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Designing for accessibility

Designing for accessibility means removing unnecessary barriers to learning so that all individuals have access to the learning opportunities that the course provides. Courses that are mindful of accessibility are simply better courses overall.  They welcome and support a variety of learners.  They center learning and demonstrating that learning over navigating “technical” elements of the course.  They can reduce the need to frequently revise the course to respond to individual accommodations for or requests for assistance. And they free you up to focus on connecting with both the content and your students because, really, that’s what teaching is all about! Here are three ways to design for accessibility. 

Design flexible ways for students to access and engage with the course

Many traditional instructional practices are designed for only a subset of learners, such as students who are fluent in the language of instruction, students who are able-bodied, or students who process information rapidly. Designs that privilege these learners can create barriers to learning for students who do not fit these profiles. The Universal Design for Learning approach addresses learner diversity by proactively designing flexibility into the ways students access and engage with material, so that all students have the opportunity to succeed. The UDL framework recommends that instructors:

  • Provide multiple ways for students to engage with the course. Provide options for students to make choices aligned to their interests, to self regulate their own learning, and to sustain effort and persistence. 
  • Provide multiple options for representing information.  Use multiple ways of presenting content(e.g., videos, slides, podcasts), interpreting language and symbols, and comprehending the material. 
  • Provide multiple ways for students to demonstrate their learning. Perhaps students could make a short documentary film rather than write a paper, or a portfolio of smaller class products with reflections could take the place of an exam.  

Be mindful of students' access and experience with technology

Design your course to be mindful of differences in student access and ability to use the technology to participate in course activities. Many students from low-income and rural backgrounds face internet access challenges if they do not live on campus. Some may rely exclusively on smartphones for internet usage. These constrains may limit students' access to live-stream class meetings

  • Assess technology access. Connect with students to assess their technology capabilities and needs at the beginning of class. 
  • Make technology accessible. Ensure that any technology students use is accessible and useable.  Consider whether your chosen technology will work on alternate devides such as smart phones of tablets. Refer students with technology access issues to the IT Customer Service Center, 785-864-8080 or itcsc@ku.edu. See the Access page for more details. 
  • Consider the pros and cons of synchronous study. Synchronous discussions can be rewarding, but also think about the challenges they may pose for students. Are all students in the same time zone? What will you do for a student who cannot attend a synchronous session?  Do students have reliable enough internet access to tune in? Is this format really necessary for a student to be successful? This page goes into more detail on the pros and cons of synchronous and asynchronous instructional activities.
    • This blog post by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, associate professor at Arkansas State University, challenges us to think about the "ask" we are making of students when we require synchronous video interaction
  • Don't assume all students are technologically confident.  Provide tutorials for tools that students may not be familiar with. Provide a practice assignment to allow students to learn a complicated or unfamiliar tool, and have a plan for when technology fails. Consider the number of platforms, programs, or plug-ins are you requiring students master in order to navigate your course, and how much time students need to spend learning the technology (or how much time will you be spending teaching the technology?) to be successful in your course as opposed to diving into the content itself, and how technology-dependent students will be in demonstrating their learning. 

Make your content accessible to the widest audience possible

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and  requires that information technology used by institutions of higher education be accessible to individuals with disabilities. A well-designed course that has been developed with accessibility in mind benefits ALL learners and makes your job as an instructor that much easier. The good news is that KU has done some of the tech work for you. KU-supported educational technologies have features and capabilities to accommodate most individuals. KU also has assistive technologies available to learners, including screen readers, adaptive keyboards and peripherals and braille writers.  While you don’t need to understand how all of these tools and technologies work, you can make adjustments to your content so that it works well with assistive technology. The AAAC has created these pages on creating accessible online content.

Guidelines include:

  • Using scanned documents with OCR (Optical Character Recognition) capability, or Word Documents, Power Points or Excel files that already have accessibility built in
  • Creating videos with Kaltura, which allows for captioning; or including descriptions or transcripts of visual/video content. 
  • Using a tool called AMP to check the accessibility of your site.

For more information:

More on Universal Design for Learning

See this video for information about the UDL approach in higher education. 


Graphic: Guidelines for UDL from CAST.org

Handout: 20 Tips for Designing Accessible courses, from the University of Washington.