Design with Accessibility in Mind

Photographer: Douglas Levere

Published January 21, 2021

If 2020 has taught us anything, we’ve learned to be flexible, to roll with the punches and to realize that at any point in time, our lives can be upended. As teachers, we have found the move to teaching online has brought along with it many conundrums, from the more obvious concerns about having the right technology, stable internet connectivity, and scheduling to a range of issues that stem from simply not being together in the classroom.

“...think about your students. What will they need? If you were a student in your class, what would you need? A plan. A schedule. Knowing what is due and when. ”

That last part has opened pandora’s box of challenges:

  • trying to balance the work-family-life blend.
  • unexpected interruptions
  • workspace inadequacies
  • plus, changing the needs of our course design and delivery

Remember, our students are often in a similar predicament. Many have younger siblings to care for, chores to tend to and are working to help support their families. Like you, they may not have a dedicated space suitable for learning. Things happen. We need to learn to adjust what we are doing, in this case teaching and learning. So where can we start?

Start at the beginning—your course design itself

Teaching in a face-to-face setting, I might have a rough outline of what I will be teaching on a specific day, maybe some materials and a rough plan of what I expect to do and how I will do it. But in an online class, I realized this “rough idea” wasn’t going to cut it. I needed to put everything together for my students to access. But how? Organization and structure. I like to tell people to imagine their course was a 3-inch, 3-ring binder. How would you organize it? Where would you put your dividers? How would you name the dividers? It’s the same for an online course. Why does this matter? Chaos and confusion leads to more anxiety and frustration. It’s a simple fix—organize your course with consistency and clear language. Ask yourself, “If I was a student in my class, what would I need to know and how would I be able to find it?"

Next, think about how your lessons break down

What are the key parts of our lessons and how can we break them down? What are we doing to provide for both flexibility and inclusion? For students who like to work ahead or at their own pace, are there materials that students can access right away such as readings and recordings? Are there opportunities for students to choose how they complete assignments such as through recordings, presentations or written options? Are there opportunities for collaboration and community? I use the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework both as a guide and as a resource for great ideas. Using the UDL framework to help look at meaningful ways of representation, engagement and action and expression are really helpful here. 

Now, think about scheduling

One of the biggest challenges that has come up in the last several months is the need for time. Not only do we not have enough of it, but sometimes things happen at the most inconvenient of moments. What can we do? First, think about scheduling. Not just in terms of when your students meet for class, but on a semester level. When does the class begin, when does it meet, what holidays and critical target dates are there (midterm grade reports, last day to resign, final exams) and so forth? Look at a planner and write those things down. If you are planning to have any big tests and/or assignments, decide on when they will occur and how much time you will need to grade and provide feedback. Schedule those things on your own calendar.

Next, think about your students. What will they need? If you were a student in your class, what would you need? A plan. A schedule.  Knowing what is due and when. If your class is remote, does it really matter what time students submit work? Yes, give deadlines as those are important. Be consistent with when you assign and expect assessments to be submitted. Also, think about the amount of work you are expecting your students to complete. While we are working hard to record content and have our materials ready, our students have to study this content. I’ve used this workload estimator to help determine that “sweet spot” for both my students and me. Consider a few options with respect to timing—be flexible. If you tell your students to complete an assignment by next Sunday, open it on Monday, if possible, so they can choose when to work on it at a time during the week that is best suited to their needs. Same thing with a test. As a working parent and student, I often end up doing my assignments once the kids have gone to bed. Many of our students are in the same boat, especially now that they are home. 

Cultivate interest

Think about ways to encourage your students to take a driver’s seat in their learning. Does the assignment have to be written? Could it be a presentation? A recording? A visual representation? Think about what it is that you are asking them to do, but allow them to determine how they want to express themselves. Not all students are strong writers just as others are terrified of presentations. Think back to classes you have taken and tasks you were asked to complete. Did they all make sense to you or did you often feel bored or completely uninspired. Had you been given a choice, what would you have done? Sometimes the choice is about the topic while other times it could be how they conceive and present the material. 

Presentations and communication

If you’ve ever heard the expression “it’s not what you say, but the way you say it,” it applies to our instructional content now more than ever. By just posting content without describing or explaining what it is, we become confused. Something that I’ve heard repeatedly over the last several months is how confused and overwhelmed we all are. We can alleviate a lot of this in our own classes by simply being proactive and clear in our guidance. When you add content, provide a brief explanation of what it is. Avoid using jargon because not everyone understands the terminology, especially if it is new. Say what you mean. I recently participated in a DiSC training called “Be a Better Communicator” and learned so much about the variations in communication styles in the workplace. It definitely applies to our students, too. Some want more details; others get lost in those details. Students attending our classes have various differences in how they learn based on so many things from prior knowledge and experience to processing, cognitive, cultural, language and even physical challenges. We all do. So how we present content in terms of the words we use matters. 

And since most things we do now are online, we need to make sure the digital content is accessible. There are guidelines through WCAG 2.0 detailing what we can do and how to improve what we give our students. From using readable fonts and high contrast through providing captions on any recordings and video content, it helps everyone not just those who require it. If you are ever concerned about the font you select or the colors you have used, try to look at the document from several feet away. If you have a hard time reading it, chances are so will your audience. And with respect to captions, not only do you need to include them, be sure to edit them first! I’ve seen some crazy things happen with automatic captions.

When you think about everything that we’ve all been through in this transition to remote teaching and learning, we realize all the barriers that happen at a moment's notice. By taking a more proactive approach to not only what, but how we are teaching and learning, it benefits everyone.