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Designing for Diversity: Toward Accessibility in Online Courses

accessibilityFor several years, online education has been on the rise. Pre-pandemic statistics demonstrate that an increasing number of students, upwards of seven million in US higher education institutions alone, are opting for fully online courses and programs. In 2020, the scales leaned heavier towards online education as students and faculty sought out virtual course offerings to weather the transformations fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, more than ever before, students are partaking of online and hybrid courses because of the current social distancing measures in place.

As more students enter the world of online and hybrid education, the need for ADA Compliance becomes a stronger imperative. While accessibility has been a long-time focus and concern in online courses, the recent shift to an increasing number of online offerings brings the need into sharper focus.

The Numbers are Not Insignificant

The National Center for Education Statistics tracks the representation of postsecondary students with a declared disability. As of the 2016 academic year, nineteen percent of male students and twenty percent of female students reported having a disability (IES, NCES, 2021).

These percentages are much higher for undergraduate students within specific subgroups, such as Veterans. For instance, undergraduates who self-identified as Veterans and who also reported a disability represented twenty-six percent of student population within that sub-group (IES, NCES, 2021).

SHSU is no exception. Over the past few years, we have seen an increase in the number of disability students opting for online courses in Blackboard. In many ways, the online delivery modality facilitates the utilization of adaptive technologies and software.

Collaboration Among Departments

Through a collaboration between Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) and SHSU Online, several measures have been implemented to increase accessibility for learners of all kinds in courses leveraging Blackboard. You may ask, “What is already being done to support SHSU students with disabilities?” Here are a few ways:

  1. Captions and Transcriptions. SHSU Online has been funding the systematic production of captions and transcriptions for videos and audio used in online and hybrid courses.

Captions & Transcriptions Table- Jan21 Article

2. Alternate Document Formats. There are many file formats designed for greater accessibility, including Electronic Braille and Tagged PDF to name a couple. These files types provide accessible alternatives to frequently-uploaded documents in Blackboard, including syllabi and case studies. Through Ally ®, which we have made available in Blackboard, SHSU students accessed and downloaded over 80,000 alternative file types from January thru December 2020. Some metrics are shown below: 

Alternative Formats Table- Jan21 Article 

  1. Embedded Scheduling. Another way we are building collaboration with SSD and increasing accessibility is by providing SSD staff embedded access to online and hybrid courses for the purposes of scheduling ADA services. This allows SSD staff to quickly jump into an online course and schedule sign language translators, for example, based on the instructor’s posted lecture schedule.
  1. Extended Time on Tests. Whenever a student with a declared disability enrolls in an online, hybrid, or emergency remote course, SHSU Online instructional designers worked hand-in-hand with faculty to extend time on tests and assignments, as per ADA guidelines.

  2. Alt Text on Course Images. Alternative text provides a textual description that detected by screen readers and other adaptive technologies. For this reason, it is critically important to add Alt Text on all images, scans, simulations, and other visual renditions in a course that are not accompanied by a transcription. In the Fall 2020 semester, 30,924 images in Blackboard courses received Alt Text.

  3. Typesetting Standards. We have taken an inclusive approach to our instructional design methods, ensuring that even font styles and font sizes used in online courses are designed with student diversity in mind. While there are hundreds of font styles to choose from, ADA design guidelines suggest widely-used font styles, such as Arial, Calibri, Century Gothic, Times New Roman, Georgia, Rockwell, and Avro.

  4. Adaptive Technologies. SSD provides SHSU students access to adaptive technologies, including screen readers, video magnifiers, voice recognition software, and adjustable-height desks.

What’s Next?

While meaningful strides have been made to improve the overall accessibility in online and hybrid courses, there is still work to be done. In 2021, SHSU Online will make another strategic push towards accessibility in online and hybrid courses.

One way to do this is by addressing scans of PDF files that have been uploaded to Blackboard. A common way to create a PDF is to take a paper copy, scan it, and save it as a PDF. While common, these types of files are the most challenging for students with disabilities, since a scan only renders an image of the text, which cannot be “read” by screen-readers or interpreted by other adaptive technologies. We will be sifting through documents in Blackboard to locate and redesign such uploads.

The same goes for digitizing other forms of media in online courses. For example, certain SHSU courses incorporate the examination and study of comic books and graphic novels, which are often uploaded as images. Converting these types of unique media will confirm that readers with disabilities can experience comic books with greater fidelity to the original printed text.

It is our hopeful expectation that faculty will work alongside SHSU Online Instructional Designers to design for diversity. If you are teaching an online or hybrid course and you have media that needs to be digitized, please do not hesitate to contact SHSU Online today!


Burgstahler, S. (2012). Equal access: Universal Design of Instruction. Seattle, WA: University of Washington.

Case, D. E., & Davidson, R. C. (2011). Accessible online learning. New Directions for Student Services, 134, 47-58.

Edmonds, C. D. (2004). Providing access to students with disabilities in online distance education: Legal and technical concerns for higher education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 18(1), 51-62.

Gunderson, J. (2011, March). The status of web accessibility in higher education. Paper presented at the International Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference, San Diego, CA.

Linder, K., Fontaine-Rainen, D., & Behling, K. (2015). Whose job is it? Key challenges and future directions for online accessibility in U.S. institutions of higher education. Open Learning, 30, 21-34

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Digest of Education Statistics, 2018 (2020-009), Chapter 3.