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.

How Residential Students and Global Learners Play a Role in Enhancing the MOOC Experience

Cinzia Smothers, Community Engagement Manager

Stephanie Haley, Engagement & Iteration Manager

We often receive feedback from learners about how smoothly their MOOC learning experience ran. Since this is in large part due to our Course Advocates, we wanted to share some context on what their role is here in the Office of Academic Innovation.

Course Advocates (CAs) and Course Development Assistants (CDAs) are assigned to assist Faculty Members who work with us to design, produce, and offer a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).

CDAs and CAs have very similar and, in many respects, overlapping roles. The work of a CDA takes place primarily during the development of the MOOC leading up to the point of the course launch. Some activities that CDAs might be involved with are assignment creation, assisting with course building, graphic design tasks, and more. The work of a CA begins slightly before the MOOC launches and continues through the management and maintenance of the MOOC Discussion Forums, as well as through the course review process for future iterations. It is also not uncommon – and is even encouraged, when practical – for a CDA to transition into the CA role for a designated MOOC.

Our team of CAs and CDAs currently consists of about 60 individuals with rich and diverse backgrounds and interests. Most CAs and CDAs are current U-M students (undergraduate as well as graduate), but there is also a subset of enthusiastic former MOOC learners who have joined the CAs/CDAs’ ranks, often by direct invitation of the respective faculty member.

Sophie, who holds a Master of Science degree in Web Applications Development and a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical/Computer Engineering, and who is the CA for Introduction to Data Science in Python and Applied Plotting, Charting & Data Representation in Python, became interested in MOOCs to stay involved in the Computer Vision sector. Reflecting on her experience as a CA, she said, “I enjoy helping learners troubleshoot problems with their assignments, it gives me a sense of empowerment and wellbeing.”

Blair, who is a doctoral candidate in the School of Education and the CA for Leading Ambitious Teaching & Learning, became a CA to gain a deeper understanding about various perspectives on systemic approaches to improving teaching and learning and also to learn more about MOOCs and innovative ways to increase access to educational opportunities. Reflecting on her experience so far, Blair said, “I like the opportunity to learn with and support a large group of learners in diverse contexts tackling the challenging issue of leading ambitious teaching and learning. I enjoy supporting the learners’ discussions about the course content because everyone brings such unique perspectives to the material and often these discussions push my own thinking.”

Isabella, CA for Mindware: Critical Thinking for the Information Age and Inspiring and Motivating Individuals, said, “I first got involved with CA work by helping to develop one of U-M’s courses, and now I enjoy being able to be a part of the course community and making sure students from all over are excited about the material and having a fun time taking our courses.”

Sometimes, CAs might take on slightly different responsibilities, depending on specific circumstances and the CA’s interests, aptitudes, and background. Because of this variety of responsibilities and backgrounds, and with the goal of developing appropriate and responsive workflows, we initiated a process of examining CAs’ relevant work-related needs. For example, Kayla Carucci, a graduate student who will start her PhD program at the U-M School of Information this fall, has been working at the Digital Education and Innovation Lab over the summer months to conduct a contextual analysis of the CA/CDA workflow (more to come on this soon!).

To learn more about the CDA/CA role here at Academic Innovation, check out this snapshot of the role and its responsibilities.

U-M students who would like to apply to this position are encouraged to submit their resume through the Student Employment Office website.

Spotlight on the Simulations Community of Practice

Sarah Moncada, Academic Innovation Initiative Project Coordinator

The Simulations Community of Practice is an interdisciplinary group of U-M staff and faculty who meet regularly to discuss the development and implementation of simulation-based teaching tools. Participants explore the benefits and challenges of simulation activities, as well as share experiences and resources.

This community of practice developed out of an open, informal conversation on simulation pedagogies hosted by the Office of Academic Innovation in March 2017. The conversation generated an abundance of questions, concerns and recommendations about the use of simulations in teaching, and participants expressed interested in having ongoing, more in-depth discussions. Since then, the group has met several times to examine a range of topics, including simulation types, facilitation best practices, learning goals and debrief techniques.

Meetings will continue in the 2017-2018 academic year. The Simulations Community of Practice is kicking off the semester with a session on Wednesday, September 27 from 1 – 2 p.m. at the Office of Academic Innovation (8th Floor, Hatcher Graduate Library South). At this gathering, participants will discuss the special considerations needed for planning, facilitating and debriefing simulation activities that involve sensitive topics or contexts.

We welcome all instructors and staff who create and/or facilitate simulation activities for the classroom, or who are interested in doing so, to join our group. Please email me, Sarah Moncada (, if you would like to be added to the email list.

Here is a brief overview of the group’s activities to date:

Initial Gathering at Innovation Hour

Three individuals in discussion at a high table with other small group discussions in the background.Faculty and staff from a range of units, including Public Policy, Nursing, Medicine, Education, Information, Engineering, ITS and Academic Innovation, convened for an informal conversation about simulation activities and pedagogies. Participants gained a sense of the tremendous range of simulations that take place at U-M, from the use of chicken skin as a simulation for cutaneous surgery to a customized digital platform for simulating multi-role government policy decisions.

Despite the diversity of activities, disciplines and technologies, attendees agreed on what drives their use of simulations. Several noted the value of simulations as safe spaces where students can make and learn from mistakes. Students can experiment with their decisions and approaches in hands-on environments. Learners’ active engagement–especially when combined with post-simulation debrief or reflection activities–leads to a deeper understanding of systems, processes and skills.

There was also consensus among practitioners about the challenges of education-based simulation activities. Many commented on the special difficulties of evaluating student learning in these instructional contexts, as well as the challenge of managing the open-endedness or variability inherent to many simulations. Attendees expressed a desire to develop a greater understanding of simulation-related tools and activities from other disciplines, noting that U-M simulation designers and facilitators ought to come together to discuss best practices and necessary skills for conducting simulations responsibly and effectively.

Community of Practice: First Steps

Several individuals seated around a large conference room table.At the first meeting of the Community of Practice, attendees began by compiling a list of simulation activities that take place at U-M. Again there was a wide range, from small-group lean manufacturing paper-cutting simulations in the College of Engineering to large-scale empathy-building poverty simulations hosted by the Sociology Department and the School of Public Health.

In an attempt to assign these activities to categories or types, it became clear that individuals from different fields use different terminology to describe simulations and have contrasting understandings of what constitutes a simulation. The group then discussed distinctions, posing questions to each other such as, “What differentiates a simulation from a case study?” and “Do simulations always involve role-playing?” Several agreed that simulations involve collective decision-making of some kind, and that there must be a variable outcome–participants’ decisions within the simulation will change the experience and results.

Demo of PolicyMaker

Elisabeth Gerber standing in front of a computer lab pointing to a projector screen.At the community’s June gathering, Dr. Elisabeth Gerber , Jack L. Walker, Jr. Collegiate Professor of Public Policy in the Ford School of Public Policy, facilitated a demo of PolicyMaker, a digital platform for creating and implementing customized, interactive role-playing simulations. Gerber walked through the different functionalities of the tool from an instructor perspective, including how to create and manage a simulation scenario, assign roles to participants, and navigate within the platform.

Attendees of the demo were assigned participant roles within one of Gerber’s public policy scenarios to get a feel for how students might use the tool in an educational context. PolicyMaker is designed to facilitate and enhance an in-person simulation experience. The platform contains profile pages for students to learn about their roles, messaging  functions to communicate with other participants, calendars and voting tools to organize actions and decisions within the simulation, and a “news feed” to view outcomes and updates. All these features support the engaged, face-to-face interactions that take place in the classroom during a simulation.

The demo closed with a conversation about the potential use cases for PolicyMaker and the flexibility of the tool to work with a variety of scenarios and learning goals. Gerber encouraged participants to think about how the digital platform might operate in different academic domains and contexts. For more details, check out Michigan Daily reporter Nisa Khan’s feature on the PolicyMaker demo session.

Learning Goals and Debrief Techniques

Rachel Niemer pointing to a hand-drawn diagram on a whiteboard.By the final meeting of the summer, the Simulations Community of Practice had grown to include representatives from U-M Libraries, the LSA National Center for Institutional Diversity, the Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and Ross School of Business, as well as faculty and staff from U-M’s Dearborn campus and Michigan State University.

The meeting opened with acknowledgement that a well-facilitated debrief session is the most instructive part of a simulation. It is important for students to have an opportunity to review, discuss, and reflect upon the simulation experience after it is over. In order to design effective debrief activities, facilitators must have a grasp of their learning goals and expectations for the simulation.

Dr. Rachel Niemer, Director of the Gameful Learning Lab, noted that learning goals for simulations can vary widely. For example, the learning goals of a healthcare simulation, in which medical students are acting as doctors and performing simulated versions of tasks they will carry out in their professional lives are quite different from those of a poverty simulation, participants are intentionally placed in unfamiliar positions and situations as they navigate low-income challenges. These simulations would therefore require different debrief activities.

Others in attendance agreed, adding that it is important to identify whether the simulation has learning goals related to mastery learning and skill development or whether the primary focus is on empathy-building or social experience. In mastery-based healthcare simulations, the debrief may need to be immediate and action-oriented, whereas with empathy-building social simulations the participants may need time to “cool down” and process before an open-ended debrief conversation about participants’ reactions and key takeaways.

What’s Next?

The Simulations Community of Practice will be starting the school year with the September 27 discussion of special considerations for simulations involving sensitive topics or contexts.

Additional meetings this fall will focus on topics such as ways to effectively describe expectations to students and consideration of participants’ social identities when assigning roles and facilitating role-playing simulations. Be sure to check out our events page for details about upcoming gatherings of the Simulations Community of Practice.

U-M Experts to Help Public Understand Hurricanes through Online Teach-Out

Written by Laurel Thomas, Michigan News

As Florida assesses the damage from Hurricane Irma, Texas continues to rebuild from Harvey and meteorologists keep their eyes on Jose, University of Michigan experts in weather events and their aftermath offer the public a new teach-out called “Hurricanes: What’s Next.”

The timely educational opportunity for learners across the globe will be led by Perry Samson, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Professor of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, professor of information and founder of the Weather Underground. It will address the basics of hurricanes, forecasting, monitoring, preparation, damage and response to the powerful storms.

“A Teach-Out now on ‘Hurricanes: What’s Next’ is timely given the impacts of hurricanes Harvey and Irma this year,” Samson said. “The approach is to present the facts in hurricane formation, forecasting, preparation and response, in the hope of generating a larger discussion on how to respond to natural disasters.

“While controversial, this is also an important time to discuss if or how a warming ocean may influence the frequency and intensity of tropical storms in the future.”

Others participating include Richard Rood, professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, and environment and sustainability; Chris Ruf, professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, and electrical engineering and computer science; Jeff Masters of Weather Underground; and U-M students.

They will address questions including:

  • What drives a hurricane?
  • How accurate are hurricane models?
  • How do authorities prepare for hurricanes and, when destructive events like hurricanes Harvey and Irma happen, how do we respond?
  • Is this hurricane season a fluke, or should we start planning for more/similar storms?
  • Teach-outs are short, just-in-time learning opportunities that allow people across the world to engage with experts on various topics of national and international interest.

They are modeled after the teach-ins of the 1960s, which physically brought people to campus for a short-term, intensive educational experience on a timely topic. Teach-outs take advantage of current technology to engage learners. Delivered online, faculty and staff from U-M offer information through videos and interactive discussions.

This teach-out will be the first offered on the Coursera online platform.

“Through the U-M Teach-Out series, we are reimagining public engagement in the information age and creating the compassionate public square for just-in-time knowledge sharing and the exchange of new ideas within a global learning community.” said James DeVaney, U-M associate vice provost for academic innovation.

“We invite the world to join U-M experts in a global discussion about hurricanes as we seek clearer understanding of the present, greater preparedness for the future and better ideas for individual, community and government action.”

DeVaney said the free teach-outs, open to anyone, are part of U-M’s commitment to public engagement and global knowledge creation and sharing.