Policy Practice

Creating Accessible and Inclusive Online Courses

Today’s post looks at how accessibility can be incorporated into online experiences with some simple and actionable steps that improve learning and success for all. Thank you Brandon Smith for providing excellent strategies for improving accessibility, the importance of continuous improvement, and how accessible design benefits everyone.

As education professionals, we want all students to succeed, but for a student with a visual impairment, something as simple as properly seeing text on a screen can be a challenge. Additionally, a student with a hearing impairment might struggle in a class activity that involves watching a video without captions or subtitles. These very real situations require that we elevate accessibility and inclusion for all students so we can reduce barriers to success.

Image showing five figures with one shaded to show 1:5 students reporting a disability.
1:5 students report having a disability.

Nearly 1 in 5 undergraduate students reported having a disability, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Additionally, barriers related to these disabilities often cause student frustration and a sense of exclusion. For students participating in online courses, the challenges can run even deeper, but the challenges may be less obvious to instructors who interact with students solely over a computer.

While creating accessible online classes is an ongoing, complex effort, educators can take actionable steps today to help improve the online learning experience for all students.

Accessibility Is a Foundational Element of Equity and Inclusion

When on campus, we expect to see wheelchair ramps, elevators, and accessible parking spaces to ensure that every person has equal access, right?

Think of online courses the same way – every learner should have equal access and alternative ways to interact with course content regardless of any disability or condition he or she may have.

Accessible Course Design Creates a Better Course for Everyone

By creating accessible online courses, we aren’t just improving the learning experience for students with disabilities, but are providing the same convenience for everyone, just like elevators benefit all people.

Accessible design inherently creates better courses because it improves structure and organization, usability, and convenience, and provides more opportunities for students to engage and interact with content.

Accessible design inherently creates better courses because it improves structure and organization, usability, and convenience, and provides more opportunities for students to engage and interact with content.

Start with a Clean Slate and Embrace Trial and Error

Student needs and compliance standards are constantly evolving. Even if course content may have been up-to-date last semester, it could be outdated today.

Whether you know a lot or a little about web accessibility, try to start with a clean slate. Expect some trial and error as you begin, but don’t let trial and error be a discouragement – look at it as an opportunity to learn and continually improve online courses as we collectively drive toward an inclusive and equitable learning experience.

Understand Various Disabilities and Conditions

Knowing that students have disabilities is one thing, but fully understanding them is another. For example, if a student has a visual impairment, how can he or she accurately read text elements? What if the student can’t hear or lacks the ability to type?

By understanding disabilities and conditions on a deep level, we can better plan and develop course content to provide alternative accessible ways for students to access and interact with their courses.

Disability types range from visual, auditory, and mobility impairments to cognitive, psychological, and other medical conditions. Each one impacts an individual in different ways and requires specific understanding and assistance.

Web Accessibility Tips for Your Online Course

Stay Up to Date on Compliance Standards

When creating course content, follow web accessibility compliance standards from start to finish. These standards cover a broad spectrum of requirements from readability and multimedia to the assistive devices and software used in the course.

There are a few common web accessibility compliance standards that we recommend following as you create course content such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), Section 508, and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Apply POUR Principles

WCAG’s POUR Principles ensure that your course content is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

  • Perceivable: Students must be able to perceive course elements by using their senses.
  • Operable: Students can interact with the course using navigation, controls, buttons, and other elements. No course elements should be unusable for any user.
  • Understandable: Users can fully comprehend and understand the content. The content should be consistent and in the appropriate format for each method of delivery (text, audio, video).
  • Robust: Course content can be accessed using different technologies and devices.

Ensure that Content Is Easy to Read

Use appropriate font types, sizes, and color contrast for all text and hyperlinks. Use Sans Serif font types that are easy to read, such as Arial and Calibri. Font size and color ensure that all text is easily visible against the background color.

Quick tips for content readability:

  • Use an online font color contrast checker to test all your course content.
  • Some font types are natively larger than others even if they are the same font px.
    • e.g., 18px Arial font is larger than 18px Calibri.

Keep Courses Structured and Organized

Courses should be well-structured and consistent to help students and assistive devices navigate and understand the content. This approach also makes the content more predictable, which means that students will know what to expect and will be less likely to miss course elements due to an unstructured, inconsistent course format.

Quick tips for structure:

  • Use actual headers, not bold fonts.
  • Use numbered or bulleted lists, not hyphens.

All Multimedia Should Have a Text Alternative

Multimedia such as video, audio, and images should have text alternatives like captioning, transcripts, and descriptions that work across all devices and formats.

Quick tips for text alternatives:

  • Don’t use video or images that blink or flash.
  • Make sure that all text alternatives are grammatically correct and concise.
    • Too much detail can be distracting and overwhelming.

Welcome Assistive Devices

Assistive devices, such as screen readers and dictation software, are necessary for many students. These devices allow them to read, use, and comprehend the content and provide various ways to communicate.

Be sure that all assistive devices can integrate with various tools and platforms used in online classes, such as the LMS, proctoring software, and multimedia.

Provide Accommodations

Accommodations are crucial for student success, whether a student has a condition that requires frequent bathroom breaks or the use of an assistive device to complete an online proctored exam.

It’s a challenge to tackle accessible course design, but one worth pursuing. By creating online course content with web accessibility in mind, we aren’t just accommodating students with disabilities – we’re creating an inclusive and welcoming learning environment for every student.



Update on Issues Affecting Veterans Benefits

Thank you to our many military veterans! As we look forward to Veterans Day, we wish to honor the men and women who serve and who have served in the U.S. Armed Services.

Flag from the United States of America

WCET Frontiers frequently shares information regarding Veterans Benefits about the issues related to students receiving benefits while participating in distance learning. Institution staff members who oversee that management of Veterans Benefits for students must understand that the laws and regulations that the institution must follow are different than the laws and regulations regarding Title IV Federal Financial Aid. One should consider that the oversight of these two different student assistance programs is overseen by two separate Cabinet level Executive Departments–the Veterans Administration (VA) and the Department of Education (USED), respectively. There is often confusion about process management to support the students. 

Important measures have recently taken place that affect the process and delivery of Veterans Benefits.

First, the VA released proposed regulations, State Approving Agency Jurisdiction Rule, that are subject to public comment through December 13, 2021. Second, state Veterans Services offices distributed emails to School Certifying Officials (SCOs) on September 24, 2021, to notify institutions that December 21, 2021, is the end date for the emergency COVID-19 legislation that permitted the GI Bill® for students to receive Monthly Housing Allowance (MHA) at the resident (in person) rate, while taking approved courses converted to distance learning due to COVID-19. Third, Congress is considering legislation that addresses technical corrections to recently enacted legislation including Isakson & Roe Section 1018 notifications, allowing the VA to waive the requirement of a “second certification” of benefits for campuses with a flat tuition and fee structure, and making the VA’s “rounding out” rule less restrictive.

Proposed Regulations: State Approving Agency Jurisdiction Rule

The VA proposed regulations address three issues:

  1. Clarify which state’s State Approving Agency has jurisdiction to approve courses.
  2. Clarify that the State Approving Agencies have four choices for approval of an application.
  3. Clarify what must be provided if an application for approval of a course is denied.

The State Approving Agency (SAA) in each state is responsible for evaluating and approving quality programs of education at the institution. You may be scratching your head saying well doesn’t the State higher education agency do that along with accreditors? The answer would be yes, but the institution must also follow requirements as overseen by the SAA for the institution’s students to receive Veterans Benefits. Additionally, the  SAA in many states is housed in an agency separate from the one that oversees higher education, which adds to the confusion. The SAA’s approval decisions are provided to the VA so that the benefits can be paid to the students.

The first issue addressed by the VA’s proposed regulations addresses which state SAA has jurisdiction to approve courses when students are located in a state different than the home state of the institution.  Before reading further, State oversight by the State higher education agency or for participation in reciprocity through SARA does not figure into the equation to be in compliance with VA regulations. Also, note that the VA uses terms that are slightly different than those used by the Department of Education. That being said, completely separate for purposes of Veterans Benefits, the proposed regulations clarify that the state SAA where the main campus of the institution is located has the jurisdiction to approve out-of-state courses of the student for:

  • Resident courses not located in the same state as the main campus.
  • Courses solely by independent study, which now explicitly states, “which includes online distance learning,” solely by correspondence, or solely by combination of independent study and correspondence.


For the purpose of veteran’s benefits, the State Approving Agency where the main campus is located has jurisdiction to approve out-of-state courses.

This is the opposite of state and Department of Education regulations.

The second issue proposes that the SAA may no longer indicate “no action” as a decision in the review of an application for approval. The decision must indicate one of the following:

  • Approval
  • Denial
  • Suspension
  • Withdrawal

The third issue proposes clarification that the SAA may deny an application if required approval criterion is not met or if the application is outside of the SAA’s jurisdiction. Additionally, for purposes of approved courses, the SAA must determine if courses continue to comply with approval requirements. Finally, when an application is denied, suspended, or withdrawn, the SAA must notify the institution and the VA with reasoning for the action. The proposed regulations remove the word “disapproval” in favor of “denial.”

Public comment on these proposed regulations will be accepted through December 13, 2021.  The information to submit a public comment can be found in the Federal Register Announcement for the  State Approving Agency Jurisdiction Rule. WCET members serving veterans may wish to consider commenting or questioning interpretations throughout this process.

End of Full MHA for Students Participating Solely in Distance Learning Courses Converted Due to COVID-19, Unless Congress Acts

Federal law, The Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Improvements Act of 2010,  provides that veterans utilizing benefits are entitled to a reduced Monthly Housing Allowance (MHA) if the student participates in courses solely by distance learning. The reduction is described as 50% of the national average which is currently $871 regardless of where the veteran lives. However, for example, if the veteran is assigned to the Pentagon and living in Northern Virginia taking courses from Northern Virginia Community College and participating in at least one course face-to-face, the veteran will receive $2,544 MHA. Quite a difference! For several years, WCET has wondered why the distinction?

When the pandemic caused postsecondary institutions to pivot all face-to-face courses to remote learning in March 2020, all veterans utilizing benefits found themselves participating in courses solely by distance learning. Based upon current law, this means all veterans utilizing benefits would have found themselves with the reduced MHA without Congressional intervention. The VA had issued guidance on March 13, 2020, indicating the limitations of the language of the Federal law to be flexible at this time of emergency. Fortunately, Congress acted quickly to develop emergency legislation to authorize the VA to continue educational assistance for programs that have been converted to distance learning due to an emergency or health-related situation. This initial period for this emergency legislation was initially set to expire on December 20, 2020, but was extended through December 21, 2021, when Congress passed Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe, M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020.

On September 24, 2021, state Veterans Services offices distributed emails to School Certifying Officials (SCOs) indicating that the period of the emergency legislation will end on December 21, 2021. SCOs were advised how the GI Bill students will be affected:

Veterans studying solely online receive a lower Monthly Housing Allowance. Congressional action is needed to continue the waiver of this rule for veterans forced to go online due to the pandemic.

  • Institutions normally approved for distance learning will need to enroll the students in approved resident classes in 2022 to continue receiving their MHA at the resident rate. Those students enrolled in solely distance learning courses in 2022 will receive the distance learning rate (half the national average).
  • Institutions not normally approved for distance learning training will need to return to resident courses after December 21, 2021, in order to continue GI Bill benefits. If students continue enrollment in distance learning courses in 2022, they will lose their GI Bill benefits including MHA.

The bottom line is that the flexibilities for purposes of GI Bill benefits ends December 21, 2021, despite the fact that the Department of Education flexibilities for purposes of Title IV HEA programs will continue until the end of the national emergency. Congressional action is needed to extend the flexibilities for MHA for veterans beyond December 21, 2021.

Congress Considering Legislation

Two bills were introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in early October 2021 (H.R.5545 – REMOTE Act and H.R.5509 – Student Veteran COVID-19 Protection Act of 2021). Generally speaking, these are similar bills. The Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs published information from its October 27, 2021 hearing.

Poster that reads, "WECET San."

Provisions include technical corrections to amend  Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe, M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020 that was enacted in January 2021. Technical corrections would include adjustments to the consumer information requirements in Section 1018.

Other provisions include changes to the VA’s “rounding out” rule, which allows students utilizing GI Bill benefits to “round out” their final academic term course schedules with classes that may or may not apply toward their degree programs to retain full-time status, thus receiving full-time benefits. The bill provides a less restrictive approach on permitted courses for the course load to be considered full-time benefits. 

Additionally, the bills include language to extend the flexibilities for the MHA for students who are continuing to participate in their courses solely by distance learning by reason of emergency and health related situations while utilizing GI Bill Benefits. Both bills provide for the extension to apply through June 1, 2022.

It is hoped that the bipartisan support of the veterans will cause Congress to move swiftly to pass legislation in advance of the congressional Thanksgiving recess.

WCET and the State Authorization Network will continue to follow these issues and share information as it becomes available.