Accessibility in Virtual Learning Environments

Whether in-person or online, we want all of our students to have access to learning. Here are a few of the most important things that you can do to make your courses more accessible to students. We also encourage you to reach out to students to find out about possible accessibility needs and accommodations they might have. (There’s a template for a survey of your students on this site.) Contact CNDLS with any questions or to get additional support. For questions concerning specific student accommodations, contact the Academic Resource Center at arc@georgetown.edu.  

1. Use digital resources that can be read by screen readers

  • When creating MS Word docs or Google docs, format your document using Styles that indicate if something is a heading, normal text, quote, etc. You can read more about making MS Word or Google docs more accessible. 
  • When scanning documents to share with students online, use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology to convert hard copies (typed, handwritten or printed) into machine-readable text. This website provides instructions for OCR in Adobe Acrobat
  • Try your best to identify resources that are already in digital format through Georgetown Library or through existing websites. 

2. Make your Canvas site accessible

  • Pages and documents that contain many paragraphs should be chunked into sections to help learners navigate the text. In Canvas, use the “Headings” to create a logical structure.
  • Create descriptive hyperlinks (i.e., when applying a hyperlink, the link should be attached to a phrase that tells the student where the link is going. E.g., instead of “click here,” use “interview with the author” or “Washington Post article on policy”, etc.)
  • When listing items or points, it is important to use ordered (i.e. numbered or lettered) or unordered (bulleted) lists to structure your content in an accessible form. Avoid using asterisks, hyphens, or other marks as improvised bullets, as those are not rendered as lists by screen readers.
  • Provide alternative text to images (i.e., text that describes what the image depicts). Doing so allows those who require visual assistance, those using screen readers, and those for whom the image doesn’t load, to derive meaning from the image.

3. Provide captions and/or transcripts for video lectures

  • Captions not only benefit students with hearing impairment but also those watching videos in their non-native language. Some of the tools available to you such as Panopto and Google slides can generate auto-captions.
  • Transcripts are also a great way to make your videos or audio materials accessible to all students. If you are teaching on Zoom and want your audio to be transcribed, you can generate Zoom transcriptions. You can upload your transcript as an accessible PDF for students to read.

4. Technology and class participation

  • Survey your students to determine what access they have to technology such as webcams and computers.
  • Survey students about their learning environments to determine whether or not they are able to join synchronous sessions using their webcam. Consider adopting a policy of flexible webcam use for students so that those who do not have one or who are not comfortable using one can join via audio.
  • If any of your students are doing their remote learning from another country, you and they should check out our tipsheet on best practices for remote teaching and learning internationally.
  • Given the complexities imposed by time zone differences as well as the unpredictability of improvised learning environments, consider using a mix of synchronous and asynchronous approaches to class participation. Synchronous approaches might include live Zoom conversations. On the other hand, here are a couple of asynchronous possibilities (and you can find more in our Asynchronous Engagement Guidebook):
    • Students can record presentations and oral assignments and share them with you
    • Students can work collaboratively in a Google document over an extended period of time

5. Provide flexibility for assignments and assessments 

Providing flexibility for assignments and assessments is important for accommodating students with different learning needs. Below are different ways of accommodating students in Canvas: 

  • Differentiate assignments: Differentiated assignments allow instructors to accommodate students with different assignments or due dates. This is available in the assignment settings for online graded assignments, discussions, and quizzes.
    • You can assign an assignment to individual students. You can also set different due and availability dates for a student within an assignment that is assigned to the rest of the class. Refer to “How do I assign an assignment to an individual student?” for detailed instructions. 
    • You can also allow students to resubmit their assignments to give them extra opportunities to improve their work. 
  • Extensions and adjustments: Be prepared to field and honor requests for extensions or adjustments to assignments that may come up unexpectedly, driven by students’ varying learning situations

Additional Resources

CNDLS Office Hours

CNDLS provides virtual office hours for support with tools and tips for teaching online.

Hours of operation: Monday – Friday between 9 am and 5 pm. After hours, reach us at cndls@georgetown.edu.

For information on daily office hours offered by CETS, UIS and other partners, please visit the contact page.

Tip of the Week

Looking to create opportunities for students to learn together outside class time? Consider creating a Canvas discussion board for students to self-organize into study groups, and check out these ideas for building community in virtual learning environments.

CNDLS Calendar

Visit the CNDLS calendar to learn about upcoming programs and workshops.