Online Faculty

Quick Tips For Online Course Accessibility

Online learning provides a variety ways for us to present content and engage students. Given all these options, maintaining online course accessibility can seem daunting. There are however a few simple things you can do to immediately enhance course accessibility without the cost of time or resources.

Tip 1: Use Headers

The Canvas content pages toolbar has a convenient styles editor. Use the paragraph styles to signify a page heading or new section. A common mistake is to use font size for headings but the use of styles will present a more cohesive page design, improve readability and provide a better experience for students with visual impairments using JAWS, a screen reading application that dictates page text.

 Tip 2: Tag Your Images

When images are loaded into your Canvas course they will include an alternative text based description. These descriptions, also known as alt tags, are what screen readers use to provide students with visual impairments information about the image. Alternative tag information is stored within the HTML code (see the bold, italic text in the example text below).

<p><a href=""><img style="display: block; margin-left: auto; margin-right: auto;" title="Music - an art for itself - Headphones and music notes / musical notation system" src="" alt="Music - an art for itself - Headphones and music notes / musical notation system" /></a></p>

Applying these tags is easy and you don't have to be HTML savvy since Canvas will do this for you. When uploading an image to Canvas, apply the tag within the "Alt text" field. The best practice for alternative text is 140 characters or less, though Canvas does allow more. Ultimately, you want your alt text to succinctly describe the image so the user can understand how it relates to the content. It's also important to know that screen readers will also reference and read aloud the image title. What does this mean for you? When naming your images be consistent and accurate. An image named "picture 17" will have a much different meaning than "musical notation system". For more information on this topic see The SSA Guide: Alternative Text for Images.

Tip 3: Title Your Links

Notice the difference between these two link titles:

Correct: In a CNN article on Mortality in America, studies show that ...

Incorrect: In a CNN article on Why Americans don't live as long as Europeans (, studies show that ...

Since screen readers dictate the entire link it's best to use the title or topic for the link as opposed to using the URL. This also has the dual benefit of improving readability for all students while also making things easier for students using a screen reader. Don't forget, the web is a dynamic environment where change occurs often so check your external links prior to the start of every semester.

Tip 4: Avoid Using Flat Scanned PDFs

Scanning a physical book or paper is not uncommon but incorrect scanning can create inaccessible online content. If something is "flat scanned", that is, scanned and exported as an image file (.gif or .jpeg) screen readers will not be able to read the text. Additionally, scanning pages as image files prevents you and your student from keyword searching within the PDF document. A better approach is to scan with OCR (optical character recognition). This ensures that each word within the document is independently recognized and thereby accessible to screen readers and fully searchable. Next time you scan any document, check to make sure that it is OCR enabled.

How do I check existing PDF docs? Adobe Acrobat Pro has a set of automated accessibility tools that can do the work for you. When you open a PDF document you will see a panel to the right. Select Tools (or select Tools from top menu) and Recognize Text. This will verify that the text is readable and if not, fix it for you. It's also recommended that you select the Accessibility checker. This will provide you with a comprehensive scan based on accessibility standards. If you are working with PDF documents in your course, Acrobat Pro is highly recommended to anyone teaching online. It can be purchased at a discounted rate through the USF Computer store.

Feeling overwhelmed? Ensuring equal access to all elements of a course is important and in fact, a federal law as mandated by section 508. With so many technological tools it can feel overwhelming. These tips are not intended to be exhaustive and full compliance covers much more, but this provides you with the ability start making immediate incremental improvements. If you do have questions about the accessibility of your course you can contact the USF Office of Student Disabilities. Additionally, if you receive a letter from a student requiring an accommodation this unit will support you in ensuring that the student has what's needed. Want to learn more? Our future workshop, Online Accessibility for the Benefit of All provides a comprehensive overview of tools, techniques, and time savers for ADA/508 Compliance of online courses. The workshop will be available in May but you can register at our Online Workshops page. Plus, stay tuned for a future Online Insights article where we will cover other aspects of accessibility including captioning tools, speech-to-text and transcript production.

By LaSaundria Glenn-Bass
InEd Online Faculty Development