Text

4. Use Accessible Fonts

Font selection plays a crucial role in ensuring readability and accessibility. Choose clear, legible, and easy-to-read fonts, especially for individuals with visual impairments or reading disabilities.

Sans-serif fonts like Arial or Verdana are generally more accessible than serif fonts because they have clear, distinct letterforms. Avoid using decorative or cursive fonts, as they can be challenging to read, especially for individuals with dyslexia or visual impairments.

Remember that users accessing course material on their own devices can enlarge and change their default font style. Even web browsers have this ability.

5. Make Graphs and Complex Images Accessible

Graphs and complex images are often used to present data and visual information. To enhance accessibility, consider providing textual descriptions of the data shown in the image.

Include a caption or a separate text description that explains the key findings, trends, or patterns in the graph or complex image. This allows students with visual impairments or those who cannot interpret visual information to understand the content thoroughly.

For STEM courses that use graphs, charts, and images as part of a question, avoid using an image of the chart. Instead, provide a data table or spreadsheet that a screen reader can read; this way, all students can access the same information to choose an answer.  

6. Provide Descriptive Image Links

When including links to images in your course materials, provide descriptive text as the hyperlink. Avoid using generic phrases like “click here” or “image link.” Instead, use meaningful text that accurately describes the content or purpose of the linked image.

For example, if you have a link to an image demonstrating a scientific experiment, the hyperlink text could be “View the image of the scientific experiment.” This approach ensures that individuals using screen readers or those who navigate through links can understand the context and relevance of the linked image.

7. Use Math Accessibility Techniques

Mathematical equations and formulas can pose challenges for individuals with visual impairments or learning disabilities. When using mathematical notation, follow accessibility techniques to ensure the information is accessible to all students.

MathML (Mathematical Markup Language) is an excellent tool to represent mathematical equations in a structured and accessible format. MathML allows assistive technologies to interpret and present mathematical content accurately.

Microsoft Word also has a built-in equation editor that works well with screen readers. This is a good solution if you need to make a PDF and have the text and the equations accessible. Additionally, provide text descriptions or explanations of the equations to enhance understanding for all students.

8. Design Navigable Course Structures

Organize your online course materials in a clear and logical structure that is easy to navigate. Use headings, subheadings, and lists to create a hierarchical structure that allows students to navigate through the content using assistive technologies or keyboard-only navigation.

Consider using descriptive headings that accurately reflect the content of each section. This helps students with visual impairments or cognitive disabilities to navigate the course materials more efficiently and locate specific information.

Ensure your course has a consistent structure. If you deliver your course in weeks, make weekly folders with all the content needed that week. Divide the content into topic folders or lessons if you teach based on topic. Remember, everyone teaches differently. This means every course a student has may be organized differently. Please do not assume they will know where to look.

Make sure that tests and quizzes are in a logical place. Don’t split assessments up into topic folders. Instead, have them all live in one place and put links to them in the topic area. This prevents students from having to locate a quiz they missed weeks ago.

9. Create Accessible PowerPoint Presentations

PowerPoint presentations are commonly used in online courses to deliver content. When creating presentations, follow accessibility guidelines to ensure all students can access and understand the information.

Use appropriate heading styles to create a hierarchical structure within the presentation. Add alt text to images and provide captions for videos. Ensure that the color contrast between text and background is sufficient for readability. By implementing these accessibility practices, you make your PowerPoint presentations accessible to all students.

Do not assume that publisher-provided presentations will have correct Alt text. Even if they do, they tend to be generic descriptions. Be sure to check descriptions to ensure they align with your lecture and other course materials.

As an educator, if you have the academic freedom to choose and design your course materials, then you have the responsibility to add Alt text descriptions, not the publisher.

10. Structure Tables for Accessibility

Tables are often used to present numerical data or organize information. When creating tables, structure them in a way that is accessible and easy to navigate for individuals using assistive technologies.

Use table headers to describe the content of each column and row. Provide concise and descriptive captions that summarize the purpose or context of the table. Avoid merging or splitting cells unnecessarily, as it can confuse screen readers or disrupt the logical structure of the table.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Principles

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework that promotes inclusive teaching practices by providing multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement. UDL principles can help educators create accessible online courses that cater to the diverse needs of their students.

Multiple Means of Representation

Provide information in multiple formats to accommodate different learning styles and preferences. Offer text-based materials, videos with captions, audio recordings with transcripts, and visual aids to present information in various modalities.

Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Allow students to demonstrate their understanding and knowledge in different ways. Provide various options for assignments and assessments, such as written essays, presentations, or multimedia projects. This allows students to choose the mode of expression that best suits their abilities and strengths.

Multiple Means of Engagement

Promote student engagement by offering diverse and interactive learning experiences. Incorporate collaborative activities, discussions, and hands-on projects to cater to different learning preferences and keep students actively involved in the learning process.

By following the principles of UDL, educators can create online courses that are accessible, engaging, and inclusive for all students.

A Note About Course Copies

Instructors who re-use or copy a course from one semester to another should check for duplicated content. Too often, I have encountered a course with multiple versions of the same thing because it has been copied from one semester to the next. Using an original template course to make copies is better than copying the previous semester to the next.

The same goes for the online gradebook. Copying courses can sometimes copy over the previous student data, so check your course after copying it. Likewise, checking the student view of your course is a great way to ensure your students see what you need them to.  


Enhancing digital accessibility in K-12 and higher education is a shared responsibility among educators, course designers, learning management systems, and institutions. By following best practices for accessibility, educators can provide an inclusive learning environment where all students, regardless of their disabilities, can thrive academically.

Remember to provide descriptive alt text for images, create accessible fonts and layouts, and structure content logically and navigably. Incorporate UDL principles into course design to accommodate diverse learning needs and preferences. By implementing these best practices, educators can ensure that their online courses are accessible to all students and comply with legal requirements.

By prioritizing digital accessibility, educators contribute to a more inclusive educational experience, empowering students with disabilities to participate fully and succeed academically. Let’s embrace the power of accessibility and create a future where everyone has equal opportunities to learn and grow.

The experts at Accessiblü are always available for virtual presentations, workshops, and customized training for your educational institution.