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How to Design for eLearning Accessibility from the Start

Person with laptop and thought bubble asking "How will I make this accessible for my students?"

A common mistake course creators make is to assume they can just “add” accessibility right before launching the course. However, accessibility is not a singular and atomic element. Rather, it is a way of thinking that is woven throughout the course development process. Our advice? Start thinking about accessibility when you’re still in the planning phase of building your online course.

Course Content

Planning your course begins with identifying all the topics and objectives that will be covered in the course. We recommend authoring all the content in one master content document so that you can confirm it flows in a logical progression, is clear and consistent, and contains all the desired material. From there, you can decide in what formats to present the content.

Your course will likely include some combination of text, assessments, graphics, and media. Each of these component types has different accessibility guidelines.

Let’s look at how to plan for accessibility for each of your course components.


Your course likely includes content that will be presented as plain text. (This may be text displayed within an LMS or text built in a course-authoring tool such as Storyline 360.)

The text should be provided in both a visual form and an auditory form to support different learning preferences and to provide more than one means of consuming the information. To keep your text accessible, it should be displayed as text, not as an image, whenever possible. If an image must be used, make sure to include alt text.

During the planning phase, think about what content needs to be covered and how to present it in an approachable way. Before content authoring begins, develop a clear image of the target audience, or the learners who will be taking the course. (To brush up on how to identify your target audience, check out our post on the basics of audience analysis!) To make it accessible to all students, use a consistent tone and writing style and an appropriate reading level.


The goal of assessments is to measure what students have learned. This likely occurs periodically during the course, whether with informal practice activities or more formal formative assessments, as well as at the end of the course with a summative assessment.

During the planning phase, determine in what format the assessments will be delivered. The format of the assessments depends on the goals of the course and any tracking requirements you have, such as reporting a final exam grade to a Learning Management System (LMS). Will all students be able to interact with that format? If not, can a different format be used or offered as an alternative?

Also think about the content that is likely to be covered on the assessments. Will students with a diverse set of needs be able to understand and interact with the content? If not, figure out how you can present the content differently.


Graphics, such as pictures, diagrams, and graphs, often play a major role in a course. While visual elements can be a very effective way of communicating information, they should never be the sole means of communicating information within the course so that learners with a visual impairment are not hindered.

During the planning phase, think about where graphics will be used in the course and how to pair those graphics with another means of presenting the same information. For example, if a photo sequence or a graph would benefit sighted users, how will this information be conveyed to visually impaired students?

Any non-decorative graphics should be paired with a text description of the information conveyed in the graphic. An image showing a process can be paired with alternative text describing the process. A graph showing historical data can be paired with an explanation of the trends shown by the data.

Any time an image file will be used within the course, alternative text should be added so that learners using a screen reader can know the contents of the image. (For more info on alternative text, check out our 3 alt text pitfalls to avoid.)


Your course likely contains multiple types of media such as videos, audio, and simulations. These formats are often used to provide engagement, variety, or an alternate means to support diverse learning preferences.

During the planning phase, think about which of these formats are best suited for the different learning objectives in your course. Will all topics have a video or just some? Would a simulation help immerse learners in the material? If so, how will students manipulate the simulation?

Similar to graphics, any media elements that communicate information should be paired with another means of presenting the same information. A video should always include a written transcript and narrated elements should be paired with a transcript as well. Plan to create these from the outset instead of scrambling to build them later.


Thinking about accessibility while your course is still in the planning phase will save time, lead to a higher quality final product, and make the course development process smoother.

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