Accessibility and Usability in Online Course Design

Accessibility and Usability in Online Course Design

Written by Sasha White, Instructional Designer

Edited by: Debra Sinkarsin

The Manitoba Flexible Learning Hub hosted an Accessibility and Usability webinar on December 1, 2021. From the 14 of 29 registered attendees that participated, valuable input was gleaned specifically with the focus on key principles in accessibility and usability as well as frameworks that support them.

The timeliness of these discussions surrounding accessibility and usability in online course design cannot be overstated. When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic in March of 2020, Canadian higher education was turned on its head by moving almost entirely online. In a 2020 survey conducted by the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (CDLRA) to better understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the state of digital learning in Canada, a few key lessons emerged:

  1. The shift to full online course delivery in response to the COVID-19 pandemic will likely have a profound and lasting impact on post-secondary education in Canada. This means more online or hybrid course offerings, as well as more use of technology moving forward.
  2. The pandemic amplified persistent inequities in higher education. If online and hybrid learning are to continue to a greater extent post-pandemic, important needs such as accommodations for students with disabilities (among others) must be addressed.
  3. With the shift to online course delivery practically overnight, many faculty members and students had to learn to use technologies that they had little to no prior experience with.
  4. Students’ existing digital skills (e.g., using a smartphone or being active on social media) may not give them the skills they need to learn in a digital context.

Proactive vs Reactive

Do we then design an online course to be accessible OR to accommodate? Can it be both?

Accessibility is the baseline for equal service. Accommodation is the second step when accessibility alone is not enough.

Designing with accessibility and usability means that all course content and interactions are available to learners with diverse needs. The legal basis for accessibility compliance in Manitoba is rooted in the Accessibility for Manitobans Act – which mandates that organizations, such as universities and colleges, must remove barriers, create access to education, and provide a more encouraging and welcoming environment for all students, faculty, and staff.

In an EDUCAUSE article, Martin LaGrow further highlights a couple of differences between accessibility and accommodation:

A proactive solution to providing equal access for all  A reactive solution to address special cases  
What we should expect to be ready for us without asking or planning ahead   Accessibility can be provided by following an easy-to-implement set of standards and practices that make “adaptation” unnecessary. We can benefit from accessibility without announcing or explaining our disabilities.For adaptations that cannot be anticipated or standardized   Accommodation varies from one individual to another. Although we should expect a general willingness to accommodate us wherever we go (or in this case, taking an online course), we cannot expect specific accommodations unless and until we ask for them by explaining our disabilities.
Table 1. Comparison between accessibility and accommodation

An online course environment that is inaccessible and unusable upfront places a huge burden on students with disabilities as they need to work with the student accessibility office to access the course. They are immediately put at a disadvantage when compared to students without disabilities.

Pursuing accessibility and usability is starting your online course design process with both principles in mind, rather than adopting them after the fact, or only when specific circumstances warrant it.

Frameworks that support accessibility and usability in online course design

Accessibility and usability are often included in the large umbrella of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a set of principles for curriculum development that intends to provide all individuals equal opportunities to learn.

Accessibility is specifically captured in the second principle of UDL, which is multiple means of Representation:

Graphic image reads "Provides multiple means of representation" and "Recognition Network: The ’What’ of learning."  Includes an illustration of the brain having the temporal, parietal and occipital lobes highlighted in purple.
(“UDL: Multiple means of Representation,” 2018)

Information must be accessible and presented in a variety of ways (audio, print, tactile, graphically, by video), in as many possible ways as there are to ensure that people get the information they need.

Creating content within learning management system (LMS) pages is also influenced by Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) – a set of voluntary international guidelines for making web content accessible. With its most recent version being 2.1, WCAG consists of twelve broad guidelines under four principles of accessibility, namely:

  1. Perceivable – Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive. –Perceivable content will make it possible for all your students to see and hear the information you’re presenting.
  2. Operable – User interface components and navigation must be operable. –Operable content will help all your students navigate the information independently using their preferred tools.
  3. Understandable – Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable. –Understandable content will support your students’ understanding through a consistent and predictable design.
  4. Robust – Content is robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies. –Robust content will work for your students on a range of current and future technologies, including assistive technologies.

How do we then define an accessible and usable online course?

(“Perceivable Content,” nd.)

An accessible and usable online course is:

  1. Intuitive – The layout of your course is simple, consistent, and predictable
  2. Perceivable – You have designed your content to be perceived by a wide range of users, regardless of disability
  3. Navigable – Course navigation does not assume that the student is using a specific device (e.g., mouse). Your student should be able to navigate the course using the keyboard alone, or with the use of assistive technology in ways that are equally effective

Best practices in accessibility and usability

Many accessibility and usability issues in instructor-created course content can be prevented by following three relatively easy practices that will significantly improve accessibility and usability for your online course:

  1. Use headings and built-in style features Headings (Word) -Add a heading (Word) – Windows, Mac -Create a bulleted or numbered list – Word, PowerPoint -Built-in layouts (PowerPoint) – What is a slide layout, Apply a slide layout
  2. Write concise and meaningful link text WebAIM: Links and Hypertext
  3. Provide alternative text (alt-text) where appropriate WebAIM: How to write appropriate alt-text

Additionally, you can improve accessibility and usability by incorporating the following strategies in your online course:


When you utilize the best practices we have shared here to enhance accessibility and usability in building your online course and materials, you will not be scrambling when a student requires an accommodation because you will have already done most of the work. Designing your online course in a thoughtful and inclusive way helps create an environment where all students, regardless of disability, have an opportunity to thrive and succeed.

Book a consultation with the Manitoba Flexible Learning HUB to see how we could help you start integrating accessibility and usability principles in your online courses. We look forward to working with you!

Additional resources:

Accessibility guidelines – WebAIM: Accessibility for MS Word, Create accessible Office documents, WebAIM: PDF Accessibility

Usability guidelines – Principles for usable design, Principles of accessible and universal design

Accessibility for Online Courses. (n.d.). IU – Teaching Online. CC BY-NC-SA.

Audio Description for the Blind (Video). (2014, September 15). Accessibility at Penn State.

UDL: Multiple means of Representation. (2018). In CAST. CC BY.

UDL: The UDL Guidelines. (2018, August 31). CAST. CC BY.

Designing an Accessible Online Course. (2021). Explore Access.

Designing for Accessibility with POUR. (n.d.). National Center on Accessible Educational Materials; CAST. CC BY.

Improving Accessibility in Your Course: (n.d.). IU – Teaching Online. CC BY-NC-SA.

Improving Usability and Visual Design. (n.d.). IU – Teaching Online. CC BY-NC-SA.

Johnson, N., & Seaman, J. (2020). Digital Learning in Canadian Higher Education in 2020: National Report. CC BY-ND 4.0.

LaGrow, M. (2017, March 13). From Accommodation to Accessibility: Creating a Culture of Inclusivity. EDUCAUSE Review. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

McAlvage, K., & Rice, M. (2018). Access and Accessibility in Online Learning Issues in Higher Education and K-12 Contexts From OLC Outlook: An Environmental Scan of the Digital Learning Landscape.

Perceivable content. (n.d.). In Designing for Accessibility with POUR. CC BY.

UDL is a Framework. (n.d.). UDL on Campus: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. CC BY-SA.

Usability and Findability. (n.d.). IU – Teaching Online. CC BY-NC-SA.

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