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  3. Creating accessible, inclusive, online learning materials

Creating accessible, inclusive, online learning materials

Accessible, inclusive, online learning materials have the ability to positively impact all your students, not just the students who have declared a need for accessible adaptations.

This article looks at best practices for creating accessible, inclusive, online materials from the start.

Keep it structured

Showing the shape of the content, the topics, the order etc, sets expectations and helps in managing time.

Having a page or a menu that lays out the structure through headings, especially if it takes your audience to the section they are looking for through links, enables another method of navigation and gives an overview of the content. This is especially important in a module that uses a blend of online and offline, synchronous and asynchronous teaching.

The two main components of structure for me are headings and narrative.

Headings

Headings organise your text, signposting where certain information can be found and, particularly where subheadings are used, how different pieces of information relate to one another. Using headings and subheadings, in most applications, creates additional methods of navigating content and so also creates multiple access points for students to use.

It’s not just about making text bold or enlarged: When I refer to headings, I’m talking about a specific formatting tool that not only creates a visual cue but also an auditory cue and keyboard shortcuts when using a screen reader. In Word this is done with the styles, in PDFs it is done with tagging, and with web pages it is done with semantic headings.

Headings tools

If you aren’t sure how to create headings, I’d recommend looking at the Microsoft support on how to add a heading for help in creating headings in any application in the office suite. If you are more interested in creating headings in PDFs, I’d recommend looking at the Adobe help on reading order tools though it is also worth noting that, when opening a PDF from a web page, the accessibility of that PDF is entirely dependent on the browser your audience is using and its level of integration with Adobe. Therefore, think carefully about why you are using a PDF over Microsoft Word document.

Though I’ve outlined creating headings in two commonly used applications, most, if not all, of the applications you are looking to use will have similar features to facilitate creating headings.

Narrative

Within your module, there will be two types of narrative. The first, and simplest, type of narrative is the flow from one piece of information to the next. This flow might be determined by different factors – logic, chronology, or dependencies for example – but it is the foundation of your module and will guide your students from point A, where they know very little about your topic, to point B, where they can demonstrate good knowledge of your topic.

Your headings, and the order of those headings, will be determined in large part by this type of narrative but while headings organise content, the narrative links the content together.

Use the narrative to advertise the links in multiple ways and, however well you think you have signposted what your audience needs to know (and where to find it), or however obvious you think the links between the pieces of content are, do it some more. Having too much signposting won’t cause issues for your students but having too little will affect everyone, especially neurodiverse students and students with English as a second language.

You can test this narrative by presenting it to someone who is not involved in the writing process to see how easy it is for them to follow. Having someone external to the module look at it can quickly show any gaps and check coherency.

The second type of narrative present within your module is story and perhaps the more conventional use of the term ‘narrative’. This type of narrative includes case studies can introduce characters and scenarios that may make information more engaging but can only do this once the first type of narrative is complete. Don’t get lost in writing creating a pretty narrative though no matter how tempting it is, if you haven’t included the basics of what your students need to know.

This story telling type of narrative can also be used to introduce the history and context of concepts and discoveries. In addition to anchoring information and making it more interesting, it is a natural way of decolonizing the curriculum and making subjects more inclusive and relatable.

Engage students in discussions about who and what were the subject of experiments, why, and what impact has that had on the field or discuss why some have been applauded and exalted for their achievements while others have been reduced to internet memes of ‘Did you know…?’.

Normalising and expecting a deeper level of history and context can also ensure better learning for all by engaging in critical thinking of the whole rather than focusing on one small aspect and offers another entry point to the content, which is again beneficial for all students. 

This can be formalised in the references too. For example, a section on the historical accuracy of the costumes in the live action remake of Mulan quoting Jones not Zhao. Assuming they are both equally qualified to speak to the costumes, quoting someone from the region that the film is set, or even comparing quotes from Eastern and Western experts, is likely the more engaging and authentic approach.

Having diversity reflected in the narratives and references used in a course is beneficial for all students as it creates a sense of acceptance but it can be especially beneficial for students who are actively managing their mental health.

Keep it simple

There is a myth that the higher up the education ladder you go, the more convoluted, confusing, and flowery your writing needs to be. It’s the ‘they are university students; they should be able to deal with the language’ argument.

Consider this though: How do you speak in a face-to-face setting?

When students are studying your written content asynchronously, they can’t stop you mid-flow to ask you to expand on or explain a point. Instead, expect emails every time a point isn’t understood and, because they can’t hear the answer when someone else asks the question, expect multiples of the same question.

A good way to write content online is to write as you speak. If you are unsure, you could even record yourself teaching and then transcribe and edit it in teams for example or use MS Word to as you teach. A conversational tone is more accessible as well as more engaging and so will hold the interest of your audience for longer, but be careful of idioms and colloquialisms like ‘school of thought’, ‘part and parcel’, or ‘get through it’. We all use them but they are not universal, despite seeming to be ubiquitous, and some are based on outdated, if not outright offensive stereotypes.

A certain amount of technical language is needed in any subject, but any concept can be explained in at least five different levels (primary school student, high school student, college student, graduate student, and expert) and using plain English enables you and your students to focus on the concepts rather than on untangling the language. Both these ideas were demonstrated in a popular Wired series. Again, this helps all students but is particularly pertinent to neurodiverse students, students without academic family members to help them, and students with English as a second language.

Conversational or plain English also lends itself to chunking into smaller paragraphs which are more easily absorbed and integrated into existing knowledge, especially when reading on a screen.

Keep it clear

Given what I said in the ‘Keep it simple’ section, it might be tempting to throw everything you know at every page.

Don’t.

If this section was one huge paragraph, some of you may have taken a deep breath and dived in but more of you would have moved on to something else, possibly saying to yourself that you’d come back to it when you had more time or head space, never to return.

Overcrowding the page with walls of text, however brilliantly you’ve written it, is intimidating to anyone that needs to read it but especially to the neurodiverse community, those needing to actively manage their mental health, and those for whom English is their second language. Think carefully about whether that piece of information is vital here or could be linked to or could be written in later or even dropped entirely.

Paragraphing

In the ‘Keep it simple’ section I also talked about chunking information to aid retention but the shape of you text is equally important for helping to actually read the information.

Using smaller paragraphs gives the impression that the content is more manageable. If a student runs out of time, they can more easily mark your stopping point and come back to it. Again, this will help everyone but for those actively managing their mental health it might be a vital component in them engaging with any of the written materials.

Paragraphs mean that your students are able to read ‘just one paragraph’ and get started or motivate themselves to keep going by telling themselves ‘just one more paragraph’ and when those paragraphs are short and unassuming it is easier to keep going. At the other end, when your student is done, wherever that stopping point is, being able to think ‘I’ve read X amount of paragraphs’ can create a sense of achievement. This is important for everyone but can be vital for actively managing one’s mental health.

Fonts

On the topic of shaping how your writing looks on screen and making it easier to read, choose your font wisely and choose only one where possible. Just as paragraphs give shape to your text, fonts give shape to your words. This is particularly important for the neurodiverse community and specific fonts have been development to help those with dyslexia, for example OpenDyslexic which is free or variations of Microsoft fonts like Fluent Calibri and Sitka. You may want to consider using one of those but a key question to ask yourself when choosing a font is:

Which one would you want to read for an extended period of time?

The final thing here are links which can be long or short but are always ugly and often made up of nonsensical letters, numbers, and symbols. They clutter the page and break the flow of information when reading but imaging listening to it. A screen reader will read every letter, number, and symbol and so by the time it gets to the end, it is likely that the student has completely lost the point you were trying to make.

The way around this is to utilise hyperlinks, that is where the link is hidden behind text. To be most useful, these hyperlinks should describe where the link will take the reader. For example:

Do be careful about linking to PDFs. Aside from potential accessibility issues laid out in ‘Keep it structured’, they often open new apps, tabs, or pages which, if you can’t see it happening, can be really disorientating when you don’t expect it so you need to signpost that that is where the link is going.

As I said at the start, these are best practices for creating accessible, inclusive, online materials from the start. If you are writing a new module, it is easier to build in accessibility and inclusion now rather than at the end but if you are reviewing a module, or multiple modules, pick one or two things to implement throughout. Whatever you choose it will help immediately. Then, through successive reviews, you will eventually have fully accessible, inclusive modules.


About the author(s)

  • Nicola Fordham

    Nicola is a Learning Designer and pedagogy lead in the Content Team at Coventry University Online working with course teams across the CU Group. She has a particular interest in accessibility, inclusion, and belonging.

Updated on May 10, 2022

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