EdX strives to create an innovative, online-learning platform that promotes accessibility for everyone, including learners with disabilities. We intend for these guidelines to help the course teams understand the importance of considering accessibility when designing courses and provide guidance so that they can serve the widest possible audience. Accessibility in online instruction refers to the degree to which information and activities are available to all students equally, regardless of physical or other disabilities.
Our guidance is based on international standards and principles for web accessibility (W3C WCAG 2.0) and universal design (usable by all, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design). Instructors who build courses based on these principles promote the opportunity to create an inclusive experience that considers the diverse set of learning styles and needs of all learners—including learners with disabilities, learners who speak English as a second language, learners with technical issues such as low bandwidth internet or no access to audio, and learners with age-related capability issues. For purposes of these guidelines, we have assumed that end users will be equipped with the appropriate adaptive technology and compatible software.
Occasionally, unanticipated accessibility barriers will arise. To supplement the accessibility you can achieve within the edX platform, we recommend that you engage the resources available at your institution to support learners with disabilities. Most institutions offer disability support services and information technology resources that provide accessibility advice and support. These professionals are trained in making disability accommodation decisions and can advise you on what accommodations may be appropriate in light of the goals of the course and the inherent instructional methodologies employed.
As technology and accessibility improvements are constantly emerging, we plan to update these guidelines periodically.
See the following sections for more information:
Almost one-fifth of the world’s population has some kind of disability. Online courses can reduce many barriers to education for these learners by providing access to courses from any location, at any time, and through the use of assistive technologies.
EdX is dedicated to creating a platform that is not only itself accessible, but also enables course creators to create accessible content. If you encounter platform issues that you believe may affect your ability to provide accessible course content, please contact us at email@example.com. We also welcome your comments and questions.
In the following sections, we outline guidelines for creating and delivering course content that allows students to use built-in accessibility functionality (such as magnification and zoom features), assistive technologies, and alternative formats. These practices consider learners such as the following:
We highly recommend that you implement the best practices shared with you in this document and other widely available resources (some of which are referred to herein). As mentioned above, if you cannot easily address these barriers, we recommend that you consult with any disability-related resources at your institution (Disability Services, Assistive Technology, or Accessibility). While your ability to support students in the MOOC context may be different from supporting on-campus students, we encourage you to develop a plan to respond to students who inform you of accessibility barriers to learning. However, given the large numbers of learners enrolling in many of the courses, you will quickly see how important it is to address accessibility concerns when creating a course.
Universal Design for Learning focuses on delivering courses in a format so that as many of your learners as possible can successfully interact with the learning resources and activities you provide them, without compromising on pedagogic rigor and quality.
The principles of Universal Design for Learning can be summarized as:
Instructors can apply these principles in course design by:
EdX courses have a global and diverse audience. Learners will be better positioned to access the concepts of your content if it is written in clear, straightforward language and the content is well structured. Use appropriate terminology to your subject area, but keep it as clear and unambiguous as possible to help learners who:
To produce content that is more readable by all students:
PDF is a common format for course materials, including textbooks supplied by publishers. However, converting materials to PDFs can create accessibility barriers, particularly for learners with visual impairments. To improve the accessibility of your PDFs, review the guidance below about preparing documents for conversion, using Adobe Acrobat Professional, and working with third-party suppliers.
The teaching materials that you will convert to PDFs may use different formats—for example, your syllabus may be in Word, your presentation slides in PowerPoint, and your textbooks in publisher-supplied PDF. Use the tools available in the applicable software to create well-structured source documents. This early step helps minimize issues that may be difficult or impossible to address later in the conversion process.
Preparing Word documents
Preparing PowerPoint documents
Preparing Excel spreadsheets
Converting Word, PowerPoint, and Excel documents to PDF
To generate PDFs from Microsoft Office documents, use the Save as PDF option. Make sure the Document Structure Tags for Accessibility option is selected (consult your software documentation for more details). Note that PDFs generated from Windows versions of Office will be more accessible than those generated from Mac OS.
When you control the creation of a PDF, you have greater control over the document’s accessibility. If you use PDFs provided by third parties, including textbooks supplied by publishers, the document’s accessibility may be unknown.
Asking the right questions about accessible PDFs
Where possible, ask the supplier of the PDF if the PDF is accessible. If it isn’t, ask whether the supplier can provide an accessible version. Questions to ask include:
You may need to update your existing teaching materials in PDF format to improve accessibility. This might include PDFs that were:
In such cases, you need special software, such as Adobe Acrobat Professional, to enhance the accessibility of the PDF. PDFs that are created from scanned documents require a preliminary Optical Character Recognition (OCR) step to generate a text version of the document. The procedure checks documents for accessibility barriers, adds properties and tags for document structure, sets the document’s language, and adds alternative text for images.
Using different content types can significantly add to the learning experience. We discuss below how to design several custom content types to be accessible to students with disabilities.
Although images can be helpful for communicating concepts and information, they present challenges for people with visual impairments. For example, a chart that requires color perception or a diagram with tiny labels and annotations will likely be difficult to comprehend for learners with color blindness or low vision. All images present a barrier to learners who are blind.
The following are best practices for making information graphics accessible to visually impaired students:
Math in online courses has been challenging to deliver in a way that is accessible to people with vision impairments. Instructors frequently create images of equations rather than including text equations. Math images cannot be modified by people who need a high-contrast display and cannot be read by screen reader software. EdX uses MathJax to render math content in a format that is clear, readable, and accessible to people who use screen readers. MathJax works together with math notation, like LaTeX and MathML, to render mathematical equations as text instead of images. We recommend that you use MathJax to display your math content. You can learn more about using MathJax in the MathJax documentation on accessibility (see the link in “Resources” below). We will update these guidelines as improvements to MathJax are developed.
Simulations, including animated or gamified content, can enhance the learning experience. In particular, they benefit learners who may have difficulty acquiring knowledge from reading and processing textual content alone. However, simulations can also present some groups of learners with difficulties. To minimize barriers, consider the intended learning outcome of the simulation. Is it to reinforce understanding that can also come from textual content or a video lecture, or is it to convey new knowledge that other course resources can’t cover? Providing alternative resources will help mitigate the impact of any barriers.
Although you can design simulations to avoid many accessibility barriers, some barriers, particularly in simulations supplied by third parties, may be difficult or impossible to address for technical or pedagogic reasons. Understanding the nature of these barriers can help you provide workarounds for learners who are affected. Keep in mind that attempted workarounds for simulations supplied by third parties may require the supplier’s consent if copyrighted material is involved.
Consider the following questions when creating simulations, keeping in mind that as the course instructor, you enjoy considerable freedom in selecting course objectives and outcomes. Additionally, if the visual components of a simulation are so central to your course design, providing alternate text description and other accommodations may not be practical or feasible:
As best practices continue to emerge in this area, we will update these guidelines.
For activities and assessments, consider difficulties students may have in completing an activity and consider using multiple assessment options, keeping in mind that some of the end users have disabilities. Focus on activities that allow students to complete the activity and submit their work without difficulties.
Some students take longer to read information and input responses, such as students with visual or mobility impairments and students who need time to comprehend the information. If an exercise has a time limit, consider whether it’s long enough to allow students to respond. Advanced planning may help cut down on the number of students requesting time extensions.
Some online exercise question types may be difficult for students who have vision or mobility impairments. For example:
When including links to third-party content in your course, be mindful as to the accessibility of such third party resources, which may not be readily accessible to learners with disabilities. We recommend that you test any links prior to sharing them with users.
You can use the eReader tool or Adding Files to a Course to incorporate third-party textbooks and other publications in PDF format into your course. You can also incorporate such materials into your course in HTML format. See Best Practices for Accessible PDFs for guidance on working with third- party supplied PDFs, and Best Practices for HTML Markup for guidance on creating accessible HTML.
Pictures, diagrams, maps, charts, and icons can present information very effectively. However, some visually impaired students, including people who use screen reader software, need text alternatives to understand the information conveyed by these images. The text alternative for an image depends on the image’s context and purpose, and may not be a straight description of the image’s visual characteristics.
Use the following guidelines when you include images in your course:
Provide a short text description that conveys the purpose of the image, unless the image conveys a concept or is the only source for the information it presents, in which case a long text description is appropriate. Note that you don’t need to provide a long description if the information appears elsewhere on the page. For example, you don’t need to describe a chart if the same data appears as text in a data table.
Include the short description in the alt attribute of the HTML image element, as follows (see Add an Image to an HTML Component for more information about adding images):
<img src="image.jpg" alt="Photo of Ponte Vecchio">
Include an empty alt attribute for non-informative images. When image elements do not include an alt attribute, screen reader software may skip the image, announce the image filename, or, in the case of a linked image, announce the link URL. An empty alt attribute tells screen reader software to skip the image.
<img src="image.jpg" alt="">
Consider using a caption to display long descriptions so that the information is available to all users. In the following example, the image element includes the short description as the alt attribute and the paragraph element includes the long description.
<img src="image.jpg" alt="Photo of Ponte Vecchio"><p>Photo of Ponte Vecchio showing its three stone arches and the Arno river</p>
Alternatively, provide long descriptions by creating an additional unit or downloadable file that contains the descriptive text and providing a link to the unit or file below the image.
<img src="image.jpg" alt="Diagram of Ponte Vecchio"> <p><a href="description.html">Description of Ponte Vecchio Diagram</a></p>
Media-based course materials help convey concepts and bring course information to life. We require all edX courses to use videos with interactive, screen-reader- accessible transcripts. This built-in universal design mechanism helps enhance your course’s accessibility. When you create your course, you need to factor in time and resources for creating these transcripts.
Audio transcripts are essential for presenting audible content to students who can’t hear and are helpful to students who are not native English speakers. Synchronized transcripts allow students who can’t hear to follow along with the video and navigate to a specific section of the video by clicking the transcript text. Additionally, all students can use transcripts of media-based learning materials for study and review.
A transcript starts with a text version of the video’s spoken content. If you created your video using a script, you have a great start on creating the transcript. Just review the recorded video and update the script as needed. Otherwise, you’ll need to transcribe the video yourself or engage someone to do it. There are many companies that will create timed video transcripts (i.e., transcripts that synchronize the text with the video using time codes) for a fee.
The edX platform supports the use of transcripts in .srt format. When you integrate a video file into the platform, you should also upload the .srt file of the timed transcript for such video. See Working with Video Components for details on how to add timed transcripts.
When creating video segments, consider how to convey information to learners who can’t see. For many topics, you can fully cover concepts in the spoken presentation. If practical, you might also describe visual information, for example, by speaking as you are writing on a tablet.
For both audio and video transcripts, consider including a text file that students can download and review using tools such as word processing, screen reader, or literacy software. The downloadable transcript should be text only, without time codes.
HTML is the best format for creating accessible content. It is well supported and adaptable across browsers and devices, the information in the markup helps assistive technologies, such as screen reader software, provide information and functionality to people with vision impairments.
To make it easier for our course teams to create content with good HTML markup, we are working to make all templates in edX Studio conform to the best practices set forth below. In the interim, we recommend that you manually add the appropriate HTML tagging. Depending on the type of component you are adding to your course in edX Studio, the raw HTML data will be available either automatically or by selecting the “Advanced Editor” or “HTML” views.
Keep the following guidelines in mind when you create HTML content:
At edX, the heart of our mission is to provide global access to higher-level learning with only a computer and the Internet. We have designed a platform that enables course creators to reach thousands of learners, some of whom will lack the typical backgrounds and resources of resident students taking traditional courses on college campuses. We hope that these guidelines prove useful to you as you work with your institution’s disability support services and information technology resources to comply with applicable accessibility laws. As we are all on this learning venture together, we encourage you to share your thoughts with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.