Vector image of two computers sharing resources with the cloud.

Quick ways to improve accessibility for virtual learning materials

Fast and easy ways to upgrade accessibility for digital materials and virtual classes.

At the beginning of the semester, I often sit down with my professors and go over my Disability Services File so that they can have a better understanding of what I can and can’t see in my physical and virtual classes. One of my professors from last semester asked me during the first week of classes what steps they could take to make classroom materials easier to see for all students, with a special interest in designing for students with visual impairments like mine, and we spent over an hour talking about different resources that were available to them at the university and simple changes that they could make to how they share items on the course website. Here are my tips for how to instantly upgrade materials and improve accessibility for virtual learning environments.

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Scan in documents and whiteboard images

I’ve taken classes where photos of documents and whiteboard images are shared with the class website for students to reference for their notes or to read for assignments. Often times, these images are low resolution or have less-than-ideal lighting that makes them difficult to read, as well as difficult to enlarge/magnify. Instead of taking photos, I recommend scanning documents or using an app such as Microsoft Office Lens to create scans of documents, images, and whiteboards that can be edited and adjusted so that they are easier to read for students with visual impairments- and for all of the other students in the class as well.

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Add alt text or captions to images

For students that use screen readers or otherwise have trouble seeing images, alt text/image descriptions and captions can provide information about what is happening in an image and provide valuable visual information. Many programs also offer automatic alt text, which can serve as a starting point for users to write their own descriptions and provide important details about images. The exact method for inserting alt text into content varies from platform to platform, though it is often found within the “image properties” menu.

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If possible, use tools such as audio description or audio recordings

Students who are taking lots of virtual classes or otherwise spending long periods of time on the computer will definitely have to deal with eyestrain at one point or another. For this reason, many of my professors have shared audio-only recordings of lectures or other content so that students don’t have to stare at a screen, or they have added audio descriptions to videos that describe visual information in a nonvisual way. This is incredibly helpful for students who may be multitasking (i.e watching a video and taking notes) and ensures that no one misses out on important visual information.

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Enable captioning for videos

A majority of viewers will turn subtitles or captioning on for videos on streaming websites and social media, and a growing number of people reportedly prefer to watch videos with sound off so that they can better follow along with what is happening. YouTube and several other platforms support automatic captioning for videos, though it’s always better to caption content whenever possible or include a transcript with videos. While this may not be an “instant” upgrade to improve accessibility for virtual learning, it is one that is highly beneficial for students.

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Use a print disability-friendly font for assignments or let students change formatting

With some fonts, I have trouble telling the difference between certain letters and numbers since they tend to look very similar. As a result, I prefer to use a print-disability friendly font such as Arial for my assignments, as all of the letters look different and it is easy to read in bold print. Using a print disability-friendly font by default for assignments is extremely helpful for students who may have trouble telling apart letters or focusing their eyes to read.

Another helpful option for helping to upgrade materials for virtual classes is to give students the option to customize the formatting for their assignments. This can be done by allowing students to download assignments in .docx files, which lets them open files in their choice of word processing software and adjust the font type, font size, and other document properties to their own preferences.

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Have copies of lecture materials or on-screen items available

When my professors do live or pre-recorded lectures, I ask that they give me copies of their presentation or other lecture materials in advance so that I can more easily follow along and take notes, since I can’t see the board or small objects on the screen. Instead of individually sending me information, a majority of my professors make these materials available for all students, and include images of graphs or other helpful charts that they draw during the lectures. It’s really helpful, especially when it comes time to study for quizzes or exams as I can ensure that I copied down the right information in my notes.

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Make sure images are high contrast/high resolution

Speaking of images, it’s important to make sure that all students can see them clearly and without having to guess what is in a picture or on a graph. Make sure that images use high-contrast color schemes so that people can easily tell what is in a given image, and that the images are high resolution so they can easily be opened in a new tab or magnified to see further details. I have an entire post linked below on how to create high resolution images for students with low vision, as well as where to find high resolution images online.

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Final thoughts

I’m very lucky to have had professors that considered accessibility a priority for their virtual classes, and took the time to ensure that all students would be able to access materials in their classes without any difficulty and without having to ask for additional help from the professor or other campus offices. I hope this post on improving and upgrading materials for accessibility in virtual learning environments is helpful for others as well!

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes,

Updated August 2023.

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