How can my educational entity deliver accessible webcasts?

DO-IT Factsheet #1205

Broadly defined, a webcast is the use of the Internet to broadcast a meeting or event. Webcasts are often broadcast live, but may additionally be recorded for subsequent viewing. Educational entities use webcasts to host online lectures, meetings, and other events.

Webcasts vary significantly in their level of audience interactivity. Some webcasts simply involve one-way communication in which an instructor delivers a lecture to an audience using streaming media over the Internet. However, webcasts can also involve a great deal of interactivity. A growing number of vendors provide feature-rich webcast services in which audiences can submit questions to instructors or chat privately with other audience members; instructors can poll or quiz audiences and display instant graphs showing the results; and instructors can supplement their lectures with slides or share their computer desktop in order to deliver software demonstrations. These are only a few of the many interactive features that are possible with webcasts.

The potential for accessibility barriers grows with the complexity of the webcast environment that's being utilized. To evaluate the accessibility of a webcast product or service, all of the Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards [1] developed by the Access Board (in response to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, as ammended in 1998) for web accessibility, software accessibility, and multimedia might be applicable.

Following are a few examples of the types of accessibility-related questions that educational entities should ask when considering a webcast product or service:

Currently, no webcast product or service providers can respond affirmatively to all of the questions above. However, by asking these questions, educational entities can identify which products are somewhat accessible versus those that are totally inaccessible. Also, asking these questions sends the message to vendors that customers consider accessibility in purchase and use decisions and guides them on specific accessibility issues they should begin to address.

In addition to asking questions such as these when procuring a webcast product or service, individual instructors or meeting hosts should be aware of these same issues when delivering a webcast, and should utilize only those features that do not exclude audience members.

In some cases, audience members with disabilities may be accommodated by providing equivalent alternatives to inaccessible features. For example, if a webcast product provides a means by which audience members can electronically submit a question to the instructor, and that feature is not accessible to keyboard users, questions can additionally be accepted by email or phone, as long as questions are answered with equal efficiency regardless of the mode in which they were delivered.

Similarly, if an instructor is supplementing their presentation by showing slides, these slides are probably inaccessible to screen reader users, since most webcast products display slides as images with no text equivalent. To make slide content accessible, instructors should clearly verbalize the content of each slide, just as they should in a face-to-face lecture. Slide content should also be made available in an accessible format, with sufficient lead time prior to the event so that audience members can download it.

In many ways, webcasts represent the ultimate in information technology in education. They utilize a variety of technologies including the web, software, and multimedia, and allow students to be engaged in learning despite geographic barriers. In order for all learners to have equal opportunities to benefit from this rich learning environment, vendors must develop more accessible products, education administrators must purchase only those products that attempt to address accessibility, and instructors must use only those features that are accessible or be prepared to provide accommodations to participants who face access barriers.