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Creating Accessible Content for Online Courses: Exploring New Methods and Workflows

Yuanru Tan, Learning Design and Accessibility Fellow

As a Learning Design and Accessibility Fellow in the Digital Education & Innovation Lab (DEIL), my focus this summer was to develop ways to improve the accessibility of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) at the University of Michigan. Here, I will focus on how I worked to improve the experience for learners who use screen readers to access online courses at U-M. However, we recognize that accessibility involves more than consideration of individuals with sensory disabilities, such as visual impairment and hearing impairment; learners with learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia) and learners with limited technology resources (e.g., low quality internet) must also be considered when designing online courses.

In this blog post, I will share the process of how I assessed the accessibility levels of our current courses and how I developed methods and workflows to improve these assets, with the guidance of experts at U-M.


Getting started

To begin, I consulted with DEIL’s accessibility working group to learn more about the issues and challenges that are involved when developing a course. I learned that an overarching goal at DEIL is to design courses and produce materials that are accessible to the widest audience possible. I also met with leaders from U-M’s Office of Institutional Equity to further understand the requirements for online learners who are visually impaired and to learn about best practices for creating course assets that are accessible for them. Using these valuable insights as a starting point, I conducted an accessibility audit, which included reviewing our current MOOC materials and documenting the status of all course assets to identify areas for improvement. I learned DEIL has been doing an excellent job of creating materials that are accessible to many of our MOOC learners by consistently providing transcripts and captioning for all videos. However, two pathways for improvement were identified: (1) in many of our courses, we provide slides as downloadable files to accompany lecture videos, and we wanted to ensure these files are optimized for learners who use screen readers; and (2) some videos require that learners closely observe visual cues and content, revealing a need to create visual descriptions for these videos. My two main summer work goals were clear!


Optimizing files for use with screen readers

To gain insight into potential approaches for optimizing files for use with screen readers, I consulted with Jane Berliss-Vincent, Assistive Technology Manager at Information Technology Services. From my conversation with Jane, I learned there is often manual work that needs to be done to successfully convert a file. After repetitive experiments and tests, I found HTML is the most reliable and accessible file format for screen reader users. As a result, I developed a workflow that included multiple file conversions and use text formatting language (using Markdown syntax) to ensure the resulting HTML files were consistent in formatting and styling. In working with Brandon Werner, Screen Reader Specialist at Information Technology Services, I learned there are three essential attributes of accessible files. Users of screen readers must be able to: (1) use the arrow key to navigate, (2) use Tab key to locate hyperlinks and (3) use the “Enter” key to open hyperlinks. The HTML files I created using the workflow I developed, met these three requirements.


Preparing visual description for files and videos

Yuanru Tan

Some of our MOOC content contains static visual representations, such as figures, illustrations and graphs, often within lecture slides contained in our videos. We have been exploring how to write high quality “alt text” (alternative text), which is an informative and brief description of the essential content of an image. Learners who are visually impaired can then read the descriptions accompanying an image in the downloadable files we create (see section above) to accompany these videos. During this investigative process, we have found expert content knowledge is sometimes required to “interpret” complicated images. We are developing a process for gathering input and feedback from DEIL staff, faculty members and other content experts to ensure our “alt text” is highly accurate and informative.

Other visual content within some of our MOOCs are dynamic, such as demonstrations, performed on camera. For example, in a user experience testing video, learners are required to observe how a user interacts with a website. In order for visually impaired learners to interpret the exercise, it is necessary to describe the minute nuances of the user’s interaction with the website. In a follow-up consultation with Brandon Werner, I learned the preferred means of presenting this kind of content is in a separate text file with timestamps that correspond to video events. Brandon listened to the video’s audio and identified important questions about the users’ interactions with the website. To better understand the context of the activity, I met with the learning experience designers and project manager for the course. I then wrote a visual description to document what was happening in the video (e.g., mouse clicks, searching activity, scrolling) and tested it with a friend who had not seen the video. Following this iterative process, I improved the description and shared it with the course design team and faculty lead who approved it for use in the course. We believe it is important to be thorough and careful in this work because it has the potential to impact a learner’s understanding of course content!


Future Directions

Through the process, I have had many opportunities to speak with colleagues and experts at the University about how we might improve the accessibility of our online courses. However, I am still looking forward to hearing more perspectives, especially from MOOC learners with disabilities, to enrich my understanding of their experiences with the course assets we have created. Although my summer term as a Learning Design and Accessibility Fellow has come to an end, there are still ongoing opportunities to find and fill the gap between learner needs and the resources we provide. As a graduate student in the New Media & New Literacies program at the University of Michigan School of Education, I am very motivated by this summer’s experience and I will continue to work on improving the accessibility of online learning experiences in the future.

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