Have to teach your science class online? Don’t forget to make it accessible!

As the prospect of millions of students across the world attending school remotely has suddenly become a reality, instructors, many of whom have never taught an online course, are scrambling to convert classes usually taught in a face-to-face format into ones that can be effectively delivered online.

Unquestionably, educators care about their students.  So I know we will all work tirelessly in the incredibly challenging circumstances dictated by COVID-19 to ensure that our students receive the academically sound education they deserve.  I’m not going to focus on the many obstacles associated with trying to convert a traditional, face-to-face class into an online format practically overnight.  Many postings have already highlighted those considerations, such as this article.

Instead, I want to emphasize the importance of ensuring that materials and methods used online are accessible to students with disabilities.  To simplify, I’ve included below a list of basic considerations.  For specific content that is more challenging to make accessible, such as chemical formulas and mathematical equations, see my Resources page.

Hang in there.  Though I do not know what person to credit for the quote, this is what I tell my students at the start of every semester:  “I can.  I will.  End of story.”  We can do this!  Email me if I can help.

Considerations for Online Materials

Word Documents

All Word documents must be accessible.  Here’s a link to a general guide for ensuring the Accessibility of Word Documents. I’ve also included links to specific accessibility requirements below:

Add headings

Add Alt-text to all shapes, charts, images and graphics.

Format Tables

Eliminate extra spaces and tabs.  Check the ends of sentences and paragraphs for extra spaces.  Make sure to use a “Page Break” to advance to a new page rather than pressing the Return key several times.

Use Descriptive Hyperlinks rather than pasting the full URL.

Make sure to Check Accessibility of the entire document before uploading, and fix any problems.

PowerPoint Slides

All PowerPoint slides must be accessible.  Here’s a link to a general guide regarding PowerPoint Accessibility with links to making specific content accessible.  The many considerations for PowerPoint slides are addressed in a table at that link.  I’ve included some below.

Though I haven’t seen the recommendation in print, I have been told by students with disabilities that font sizes should be no less than 24 point on PowerPoint slides.  And make sure to use a sans serif fontPenn State’s accessibility website has good information on appropriate fonts, such as Verdana, Lucida Sans, and Tahoma.

Each PowerPoint slide must have a title.  There’s a way to make the title invisible if you want the entire space for a visual.  Scroll down to “Systematically hide slide titles”.

Add Alt-text (alternative text) for all visuals.  This is important for any shape, graph, chart, illustration, figure, etc.  It’s also really important when text on the visual is small.  Here’s information about how to write appropriate Alt-text.

Check the reading order of the slides.

Make sure to Check Accessibility of the entire presentation before uploading, and fix any problems.

Animations and Videos

Add Subtitles, Captions, or Audio Descriptions.  Subtitles convey dialogue or commentary only.  Captions include descriptions of sounds, such as music playing or a car’s engine revving, in addition to dialogue and commentary.  Audio Descriptions describe the visual components of a video for those with visual impairments.  Unfortunately, I have not found a free version of the latter, as they are often added by trained personnel.

Add subtitles or captions to Videos: Free versions are available at: Amara or Subtitle Horse 

Add subtitles or captions to YouTube videosYouTube does a fair job of adding subtitles for scientific content, but you’ll need to edit the subtitles to ensure accuracy.

Add subtitles or captions to Camtasia recordings

Audio Description services recognized by the American Council of the Blind


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