online learning for all

This is a guest post from Anna Pilson. Anna is a PhD student at Durham University School of Education. Her ESRC-funded project aims to create a participatory action research model that positions children with a vision impairment as knowledge producers and change agents. She tweets as @pilsonanna.


Now that the Covid-19 pandemic has radically altered the organisation of university life for the foreseeable future, ‘everyday ableism’ can be (unwittingly) perpetuated by virtual teaching methods. But we also have a potentially generative moment to change this narrative.

Given that in that academic year 2018/19, a sixth of all home university students declared that they had a disability, accessibility should be a central driver in the planning and delivery of Higher Education teaching and learning. Yet, as the Office for National Students states, real accessibility remains aspirational.

Moving online opens up all sorts of questions about (in)equality. Not just the bigger issues of digital access and digital literacy, but the nitty gritty of our planning and delivery. In an ideal world we would ensure that our online materials are accessible for all. We’d have British Sign Language interpretation, easy read materials, accessible transcripts. All of these things however, take time, expertise and money that we may not have immediately have access to. So, while I think that the Education sector should continue to strive for this idealism, in the meantime there are plenty of ways we as individuals can build in some simple strategies to improve our online teaching and communication straight away.

What can we do?

You may now be familiar (or perhaps overfamiliar!) with online learning and meeting platforms like Skype, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams and of course, Zoom. The great thing about all of these platforms is that they have in-built accessibility features that are really easy to apply, and can be used alongside some simple inclusive strategies to make online teaching accessible for all:

You can enable live captioning. This is when subtitles are generated in real time to present in text what the speaker is saying. This is really important for D/deaf or hard of hearing students, as this visual aid can compensate for the quite often variable video quality that might make lip reading difficult. However, captioning can of course also be beneficial to anyone with poor sound quality.

Don’t force your students to switch on their camera. Being on camera can be really distracting, I mean, come on, we’ve all spent a good few minutes in a zoom meeting staring at ourselves, preening and sorting our hair out haven’t we? Not me of course, but hypothetically speaking (ahem). But in all seriousness, ‘Zoom Fatigue’ is becoming a common, and recognised, complaint. Navigating the dissonance caused by slight time delays between picture and sound can make participants feel uncomfortable, as can the loss of natural conversational rhythm. Also, the performative aspect of being ‘watched’ while having to be on camera may be Anxiety-inducing.

The online environment can also make it difficult to take cues from body language, because often hand gestures can’t be seen and camera angles are not optimal, but actually this absence can enhance the quality of the verbal interaction taking place, because people are forced to articulate their meaning more clearly, which could be more inclusive for neurodivergent or visually-impaired students. So, you could switch off all cameras and instead use a moderator system, where one participant’s role is to note if and when participants wish to speak by looking for use of the ‘raise hand’ icon, or a note in chat. This can be used organise the order of speaking, and avoid people talking over one another, so as to make the flow of speech more coherent.

Provide transcripts/notes. Where possible do this in advance of the lecture, so that participants have the opportunity to organise notes, pre-empt any issues, set up screen readers or Braille displays, reformat the document according to personal need (for example, inverting colours of text/background, enlarging text, removing visual clutter), or familiarise themselves with the material beforehand, which can be really useful if they find concentration or retention of information difficult.

Consider the accessibility of the visual material you are sharing. Make sure any documents you provide use a sans serif font, which is easier to visually distinguish, such as Arial or Calibri. Ensure there is a good contrast between the colours of the font and background (e.g. black and white). Go for size 14 minimum and avoid too much use of italics or underlining. Any image should have a caption or descriptor. And any PDF should have optical character recognition enabled, which means it’s compatible with screen readers. This can be applied really easily in the settings of Adobe Acrobat or similar when creating a PDF.

Make your related Social Media presence accessible. A basic feature to be aware of is using ‘Camel Case’ in your hashtags. This means capitalising every the first letter of every word following a hashtag – for example, #ThisIsCamelCase but #thisisnotcamelcase. This means that screen readers read each individual word, as the beginning of each new word is denoted by the presence of a capital letter, rather than considering everything after the hashtag to be one long word.

The other key feature is to include image descriptors. Twitter was the first platform to offer built-in picture descriptors, known as alt text. To enable this function, go to ‘Settings and Privacy’, then ‘Accessibility’. Here you can select the option to ‘compose image descriptions’. If this is enabled, every time you upload an image there will automatically be the option to add an image descriptor and you will then get 420 characters to do so. Because Twitter doesn’t currently have in-built options to enlarge text, other than via external magnification software, using the aforementioned tips can be vital in enhancing accessibility.

Finally, by offering opportunities for asynchronous learning you can truly allow students to gain ownership of their learning. This can be done by recording meetings/lectures using the in-built recording functions, so that participants can revisit them if they missed anything, or watch them on a schedule that suits their own personal needs. The disabled community have long recognised the tensions (and often incompatibility) between the demands of standardised timetables in education and their own needs. By embracing flexibility, we can make space for embedding what Alison Kafer famously called ‘Crip Time’ in our standard practice.

Accessibility for all

We need to remember that many of these new virtual ways of working have previously been denied to disabled students by institutions keen to stick to ‘conventional’ teaching methods. So make sure you acknowledge the fact that these online methods have been used and refined over time by disabled people in spaces outside academia. As such, don’t forget to ask for (and listen to) the expertise of your students.

Covid-19 has offered universities a unique window of opportunity to design online course materials to be as accessible as possible from the beginning, with accessibility at the heart and not just as a bolt-on. Universities also have a legal duty to try to remove the barriers students may face in education because of disability. This is called ‘making reasonable adjustments’. So, when you’re planning your online teaching, remember 2 things:

  1. be reasonable, and 2. make adjustments.

And, in reality, these adjustments will be useful for all students, not just those with disabilities.


Photo by Andres Jasso on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in ableism, academic writing, online identity, online meeting, online teaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to online learning for all

  1. Alison Bouhmid says:

    Thank you so much for this timely reminder to take into account ALL our students. Your tips and advice are particularly apt at a moment when we are scrabbling around trying to set up blended/online courses for September and risk, in our rush, forgetting essentials.


  2. I started out liking the idea of accessibility advice, but I lost faith the value of this advice when you got to the font advice. The letters I and l are indistinguishable in many sans serif fonts (including Arial) and many make 1 difficult to distinguish as well. Furthermore, documents that are intended to be accessible should not use Calibri (unless they include the font in a PDF file) as only Windows machines have Calibri, and font substitution on Linux machines and Macs will result in different spacing and lowered readability.


    • Rebecca says:

      Hi there, I’m wondering off the back of your comments what you recommend as the best? I’m relatively new to this field and in looking at a few articles relating to font accessibility most recommend the sans serif range, including Ariel and Calibri. Which would you say are best practice (genuinely interested!)


      • I recommend a serif font with moderate contrast between thick and thin strokes (not extreme contrast). A lot depends on the physical implementation of the writing—its it on paper, on a high-resolution screen with a high contrast ratio, a low-resolution screen, or a low-contrast ratio screen. A fairly large x-height with moderate ascenders and descenders is generally best (not too extreme—tiny ascenders and descenders are even harder to read than very large ones).

        Does the document contain the font or does the user’s machine have to provide it?

        For a readily available font on the web with good readability, I often choose Georgia. When I’m producing PDF with embedded fonts, I often use Computer Modern Roman (the default font in many LaTeX style files). Neither of these fonts is beautiful, but they are both readable. If I am pressed for space, I may squeeze things by using Times New Roman, but that does sacrifice some readability for higher density.

        If on a low-resolution device (like fax), where letter shapes will be distorted somewhat by the crudeness of the representation, I will use a sans-serif font like Lucida Grande, because the serifs are lost in the poor representation. I think that the advice to use sans-serif fonts for accessibility comes primarily from testing on low-resolution devices.


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