Tips for Designing an Inclusive Online Course

Concurrent Session 3
Streamed Session Equity and Inclusion

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

In the rush to offer courses online during the pandemic, ensuring that online technology and pedagogy are fully accessible and otherwise inclusive of students with disabilities is often overlooked. The presenter will provide 20 evidence-based tips on how to deliver an online course that is inclusive of all students.

Extended Abstract

I taught the first online learning course at the University of Washington in 1995. My co‑instructor was Dr. Norm Coombs, who was, at the time, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. We designed the course to be accessible to anyone, including students who were blind, deaf, or had physical disabilities. Norm himself is blind. He uses a screen reader and speech synthesizer to read text presented on the screen. We employed the latest technology of the time—email, discussion list, Gopher, file transfer protocol, and telnet (no World Wide Web yet!). All online materials were in a text-based format, and videos, which were mailed to the students, were presented in VHS format with captions and audio description. When asked if any of our students in this course had disabilities, we were proud to say that we did not know why. No one needed to disclose a disability because all of the course materials and teaching methods were designed to be accessible to everyone.

Today the technology is more advanced and there are more options to choose from for teaching an online course, but the basic issues are the same when it comes to accessibility. We need to make sure that the screen readers of students who are blind or have a reading-related disability can access content in a text-based  and structured format; that content is accessible by using the keyboard alone since assistive technology can be used to emulate keyboard commands, but not necessarily movement of a mouse; that videos are captioned and audio described; and that content is presented in a clear, consistent format.

As they choose content, document formats, and teaching methods, it is important for instructors to remember that potential students have a wide variety of characteristics that may relate to gender, race, ethnicity, culture, marital status, age, communication skills, learning abilities, interests, physical abilities, social skills, sensory abilities, values, learning preferences, socioeconomic status, religious beliefs, etc.

But what does “accessible” mean with respect to an online course? According to the Office of Civil Rights, “accessible” means that “a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. The person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally, and independently as a person without a disability.”

It would be difficult to find online learning instructors who would say that they do not plan to effectively teach all of their students. Even with these good intentions, many are excluding students with specific characteristics, including disabilities that impact sight, hearing, mobility, learning, attention levels, social interactions, and attendance. The topic of this presentation is particularly relevant because of the conversion of thousands of on-site courses to an online format in response to the pandemic, legal mandates for colleges and universities to make their courses accessible to students with disabilities, and heightened interest nationwide in addressing diversity and equity issues on postsecondary campuses and beyond.

The good news is that there are established principles and evidence-based practices that, when applied proactively, lead to a course that is accessible to, usable by, and inclusive of students with a wide variety of characteristics that include disabilities.  Principles include those that underpin universal design in general (Center for Universal Design. (n.d.)), Universal Design of Learning (UDL), and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) principles is particularly suitable for addressing both technological and pedagogical aspects of online course curriculum and activities in order to ensure that students are offered multiple, accessible ways to gain knowledge, demonstrate understanding, and interact and minimize the need for additional disability-related accommodations for specific students. For example, a student with a learning disability engaging in a universally-designed online course may require extra time on an examination as determined by a campus disability services office.

Many instructors who consider it important to address diversity and equity issues in their materials and instructional methods, lack the knowledge and skills to design a fully accessible and inclusive course. They also report little understanding of their obligations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and its 2008 Amendments when it comes to making their online learning courses accessible to students with disabilities. Procurement officers also struggle to encourage IT companies to make their products accessible to individuals with disabilities. 

In this conference session I will reveal how UD’s proactive design practices can be integrated with best practices in the field of online learning design to create an inclusive course. I will share evidence-based practices for operationalizing UD principles into practices that are often easy to implement. I will bring in perspectives and evidence-based practices from the field as I share 20 evidence-based tips on how to deliver an online course that is accessible to all students, including those with disabilities (Burgstahler, 2020). They provide a good place to start when designing an accessible course. 

For course web pages, documents, images, and videos, follow these guidelines:

  1. Use clear, consistent layouts and organization schemes for presenting content.
  2. Structure headings and lists—using style features built into the Learning Management System (LMS), Microsoft Word and PowerPoint (PPt), PDF, etc.— and use built-in designs/layouts (e.g., for PPt slides).
  3. Use descriptive wording for hyperlink text (e.g., “DO-IT Knowledge Base” rather than “click here”).
  4. Avoid creating PDF documents. Post instructor-created course content within LMS content pages (i.e., in HTML) and, if a PDF is desired, link to it only as a secondary source of information. 
  5. Provide concise text descriptions of content presented within images.
  6. Use large, bold fonts on uncluttered pages with plain backgrounds.
  7. Use color combinations that are high contrast and can be read by those who are colorblind.
  8. Caption videos and transcribe audio content. 
  9. Use a small number of IT tools and make sure they present content and navigation that require use of the keyboard alone and otherwise employ accessible practices​.


With respect to instructional methods,​follow these guidelines:

  1. Assume students have a wide range of technology skills and provide options for gaining the skills needed for course participation.
  2. Provide options for learning by presenting content in multiple ways (e.g., in a combination of text, video, audio, and/or image format).
  3. Provide options for communicating and collaborating that are accessible to individuals with a variety of disabilities. 
  4. Provide options for demonstrating learning (e.g., different types of test items, portfolios, presentations, single-topic discussions).
  5. Address a wide range of language skills as you write content (e.g., spell acronyms, define terms, avoid or define jargon).
  6. Make instructions and expectations clear for activities, projects, discussion questions, and assigned reading. 
  7. Make examples and assignments relevant to learners with a wide variety of interests and backgrounds. 
  8. Offer outlines and other scaffolding tools to help students learn. 
  9. Provide adequate opportunities to practice. 
  10. Allow adequate time for activities, projects, and tests (e.g., give details of project assignments in the syllabus so that students can start working on them early). 
  11. Provide feedback on project parts and offer corrective opportunities. 


In this conference session I will share resources that provide explanations of why these guidelines are important, how to implement them, and other resources, consult ​AccessCyberlearningAccessDL,​ Accessible Technologythe Center for Universal Design in EducationUDL on Campus and the book Creating inclusive learning opportunities in higher education: A Universal Design toolkit.



AccessCyberlearning. (n.d.). Seattle: University of Washington. Retrieved from

Accessible Technology. (n.d.). Seattle: University of Washington.

Burgstahler, S. (2020). 20 Tips for Teaching an Accessible Online Course. Seattle: University of Washington. Retrieved from

Burgstahler, S. (2020). Creating inclusive learning opportunities in higher education: A Universal Design toolkit. Harvard Education Press. Retrieved from

Burgstahler, S., & Thompson, T. (Eds). (2019). Designing accessible cyberlearning: Current state and pathway forward. Seattle: University of Washington. Retrieved from

Center for Accessible Distance Learning (AccessDL). Seattle: University of Washington. 

Center for Universal Design. (n.d.). History of universal design. Retrieved from

Center for Universal Design in Education. (n.d.). Seattle: University of Washington. Retrieved from http:/

UDL on Campus. (n.d.). CAST. Retrieved from