Distance Learning | School of Professional Studies | Northwestern University

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How do I make my writing and math accessible?

Online courses rely heavily on writing. While text is the most readily accessible way of providing information to students, there are still steps that need to be taken to ensure that students can fully engage with the text, regardless of how they access it.

Instructions do not rely on shape, size, sound, or location. 

These requirements aren’t to say that these elements can’t be used–the problem arises when these elements are relied upon exclusively. “Click the round button” or “read the left-hand list” means little to a student cannot see where text exists on a page. Instead, direct students using text. “Click the start button” easily guides all students to a button labeled start, and “read the list of research sites” will direct students to the appropriately titled list, regardless of where it is located on the page.

Each page has a descriptive and informative title.

Descriptive page titles help users orient themselves in the course site as a whole without requiring them to read–or listen to–the full content of the page.

For example, say that in a given course module, there are three homework assignments, and a student wants to refresh herself on the directions for the essay. If the pages are titled “Assignment 1,” “Assignment 2,” and “Assignment 3,” then she will have to go into each page and go through to the content to find out which is the one she needs.

However, pages that include information about module, assignment type, and topic are far easier to navigate. Pages titled “Module 2 Group Project: Technical Editing,” “Module 2 Essay: Style Guide Response,” and “Module 2: Final Project Outline” explain exactly what can be found on the other side of the link.

Each link is unique and descriptive.

In online courses, it’s easy–and encouraged–to provide links within instructional materials, so that students can immediately go to the web site, article, or video being discussed. However, when providing this links, it’s important to make sure that the text of the link is descriptive and unique. Students who use screen readers can, on a properly formatted web page, jump from link to link in order to skim a page and get a sense of the content, navigation, and structure. However, if all the links on a page say “click here,” then very little information is provided.

For similar reasons, providing the full URL of a website is not advisable. Screen readers will read out the entirety of a URL, and being forced to listen to “h t t p colon backslash backslash d l period s p s period northwestern period e d u” for every URL gets very tiresome very quickly. Instead, it is much better to direct people to the SPS Distance Learning website, for example, by embedding the link in the text.

Headings are unique, informative, and properly ordered.

Like links, headings are a good way for users to quickly skim the content to find what they need. Screen reader users can jump from heading to heading to find the section they need, and they provide good anchor points for students with learning disabilities or attention disorders to return to if they lose focus. It’s also important to use headings in the appropriate order. In Canvas, the page title is Heading 1, so the first heading used on the page should be Heading 2. Any sub-headings under that are Heading 3, any sub-headings under that are Heading 4, and so on. Using the headings in order is important to convey the structure and order of information on the page.

Use online tools to make math accessible.

Mathematical formulas are often represented visually, and figuring out how to render them in plain text for an alternative text description can be challenging. However, there are numerous online tools that can be used to generate accessible math for online courses. One of these is available in Canvas: by selecting the Math Editor tool, you can write and insert mathematical formulas that can be read aloud by a screen reader. You can also insert text created in LaTex, an open source document editor used to prepare mathematical and scientific reports. Creating readable formulas within Canvas or another math editor is much more accessible than getting a screenshot of a formula and inserting it into the page.