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Project PACE

Online Education

Implementing the principles of universal design in online learning means anticipating the diversity of students that may enroll in your course and planning accordingly. We highlight ten considerations that will greatly enhance the accessibility and usability of your course for students with and without disabilities.

  1. Develop content first, then design.
  2. Provide simple, consistent navigation.
  3. Include an accommodation or commitment to inclusive design statement.
  4. Choose CMS tools carefully.
  5. Model and teach good discussion board etiquette.
  6. Use color with care.
  7. Provide accessible document formats.
  8. Choose fonts carefully.
  9. Think differently about multimedia.
  10. Employ rubrics and usability testing to evaluate course design.

Content first, then design.

Planning online courses with accessibility and usability in mind can save hours of time down the line. Here is a suggested process for planning your online course.

  1. Determine what elements and content you will include in your course.
  2. Use outlines or concept maps to plan flow of content.
  3. Familiarize yourself and/or seek training to learn what is possible with the course management system you are using.
  4. Develop a navigation scheme that is based on your outline or concept map.
  5. Consider the other 9 tips below as you develop your content.
  6. After you have completed these steps, begin to post content.

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Planning course layout

  • Be consistent throughout your course.
  • Use concise, meaningful text for links.
  • To the extent possible, avoid requiring students to drill down multiple times to reach your content.
  • If your course management system allows, provide a table of contents for easy navigation to all components of your course.
  • If possible, de-select tools that are not in use so they do not appear in the navigation bar.

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Include a statement regarding your commitment to inclusive design.

UALR’s Syllabus Statement

It is the policy of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to create inclusive learning environments. If there are aspects of the instruction or design of this course that result in barriers to your inclusion or to accurate assessment of achievement–such as time-limited exams, inaccessible web content, or the use of non-captioned videos–please notify the instructor as soon as possible. Students are also welcome to contact the Disability Resource Center, telephone 501-569-3143 (v/tty). For more information, visit the DRC website at

University of Arizona Syllabus Statement

If you anticipate barriers related to the format or requirements of this course, please meet with me so that we can discuss ways to ensure your full participation in the course. If you determine that disability-related accommodations are necessary, please register with Disability Resources (621-3268; and notify me of your eligibility for reasonable accommodations. We can then plan how best to coordinate your accommodations.

Additional Example

I am committed to creating an online course that is inclusive in its design. If you run into barriers, please notify me immediately so that we can determine if I can provide you with the materials in a more effective format or if accommodations might be needed to overcome the design problem. Students are also welcome to contact the Disability Resource Center, telephone 501-569-3143 (v/tty). For more information, visit the DRC website at I welcome feedback that will assist me in improving the usability of this course.

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Choose CMS Tools Carefully.

The tools packaged with content management systems change rapidly. Many of these tools support good pedagogical techniques. Some have design flaws that exclude some users such screen reader users, keyboard users, and those using alternative browsers. An awareness of the potential barriers may help you determine when to use, when to avoid, and when to provide alternatives to these tools.

Provide Mock Courses and Exams

Since it may be difficult to anticipate all of the barriers that the tools may present, a good practice is to provide a mock environment for students to experiment with the various tools that are used in the CMS. You may want to advocate for those who coordinate online learning on your campus to create such an environment. Providing a mock exam is also an excellent practice. This allows students to get a feel for your exam design and anticipate any barriers they may experience using the quiz or exam tool before they are in the middle of an exam.

Timed Exams

Some professors use the timed element of quiz tools. When the time available to take the test does not allow for student diversity, an accommodation of “extended time on exams” may be applied to make the course design more inclusive. It is a good idea to learn how to set a test up in your particular CMS with a different time requirement. If you are using Blackboard 8, here is a step by step process for providing extended time in Blackboard 8. For other course management systems, check with your campus technology experts or consult the websites for that particular product.

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Model and teach good discussion board etiquette.

Sample discussion thread showing descriptive headings

  • Encourage use of good discussion topics.
    • Like this: Question about Assignment #2
    • Not like this: Question
  • Take advantage of threaded discussion
    • Many students are in the habit of creating a new topic heading rather than replying to the previous one. Teach students the advantage of keeping the discussion board organized so that they can scan by topic. Good use of threaded discussions greatly reduces the need for students to open messages in order to determine their relevance.
  • Provide students with tips for posting to the discussion board

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Use color with care.

Provide good color contrast.
  • Black text on a white or light background is the most readable.
  • Patterns and images behind text make it more difficult to read.
  • If you are creating an HTML document to post in your course, consider using CSS to assign colors. This allows the user to change the way colors are viewed if desired.
Do not use color alone to convey meaning.

Washington D.C. Metro Map

  • The use of color to convey meaning may result in your images or information not being accessible to students who are color blind or to students who prefer to work from printed documents.
  • This sample map shows an example of how color might be used to convey meaning. The one below it shows how it was improved to increase usability.
  • Another way that color is sometimes used to convey meaning is to differentiate items in a list. For example, a professor may write the following: “All assignments in red must be completed in APA style.” This poses a problem for students who are blind and students who choose to print the page before reading. The use of color is not discouraged altogether; there are definite advantages for other students. It is possible to achieve a design that works for everyone, as illustrated in this sample assignment list.

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Provide accessible document formats.


Computer screen with HTML code

  • Pages designed in well-coded HTML offer the ideal format for providing documents over the Internet.
  • The use of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) for formatting and design enhances usability even further.
  • If you want to design your own pages, but do not know HTML or CSS, a good Web Authoring Tool can help.
    • Authoring tools vary in terms of their support for creating accessible web sites.
    • Before selecting an HTML editor or Web authoring tool, consult with your campus IT professionals to make sure the tool you are considering produces good clean code and that it prompts you to include features that make your site accessible.
  • Creating HTML pages from MS Word™ files does not produce good HTML code without some modifications. If you do convert an MS Word™ document to HTML by using the “Save as Web Page” feature, consider the following:
    • Use a tool to clean up the document before uploading it into your course.
      • Several commercial products such as Dreamweaver™, Accessible Web Publishing Wizard™, Word Cleaner™ and Word to HTML™ provide a means for cleaning up MS Word™ documents.
      • Online options are also available:
        • The Textism website allows you to upload and clean up small files for no cost or to clean larger files for a subscription fee.
        • Word to Clean HTML™ provides the option for pasting Word™ content to clean out proprietary code.
    • Even pasting from MS Word™ to Rich Text Editor in an online tool often results in bringing MS Word™ proprietary code into that new environment. This can be avoided by pasting first into a text editor and removing the formatting. The formatting can be re-added within the editing tool and usually results in cleaner HTML code.
    • Follow the suggestions for for creating well-structured documents in MS Word™ (see below).
Word Processing Documents

If you upload word processing documents into your course shell for students to download, there are several things to consider that will enhance usability.

  • Most students use MS Word™ but some of your students may be using open source products or other word processing software. Therefore, it is helpful to provide an alternative format such as Rich Text Format (RTF). In MS Word™, you can choose File > Save As, and then choose Rich Text Format from the drop-down menu.
  • Some students may still be using older versions of MS Word™. Therefore saving MS Word™ files as DOC files instead of DOCX files is helpful. To do so, simply choose File > Save As, and then choose Word 97 - 2003 from the drop-down menu.
  • When you create the link to the document, include the format of the document in the link title. Since computers may be set to behave differently when downloading different content, this additional information helps the user know what to expect upon download.
    For example:

    • MGMT 2113 Syllabus (DOC)
    • module-3-disability-policy (RTF)
  • Label images with alt (alternative) text. (See ACCESS Tutorial on Adding Alt Text to Images.)
  • Use formatting tools correctly.
    • Most users of MS Word™ or other word processing software underutilize the tools available. The formatting tools are powerful and, if used correctly, provide you with much more control over your document. Using the formatting tools to structure your word processing documents enhances usability on several levels. See this brief tutorial provided by WebAIM on Using Headings in MS Word for an overview of how to do make the most of this feature.
PDF Documents
  • PDF files are only as accessible as the document from which they were created.
  • PDF files created before Acrobat 4.0 are are simply images of the original document and are therefore inaccessible to screen reader or text-to-speech software users.
  • Some PDF files created more recently are also only images because they have been created by scanning the original document as an image.
  • Because of the many problems with accessibility of PDF, it is still recommended that an alternate file format be posted along with the PDF—preferably HTML.
  • If you have a PDF document and do not have it in another format, you can get it converted to text by using the Adobe’s Online Conversion Tools.
  • If you have a PDF that is scanned as an image, you can use Adobe Professional to convert it to a text-based PDF by choosing Document > OCR Text Recognition > Recognize Text Using OCR.
    • If the original document was not clear, then it might not convert well.
    • Converting to PDF from another format when columns are used may result in the reading order being off in the PDF.
  • To check to make sure that your document is formatted so that it will read properly using a screen reader, you can test it by using the built in reader in Adobe Acrobat. To find it, select View > Read Out Loud and choose one of the reading options.
  • Just as was suggested with other documents, it is important to indicate that your document is a PDF in the link [e.g. Module 3 Handout - Usability (PDF)]

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Choose fonts carefully.

  • Choose a clean simple font for your text.
  • Make sure font sizes are large enough to read comfortably.
  • Limit the amount of text provided within graphics. This text may become unreadable when these images are magnified.
  • When coding font size in HTML, choose relative sizes (small, medium, large or ems) instead of absolute sizes (pixels).
  • Make sure you have good contrast between background and foreground.
  • Limit the use of bold, italics and ALL CAPS.

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Think differently about multimedia.

The term “multimedia” is used here to describe any medium that provides content in a variety of forms including text, images, audio, video, and interactivity. By its very nature, multimedia provides the opportunity to appeal to various learning styles and increase the level of engagement of students. Creating effective multimedia requires more planning and time than creating print documents. Once created, multimedia is a bit more complicated to change and update. Videos, for example, often have to be totally redone if one part of them becomes obsolete. If multimedia is created in a way that excludes any of your potential students, it is also more complex to retrofit.

As you consider the use of multimedia, here are a couple of articles that provide some food for thought on selecting when and how to incorporate use multimedia.

If you decide to create multimedia, consider the following:

  • Begin with a text-based document to create your content.
  • Use multimedia for the parts of the course that are likely to remain consistent over time
  • Create your multimedia presentation so that it is usable in a variety of formats. Check your multimedia to see if you can answer yes to these questions:
    • I can watch the video with my sound off and still get the content (i.e. captions or text is provided for spoken content).
    • I can listen to the multimedia with my monitor turned off and get all of the important content (i.e. images, charts, etc. are described within the narration).
  • Make sure students can control the speed of the multimedia
  • Provide a transcript.

Employ rubrics and usability testing to evaluate course design.

Several leaders in online education have created helpful rubrics that allow course designers to assess their online courses.

Peer review is available for those who submit their online courses for review.

Usability testing is another simple way to assess how clearly a course is organized. Here is a simple way to see how well you have designed your course.

  • Create a list of tasks that a student would need to complete in your course.
    • Find and download the syllabus
    • go to Module 3 and play the lecture video.
    • Find and take the mock exam.
  • Select some students to sit down at a computer (ideally you should use various computers and browsers)
  • Observe them as they complete the tasks.
  • Record what they say and do or take notes so you can make adjustments based on the feedback you receive.


Internet Resources Tutorial on Accessible Navigation Access E-Learning (AEL) is a ten-module tutorial that is a resource for those seeking to make their distance education accessible for individuals with disabilities. Center on Education and Workforce, University of Wisconsin - Madison

Books - Available in Project PACE Resource Library
Updated 9.8.2010