Accessible Online Learning

Elizabeth Spingola


It’s critical to create accessible digital spaces within the classroom. While there has been positive movement towards understanding and designing accessible websites for physically-disabled people, there is little information about how to design for cognitively-disabled people or how to reduce the cognitive load for anyone trying to access websites.

Accessible digital design, especially for cognitively-disabled people, has become more and more important. Currently, postsecondary courses rely heavily on course websites and digital resources. Many institutions have courses that are taught entirely online. To ensure higher education is available and accessible to all, digital accessibility for both physically- and cognitively-disabled people must be considered when creating course websites and digital resources.

Aspects of Online Learning

A common misconception with digital resources, course websites, and online learning is that if you are not the administrator or if you do not know or want to deal with code, there is nothing you can do about accessibility. In reality, there are many different elements you can be aware of and change to create a more accessible environment for cognitively-disabled students. The following list will detail a few tips to keep in mind when thinking about accessibility.

  1. Think about accessibility first. When you are searching for digital content and resources for your course, first think about who will be able to access the material. Ask yourself the following questions:
    • Are there captions? Captions help many people with cognitive disabilities comprehend multimedia content more thoroughly.
    • Is material and layout simple and easy to follow? Cognitively-disabled students can have their focus and concentration interrupted if there are too many different elements on the screen.
    • Is there a time limit with a countdown timer? A countdown timer for assignments, tests, and quizzes can increase anxiety for all students, but especially for people who have anxiety disorders. Consider removing automatic countdown timers from assignments, tests, and quizzes.
    • Are there flexible due dates? Flexible due dates allow students to plan around their own schedules and allows classes to be completed more easily.
  2. Think about common accommodations requests you receive. Many professors and instructors receive particular accommodations requests often. Typically, these accommodations include extra time on timed assignments, a quiet testing place, advanced notification of deadlines, etc. Consider designing your course content and the resources you provide so that the typical accommodation requests you receive are obsolete. A large portion of disabled students are not registered with the Students with Disabilities Services Office and have no formal accommodations and would benefit from these sorts of modifications. Many students who do not have disabilities can benefit as well. Addressing typical accommodation requests within the design of your classroom, course, and digital materials will lead to a more inclusive and supportive classroom and learning experience for all your students!  
  3. Consider multiple methods of submission for assignments. Many learning management systems, such as Canvas, Moodle, and Blackboard, allow instructors to limit the type of file that is able to be submitted within an assignment. While many of these file types can be accessed and utilized by students using different computer operating systems, the environment in which the students must use to create these files vary greatly in interface, usability, and accessibility. Allowing students to pick the type of file that is most usable for them is ideal, especially for nontraditional students who may have less experience submitting assignments digitally. Additionally, allowing students to turn in a physical copy of their work or email their work directly to you lets students feel more comfortable and secure in the submission of their assignments.
  4. Ask your students what their needs are and be willing to be flexible. Creating an accessible and inclusive classroom environment for your students requires clear and open communication and flexibility as a professor or instructor. In the beginning of your course make sure to ask your students what they need from you as an instructor and assure them that you are willing to work with them and listen to their needs. Creating an accessible and inclusive environment starts with creating a supportive and inclusive classroom culture! 


Discussion Questions

  • When was the first time you used a learning management system? How did you use it? What made it confusing or easy to navigate?
  • How can you redesign aspects of this course (exams, discussions, or other aspects) to make it a less stressful experience?

Project Ideas

  • Have your students create a multimedia assignment. Encourage them to create captions, image descriptions, and multiple ways of presenting their material.
  • Have students compare and contrast different online classes, the pros and cons of those design choices, and how they would design them differently. Then have them design their own websites using those discussions in their design choices.